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“Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon. So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.”
A few days ago writer Paul Elie joined the chorus of voices offering commentary on the Catholic Church surrounding the resignation of the now-Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI. As the above quote indicates, Elie’s op-ed, “Give Up Your Pew for Lent,” plays with the double-meaning of the term “resignation” to make a case for a temporary, protest exodus from the Catholic Church. While Benedict resigned—that is, gave up his office—Elie notes that many American Catholics experience another form of resignation—that is, an acceptance of the inevitable unpleasant reality of their church. From this, he exhorts Catholics to vacate parishes in an effort express to church leaders the resignation they feel, and to spend time reconsidering their resignation. Perhaps some time away and the experience of other faith communities can even dispel their resignation.
There is much to say in response to Elie’s piece. My friend Dan over at datinggod.org has already articulated well how Elie’s proposal betrays our theological conceptions of church and Eucharist, and misplaces the power of ecclesial change in the hands of those who leave the Church rather than those who articulate their criticisms with the tradition. To this, I would add my concern for Elie’s general characterization of American Catholics—Are we really all so “resigned”?
In my mind, “resignation” connotes passivity, a disposition of disinterest, acquiescence. To characterize the temperament of American Catholics—particularly those troubled by Catholicism’s interfaith relations or leaders’ handling of the clergy abuse crisis, to cite some issues listed by Elie—is to depict a gross misrepresentation of American Catholics that overlooks some of the most engaged and faithful practitioners in the Church today. Surely, many dissatisfied Catholics might be characterized appropriately as “resigned,” but to say that this represents the “what American Catholics are feeling,” is an overstatement that overlooks the complex reality of lived Catholicism today.
Furthermore, many of the Catholics I know who are most committed to the types of ecclesial changes underwriting Elie’s op-ed are—undoubtedly—the most engaged and least “resigned” Catholics I know. They have not resigned to bitterness and complaint about the Catholicism; they are deeply hopeful and actively engaged in actualizing a Church grounded in the Gospel.
They are Catholic like those who wrote for the recent publication, Hungering and Thirsting For Justice, co-edited by Lacey Louwagie and my friend Kate Ward, or the colleagues and friends alongside whom I wrote in the collection, From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism. These and so many other Catholics are anything but “resigned,” and most would adamantly disagree with Elie’s charge that resigning—that is, giving up on one’s place in the pew—is a good way to engage Catholicism.
What’s more, many of the Catholics I know who have resigned—who have left Catholicism—rarely if ever do so in a state of emotional resignation. They wrestle with the Church and the Catholic tradition, and often experience an incredible amount of conflict about their decision to seek God in another faith community. The kind of easy departure that Elie presents in his op-ed betrays the genuine strife that many Catholics experience as they struggle to understand their place inside—or outside—the Church. The idea of “giving up one’s pew for Lent” seems rather trite in view of the genuine struggles of these faithful friends.
That many American Catholics–on any side of the aisle–are unhappy about the realities of Catholicism is true. That we all feel so resigned is an overgeneralization, I think. It is a misrepresentation of American Catholicism’s complex realities. And, that we ought to resign from our pews, wherever we sit, is no solution for the resignation that some folks do actually feel.
A couple years ago Roger Haight S.J., one of Catholicism’s leading theologians, visited the Paulist Catholic Center here in Boston to offer a three-day lecture series. At the beginning of one Q&A session, an audience member stood in a huff and proceeded to deliver a lengthy, rather aggressive monologue directed at Haight. Those familiar with the controversies surrounding his work might assume that this man took the public lecture as an occasion to echo the harsh words of Haight’s magisterial critics. Quite the opposite, in fact. The audience member argued that the disciplinary measures against Haight were another example of the reactionary shift in church leadership since Vatican II. The Second Vatican Council, he explained, had offered a vision of hope for Catholics that has only been mired by the Church hierarchy ever since.
This is a message I heard repeatedly during the last three and a half years as a staff member at the Paulist Center. One of the major hubs in Boston for Catholics seeking a community of vibrant worship and lefty social justice commitments, the Paulist Center is hospitable to many folks who wish the Church at large looked a little (or a lot) different than it does today. Despite my familiarity with this audience member’s perspective, my shared dissatisfaction with the treatment of Roger Haight and his work, and my own related concerns about the current status of Catholicism, I found myself cringing as I sat in the pew just a few feet away from this man.
When the event concluded I headed to dinner with a group of young adults where I facilitated a discussion about Haight’s talk. As always, I was struck by the earnestness, intelligence, and eloquence of my peers as they reflected on spirituality and our lives as Catholics. These young adults echoed, in content, what that vocal audience member had proclaimed earlier: They, too, where saddened and frustrated to know that our brilliant and kind lecturer had endured so much strife from church leaders. They, too, worry about what our church does and does not look like today.
What was absent from their reflections that night—and most nights—was the aggressiveness and bitterness that made me cringe when I heard very similar concerns from the older audience member earlier that evening. I rarely experience the same bitterness among younger “progressive” Catholics that I witness so often among older members of the community. And I’ve been trying to figure out why for a long time. Have we young adults simply not lived with the church long enough to accrue the degree of anger that we witness in older Catholics? Is it just a matter of time until we also find ourselves taking the mic for a few safe moments to diffuse some of that frustration we’ve been harboring inside? Maybe. Maybe that’s one reason why that man made me so uncomfortable: I recognized much of my own anger in him, and faced with this mirror, I found myself wondering: Has my Catholic faith fated me to a life of bitterness and resentment? Is this what my disappointment and frustration is bound to become? This kind of anger, however sincere and justified, is not what I want for this man, my community, or my life.
I believe these are some of the pressing spiritual questions among many Catholics today. My years in Catholic young adult ministry have shown me that I am not alone in seeking a hospitable space where I can process my frustrations about the Church with a supportive community. This blog is one such space, to be sure. At the same time, there are these moments when there is a temptation to indulge this disappointment and anger in unhealthy ways. We attend to our wounds in ways that cause them to fester rather than heal. With the best of intentions, we proclaim our anger so loudly and so often that we come to associate only words of resentment with Catholicism. When we listen to ourselves we only hear how miserable it is to be a Catholic today.
How do we respond to the pain in a way that brings healing and life? Because Christian work ought to be healing work, I am convinced that all Christians—especially ministers—need to deal seriously and carefully with church-related pain, whether it belongs to others or to oneself. Yet I do not think simply offering a microphone is always the best response; it is rarely a good response if it is the sole response. I suggest this because I experienced a temptation in communities full of genuinely hurt Catholics to join the chorus of anger when it doesn’t quite reflect the complexity of one’s situation of own faith—of one’s own pain. In the safety of like-minded folks such as that audience member, I have found myself spouting dismissive comments about the Church only to realize minutes later that my own words don’t reflect the reality of my life as a Catholic—as a Catholic who is sad and frustrated, but also enlivened and hopeful. Again, admittedly, there are times when I have rather snide things to say about the Church that need to be named in order to be processed healthily. But, when faced with such words, I think I too rarely ask myself and others: Is that all you need to say? Can I help you process this more?
As I have expressed elsewhere on the blog, I do not think the necessary result of this healing process will be a long, carefree life within the traditional boundaries of the Catholic Church. Whatever the concrete results of processing the pain of Catholic life, I believe that healing, life-giving work is the work to which we must faithfully give ourselves. As much as the concrete results of healing are often unknown and always particular to an individual’s own struggles, I am quite sure that a life bounded by bitterness and resentment is likely not what God wants for us.
Over the years, the frank and hopeful insights of the young adults at the Paulist Center have taught me this. These peers afforded me opportunities for honest speech in the context of a larger community of healing, for which I was immensely grateful as I concluded my time on staff there last week. And the healing continues…
My heart sank last week as I read Kate’s blog entry, “Done.” In her testimony about trying to leave Catholicism, she wrote, “I’m feeling these days like I’m in the midst of a breakup, you know, the really horrible kind where you know it isn’t going to work but you want it to so badly that every fifteen minutes you manage to get yourself entirely convinced that it actually can work, only to remember five minutes later why it can’t, only to repeat the cycle over and over and over until it makes you crazy and you can barely remember who you are let alone the reasons why you’re breaking up.” Kate wondered whether other ex-Catholics had experienced the same heartbreak in their final days with the Church. I am not one of these ex-Catholics, and honestly, I can barely imagine leaving Catholicism—but to the little extent that I can, I imagine it would feel exactly like a horrifying breakup.
In Lauren Winner’s memoir, Girl Meets God, she recounts her transition from Orthodox Judaism to Anglican Christianity. Couched among the tales of her various love affairs, the story of Winner’s tumultuous conversion mirrors her romantic relationships with men. Winner writes of how she found herself consistently enamored by Jesus while persistently fighting against her burgeoning devotion. In the end, she gave in to the love affair. I read this book for the first time when I was sixteen—at the age of first love and first heartbreak—and undoubtedly, it gave me a paradigm for understanding my increasing attraction to the Catholicism of my upbringing. If becoming Catholic was like falling in love, perhaps leaving would feel something like a break-up.
We have rituals for break-ups, for mourning the loss of a lover, a once-constant life companion. We let ourselves cry. We call our friends, and they show up, sit on our couches, and hold us as we try to catch our breath, like Kate. We take down pictures and put old letters into shoeboxes that we shove into our closets, perhaps opening them from time to time for grieving. When we have no paradigm for life without that ex-companion, friends tell us to wake up in the morning, to get out of bed, and they promise that someday it will be a little bit easier. Those around us testify to a hopeful future until we believe it.
Later in the day after reading Kate’s blog entry, I sat at dinner with my boyfriend Jack, telling him how I had carried her heavy words with me all day. Jack leaned forward to speak—then paused. “I have a frank question for you, if I may?” he asked. “I know you don’t think you can leave, Jessica. But do you ever wonder if you could, maybe some day?” Jack has stood beside me during Episcopal liturgies where I wept silently, yearning to belong to a community like that—a more egalitarian space where, for instance, a woman could consecrate the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Afterward, I told him I was crying because I could never imagine leaving the Catholic Church, even in the moments when I want to. Feeling stuck in my relationship to the Church hurts sometimes—but I have no paradigm for life without the liturgy and people and tradition that I have loved for so long, even with its major imperfections.
“Sometimes I think it’s possible,” I responded. “But, I think I would need a funeral first.” Jack tilted his head, wearing a confused look. This was not a clever way of saying I will be Catholic until I die. It had simply occurred to me, “I would need some sort of ritual. You know, at funerals everyone who loves you gets together, and they celebrate your life with them. They mourn your absence but they commend you into another space. At the very least, I think I would need that to leave Catholicism. To feel okay about it.”
For many people, leaving Catholicism is a courageous decision made in response to the painful circumstances imposed on them by the Church. Many suffer within Catholicism for many years before they leave, and for many leaving is a concerted effort to salvage Christian faith. It is not a rejection of it. More than ever, it is apparent to me that we need a pastoral response for those who need to leave. We need some way of communicating those messages of condolence and hope that we share with our friends as they mourn the loss of a lover: “It seems that this is the best thing for you right now, even as it hurts,” or simply, “It’s going to be okay.” We need to go sit with them, and listen to the stories of their grief. We need some way to say, “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry…”
It was a friend’s mother who gave me Girl Meets God in high school. She was raised Catholic, and during her college years she increasingly attended a local Protestant church. She became involved in their ministries, and eventually she found herself identifying with this new community much more than the Catholicism of her upbringing. One summer she was at a Christian camp with young people from her church, and she befriended a Catholic priest who was also there with a group from his parish. She told him about her life in the Church, and how she had decided to leave Catholicism for this new Protestant community. This priest offered to say a prayer with her, one that would mark her departure from Catholicism and her entrance into this other Christian community. And indeed, their prayer marked this transition for her all those years later.
When she told me this story as a high school student, I thought it was so strange. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would intentionally seek a mark of separation from Catholicism. Excommunication was the only thing I could equate to this type of event, and that is something forced on people—not sought out. But today I wonder what a prayer like that could do for people like Kate, or for many of the people I know and love. And I wonder what the offer of a prayer like that would do for me.
…Today I was reading about Marie Curie: she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness her body bombarded for years by the element she had purified It seems she denied to the end the source of the cataracts on her eyes the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil
She died a famous woman denying her wounds denying her wounds came from the same source as her power
–an excerpt from “Power” by Adrienne Rich
On Thursday I went to an evening liturgy at the Episcopal Cathedral. Instead of extending my palms over the altar during the Eucharistic prayer as the presider had implored us to do, I attempted to wipe the tears from my cheeks without attracting the attention of the small congregation. Instead of singing and casually swaying with the melody of the communion song, I was preoccupied by the tense knot in my throat, trying to swallow it–along with all that unbridled emotion.
It was the liturgy of my dreams, right there in front of me: the liturgical prayers and rituals I loved, enacted by a community with lay and ordained ministers of every gender, sexuality, and race, language that reflected tradition while emphasizing the full and equal participation of all. All this filled me with joy and excitement–yes–but the tears were an outpouring of another kind. As I stood there amid that liturgy, I imagined what it would be like to call this my church. And I cried because I could not imagine it.
I could not imagine my church becoming this type of church, nor could I imagine leaving my tradition for the sake of calling this one my own. Even when faced with the manifestation of this seemingly ideal worship community, being Catholic–or potentially not Catholic–remained overwhelmingly complicated. There is some complicated power that binds me to Catholicism.
I do not live as Marie Currie died, denying the source of my wounds. I know it pains me at times to be in this tradition, but I also sense right now that there is a force keeping me here. Maybe I will figure it out some day, detangle myself from its mysterious pull to enter a space where I can call a liturgy like that my own. Until then…
Check out my latest post on the blog that accompanies From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism, a recently released book to which I have contributed. My post is called “From the Pews in the Back: My First Reading.”
My legs could barely hold me yesterday at Mass. I hadn’t slept much the night before, or the night before that really, and my body had been reminding me of it since I rolled over to turn off my alarm clock that morning.
Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. Jesus also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” Jesus said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.” Luke 21:1-4