Monday 14th Oct 2019

Editor · The Southern Cross - 

Head of Christ – Rembrandt -

Many committed Catholics have responded to the ongoing scandals in the Church by grappling with a most important question: Why should I stay in the Church?

Introspective articles on that question have been published across the Catholic media worldwide. Almost invariably, the writers find convincing reasons why they should stay (those who do not presumably feel there is no market for their views in the Catholic press).

Some of these reflections wrestle admirably with theology, but the conclusion is simple: if we choose to leave because of the actions of humans, then we understand the Church as a mere human institution and not as the Church of God.

While priests, bishops and popes are called to guide us to salvation and provide the faithful with spiritual nourishment on their earthly pilgrimage — as most do in selfless and virtuous service — our faith must be in God, not man.

There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one Church founded by Christ. The Church is the perfect Bride of Christ, not the institution which has always been stained by human failure.

If we see the Church as a mere human institution, then we place man before God. And when we do that, what was our faith in the first place? And what trauma makes people lose that faith?

If we leave the Catholic Church for another denomination — one with fewer public scandals, or better preaching, or more lively worship, or doctrines we like — we also relinquish the rich fruits of the Catholic faith.

Chief among these is the Real Presence in the Eucharist. If one does not believe that at its consecration the host becomes the Living Bread, then it is easy to leave that behind. But is it possible to give up the Living Bread if one truly believes in the Real Presence?

The reasons for staying in the Catholic Church are simple and obvious. So why are people leaving anyway, and possibly never come back?

One chief reason may reside in the Church’s failure to propose Christ convincingly.

To be sure, proselytising Christian communities and secular and materialistic societies are fielding counter-propositions which evidently are compelling to many Catholics. But the institutional Catholic Church has also helped to feed these counter-propositions — by failing to make Christ persuasively visible.

Of course, Christ is very much present in the Catholic Church. The scandals notwithstanding, the Catholic Church is a great force for good in the world.

But what many people do see is a Church that judges, shames, condemns and excludes those who do not live up to the ideals its leaders insist on — and so often fail to meet themselves.

They see hypocrisy in a Church where leaders exercise power which seeks not to persuade but to dictate; a Church whose leadership is compromised by reprehensible scandal but still feels entitled to judge the morality of others.

And when people see the Church in that way, then they may not see Christ within it.

A recent example from the US serves to illustrate this. In Indianapolis a Jesuit school declined to fire a teacher who was living into a same-sex union. Having failed to convince the management of that school, Archbishop Charles Thompson withdrew its status as a Catholic institution.

In one fell swoop, the learners no longer were the pupils of a Catholic school — the collateral of a power struggle.

Regardless of all the good reasons there may be against having teachers in same-sex marriages on the staff of Catholic schools, the witness the archbishop provided was one of power wielded to impose a particular morality — at a time when bishops, at least in the US, are no longer seen as occupying the moral high ground on questions of sexual ethics.

Will anybody be drawn closer to Christ by the archbishop’s decision? Or will the archbishop’s decision serve to obscure Christ to many?

Pope Francis has exhorted the Church to open its doors, to welcome those in search of God and to accompany people — even and especially those in most need of it — on the path to salvation.

The pope’s objective is not to create a warm and fuzzy Church — though warmth is essential — but to lead people to experience God’s life-giving presence.

And we do this, Pope Francis suggests, by witnessing Christ’s infinite love and divine mercy.

But what good is it to open the doors of the Church and issue invitations to meet Christ when inside people find it difficult to locate him?

How can we propose Christ when he is obscured by control, laws, vanity, corruption, and so often even a lack of the very love he commands the people to share with one another?

How can we illuminate Christ in a Church when it so often judges, shames, condemns and excludes? How can we propose Christ when we talk more about the law than we do about his love?

And how can we be surprised when the people who don’t see Christ alive in our Church walk out to find him elsewhere — or, worse, give up on seeking him altogether?

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