Why am I still Catholic?

The question is frequently asked, especially of late, in that I appear educated and am committed to social justice and human rights, while well, I’ll stop there.

The easy answer is that I was raised in the South, where Catholics, a small minority, develop a proud defensiveness.

At Notre Dame, I lucked into the writings of Romano Guardini, whose Christian weltanschauung (worldview) argued for the church emerging from its rule-choked Counter-Reformation redoubt: “The Church is coming alive in the hearts of men (and women).”

I also met the movement to recover the ancient Eucharistic rite as the assembly’s sacrifice, meal and call to action. I discovered church social teachings that addressed the challenges to justice and love from a largely secular, materialistic and selfish world.

The church became the ground of my being. Fifteen years later, John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council espoused that renewal and defined the church as the people of God.

Along the way, I have encountered the witness of Leon Bloy, Gerald Manley Hopkins, George Bernanos, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Helder Camara, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Kathy Kelly, Central American death squad martyrs, friends who model the Beatitudes, and Haitians who, with nothing save life, faith and community, are still capable of hope and a smile.

That Catholic renaissance had a short spring. Since Paul VI rejected a near-unanimous contraception recommendation, scuttling Vatican II’s promise of collegiality, its hope has steadily dimmed.

John Paul II’s long papacy was marked by fear of change, more centralized authority, continued triumphalism. The clerical patriarchy’s power and posturing continue – long on condemnation and pelvic preoccupations and short on prophecy and compassion. Beyond his prophetic pen, Benedict XVI appears clueless.

So we get attacks on officeholders who recognized that Roe v. Wade is law; appointments of mindlessly obeisant bishops; insensitive dictates to gays and lesbians; and abdication of responsibility to implement Catholic social teaching – to challenge unjust wars and corporate greed and exploitation, champion health care as a right, secure a safety net for the poor and save a threatened earth.

Nothing to stem unprecedented attrition, and incompetent translations to boot. “Evangelization” is defined as “clustering parishes.”

Emblematic of what approaches an implosion have been the stonewalling, resistance and criminal complicity of hierarchs in the priest sex abuse scandal – triumphalism before care for the innocent, and the Vatican’s obsession with clerical male celibacy at the cost of denying the Eucharist to half the church.

How can one remain in an institution in which popes and hundreds of bishops have conspired to hide sex abuses (and won’t resign) and bishops ignore the social Gospel but bully their flocks and spend millions to deny gays rights and protections that heterosexuals enjoy? That demands obedience to every clerical opinion while dismantling a council?

It ain’t easy. But, for me, the church is not that, not bishops’ and popes’ failures of responsibility, courage and charity; not their hypocrisy; not the Crusades and Inquisition.

It is the communion of saints, living and dead, from the pacifist martyr Stephen to Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, the Cure of Ars, John XXIII, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Romero, who died for his people, and all of the saints and strugglers in my life.

It is also clear that Jesus and his disciples saw one beloved community. The early church worked hard to resolve doctrinal and other conflicts and to spread the Gospel faithfully.

Nor, as their trials and those of many saints who came after have witnessed, did Jesus promise a rose garden. Why should I be exempt from pain – from carrying whatever cross today’s challenges present? The church is a universal community joined in faith, love, sacrifice – and suffering.

Neither can I imagine abandoning the church of Gregorian chant, the medieval mystics, Thomas Aquinas, Fra Angelico, Dante, Chaucer and Chartres Cathedral.

Yes, some have borne heavy burdens in the heat of the day and need rest and succor and do not find it in their parishes and misguided leadership.

Understandably, they turn for nourishment where they can find it. Others join intentional communities; as in early centuries, a member may preside at the Eucharist.

Rejecting the patriarchy’s sexism, women are being ordained, validly if illicitly. The Spirit blows where it will. Many a saint has, along the way, been excommunicated.

With a faithful and forbearing wife, an accommodating parish faith community, an overinformed conscience and some polemical ability, why should I walk away from the challenge?

 

William H. Slavick of Portland is Pax Christi Maine coordinator and is active in the Sacred Heart/St. Dominic Haiti Project.