On June 26th, Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times (NYT), wrote an op-ed piece entitled "The Rottweiler’s Rottweiler" where he called for liberal Catholics to leave the Catholic Church for alternatives that embrace more "inclusive" values such as married clergy, women's ordination, and gay marriage. In a follow-up op-ed piece dated this past Tuesday, he attempts to respond those who reacted to his column by questioning whether leaving the Church is the right response to one's frustration or disagreement with the Church. He says the following: "The proposition [of the last column] was that Catholics who want a church more bighearted on issues like the role of women and the acceptance of gay love should consider looking elsewhere, because today’s Catholic hierarchy is stuck in a deep rut." He goes on to say, "I have in the past described myself as a 'collapsed Catholic,' a friend’s clever term for 'beyond lapsed.' So I suggest you follow your own conscience. Just know that if you follow it out of the Catholic Church, there are plenty of alternatives, and there is no shame."
To my great sadness, Mr. Keller gives voice to an all too familiar and common sentiment in our Church/society today. People's deep frustration and profound hurt with regards to the Catholic Church tempts them to leave the Church for other communities that offer them some sort of hope, love, and acceptance they desperately seek. I do not want to discount or discredit these experiences; they are all too real. And as a believer and lover of the Catholic Church and Catholic faith, I cannot help but ask, what has gone wrong? Where have we failed to preach effectively? However, Mr. Keller's solution to this problem, born from his brand of cynicism and disaffection, must not be taken to be the obvious and logical solution. And as tempting as it may be to see it as that (logical and obvious), I felt I had to respond to show how Mr. Keller has fundamentally missed the point of church and faith.
First, Mr. Keller talks of being associated with a particular religion as though it was some sort of commodity we shop for among the "plenty of alternatives" at a grand religious and moral supermarket. He makes religion and church to be some sort of social institution, structured by a particular moral code, to which we subscribe and associate with. Under this definition, sure it is easy to then leave one institution for another who more closely aligns with our set of values. However, it destroys the very concept of religion by removing God and placing ourselves, our social values at the center. No longer is faith God-centered, but rather self-centered. Where's the mystery? Where's the curiosity? Where's the humility? Where's the learning? Where's the growth? Religion and God have to fit our preconceived notions of what they should be and we then become deaf to perhaps what they may have to say to us.
Secondly, Mr. Keller's solution removes all responsibility and opportunity for any sort of human development or growth. He writes, "Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause... Summon your fortitude, and just go. If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience — then go." He advocates for us to simply go where we feel comfortable, to only associate with like-minded people, and avoid the dialogue that is so desperately needed. It is easy to avoid that which troubles us and to seek affirmation and justification in our convictions. However, social advancement never came about by Mr. Keller's mentality of exclusion and seclusion. It might be easy to think that this is a "Catholic Church problem," but the same sort of dynamic is going on in our politics. We see Democrats and Republicans failing to talk to each other, failing to listen to each other. Are we to simply leave the country out of our discontent? Though we may joke about it, we would be hard pressed to act on that impulse. We recognize the need and value to engage and commit ourselves to something greater than ourselves. Faith is a belief in something that, when push comes to shove, is worth fighting for, is worth working for, for better or worse, rich or poor, in sickness and in health. We can too easily expect perfection where perfection cannot be expected. The Church is no exception. Where humans are, imperfections will abound. However, the Church never claims to be perfect. The Church claims to hold the Truth, as entrusted to her by Christ, and always STRIVES to be faithful to that Truth, live it, and bring it to everyone, everywhere. As Catholics, we must dedicate ourselves is to STRIVE for perfection and help the Church in this endeavor as well. We pray for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and trust that God is present and working with us. It is in the journey toward perfection where we discover our deepest selves. Sometimes that journey is a painful and tumultuous one, but that does not mean the road need be abandoned.
My father always says, "Always have the debate, because the debate is worth having." We, as human beings, have a responsibility to the gift of reason that has been given us. Though these debates may bring us to face some ferocious emotions, we will learn nothing, grow to be nothing if we allow ourselves to fall prey to narrow social vision, and forget what underlies our faith: Truth, God, the Sacraments, Christ's [passion, death, and resurrection, the real presence and action of the Holy Spirit, the value of human dignity, the potential of the human person, and the promise of happiness, human flourishing, and everlasting life. There is no doubt that there is much work to be done in the Church. As a budding preacher, teacher, and pastor, I would be the first to admit it. There is no doubt that we face some real and human challenges, but let us never forget that the Church is the Church of the Resurrection. That in suffering and death, there is the promise of new life. Let us pray 1) for our Church today, that she may ever renew herself to meet the needs of those she dedicates herself to serve, 2) for those hurt or frustrated with the faith to the point of losing faith in God and in his Church, that they may find healing and a reconnection with Christ and his Church, and 3) for the grace of charity, wisdom, and courage that we may be able to engage each other with love, ever seeking Truth, to promote the Gospel, and work for the betterment of humanity and the greater glory of God.