Monday, April 5, 2010

Why be Catholic?

As I continue to read various media accounts about scandal and corruption in the Church, I also see in various places a sort of incredulity among commenters and observers of what is going on, an incredulity directed at you, at me, and at any and all of our fellow Catholics. Why, say the skeptical or puzzled or malicious, why would anyone want to be a Catholic nowadays? What could possibly be the point? After all, the Church is like the doddering and grumpy great-grandmother who is impossibly narrow about sex, who scolds everybody for their behavior, who can't just celebrate everybody in their okayness--but who, at the same time, seems to have undergone an identity crisis over the last forty years, and who has, in this extended period of senility, chucked out those venerable and respectable customs and traditions that gave the old girl a sort of cache, despite her impossible lack of modern views. Who would want to be a part of that old woman's tribe? What could possibly be the point of it all?

We live in an age of tragic trendiness, in a rootless nation that threw out all of its customs and traditions in a fit of juvenile pique over the course of a hundred years or so; now its hapless citizens search incessantly for meaning. Yet meaning, real meaning, is the last thing we want. What we want is to buy meaning, to purchase virtue, to collect eternal verities like some rare antiquity preserved in amber, about which we can rhapsodize and theorize--so long as we remain observers, outside of the sacrificial and sacramental reality contained within such things.

Persuaded that our ownership of the trappings of virtue makes us virtuous, we then adopt a very mercantile attitude toward goodness itself. Goodness is what the highest bidder says it is; goodness is what the majority find it to be, unless a popular minority says otherwise and can convince the organs of national virtue to trumpet their cause. There is no fixed idea about what is or isn't good; there is no standard of truth by which to evaluate goodness; the Golden Rule has been weighed on a modern scale and found wanting.

With all of this as the backdrop, the question "Why be Catholic?" becomes an almost unanswerable one. The Catholic may say, in vain, those things which all Catholics ought to believe, and many do--that Christ intended to found a Church, that He intended to found a particular Church, that this Church may be recognized by means of four marks (unity, holiness, catholicity or universality, and apostolicity) and that further the life of sacramental grace which Christ instituted must be found in His Church, chiefly in the Holy Eucharist, Which is Christ's Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity really and truly present on the altar. The modern American will listen, perhaps indulgently, perhaps indifferently, but without any context for understanding the words. The most that they will be able to grasp is that for some reason Catholics think there is something true about Catholicism--and it's nice to respect each others' truths. But for the modern American the very notion of "truth" is something subjective, internal--something that does not and cannot have objective existence.

With that stunted and erroneous idea of what "truth" is, the modern American can't possibly fathom why anybody would continue to be Catholic at a time like this. After all, it's embarrassing to see revelations about inept bishops and incompetent procedures which failed in many instances to protect children from child abusers in the clergy. And the news media has spun a compelling narrative in which the vast majority of priests were complicit in abuse, and the vast majority of bishops were criminally negligent in dealing with it, and the vast majority of former cardinals formerly named Ratzinger were probably also...and so on. With so much negativity and bad publicity, why should anybody stay Catholic? Isn't staying Catholic like saying that you, too, don't really care if kids get molested by priests? Because isn't that really all the Church is, a shadowy bureaucratic organization of abusers and their episcopal enablers, secretly financed by the Council on Foreign....oops, wrong conspiracy.

The truth of the matter is that some Catholics will see things this way, and will leave the Church. Some Catholics at the time of Martin Luther had some legitimate complaints, too, as did Catholics at the time of every major heresy to come along.

But in the end, the question "Why be Catholic?" can't be answered in reference to any scandals or problems or troubles the Church has faced. It can only be answered with a statement of faith, with a firm pronunciation of one's beliefs: that God, the Father, created Heaven and Earth; that His Son Jesus Christ, consubstantial with the Father, is the Savior of the world, was born as a man, suffered, died, and then rose again, ascended into Heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father; that the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Trinity remains with the Church, which is one, holy, Catholic and apostolic; that this Church is the ordinary means of salvation for all men, and that her sacraments, instituted by Christ, really do confer grace upon the soul.

Against the supernatural gift of that faith, no mere human failings, no human scandals, no human errors can hold sway. This does not mean that the Church ought not address the present situations with her best and fullest efforts--but it does mean that those efforts will be totally in vain if the spiritual component of the grave failings and dire criminal acts committed against children are not recognized and fought as fully as the human errors are. For Christ did not promise that His Church would be without trials, or would remain unstained by sin--far from it. He only promised that she would persevere, and be guided by the Holy Spirit against errors in the teaching of the faith.

Why be Catholic? Because the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Christ as the ordinary means of salvation for all human beings. It is not a matter of preferences or trends, of intellectual exercises or collected antiquities, of purchased virtue or a mercantile approach to goodness. It is, quite simply, necessary--she, the Church, is necessary. Within her many men may falter; without her, the prospect is considerably more dire. We need the waters of Baptism to cleanse us of Original Sin; we need the heavenly food, the Eucharist, to have strength for the journey; we need to confess our sins and be forgiven--we need the graces, poured out upon His Bride by Christ Himself, by which He means to draw us ever nearer to Him.

The evils done by too many priests--yes, a small percentage overall, but even one such priest is one too many--must be atoned for; the failings of the hierarchy to address these things in timely and thorough and efficient manners must be remedied; the spiritual deficiencies at the root of all of these things must be addressed as well, with much humble prayer and penitence. But we can do none of these things if we haven't already answered the world's question, and explained why, with so much to deal with, we would be Catholic at all. Because I believe the Church is what Christ said she is, because I trust in Him to provide both just chastisement and patient mercy, because I believe everything the Church teaches and do my best to live accordingly, failing often in my weakness, but by His grace persevering, because I would die a Catholic and therefore must try my hardest to live as one: that is why I am a Catholic, and why I will continue to be one though the very gates of Hell seem to be encroaching upon the Church. We have Christ's word that they will not prevail against her, in the end.


John Thayer Jensen said...

This was very moving to me. I was brought up nothing at all; became an Evangelical Christian at the age of 27, but still searching for the place where Christ Himself was - and by His astonishing grace and condescension, became a Catholic at age 51.

To quote one famous person: "Here I stand; I can do no other."

But to quote yet another: "To whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life."

j. christian said...

I like Walker Percy's answer:

"What else is there?"

Sister C. said...

I've been reading and meaning to comment on your blog for some time now. This thoughtful, moving post is the one that moved me to my keyboard.

In humble witness of God's love for his sinful - and redeemed - Body on Earth, we stand together.

May I send you an e-mail?

Sr. C.

Wendy in VA said...

Well done, Erin. Thank you.

Larry Denninger said...

Well written, Erin. We live amongst Pilates who ask and seek, yet fail to find.

Magister Christianus said...

Erin, this is the one of the finest pieces of writing of any kind that I have ever read. At times your sentence structure and turns of a phrase made me think I was reading Neuhaus.

On the Thursday before Easter, I stumbled on this by John Henry Newman: I read it straight through, riveted, as it bored through my heart. I printed it out and have been unable to pick it up again, knowing what a dangerous piece it is for me. I mention it because your piece is so strikingly similar.

May God find use for your "apologia pro fide Catholica" in many, many circles.

Laurinda said...

Dear Erin,

Thank you.

Erin Manning said...

Thanks to all who commented!

Sr. C., my email address is in my sidebar, and I love to hear from readers. Thanks! :)

Liz said...

Thanks Erin, I became Catholic 13 years ago this Easter. Like Sam Gamgee the only way to go is straight ahead, no turning back. Those Protestant buildings without the Blessed Sacrament are just plain empty shells. Jesus told us there would be wheat and tares in the kingdom, so why should we be surprised when we find them there. Besides if the Church were composed only of those who never sinned I wouldn't be welcome there either.

Anonymous said...

Amen, sister!

Charlotte said...

Erin, excellent! You said a mouthful that needed to be said.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I am not now and never have been a Roman Catholic. I have had the experience of abandoning associations I devoted a quarter of a century to, because I no longer saw the inspiration that motivated my original commitment to be fulfilled in continuing what I started (not a church or a spiritual endeavor). I have also had the experience of remaining a member of a church even after the pastor had committed a serious indiscretion, and fumbled somewhat in handling a sort of apology about it. I know that an institution is much more than the moral condition of whoever happens to be in leadership position at the moment.

The notion that someone who finds truth, faith, and solace in the fundamental doctrines of a church, and in the intended meaning of its rituals, would simply throw it all away over the sins of its leaders is ludicrous -- particularly when the current leadership are not the founders, and the institution does have many centuries of history or tradition which are larger than any one man.

One reason the Roman Catholic church survived the Reformation is that it cleaned up its own house to an extent. (If I remember right, selling indulgences was strictly forbidden sometime in the 16th century). There is no reason to think it cannot clean house again, albeit there is plenty to criticize about the pace at which it has done so to date.

One reason I am not Catholic is that I don't share the notion that this church is either universal, nor peculiarly apostolic, but for those who do, the errors of certain priests doesn't prove otherwise.

Kate P said...

Frequent reader--this might be my first time commenting: You have put into words what I have a hard time articulating. Thank you and God bless you. Happy Easter!