Shake the Dust or Drink the Kool-Aid? Reasons to Leave, Reasons to Stay in Church

Shake the Dust or Drink the Kool-Aid? Reasons to Leave, Reasons to Stay in Church March 21, 2012

I’m reasoning about reasons today.

A friend, a spiritual director who works with disaffected believers from a number of faith traditions but is herself a Catholic of what I call the John23 generation, posted a Facebook link this morning to a piece by Rachel Held Evans entitled 15 Reasons Why I Left Church. My friend wanted to know whether these reasons resonated with Catholics of our generation. My own impression is that many of the complaints Held Evans shares are truer of the evangelical or nondenominational Christian churches with which the author has been associated than they are of Catholicism. Reason #5, for example, concerns the inability to reconcile scientific knowledge with the creationism many fundamentalist Christian churches hold as doctrine. That’s not a problem for Catholics–something that comes as a surprise even to many Catholics, especially those who’ve converted to Rome from more literal traditions. As a matter of fact, the Catholic Church has always been not just a tolerator but a promoter of science. Oh, don’t throw Galileo at me. Galileo was a Catholic, and the ill treatment he got (for which the Church has since admitted sua culpa) was because of Church leaders’ fear of the political implications of his findings, not because the Church wanted to quash science. Also, you’re probably never going to find a Catholic complaining about being pushed into converting others (#12). Catholics are notoriously unproselytizing, and though initiatives associated with the New Evangelization may in time make us more comfortable with sharing the Gospel, the Kingdom will probably come before we see Catholics required to perform door-to-door witness.

Other items on the list seem to me to be more a case of gripes with a local congregation than with a larger denomination, as would reflect Held Evans’s background. And indeed, many Catholics who leave the Church or lapse into inactivity do so because of bad experiences on the local parish level. There are certainly parishes that have a difficult time making use of the full range of gifts members bring (#1), and certainly parishes, or circles within parish communities, that can feel “like a cult or a country club” (#4). The number of items (#3, #6, #9, #14) that address churches’ refusal to engage with questions, explore doubts, or confront the complexities of Scripture and Church history, if these ring bells for Catholics, might be accounted for by poor catechesis on the part of clergy and lay leaders, or by misunderstanding on the part of the doubters and questioners. Both of these occur at the local parish level, but it is most assuredly not Catholic teaching to silence questions, shun those dealing with sincere doubts, or tell people to leave their brains at the door because “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”

True, there are a few items on Held Evans’s list that have contributed and will continue to contribute to disaffection with the Church on the part of Catholics. The ordination of women to the priesthood is a closed question for Roman Catholics, so #11, which reflects Held Evans’s sense that women’s ministries are discounted by churches like ours, is a sore point for many Catholics–men as well as women, those who stay as well as those who leave. Interestingly, the ordination of women to the diaconate remains, according to Pope Benedict XVI, an open area of theological exploration–so there is the remotest of chances that we could see women behind the pulpit (because part of a deacon’s vocation is to preach) in our lifetime.

The Church’s teachings on sexuality (#2, #15) also remain “stoppers” for many. I have written here, and will again, on my own frustration with the imbalance in the way the Church addresses (and the even greater imbalance in the way the Church is perceived to address) moral questions. All sin is not sexual, and sexual sins are not always the deadliest, but you would not know that, especially these days. And though many see the Church’s opposition to gay marriage as a violation of human rights, I’ve included it here because that teaching flows from the Church’s teachings about all human sexuality and about the nature of marriage as a sacrament. The problem is that we as Church have not done nearly as good enough a job of articulating those teachings as we have of coming across as homophobic bigots obsessed with what other people do in bed. So, whether people are leaving the Church because they disagree with the Church’s teachings, or because they don’t understand those teachings and disagree with how they’ve been misrepresented, it’s moot. This is a source of grievous wounding, either way.

Held Evans’s #8, about churches assuming that everyone votes Republican, was not a problem when I was growing up. The Church we John23ers knew was an immigrant, working-class, union-loyal bunch of New Deal Democrats. (The Kennedys were the exception, but we knew they were really just jumped-up versions of the rest of us, anyway.) Baptists voted Republican. Episcopalians, especially from the South, voted Republican. But Catholics? Most wouldn’t be caught dead. But the Church I’ve returned to is very often a #8 Church, to the point of my being taken to the woodshed in my combox for even imagining it’s possible to be Catholic and a Democrat. This is a point of struggle for me, and I can understand why it might push lots of folks either out the Church door entirely or into that Nancy Pelosi Bizarro World of “Yes-I’m-a-Catholic-but-I-believe-the-polar-opposite-of-everything-the-Church-teaches.” (There is, btw, a corresponding Republican Bizarro World when it comes to Church teaching on immigration, capital punishment, and other social issues.) I am staying, even if I’m the last one on the burning deck, because I am just ornery enough to want to bust that political polarization wide open.

Which gets to my own list of reasons–for why I came back, why I stay, why I drink the kool-aid and get in line for more. The website of Catholics Come Home, the media ministry that runs slick ads about why folks should return to or convert to Catholicism, features a list of Top 10 Reasons to Return to the Church. Most of these don’t speak to me, and probably wouldn’t speak to Catholics disaffected by items on Rachel Held Evans’s list. There is more of an emphasis on seeking forgiveness for sins that made people leave the Church than there is on addressing some of the sinful hurts the Church has dealt, but that’s to be expected in a ministry that emphasizes the positive. I think the Catholics Come Home list is weighted toward converts and traditionalists seeking authority, conservative moral values, and shelter in–or even escape from–a world of turmoil. Those are good  reasons for many, as the success of diocesan Catholics Come Home appeals attest, but they aren’t the only ones. Here, for good or for ill, is my list. I’ll explore these in more detail in future posts, because this one is already overlong.

Top Ten Reasons I’m a Catholic Revert

10. To be connected to (global) history. I love being rooted in the Church’s long and uninterrupted history. Even when that history is just absolutely awful–though more than most people know, it’s a history of outreach and care and justice. And I love the way the Church has (some of the time, anyway)  respected and incorporated and baptized other strands of the human search for God.

9. To be connected to (family) history. A good three-quarters (though not necessarily the best three-quarters) of my roots are Catholic, and I grew up saturated in Catholicism in a way that I remember as (mostly) wonderful. And in a reversal of the way it happens in a lot of families, my kids helped bring me back to the Church, so those roots go on.

8. For the good (eternal) company. The Communion of Saints is so chock full of amazing stories and role models (both to follow and to avoid!) and intellectual giants and holy fools and great artists (I’m claiming Shakespeare, and I don’t care who tells me I’m nuts) that when it comes to good company that transcends little things like time and space, it’s really true that There ain’t no party like a Catholic party.

7. For the interesting (present) company. Since reverting, I marvel at the strange pewfellows whose company I keep. In spite of the current (sinful) tendency for Catholics to engage in radical polarization and to excommunicate each other on a daily basis, this is one big damn tent. And I find I love the freedom to hang out with folks whose opinions and lifestyles and politics I would ordinarily avoid like the plague, as well as with those who share my own biases.

6. Because I don’t know how to approach God except through my senses. The Catholic incarnational tradition of valuing iconography, art, music, drama, dance (yes, dance!), poetry, food, wine (yes!), touch, gesture, scent (incense, flowers, chrism) as natural doorways to the Divine is to me one of the proofs of the Holy Spirit’s presence. I know mystics and ascetics can get beyond this stuff, but that’s not my road.

5. Because I’m a rebel. I grew up in the 60s. And now that I’m in my 60s, I still like arguing, challenging, pushing the envelope, tweaking the status quo. The Church has, for most of its best history, been countercultural–as culture changes, the countering takes different forms. My fellow John23ers who can’t figure out why I’m fighting the HHS mandate might want to remember that part before they accuse me of selling out the revolution.

4. Because there are things I can’t explain, and don’t have to. I am at home in mystery. That doesn’t mean I want a Church that stops me from asking questions, or learning, or doubting; indeed, I couldn’t survive in that kind of intellectual vacuum. But I love knowing that for all my learning, there are things that can’t be ‘splained, room in my faith for more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in Horatio’s philosophy.

3. Because I’m a woman. Hah. That one’s a surprise, I bet. But I came to maturity in faith through the graces of some of the smartest, holiest, strongest, most faithful women you could ever meet, the women of the Immaculate Heart Community. And they taught me, and life has continued to teach me, that for all its misogyny and limitations on women’s official authority (those things which are cultural), the Church has given women more room to grow and flourish and be independent of cultural limitations than you might imagine. I came back to stand with them: with Mary of Nazareth and Mary of Magdala, Sts Catherine and Joan and Margaret and Clare and Elizabeth Seton and Katharine Drexel, Catherine Doherty and Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa and Corita Kent.

2. Because life is sacramental. The rhythms of the hours, the hallowing of life’s stages through the sacraments, the order of the liturgical seasons, the continuity of the Mass (yes, even in butchered Latinglish!)–that’s my heartbeat.

1. For the Eucharist. This is one place my list coincides with that of Catholics Come Home. Receiving Communion, and being in the communion with Christ and with the Church that this entails, is the most important reason of all, and the one there are never words sufficient for (though of course I gave it a try, here). Many of the other items on my list could be, and were to a great extent for the time I was one, met by being an Episcopalian–and there were other perks, such as being part of a communion that (in most cases) ordained women and treated LGBT folks as full and valued members no matter what their relationship status. But those things, important as they were to me as an Episcopalian and as much as they continue to occupy my questioning prayer now, were accidents of polity, next to which the essence of the Eucharist for which I hungered was just too important to forgo.

Finally, there’s one item (#10) on Rachel Held Evans’s list of reasons for leaving that I respect the truth and candor of enough to claim it as both a reason why I left the Church and an additional reason for my reversion: “Because of my own selfishness and pride.” Amputating myself from the Body of Christ was both prideful and selfish, because it was an assertion that I was better than, smarter than, holier than the Church, and a denial that I was the Church with whom I was angry, in whom I was disappointed, by whom I was hurt. The long slow process of reattachment is necessary–and slow–because I am still prideful and selfish (and all the other deadly dwarfs, too). There’s even pride in thinking anyone is interested in my reasons, but I hope that’s a forgivable sin.

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