A recent issue of Sojourners magazine (July, 1994), featured articles by two prominent American Roman Catholics, Rosemary Radford Ruether, a leading feminist, and Richard Rohr, the articulate young Franciscan founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation. Both had been asked to respond to this question: Why do you stay in the Church?
That, given the tensions within Catholicism today, is a good question. Many people, especially people who have been as critical of some of the things happening inside of the Church as have Ruether and Rohr, have left the church, saying that they can no longer believe in, nor stay in, in an institution that has these flaws. Those participating in this exodus cite a bevy of reasons: the church’s failure to practice justice within its own house, the church’s failure to afford women full equality in structure, recent sexual scandals among the clergy, a history that has always contained elements of injustice, racism, and hypocrisy. “Why stay?” they ask, “surely this institution is not what Christ intended to mediate grace!”
But Ruether and Rohr are not two persons who think this way. Both make a strong and a clear option to stay with the church, despite its faults – and the reasons each gives for staying, to my mind, offer a valuable corrective for a generation of Catholics that can too easily lose its balance.
Ruether begins her response by giving a devastating critique of the church. By the time she is finished listing all that is wrong with Roman Catholicism as an institution, you are left wondering as to what’s still left standing. In the face of all of that, she asks: “Why stay?”
So why does she stay? Because she still sees grace present in all of this and she says that the proper response to all that’s wrong in the church is not to leave it, but to grow up. “I suspect that part of our dismay at recognizing the fallibility of the church is our reluctance to grow up, and the way in which certain kinds of ecclesial ‘spirituality’ operate as spiritual infantilization, rather than maturity in faith. We are shocked at clerical and corporate ecclesiastical evils a little the way children are shocked and demoralized to discover that their parents are fallible. We can depart in sorrow looking for another impeccable father (or mother), perhaps in an all-wise guru or a preacher of an inerrant Bible. Or we can grow up and become responsible for the Church of Christ. … We can look steadily and without denial at the records of our corporate apostasy, not as the defeat of the gospel, but as the revelation of God’s amazing power to deliver us from even the most monumental efforts to defeat God’s grace.”
Rohr takes a slightly different track, but is equally insightful. He, too, begins by admitting the church’s faults. He quotes Romano Guardini in his contention that “the church has always been the cross that Christ is crucified on.” He states that it is easy enough to create a good rationale for leaving the church and adds: “In fact, with the information I have acquired, I might even hurry you out the door.”
But Rohr stays with the church, and he urges others to do so. Why? Because for him it is, in the end, the only institution that ultimately offers hope – and it does this despite its flaws: Those of us who are of sincere will are, he asserts, “trying to preach good news to many disparate groups in our world: youth who want both inspiration and structure, feminists who must know that they have an essential truth, patriarchs who need to be challenged but not dismissed, the simple who need reassurance, the broken who don’t need more words but a healing touch, the seekers who need both depth and patience, the alienated who both need and fear ‘home’, gays and lesbians who need acceptance before agenda, males who need soul work, parents who need skills, the oppressed who need justice and solidarity, believers who need to believe again.”
And, again Rohr’s words, “where else but in the great mystery of church, the living Body of Christ, can all of these find a common hope?” The church has its faults but, outside of it, what have we got in a world that isn’t working? Private choices? Ideology? Pluralism without purpose? Individuation without community? In the end, we are before the church like Peter was before Christ: “Where else can we go?”
But, valuable as these perspectives are, in the end, it is two words that provide for both Ruether and Rohr the sufficient reason for staying in the church – grace and forgiveness.