“Sometimes I think the whispering in the ward at night sounds very Catholic. Perhaps that’s why I think so much about you (Mother). You were my religion for so many years. I asked Fr. O’Hare once how I could find favour in the eyes of God, and he told me, ‘First you must find favour in your mother’s eyes.’ It would have pleased you, Mother, Mary, to know how much you denied me. Not many women can take away a Church.” (Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, The Marble Mountain and Other Stories)
Can somebody take your church away? Lately, I have spent more than a little time listening to people make exactly that claim. There is an ever-expanding circle of people who complain that arrogant, power-abusing church persons and a dysfunctional church institution have hurt them to the point where they can no longer practice their faith.
More and more common is the complaint that the institutional church has hurt people and religiously depotentiated them.
In street language, you hear it put this way: “The institutional church has hurt me, abused me, not understood me, and not respected me to the point where I struggle to participate in its life. I still believe in God. God is good, that’s more than I can say for the church. Religion isn’t God! The church isn’t Christ! That’s true, isn’t it?”
I find myself drowning in a sea of emotions as I try to answer that question. For myself, there is no emotional separation between God and the church. In my own experience, perhaps atypical today, God and Christ were given to me by a church, by a religion, and by a mother and a father who, more than any other experience that I have yet had, made God and Christ believable.
The church that I met when I was little did not abuse me, misunderstand me, belittle me, riddle me with false guilt or make it difficult for me to believe in Christ. To the contrary, despite many imperfections and dysfunctions, for me, it made Christ credible.
But that was my experience. Others, it would seem, have had a different one.
But, although my emotions don’t spontaneously say: “Religion isn’t God, the church isn’t Christ,” I feel some of the truth in those expressions because my own experience with some other important groups parallels this kind of experience of the church.
My concrete experience make me spontaneously feel that, just as the church isn’t Christ, moralists are not morality; social justice groups aren’t social justice; feminists aren’t feminism; conservatives aren’t conservation; theologians aren’t theology; artists aren’t aesthetics; and pro-life and pro-choice groups aren’t always life and choice.
Truth is always compromised by those who try to give it incarnational feet and just as someone can take your church away, someone too can take away your social justice, your feminism or your theology. So says my experience.
And I suggest my experience is pretty typical here: Many is the man who fights the truth of social justice because of the social justice groups he knows; many is the woman who fights the truth of feminism because of the feminists she has met; many is the Catholic who fights against the value of theology because of the theologians he has read; many is the person who falsely asserts his or her moral freedom because of the moralists (professional and amateur) that he or she has had to endure; and many are the victims who fight the value of power and hierarchy because the very power that should have protected them against abuse abused them.
Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, is the only incarnation of truth that doesn’t have a bad history and doesn’t, near hopelessly, mess up truth with inadequacy, neuroses and self-interest.
It is not easy to not be put off of truth by those who seek to bring it about. The churches do not have a monopoly on compromise and double standards here—though, clearly, they do not always rise above the pack either.
So where do we go, given the truth of this?
Does the fact that all advocates for truth are flawed and compromised give us the right to pass on the question of involvement and commitment?
Leibniz once said that God did not make the best of all possible universes. The man understood his planet. His comment is also singularly accurate as a description of church life, social justice, feminism, theology, pro-life, conservatism, liberalism and near everything else.
Beauty, love and family, just like the world itself, do not exist in purity, crystal forms of unadulterated goodness. They exist in the flesh, tainted, steeped in compromise, neurotic, full of betrayal, bad history, dysfunction and abuse.
Yet they’re the only truth we meet in the flesh. Outside of them there is nothing. Perfection is the enemy of the good. We choose for life when we, limping and stained, choose to become involved with what is less than perfect.