As an adult convert in discernment of religious life, I am a strange and rare bird in the Catholic world in this day and age of priest shortage, emptying pews, aging convents, scandalous media coverage, suspicious glances toward anyone associated with organized Catholicism, apathy and distrust among the laity, and a bleeding and growing gap between the head of the Church and Her body. “Discernment” means that I have answered what I am quite sure is God’s call to devote myself wholly to a vowed life of service and contemplation but that I don’t yet know with what religious community I will live out those vows. It means I am hoping and preparing to become a Sister. It also means that Benedict XVI did not have me in mind when he mandated immediate reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious because of their “radical feminism,” “scant regard” for the Magisterium’s teachings, and lack of enthusiasm in promoting the Church’s positions on, among other things, homosexuality and birth control—but it means that I take his pronouncement very much personally. When I begin my novitiate a couple of years from now, my formation will proceed under the new guidelines, to be overseen by the three bishops the Holy See appointed to set American Sisters straight.
But I am, perhaps, a stranger creature still among the people who have loved and known me, some from birth, some for a decade—my family and friends. Most of them are atheists, seculars of various persuasions, and (in the minority) Reformed Jews, and their shock and dismay at my announcement that I was now Christian is difficult to describe. “Catholic” made it worse. Some of them put up with my infatuation as long as I am happy. Others arch their eyebrows and look into my face as if I’ve contracted an exotic and objectionable disease, only by their virtue incommunicable to them. And they ask, Why.
Why would I choose to belong to this Church, so totalitarian, so perverse, so misogynist? So corrupt, hierarchical, homophobic, and rigid?
“Because I love it,” I say.
“Because I didn’t ‘shop’ for a religion! This Church is my home, leaks ‘n all.”
“I belong here,” I say. It doesn’t help.
I have not told my family that I shiver when I kneel before an image of a crucified body of my Beloved Jesus, his pain a needle in my heart, my consolation in his living presence and a billion pairs of lips whispering thanks and praise in unison with me. That I still tremble every time I come to Eucharist. That I cry afterwards. It just seems so private—too much information. But perhaps I should tell them. Because this is not what even benevolent outsiders get to understand. But they understand papal infallibility and child abuse.
Perhaps it will help if I explain why I stay in the Church.
My regular readers know that I am a Russian Jew who grew up in the Soviet Union and left it in its dying throes, running from the swells of anti-Semitism that most often tend to accompany traumatic economy, only months before it fell apart. We were refugees here in America, in the country that took us in when our own didn’t want us.
There are parallels one may find between the Catholic Church and the Soviet State: a foundational philosophy of human dignity, compassion and brotherhood, and profound goodness; an impetus toward an inspiring future utopia as a guiding ideology… In spirit, in emotion, in foundation, both were built on the messages and causes worth living and dying for, worth preserving, walking toward, believing in. And people… So many—the majority—of good people believing in the message, trying to work for it, put it into practice, in fellowship of everyday life. Some becoming disillusioned. Some keeping spirits up. Some using the system for personal gain of power. Because any large number of people need a structure, and structure produces power, and power corrupts. And so there was our “priesthood,” our party-controlled, ideology-writing, morality-guarding governmental hierarchy. It too wasn’t all bad, and through its layers (especially at the bottom) there were plenty of people who believed in what they were doing and saying and got into it to help the people. But the top-down power structure suffered from some of the same (not all) and some different flaws than the Church’s structure, at the center of which is one word: power.
The reason I am saying all this is one: I know what it’s like to live in a world at the heart of which is goodness and light, nearly lost to the sight under the wrappings of power-grabbing and narrow-mindedness. I know what it’s like to lose that world, to bury it under the rubble while trying to bring down the dark structures. I know the grief, the absolute despair of irreversible loss of the light when the baby is discovered to be gone with the bath water. We did that in the USSR: demolished, turned away, ran. And we lost everything we didn’t know we cherished in the ruins of what we hated.
The Church is not evil.
The Church is human.
In our zeal to condemn what many of us argue is its misogyny, its homophobia, its irrationality in the extremes of sexual morality like birth control and divorce, and its cowardice in the face of its own sin, let us not forget what our purpose is: reform, improvement, not destruction. In our stands against the Vatican-based hierarchy, let us not either completely separate it from or fully identify it with the Church, the Sacrament Herself. The People of God. Let us not erase our own community while trying to erase the limitations we’ve created over centuries upon the self-expression of that community. Let us not forget the reasons the Church came to be and must be saved: Her sacramentality, Her shining light, Her works of mercy, Her one body, Her inquisitive mind of theology, Her consecrated life, Her Spirit-filled art, Her sacrifice, Her embodiment of Christ… Her love.
And what about 99 out of every 100 priests who have given their lives to Her, to God, and to us in kind, tireless, and selfless service—now accompanied by heavy, paranoid looks and occasional curses? Our priests who counsel us, hold our hands, lead our prayer, stand for Christ in the moment of Mystery, tend little rectory gardens, conduct grief sessions at local parishes to help us process the enormity of the betrayal that is the sex abuse scandal, and then walk out into the streets to be regarded by the passing public not as servants of God but as potential child molesters? They find a way to crack a joke in the middle of it all.
And what about the bishops? They seem in their monolith like the very bastion of male power against which our anger is directed, but they are not a monolith. Fifty years ago it took John XXIII to tear through the resistance of his own Curia to convene a Council, but once convened, the bishops came together and breathed the air of each other’s lungs and of the Spirit and spoke with the voice of benevolence, modernity, outreach, and profound change. Not ten years ago it was male bishops who, in defiance of the Church hierarchy, ordained the first womenpriests on the river Danube.
And what about the nearly fifty-thousand American nuns? They are the Church, and, accused of disobedience by the Vatican, they cited the privilege of “prophetic office.” That means, when one’s conscience pushes mightily from the deep of one’s heart to speak, one must obey, for conscience is the whisper of God. It means, one speaks with the Voice of Truth and cannot be made to stop, no matter the consequence. Ask Jeremiah. The Magisterium in their Doctrinal Assessment of LCWR found the Sisters’ explanation “inadequate” and clarified that prophecy cannot be directed at them but is to be regulated by them, the only authentic teachers of Christian doctrine. I wonder how many in the Church would agree with this vision of “regulated prophecy” subject to authority. I think of Nathan and Elijah telling off their kings. I think of the first-century Judah: would there ever be Christianity at all if Jesus’s disciples verified their prophecies with their Temple priesthood?
And what about the Catholic laity, spread out over the globe, the lifeblood and flesh and bone of the Church? Among the many millions in the U.S., at least, a large majority of Catholics favors women’s ordination, upwards of 90% uses birth control, and not a small percentage argues for open ministry to the LGBT community. “The Church is not a democracy,” I hear people say, as if what the masses of Catholics believed didn’t matter. But that’s not exactly true. Even if we skip the history in which Christian communities started out electing their bishops (a tradition we should perhaps consider re-examining), to this day the Church holds a teaching of Sensus Fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) in high regard, and the Magisterium itself has used it when convenient. The idea is that the whole body of the Church cannot err in matters of belief if, from “top” to “bottom” the belief is universal enough. When the Bride of Christ is moved to something in Her whole being, it is the Spirit Who has moved Her.
Well, we are not yet at universal belief on any of the issues that are tearing the Church apart, but I do think we are getting there, at least on a few subjects. The Body’s “sense” is fairly clear on moving forward to women’s ordination and the use of birth control, for example. The “Head” persists in staying where it is. But then, when the Vatican II Council so eloquently described Sensus Fidelium, they said nothing about the head. They spoke only of the Body. It will happen. The body will carry itself and its head into its own future. Unless we leave.
The Church is not evil, She is human. Don’t leave Her. Fight for Her. Don’t give up on Her. Change Her.
If every person who understands the egalitarian spirit of the People of God and the service model of pastoral governance leaves the Church, how can we be surprised if She descends more and more deeply into the darkness of rigid and reactionary power-mongering? If every woman who is called to lead leaves the Church, how can we be surprised that misogynists among Her men push all the other women down? If every gay couple leaves the Church, how can we be surprised if condemnations issued by homophobes among Her clergy go barely challenged?
We say the Church is Mother. Will we walk away from Her now that She is ill and cranky and yelling at us and throwing food in a hissy fit of paranoia? We say the Church is the Body of Christ. What will we do now that this body is bleeding and writhing in the throes of our sin, on display and in shame, tearing flesh and calling on God’s name, on the brink of death? What will we do here, at the foot of the cross?
I say to those who arch their eyebrows upon finding out that I am Catholic, “I am the Church. So is Joseph Ratzinger. We are the Church together with a billion others. And we had better discern some path that lets us both keep saying that. Because in our very different ways, Joseph Ratzinger and I are both quite sure that if we don’t, Jesus will be sad.”