Tuesday, April 29, 2003

Why Do People Leave?

I may be a little late in blogging on this, but it seems to me that one benefit of being Catholic is that the world already thinks we're backwards, so one doesn't have to worry about being au courant. And since Blogger ate this when I tried to post it yesterday, I have a double excuse.

Last Saturday, Fr. Andrew Greeley, in a column in the Chicago Sun-Times, discussed the reasons why many people "leave the church," and why he is unimpressed with those reasons:

However, most of the reasons I hear advanced these days are not of this sort. They are rather tales of what some priest did or said, of what some nun taught you, of some lunacy propagated by a bishop, of what some RCIA [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults] director tried to impose upon you, of what some chancery office bureaucrat told you, of some rule that a liturgist said you had to obey, of the moronic failure of the church to deal with the pedophile crisis, of the denial by so many priests that there is a sexual abuse crisis, of the failure of the pope to support our eminently moral president, of the failure of bishops to speak out against the war (which they have, of course, though no one hears them anymore), of the pastor who is spending huge sums of money on a church the parish doesn't need. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Since I have already had to deal with this sort of thing in my not-quite-two-years of priesthood, it seems apropos for me to throw my two cents in. I think Fr. Greeley is on to something here: I know a man who "left the Church" when the priest he and his fiancee talked to about getting married had the audacity to point out that their cohabitational relationship was not a good preparation for marriage, and was objectively sinful. He then had the further gall to suggest that the best thing for them to do was to separate for the remainder of their engagement. This man had to make a choice between seriously examining his life in light of the Faith, or going it on his own. He decided to go it on his own (he is now on marriage number 3) rather than admit that this priest, or the Church, had anything to say to him about his moral decisions. In college and graduate school I knew many people who would provide elaborate rationales for why the Catholic Church was backwards, or "medieval"; or for why Faith was beneath their superior intellects. But when I got to know the people, and got "underneath" their rationalizations, I discovered that what really motivated them was the desire to live as though they were morally unaccountable.

Most of us do not want to hear hard sayings about sin, and our own culpability in it. Last year, after I gave this homily about The Situation at one of our Sunday Masses, a woman approached me, quite angry about it: she said that it was "hateful" and that I "obviously had contempt for women" (I had criticized one of Anna Quindlen's vapidities in my homily), and vowed that she would never attend one of my Masses again. She was evidently so wrapped up in her own agenda that she couldn't hear the message of my homily. All I could say in response was that I was sorry she was so upset that she had missed the whole point of my homily.

But at least she had the honesty to confront me face-to-face with her displeasure. I have occasionally heard "through the grapevine" that this or that parishioner has complained about something I said or did. I have even been told once or twice that someone has left the parish and begun attending Mass elsewhere over something I said. Unfortunately, these people have done so without ever talking to me about their complaints. While I will never apologize for preaching the Whole Faith boldly, nor for speaking unpopular truths, it nonetheless pains me that people may have acted so precipitously, as I never intend to wound. But I confess to a certain amount of frustration over these situations, as I think such behavior is cowardly and unjust. It is cowardly to speak critically of a person when one is unwilling to voice that criticism to the person's face. Furthermore, it is unjust, because the person has formed a judgment without giving me the opportunity to clarify myself or dispel any misunderstandings. If I have a serious issue with someone, I believe I have a moral obligation to speak to that perosn face-face about my concern. That is my obligation under Christian charity and justice. That's the way adult Christians are supposed to behave. I expect adult Christian conduct from people who profess to be Catholic. I admit that it's hard for me to believe in the good will of someone who is unwilling to even deal with me honestly.

That being said, I recognize the truth in Amy's concern for those who have been wounded by "the church":

It's not simply that people's feelings are hurt. It's that their faith is shaken. If a person who has been entrusted with passing on the Faith lies to you or hurts you or teaches something that is wrong, it is difficult for many to separate that relatively small moment in the present from the weight and breadth of Tradition.

That is why it is so important for us to reach out to people (and most of us know such people) who feel in some way alienated from the Church. The Church's central message is the Mercy and Grace of Christ, given to us through His passion, death and resurrection. That is why it is so important for priests to preach on the power and meaning of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and to avail ourselves of it frequently. The more we confront our own sinfulness and need for God's mercy, the more authentically and convincingly we can witness to it for others.