September 2016

Why Church?

Why believe in the Church? Yes, believe in God, Something or Someone beyond ourselves, but the Church? It is full of so many contradictions, failings, self-seeking, injustices and power-plays. Is it worthy of our allegiance?


Yes, so long as it is seen as a means to an end and not an end in itself. David Brooks wrote at the beginning of The Road to Character (Random House, 2015), “Recently I’ve been thinking about the difference between the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the ones you list on your résumé, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.” According to Brooks, these are two opposing sides of our nature and the road to building character is by fostering the eulogy virtues. He goes on to say, “No person can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. Individual will, reason, compassion, and character are not strong enough to consistently defeat selfishness, pride, greed, and self-deception. Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside – from family, friends, ancestors, rules, traditions, institutions, exemplars, and, for believers, God.” (p. 12) Enter the Catholic Church at its best.

One Person’s Story

A young adult wrote about her journey out of and then back into the Catholic Church (Radical Reinvention, Kaya Oakes, Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012.) “Faith is a love story, “ she wrote. “Over and over, Christ tells us to love one another, love our enemies, love the people who persecute us. The Catholic Church is so good at ministering to the poor, caring for the sick, educating people in forgotten communities. It is so good at encour-aging its flock to stand up to injustice and fight oppression. And it is just awful at understanding what it means to be a woman or to be gay . . . Yet, what being Catholic has given me is a sense of love and compassion for the people around me that was pretty much absent in my decades of fake atheist faithlessness. . . . Being Catholic has taught me to give compassion and love in return.” (p. 186)


In her new awareness of what being a “reinvented” Catholic meant, she also discovered that there are many ways of being a Catholic. This, in turn, demanded that she make choices of what was important to her faith and what could be left behind. She admitted, “I like some churches more than others. At the ones where priests are cruel or the congregation is terrified of change, I know I don’t belong – and I feel pain for Catholics who think they do belong there. . . I know there are better things out there – better churches, better priests, better ways of believing. And I get up, walk out, and never return.” (p. 195)


But she also admitted, “In my years as a returned Catholic, I’ve learned that it’s impossible to arrive at a metanoia [a conversion] alone.   Yes, there is a role for the priests, bishops, and popes who run the show, but ultimately, living a life of faith is not about following marching orders. It’s about finding God in other people, feeling the movement of the Spirit, living the compassion of Christ as best we can. There is a reason Catholics return again and again to the idea of conscience, that deep, secretive part of ourselves that secular life makes it easy to ignore. A neglected conscience will shrivel and curl into itself in a manner that can feel impossible to unfold. But it will unfold with the help of others. It will grow. Mine does, every day. . . . Faith is part of my identity, and it’s not going away, even if it’s not always a perfect fit.” (p. 239) It is this development of a strong inner life, be it conscience or character, that makes believing in the Catholic Church worthwhile. As Kaya Oakes wrote about her return to the Church, “I’m Catholic in my guts. Let’s just deal with that.” (p. 12)

Debora Elkins & Tom Sweetser, SJ