Frustration over yet another scandalous statement from the pope coming just as the Easter Triduum begins is a sentiment being echoed by Catholics all over social media. Their exasperation is at a peak.
One woman, a convert and mother of a large family I spoke with this morning, asked me how she’s supposed to teach her kids about the faith when she also has to teach them the pope can’t be trusted. She admitted to me the frustration she felt over what is going on in the Church. “It’s bad enough we have to teach our kids to fight society,” she said. “now we have to fight the Church, too?”
That really resonated with me. This kind of thing pushed me to a breaking point with the Catholic Church. Back in 2004-05, my oldest child was beginning to listen to the homilies at mass, and I found I was fairly often having to teach him on the drive home that what Father had preached that day was not what the Catholic Church teaches. One day, in exasperation, I told my wife, “We’re being forced to teach our kids to distrust the Church before they even learn to trust it.” Eventually I lost my Catholic faith, as you know, and in retrospect, I can see that emotionally and psychologically, this kind of thing was part of pushing me over the edge.
I’m not interested in receiving comments from readers pointing out that if Catholicism is true, it is true despite bad, even heretical, homilies from a priest. Yes, I know, and affirm this fact (though I don’t affirm that Catholicism is true, period). That’s not a conversation we’re going to have in teh comments thread. Actually, it was this principle that kept me in the Catholic Church throughout the severe crisis of faith I had, sparked by the sex abuse scandal. What intellectual-minded Catholics (and all intellectual Christians) often don’t see — I didn’t see it myself — is that the Church and the faith are not mere intellectual constructs. It’s one thing to put up with heretical homilies as a single person gutting it out, focusing on the Eucharist. It’s another thing entirely to be the father or mother of a child you are trying to raise in the faith, and facing the fact that the institutional Church itself is not trustworthy to teach Truth.
You could say, “But the institutional Church does teach Truth. The problem you’re dealing with is local.” I used to stand on that principle. I used to comfort myself by saying, “Things may be bad in my parish, but the Magisterium holds firm, and the Pope is holding the center together.” But if I were Catholic today, with this confusion? I sincerely feel bad for orthodox Catholic parents, whose job is made far more difficult than it ought to be.
Back in the mid-1990s, a friend of mine and his family were exiting the Episcopal Church. They were considering Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. I made the case to him for Catholicism.
“But I’m raising kids,” he replied.
Not being married at that time, I took his remark to be a swipe at the Catholic Church over sex abuse (little did any of us suspect what was coming in 2002!). I huffily told him that the truth claims of the Catholic faith don’t stand or fall based on the sins of its priests.
He told me that I was misunderstanding him. He said that in his part of the country, the Catholic Church was in a mess. He feared raising his kids as Catholics, that they would end up leaving the faith, because what they heard at home would be very different from what they heard in the parish, and in Catholic schools. He was afraid that the cognitive dissonance would end up forming a very shaky foundation for his kids.
Like a good intellectual Catholic, I told him that that didn’t matter, that the only thing that mattered were the truth claims of the Church.
He and his family became Orthodox.
It took marriage and kids and ten more years of experience as a Catholic Christians, but I eventually learned the hard way what my friend had tried to tell me.
Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not trying to discourage you Catholic readers. I’m only making a point about how infuriating it is when you’re trying to raise faithful kids, and church leaders turn out not to be allies, but actually opponents.
This is not only in the Catholic Church. Some years back, my wife and I learned that the then-Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in America had gone intolerably easy on an accused sex offender in the priesthood. My wife was so outraged by it that she took a train down to Washington, then a taxi to the Metropolitan’s residence, and read him the riot act in person. She told him that we had been through this sort of thing in the Catholic Church, and we weren’t going to live through it again. She said that Orthodox moms like her are sacrificing to raise faithful Orthodox children, and should not have to put up with priests and bishops who only think of themselves, and who sell out the faithful.
To his very great credit, the Metropolitan received her criticism in the right spirit, and reversed course on this particular policy. Man, was I ever proud of my wife for that Catherine of Siena moment.
The churches — all of them — are always in need of its Catherines of Siena to buck up the men who lead.
UPDATE: To clarify: I’m talking about how fatally easy it is to rely on abstractions that are too divorced from actual life, e.g., the claim that Catholicism teaches the unchanging truth, when the Catholicism one actually experiences at the parish level is not like that at all. Raising kids makes taking refuge in abstraction a lot harder to do.
Of course, a partisan of Pope Francis could argue that Catholic conservatives are doing exactly that on the marriage and communion for divorced Catholics issue. I think they’re wrong, but I concede that this is a complicated matter.