I’ve had a number of conversations with Catholics who are upset with one thing or another about the Church. My usual response is to congratulate them. I’ve come to believe that if a Catholic is never troubled by what the Church says or is doing, then he or she doesn’t take the Church seriously enough.
The Church’s witness to the Gospel is bound to be a challenge to our pride, greed, envy, lust, and more. The Church’s failure to live up to the Gospel is bound to be unsettling and put our faith to the test.
The revered priest and spiritual writer Romano Guardini noted in his book The Church of the Lord that “everything in the Church is so full of the human elements: commonplace, ordinary, even wicked human elements.”
Social activist and convert to Catholicism Dorothy Day was fond of saying, “The Church is the cross on which Christ is always crucified” --a quote she attributed to Guardini.
Both of them recognized that "the Church as lived” is not a perfect society, the same idea which prompted Pope Benedict XVI to acknowledge that the Church has a “disfigured face.”
Catholics confess that they believe in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” but experience on a daily basis a Church divided and sinful.
They are told “Even in the liturgy the church does not wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not affect the faith or well-being of the entire community” (Sacrosanctum concilium, 37) and yet an awkward English translation of the Roman Missal is imposed for the sake of uniformity.
Catholics are invited to give their observations for a synod about the challenges facing family life in today’s world, and yet the questions posed for their consideration (“What analytical tools are currently being used in these times of anthropological and cultural change?” or “How do Christian families bear witness, for succeeding generations, to the development and growth of a life of sentiment?”) are more abstruse than the challenges they are supposed to probe.
Parishioners are subject to the ideologies of their pastors concerning the physical arrangements of their parish church. One pastor persuades (convinces?) the congregation that the tabernacle should not be in the sanctuary (behind the altar), but the next pastor insists there are good reasons to restore the tabernacle to that very position.
Catholics are encouraged to pray for “more vocations,” which generally means the hope that more young, unmarried men will come forward for ordination to the priesthood, when in fact they believe there would be plenty of priests if the discipline of celibacy were made optional. Parishioners see family men in their own parish who could easily and with dignity preside at the Eucharist.
They hear about Church leaders who complain that the Church has been “feminized,” and at the same time see these same prelates dressed and parading about in satin and lace and fur.
Ecclesia reformans et reformanda is a time-honored principle which acknowledges that the Church is always in need of reform, a work in process. Each generation of believers must translate that observation into the Church of its own time—a difficult and painful process.
The New Testament bears to witness to many quarrels and disputes: conflicts among Jesus’ apostles, disagreements about how Gentiles should be received into the community, squabbles among Christians in the Churches of Galatia and Corinth and Thessalonica.
In some ways it is the human element of the Church that is harder to accept than the divine. Our frustration that things are not the way they should be makes us question whether God is really present after all. And yet the Incarnation is where we meet the deep, puzzling mystery of the human and divine met in the one person of Jesus Christ, who chose not to shy away from but to enter into the brokenness of the human condition. God’s patience and providence continue to surprise.
When he was asked about the newly formulated Constitution for the United States, Benjamin Franklin replied, “I consent, sir, to this constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best.” He did have some misgivings, but he proposed its acceptance. I sometimes wonder if Jesus feels the same about his Church. If he accepts it in its brokenness, who am I to reject it?
I can pray for its growth, work for its betterment, but to abandon what Jesus purchased at so great a price is hardly thinkable. It may not be what he had in mind, but he has not given up on it and neither should we.