Tuesday, January 03, 2006

patriae et partides

The Church (Ecclesia) as the bride of Christ in a late medieval manuscript.

Happy New Year one and all.

I have written before on current events in the Catholic Church, especially the question of gay priests, but I have yet to really write about how I see myself personally as a member of the Church. I have been back in the pew for a year now, it's time to talk about it.

My return to being a practicing Catholic has surprised and intrigued some friends of mine, especially those who are ex-Catholics or somewhat fallen-away Catholics. I'm sure once I crawl out of the hole called grad school and get back in touch with non-Catholic friends there will be confusion there as well. Many of these people equate being Catholic with absolute obedience to every word sent out from Rome, and once they have confirmed that I am far from agreeing with many current Vatican positions, they wonder if I know what I'm doing. They must think (and so do many of my more conservative Catholic brothers and sisters that I have come across on the web) that it would be much more consistent for people like me to give up on all this Romish nonsense and join a more enlightened denomination, say the Episcopalians or the Unitarians.

Now, there are a number of ways to reply to this line of thinking. One would be to point to the immense richness and diversity of this Church, a Church that has remained open to a wide variety of opinions despite the great effort at centralization that has taken place in Rome under John Paul I and Benedict XVI. Another would be to remind my interlocutors of the importance of conscience in the Catholic tradition -- this is not just an easy excuse, but rather a recognition of the difficult task of balancing the inner self and a humble desire for unity and community. I could state that the Church is not only the institution and hierarchy, but the whole of believers, the Body of Christ. I could go on and on in this vein, and I probably will return to these issues in later posts, but I would rather comment on the difference in perception of this matter that I have noticed in myself, on one hand, and on those not actively inside the Church, on the other.

I have problems with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church on a number of issues: clerical celibacy, women priests, homosexuality (actually many of the Church's official positions on sexuality in general), birth control, and lay participation in the governance of the Church, to name a few. I am pro-choice and I believe that the Church's official stand on stem cell research and euthanasia could use more nuance. In certain occasions, I believe the Church hierarchy's actions have been reprehensible -- the reaction to pedophile priests and the misinformation given about condoms and AIDS, for example. (Notice how I refer to "hierarchy" and "official" and not just "the Church." Once again, that's another question).

Given my problems and occasional outrage, why don't I drop my rosary and walk out the Church doors? Because the Church is not a club, it is not a political party. It is not a corporation that someone works for or supports as a consumer. This is something that my friends who are not practicing Catholics do not seem to understand. It is more like a homeland. I lived in Spain for ten years and spoke the language almost perfectly (though with a thick accent). I understood obscure cultural references and intricate puns. I felt quite at home there. Still, even were I to become a Spanish citizen and never come back, I would never lose my Americanness. Even though my politics are far to the left of every important US politician, I am American. The same thing is true about my Catholicness. My understanding of the religious experience is tied up with the tradition and liturgy of the Catholic Church. I do not claim that a Catholic is closer to God than an Episcopalian or a Unitarian, I have tremendous respect for those traditions, but when I walk into St John the Divine I do not feel that, as a sacred space, it is organized in a way that relates to me. Catholic sacramentality, Catholic imagery, and Catholic devotion speaks to me. I feel with very little doubt that this is where God wants me to be.

Of course, who knows what the future may hold? I may be blinded on the road to Damascus or the number three train and be converted to Methodism, Judaism, or Buddhism. I doubt it, but who knows? I know I won't be forced out of my two-thousand-year-old Church by the opinions of a small group of men at the top. I will try to understand them, always respect their offices, and follow my conscience. I will be part of this Church whether they want me there or not. I pray that I have both the strength to do what is right and the humility not to assume I am always right, and thus to always serve the Sancta Mater Ecclesia, the bride of Christ.


Talmida said...

Nice post! I think I know what you mean- in many ways, catholicism is as much culture as religion. I walk into any catholic church in the world, whether I speak the language or no, and I know where I am: I'm at home.

I try to remember that the Church is us, the people, and we can't let the tiny percent of people in charge take it away from us.

Liam said...

Thanks, Talmida. One of the great things about the Catholic Church is that international aspect to it. I think it is right the Mass is said in the vernacular (despite my love of Latin and tradition), but one of the best arguments for the Latin Mass is that you can go anywhere and hear the same words.

I'm still trying to figure out how I relate to the Vatican and the rules that come out of it. I want to read more about their reasonings for their decisions so that I can think for myself about them without having to depend on the often simplistic explanations we read in the press. I can't claim that the Pope isn't a brilliant and sophisticated theologian. Still, I doubt I will do a reverse face on any of the issues I mentioned in the post.

lullaby said...

I understand your longing and am in complete agreement with the principles upon which you base your reconciliation with the Church -- and I echo Talmida's 'Church as culture' observation. I too feel at home in Catholic edifices, within the Catholic tradition...

But for me the issue is and will always be one of faith. Faith is such a personal issue. I was raised within the Church and this is reflected in the poignance I feel/the reverence I hold for the history of my family and myself. What I grapple with in this respect is my self-ness. My "cultural-association with the Church" (a phrase I often employ, perhaps too apologetically) is in a lot of ways not too distant from ancestor worship or filial duty or (substitute any cultural tradition's sense of association here) -- and I KNOW it. It's a silly postmodern arguement, I know.

Faith is such a personal issue...

Tyler Simons said...

That's a great post. You get to the heart of what I find appealing about the Church and have the same problems as I with it's leadership.

I feel very similarly about my Episcopal tradition. When I first returned to active churchgoing as an adult, one of the best parts was the feeling when words I hadn't spoken in years came back to me instinctively. It felt more like coming home than returning to the houses I grew up in would. Whatever enlightenment the ECUSA has attained, for me at least, is a reason for some humble pride in the tradition, not a reason for my Episcopalian-ness.

I hope that more people like you, Liam, come to similar realizations. I'm not sure the Church's retrograde positions on sexuality and financial decision-making won't ever change without more people like you in the pews.

Hope said...

Hi Liam,

It's a long slow afternoon at work, so I though I'd check on your blog. I really enjoyed your post about your jubliant return to the Catholic Church (jan 3). In fact, I've been thinking about you and the conversation we had this summer at Red Rock about your re-entry to the Church. I leave for India in about 2.5 weeks to do my yoga teacher training (in fact, I'm also doing a more long term yoga teacher training here in SLC as well) and as I prepare to deepen my yoga practice I am struck by how much I miss God in my life.

As you may or may not know, I started doing yoga Easter Sunday 2001 in San Francisco. Ever since that first class, the significance of communion has faded for me and I don't really understand why. As my understanding of yoga grows, I am becoming more aware of yoga's spiritual aspects and realize that I am deeply yearning for God (and a non-corporate job but that's another matter).

In my experience, graduate school kicks the god right out of you.

I don't know if returning to my Epsicopal roots is the answer for me. I have no beef with the Epsicopal Church, but, like I said, the power and significance of communion has faded. I know the litrugy by heart and I love those words, but I also can't recite them without feeling like I'm 5 and my mother is holding the Book of Common Prayer in front of me, her long bejeweled finger moving over the words as we recite the Confession of Sin together in our pew, her long bejeweled finger lingering a little too long over "thought, word, and deed."

Maybe I will return to God through yoga and meditation; I don't know.

Many consider George Harrison's song "Long, Long, Long" on Part 2 of the White Album to be about his failing marriage with Patti. It's actual about his relationship with God. Listen to the words; it's beautiful.

Anyway, thanks for the post, Liam. It's after 5pm, so I get to go home now. Love, Hope

Andrew Schamess said...

I am new to your site - found it via a link on Expatriated Texan. This is really a lovely post and it sounds a resonant chord for me, as well. When I decided to return to the synagogue, my friends were also shocked - I had been a radical, a critic, a scientist - but never a believer. There was a general feeling that I had lost my marbles.

But, like you, I came to realize that Judaism was not something outside myself, run by other people - its future was up to me, to us - those who were born to it, and those who practice it. And, like you, I had issues to grapple with: particularly the broad support that organized Judaism gives to Zionism, a philosophy I find to be morally troubling and, in practice, violent and unjust. It took some study to discover a basis within the Jewish tradition for rejecting Zionism.

There is certainly a place in the world of faith for scholarly and critical voices.

I don't express it nearly as well as you did above. But I wanted to let you know that you hit on something important - not just to me, I think, but to many believer/dissenters who are working to reclaim their religious traditions.

Liam said...

It was very nice to return to the blog and find friends, family and the kindness of strangers. I was trying to write about something here that was very important to me yet difficult to express, so I'm very pleased to see it resonated with some people.

Primo (Lullaby): Faith is a very personal issue, but I have come to realize more and more that it's a community issue as well. Many people say, "I'm spiritual, but not religious" or "I believe in God, but not organized religion." While often they have reason to be wary of what people do in the name of religion, I think they miss the point that we are fundamentally social animals, and if our spirituality cannot be shared, it is doomed to be incomplete. At the same time, of course, we do have our moments of being alone before our God. What I like about my tradition is that the Church encompasses not only the people in the room, and not even only all the Catholics in the world, but also those who have already left this world. The idea that any given Mass is celebrated both on earth and in heaven I find exhilarating.

Hope: I'm very happy that you are finding what you need in the new tradition you have come across, and I wish the best for you. Strangely enough, grad school brought me closer to God, but I guess that has something to do with studying medieval history.

Tyler and Andrew: Thank you for the kind comments. It's good to hear that what I feel has echoes in other traditions. I think it is essential that we don't give up and that we realize that we may be where we are right now for a reason.

Sandalstraps said...

Your statements on the nature of the Church and your relationship to it remind me a great deal of Hans Kung. That's about the highest compliment I could give.

I feel the same way about the United Methodist Church. As my pastoral career was coming to its premature demise my District Superintendent (I'm not sure if there's a Catholic equivalent - its underneath the bishop, but oversees local pastors) told me that I would make a great Episcopal priest or a Presbyterian minister, but he didn't think I had a future in the Kentucky Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Faced with this (and many others) reality, I chose to remain a United Methodist, but not a pastor. I am still happily in relationship with that church, and through it with the Church universal. I'm glad to see that there are others who feel at home within the church in which they grew up, even while disagreeing with that church substantially. It is our obligation to remain within our spiritual home, working for change on the inside.

Liam said...

Thanks for the Hans Kung comparison. I've read very little of his actual work, but I've read about him and I think it's a shame he's been marginalized as much as he has.

As you can see from the comments above from Tyler and Andrew, this post has resonated with people from a couple different traditions, which is very encouraging. I think we all have to remain in the pews to keep our Churches vital.

Thanks for dropping by.