I've been silent for a long time on many issues because I don't really feel I have much to say. But I do have a tremendous need to pay attention and listen.
I am a novelist who has trouble now finding time to write novels. I am a comic book writer in search of funding. In the meantime, I am raising young adults, teens, children, and toddlers, and teaching English and Religion to a pretty amazing bunch of teenagers. So when I come online, I mainly listen. I listen to my old friends and my parents' friends. I listen to those I've met once and regret not seeing more often, my colleagues in the Catholic press (so many of them excellent hardworking people), those I've never met, those I know from my own town or parish, and to my fellow authors and artistic friends. And the listening is better than the speaking.
Back in college, I came to the realization that I actually liked people. I was a loner with few friends as a child, self-absorbed and self-centered. Even my relationship with Christ was immature, Pharisitical, and self-referencing. In college I passed through two years of hellish isolating depression, and when I emerged from it, I realized that I had actually come to truly appreciate other people, during the time when I was separated from my own self and my own creativity. I believe Christ allowed that because He did not want me to follow my vocation as a Catholic writer full of the smug and certain ardor of my youthful conversion. That sojourn in a mental wilderness where I learned the hard way that I could not trust the ranting feverish profanities of my own brain prepared me to more fully embrace the Church. God proved to me that I could not trust myself and that I needed other people, as problematic as they are. He also showed me in particular at Franciscan University a sketch of the Church, the Catholic Church, in all her messy, tangled, disreputable, chaotic, and persevering glory.
That vision of her has informed my life as a Catholic. I have no doubt that I'm serving Christ, but I am also serving His Bride. Forgive the genderisms, but in my experience, women keep men real. Men may have high-flown ideals and kingdom-wide plans for greatness, but women ask them for a ring on their finger and a regular paycheck. In the same way, the Catholic Church keeps Christianity real. It's what it all looks like when human beings put the words and deeds of Christ into practice. It's a mess, but it's real, and it's human. And God wanted a human church, not a spiritual idea. The whole idea of the Lord God, from creation to this holy present moment, is to empower human beings to actually do things that have consequences and which last. Woman is an embodiment of this idea: we make humans, with the help of the Lord, as Eve said in the Bible. The Church is that Woman who by joining we get to help make something that will last.
Now, I have never been an idealist, perfectionist type. I never expect much from human beings. I feel I’ve known enough good and holy people to realize that no one, not even Mother Teresa, is Christ Himself. (I met Mother Teresa once, and she was clearly holy, but too busy to make eye contact.) And I discovered I never really expected that. So I confess I do not understand the rage of my good friends who are scathingly disappointed in fellow Catholics, fellow pro-lifers, fellow Americans because of the revelation of this or that (very real) failing. I have been listening to the rage and trying to understand it, and I feel it springs from bitter disappointment in humanity.
I have read Church history: I never want to go back to the Middle Ages or the Renaissance because I know that having a political profligate sinner on the papal throne would have hurt my faith. I feel gratitude for all the popes we have had in the modern age. I love Pope Francis, but he’s a different kind of leader, more of the radical poet, not really concerned with helping others to agree with him. And I always thought being Catholic wasn’t really about the Pope anyway, any more than it’s about your local bishop (who has seldom been anything more than a name to me, aside from real giants like John Cardinal O’Connor). So I don’t get the disappointment and the rage, and the criticism, and the conspiracy-building-connecting-the-dots that so many of my friends are engaging in. Have circumstances always been this dire, human beings always been this malevolent, Christians always been so vile and racist/nativist/selfish/leftist/rightist/communist/hedonist/puritanish/istististish?
I know for a fact that I myself have always been vile and lazy and hypocritical and vain, so I can at least speak from my own experience. But you all have befriended me anyhow, society has not incarcerated me (yet), and the grass does not burn under my feet, and, in truth, I eat my bread in peace and go to sleep in comfort without care for the morrow. I hope to keep Hell and my promises to God for a truly uncomfortable conversion at equal and safe distances from myself. I deduce from this (forgive me) that other people I love might also be quite as bad as myself, but I try to be charitable. Yet in my truthful moments, I acknowledge this sham existence I lead, and I begin, yet again, to solve the problems I have caused that are right in front of me, and patch up and repair the evil I have done in the past.
Yes, we have problems. The horror of abortion marches on heedless. The idolatry of contraception and the idiocy of pornography and the tragic destruction of micro-civilizations by the millions that is divorce roll their jagged wheels through our relationships, our towns, our cities, our countryside. We block our borders and ignore world horrors. The wealth of American resources is frittered away on silliness while those in other countries starve and lack. Globalization paralyzes us into inaction. Participating in the Internet (like this, which I’m typing while my children dally about finishing their homework and my to-do list glares at me) redefines our emotions and conceptions. We are always reacting, never acting, harried by the comforting addiction of the screen. What will history think of we adults, who fought television boldly in our youth, but succumbed to social media with nary a whimper of regret? I suspect the worst evils, the cancer that will kill us in the end and damn our souls to hell, are the ones that seem the nicest and most comforting now. Which is why I don’t see racism and Nazism as the danger because, simply, they are obviously evil. And just as I’ve criticized Christians for piling on condemnations of homosexually-attracted people while ignoring divorce, I do see telling off others, the shaming, the public sneer, the bulls-eye of rhetoric that feels so good through the keyboard as doing far more damage to fragile friendships, to relationships gone cold through failure of face-to-face contact, than any amount of alt-right immaturity.
Our problems are dire. And yet, we have lights that turn on, and grocery stores that have food, and people who are civil and who don’t murder and rob us, though we are strangers to them. We should be grateful, and far more grateful than we are. If we were to burn everything down and start over, what kind of selfish righteousness assures us that we won’t make things in our utopia much, much worse? America is bad, Western Civilization is bad, but it could easily be much, much worse. We do need to right the injustices, cut out the cancer, rebuild and so on, but let’s be realistic about the state of the infection and the precision of the cure, lest we cause more evils than we intend. We are trying to cure the patient, not kill him, and that requires holding back and not destroying everything for the sake of eradicating something. John Cavanaugh- O'Keefe once said that what keeps pro-lifers real is the reality that fighting abortion means being kind to desperate, fearful pregnant women. You can’t save a baby without helping the muddle that is the mother. That means oftentimes you need to slow down, shut up, and listen. Most of real life is like that, and eradicating real evils in a civilized society involves that too.
We take the miracle of civilization for granted. But the Church came of age in a society that was losing civilization, and she knows the value of it. That’s why I refuse to use profanity and avoid vulgarity in public: because I respect the civilization of which those rules are the outward forms. Doing good is easier because we are civilized, because we are polite and respectful and stand in line and follow the rules. The Church saw what the world was like in the ruins of Roman civilization, and emphatically decided that civilization was better than barbarism and chaos, better for children, better for the poor, better for the weak. It was a woman’s choice, and a very womanly choice, and I believe it was a wise choice. Individual choices are stronger in a civilized world. If we value individual freedom, we should value civilization.
We are connected more than we know to one another. That was the lesson I learned through depression, and both our independence and our feelings of isolation are illusions. Our environments are made of people, each connected to the other by a relationship, and poisoning one relationship opens the possibility of poisoning many others. We should tread carefully because we can block one troll, but we can’t block humanity from our lives. God made humans in such a way that our actions have consequences that spread further and faster than we wish or know, and the only salvation for us is forgiveness and reparation. Which brings me back to being Catholic, since we Catholics are supposed to forgive and have our sins forgiven, and our spirituality includes doing reparation. What makes you Catholic?
Catholics are Catholic because they don’t leave the Church.
Not leaving the Church is like not leaving your spouse. Marriage has taught you that your spouse is a jerk, selfish, tyrannical, exacting, cold, unimpressed, cynical. But if you are honest, you will acknowledge that you are the same. And you will stay, because you are not giving up on yourself, and you are not giving up upon your spouse. And if you are wise, you know that hot coal of anger can be wafted into a smoking hot passion of love and comfort with just a little bit of shifting your position. You don’t settle, you don’t give up. Like the Von Balthasaar position on Hell, you don’t expect them (or you) to change, but you also can’t stop hoping they (and you) will change for the good and for the better. Hope is life. And hope is action is love. We are fragile wimpy creatures. We will not change if we run away. That freely-chosen bondage is what frees us from ourselves.
Every day you don’t leave your spouse is a good day. Everyday you don’t leave the Church is a good day. Every day you don’t give up on humanity is a better day for humanity.
If you want to improve your marriage (and I hope you do!), shut up and listen to your spouse and family. And then when you speak, speak wisely (and you’d better pray first).
If you want to improve our Church (and I hope you do!), the same advice might be in order.
And just as, in the case of improving your marriage, you should probably stop complaining about your spouse in public, so many Catholics prudently refrain from directly criticizing in public the Church they hope to reform. This is not purely fear or co-dependence or the money trail, just long-term thinking. There are many, many valid criticisms of the Church they could air if they wanted (just as you could humiliate your spouse much better than any stranger could) but they choose not to do so.
The more I listen, the more I feel the need for prayer. We do need change, world-transforming change. But it will not come through violence or voting or political action, but through conversion of heart, one heart at a time, one marriage at a time, one family at a time, one institution at a time. We need to keep listening, and keep talking wisely, fearlessly, but with an eye to the future relationship, not keeping score, but figuring out how to keep the marriage going.
You see, we are all, this mass of humanity, treading water, holding onto one another, and keeping one hand, at least, on the Church. We are afloat because of Her. She is like Peter walking on water, and a terrifying spectacle it is, especially when you know Peter and know what a flake he is. But don’t lose sight of the fact that the entire thing is a (pardon me) freaking miracle, sustained from moment to moment through history.
She is not sinking because of Christ.
Catholics are Catholic because they don’t leave the Church.