US Catholic Faith in Real Life

A certain obstinacy

Kevin Clarke | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The old sister I was interviewing 23 (24?) years ago had worked with and for the poor for twice my lifetime. She had many stories to tell, but it didn't take her too long to turn the tables on me and start asking questions about my life, my faith. My faltering response quickly tipped her off to the presence of another lapsed, struggling Catholic. I don't think I was her first. "Tell me," she said. "Were you baptized in the church." 

"Yes, of course," I said, almost offended by such a preposterous question.

"Well, then," she said with a small smile. "You can never really get away from us."

To some, I guess, such a comment would seem odd, even threatening. Over the years I have come to find it, well, reassuring I guess.

So now entering almost a decade of the slow but perversely determined unraveling of the institution I was born into by its own doing, I have come many times to wondering why I hang in there. I've got conservative brothers urging me out the door because they don't like my politics, tone deaf clerics whose ongoing fraternal narcissism can be relied upon for almost a weekly outrage, and appalling desecrations of the spirit and spit-take inducing injustices commanding my attention in newspaper headlines from around the world. As much as they have angered me, they have also shamed me. The church's shame is my own, for what I have done and what I have failed to do. The smug clericalism which has helped propel this crisis relies after all on the self-diminishment and over deference of the laity.

So what is it about this church that makes me stick it out—aside from a certain Irish obstinacy—despite my poor faith, despite the headlines and my skeptical journalist's nature, my instinctive resentment of authority? I guess it's partly what the good sister told me half a lifetime ago. This is the church of my baptism and I can't let it go. The other reason is also connected to the sister. It was her good work and the good work of thousands like her that not only offer inspiration to this poor sinner, but depict Catholicism as a loving, compassionate and rational alternative worth exploring, worth keeping, worth preserving. I am not the only one to have noticed. Here's Nicholas Kristopf in the New York Times ("A Church Mary Can Love"). 

In my travels around the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches. One is the rigid all-male Vatican hierarchy that seems out of touch when it bans condoms even among married couples where one partner is H.I.V.-positive. To me at least, this church - obsessed with dogma and rules and distracted from social justice - is a modern echo of the Pharisees whom Jesus criticized.

Yet there's another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.

This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.

This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa. . . . So when you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.

It's high time for the Vatican to take inspiration from that sublime - even divine - side of the Catholic Church, from those church workers whose magnificence lies not in their vestments, but in their selflessness. They're enough to make the Virgin Mary smile.