Sunday, March 4, 2012

A smaller but more faithful Church?

You know how, once you start noticing something, you see it everywhere? For me lately, it's been a line of Cardinal Ratzinger's (now Pope Benedict). In any conversation on a Catholic forum, someone's got to bring up, "Well, you know the Pope said we would have a smaller and more faithful Church."

First, it was with this whole fiasco with a priest denying a lesbian woman Communion at her mother's funeral. (My opinion on the matter: there is a canonical procedure for denying someone communion, and he didn't follow it. That's why the diocese apologized. No, the Eucharist is not for those in a state of grave sin. However, leaving the altar during her remarks and refusing to attend the burial was unnecessary and uncalled for. The priest's duty was to follow canon law as regards respecting the Eucharist -- not to make a point.)

A lot of people were saying, "This kind of attitude is just going to drive people away from the Church! How are we to help people who are living a sinful lifestyle if we are not welcoming them and being kind?"

The response was, "Well, the Pope said we would have a smaller and more faithful Church." They actually suggested that gays and other "obvious" sinners should be banned from attending Mass and other parish functions because if they really cared about being Catholic, they'd change.

Call me a flaming liberal, but I don't think it's ever been the Church's way to cast sinners out and demand they change before associating with them. Instead we show them respect, kindness, and mercy. I mean, what odds are there that, after being kicked out of the Catholic Church, someone is going to randomly think years later, "Hey, you know what? I'm going to turn away from sin and go to confession"? Not nearly as good, I think, as those that they might have that idea after sitting in the pew Sunday after Sunday, hearing the Gospel and the homily and watching the example of their fellow Catholics -- who, despite popular opinion, turn out to be really nice and also happy in their faith.

The other one was in a discussion of little children at Mass. The writer of the article said that young families were leaving the Church because they were being made to feel unwelcome with their children. Most people agreed -- but a few announced, "Well, church isn't about being made to 'feel' welcome. It's about the body and blood of Christ, and if they don't get that, they can leave. After all, didn't the pope say we would have a smaller and more faithful Church?"

This isn't a matter of doctrine. This is a matter of not giving people dirty looks because their two-year-old yelled "Is Jesus here?" during Mass. Sure, people should be so faithful that they will stay in a Church even where people are nasty jerks because, after all, we're here for Jesus. But is it fair to say that no one should be in church at all unless they're so perfect that they no longer are upset by uncharity?

When I hear the "smaller and more faithful" comment, it's a sure sign that someone is saying, "We don't need a Church composed of sinners. We need a Church composed only of the perfect, of which I, of course, am one. Let's get rid of all the sinners."

I don't think that's what the Pope meant at all. I think he meant, "Our doctrine is very challenging, and as it comes more and more into opposition with the values prevalent in our time, people are going to leave." And they are, most certainly. But to those of us who say, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of everlasting life," Jesus does not say, "Well, you'll have to leave anyway, because you're unworthy." His way has always been to say "Follow Me," and it's up to us to follow. We can say no, turn him down, prefer our sins. But to whatever extent we are willing to follow him, he's willing to take us.

Jesus was the type to forgive sinners first and then tell them to stop sinning. Sometimes he didn't say a word about their sins, but they were moved to abandon them when they saw there was another option. It gave scandal to many, who demanded he stop associating with tax collectors and prostitutes. But he knew that, when they had been forgiven much, they would love him much, and their love would surpass that of those who had never sinned.

Sure, the Church is slowly becoming smaller, and it does seem to be getting, in many ways, more faithful. But our job is not to slam the doors of the Church against anyone. Instead we need to keep doing what we have always been doing: living a life worthy of imitation, and showing charity to all, so that they want what we have. We win converts one step at a time. My own mother didn't know many of the Church's teachings back when she converted. She didn't spring from the ground a fully-formed Catholic. But through years and years of attending Mass, reading the Catechism, going to Bible studies, she became more educated than most cradle Catholics. Are people going to say now that in order to be a "real" Catholic, you have to pass a doctrine test before you're allowed to show up for Mass?

Many will leave Christ on account of his hard teachings. But let it not be through our lack of charity that they go.


Ibid said...

First off, I agree with your point in the post. People are totally misunderstanding the whole "smaller and more faithful Church" comment. It isn't a matter of "lets kick out everyone but the perfect." Its "our numbers are down, so lets get together and get a plan of attack." Otherwise there wouldn't be a push for a New Evangelization.

Second point, and I know I'm gonna regret this, because you and John and pretty much everyone else can out-argue me, but doesn't excommunication basically consist of "casting out sinners" in that it declares officially that the person is out of union with the Church? It used to be that you were not supposed to get involved with heretics/excommunicated people until they come around and repent. That was part of the whole purpose of the Inquisition, namely to find heretics, teaching them how they were wrong, excommunicate them if they didn't listen so that they would listen, and eventually come back into the Church. Albeit, the heretic was eventually given over to the State if they didn't give up the heresy, but the whole purpose was to bring the sinner back into the Church.

Grant it, we don't do any of this anymore, but it was a practice of the Church in the past. Not an official teaching, but definitely an accepted discipline.

Second of all, as far as the actual story of the priest: I have been following the news of it since the story broke, partly because I could tell there would be a stink, partly because it was in Archdiocese of Washington, and there's always the possibility that its someone I know (I do know the pastor, not the priest involved, at the parish: its George and Madeline Walter's uncle). Anyway, I can tell you right now that, based on more recent testimonies of what happened, the priest did deny communion to the woman after she had introduced herself and her partner to the priest before Mass. They would not let the priest explain why they should not present themselves, and when she did present herself, he simply did not give her the host. The reason he left the sanctuary for the Eulogy and didn't attend the burial was because he was sick. He had been feeling ill before, and wasn't feeling good during Mass. Hence his absence.

The whole issue opens a HUGE can of worms in the Canon Law/Sacramental Theology/Doctrine/Morality/Public Policy portion of the Church. What should he have done? Should he have given her the Eucharist, even though he knew she had previously committed a mortal sin? Remember, this was a funeral. Many of the people there probably knew, or at least had some idea, that she was a lesbian. You have the issue then of desecrating the Eucharist, causing scandal, and if the lady was aware that what she was doing was a mortal sin (which might be safe to assume, although you never know with the state of catechesis in the 70s and 80s), then she would be committing another mortal sin. On the other hand, there is the whole issue of what is the proper procedure. How long did the priest speak with the woman? How much did he say about the state of her soul? Then there’s the personal questions. Had she actually been involved in sexual activity, or was it more an attraction (although if her partner was there, it might be more than just an example of attraction)?

It doesn’t necessarily mean the priest did the right thing. Nor does it mean he did the wrong thing. It’s one of those things that is literally above my pay grade. I do systematic theology. Yay Church History! :D It might be one of those no-win situations.

Its like the snowflake baby issue.

There. I have spoken. Feel free to disagree.

Sheila said...

You do have a point about excommunication. Though I think you can clearly see why we don't do it much anymore! It was more useful in an era where everyone was Catholic ... it worked like the Amish system of shunning. Now that you can just go to the Anglican church down the road, excommunication isn't particularly effective.

As far as the priest goes, I've heard some conflicting stories about what actually happened at that funeral. It does seem clear, though, that he failed to follow proper canonical procedure, which is why the diocese apologized. We're not apologizing for not giving her communion, which it seems we would not have been able to legitimately do, but for making it be a "scene" at the funeral instead of addressing it beforehand.

Tiffany said...


Excellent post. Very articulate and well-said. I think you're right; we are going to have a smaller Church, but it shouldn't be because people are made to feel unwelcome and unloved. They may still choose to not follow the difficult teachings and leave, but it shouldn't be because they were given the cold shoulder.

R. T. Sender said...

I think I'd have to agree with Matt on this one. If, like he said, the woman introduced herself to the priest and he made a refused attempt at talking to her, then I don't think there is need for an apology for refusing communion in interest of keeping the Eucharist from desecration, and the woman from sacrilege.

Leaving at the eulogy and burial should be apologized for, even if the priest had no intention of causing a problem. Refusal of communion has to do with the woman in question and the funeral with the deceased person.

On the topic of public excommunication, I sometimes wonder if it should be used more today than it is. Though it wouldn't stop people like Nancy Pelosi from claiming to be Catholic, it would seem to make arguments against people in public office clear and more official. Also, if you are not willing to submit to the authority of the Catholic Church on matters of Dogma and Doctrine when properly explained to you, then you are already removing yourself from the church.

I'm all for being nice and making things easier for people to stay in the church, but if you don't do something to tell people that they are wrong then they will continue to undermine church authority and bring others with them.

Sheila said...

No, from what I understand, the woman's *partner* introduced herself to him and supposedly "blocked his way out of the sacristy." (This rumor was left as a comment on someone's blog -- no one seems to know who is reporting this.) So perhaps the partner knew what she was doing and wanted to make a scene, but the woman herself didn't even know the priest wanted to talk to her.

According to canon law, he should not have begun the funeral until he'd had a chance to talk to her. Yes, even to the point of telling this "partner" to please leave the sacristy and informing her the funeral wouldn't start until he'd had a chance to talk to Ms. Johnson. Canon law doesn't allow for priests to deny people communion without verifying that they know what they're doing, haven't been to confession, and are unrepentant -- in other words, without speaking to them personally.

Enbrethiliel said...


I didn't like the "smaller and more faithful" description the first time I read it, either. Since when did the Universal Church want to be "smaller"? The "more faithful" bit is just tinsel around the lie: you're right, Sheila, that it's a euphemism for getting rid of all the dirty sinners.

Betsy said...

One of the priests at my parish said he knows the priest involved, and that said priest is "a good man." The priest at my church also says he thinks the whole thing has been blown out of proportion, and he asked us to pray that everyone just calms down. The whole issue sounds tangled, confusing, and messed up, but I thought what our priest said was reasonable.

Sheila said...

Oh, I'm sure he is. I also am pretty sure he'll know better next time the correct way to handle this kind of sticky situation. I just don't think it has to be a hero/villain situation. Someone made a mistake that resulted in not being as considerate as he could have been ... which resulted in a media field day that could have been avoided. Oops.

Just because we respect the Body of Christ (which we obviously should do!) doesn't mean that all the gays need to be banned from church buildings, as some have said. I think there's room for both respect for God and respect for men here.

Betsy said...

As usual, Sheila, I agree with you. I think I've disagreed with extremists on both sides because they didn't seem to be taking the whole story into consideration. Your approach is reasonable.

Anonymous said...

Since the Council of Jerusalem we have been a big tent. They dicided NOT to be a smaller, more exclusive church. They believed it was the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I do too.

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