Grievances against the Church? Leave Me out of It!
Everybody has a beef with the Church, but I’m concerned here with those who love her. The annual report of the St. Joseph Foundation shows that the three canonical issues which most concern dedicated Catholics are weaknesses in the liturgy, in pro-life commitment, and in ecclesiastical governance. This is a shift from earlier canon law cases which had more to do with sex education and the closure of churches. I take this as a positive sign.
Why Catholics Fight
There is nothing wrong with using the Church’s judicial process to attempt to arrest the onslaught of sex education programs in Catholic schools, or to gain due process in the decision to close churches. Knowing those who run the St. Joseph Foundation, I seriously doubt that the Foundation has ever taken a case that wasn’t worthwhile. At the same time, cases involving sex education and, especially, litigation over the disposition of Church property, by their nature tend to be highly personal and emotional, motivated by what’s happening to my kids or what’s happening to me.
Please don’t misunderstand me. In Canon Law as in Civil Law, one must have standing to bring a case. If nothing is happening to me—if my rights are not being violated—then the problem I seek to address is not likely to be a good candidate for a formal canonical process. Nonetheless, some problems tend to motivate by virtue of their severe emotional impact on myself, while others tend to motivate because of concern for the health of the Church as a whole, which my particular case enables me to address. That’s why the shift in the St. Joseph Foundation’s caseload over the past ten years is very likely a positive sign.
Church property cases are, I would guess, nearly always primarily me-motivated. In contrast, it is easy to see how sex education can fit a wider motivational pattern, though the personal emotional impact is likely to be by far the strongest element. In the case of one of the issues which is still primary, the liturgy, it is also easy to see how both personal and ecclesial motivations can be at work. The state of the liturgy is vital to the health of the Church, but it also plays a critical emotional role in the life of committed Catholics. Interestingly, the liturgy has always been the number one source of litigation for the St. Joseph Foundation. One wonders if there has been a gradual shift in motivation over the years.
I raise this question because, while all canonical cases inescapably involve a me factor, concerns over ecclesiastical governance and the Church’s pro-life mission are very likely to be motivated largely by wider concerns. It is very possible to be concerned about the liturgy for the good of the Church as a whole, rather than primarily because the liturgy in my parish doesn’t suit me. But to care much about the Church’s general governance or her pro-life mission, it is almost necessary to be concerned about the good of the Church as a whole.
Purifying Our Motives
I may be wrong about this. It may simply be that the sex education war has been lost and all the old churches have been closed, while the liturgical battle is still raging, and perhaps pro-lifers are ever more frequently harmed by ecclesiastical misfeasance. If so, the me factor may be uppermost—but I doubt it. In many cases, ordinary Catholics are attempting to address the fact that treating a pro-abortion politician as a Catholic in good standing is bad for the Church, as is bureaucratic stonewalling and episcopal hand-washing when it comes to implementing effective Catholic policies.
Such concerns are far more likely to result in the use of a particular case to attack a larger problem, rather than in a desperate reaction against a personal injury. For this reason, such cases may well represent a significant purification of motives. The me component may not be the prime motivator; it may simply be the key to bringing the case. I hope this is true, because I hope all Catholics who have grievances think first and foremost about the good of the Church as a whole and only secondarily about their own personal situation. Even civil processes should be approached in this spirit of seeking the larger good. But for a canonical process to be truly Catholic, this attitude is essential.
I suspect most good Catholics have by now gotten past the shock and raw-edged pain occasioned by the rapid dissolution of the Catholic world in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the massive treason of the intellectuals, and the gigantic failure of the bishops. Moreover, a large number of those now most involved in authentic Catholic renewal can’t even remember when spiritual things were both more stable and more predictably authentic. Only in the aftermath of shock and trauma does it become possible to consider problems dispassionately and devise strategic, rather than emergency, treatments. It also becomes possible to assess one’s own weaknesses and shortcomings realistically, and to focus on the good of the Church rather than on one’s own pain.
Doing Things Right
Such a shift in perspective may also occasion a shift in tactics. Someone whose first reaction was to make as much noise as possible over the problems of the local Catholic school might long since have banded together with other parents to start a new school, or a home school. Someone who began by threatening a civil suit in response to some abuse might now be employing Canon Law (through the St. Joseph Foundation, for example). Someone who initially left Mass in a rage each Sunday might now have learned to control those emotions and may have secured a place on the local liturgy committee or helped to find a better music director. All of us, I hope, have regained our serenity. Sometimes we’ve even learned to change ourselves a bit, in addition to trying to change others.
This has resulted in truly astounding initiatives. Priests have formed support groups, joined extra-diocesan communities, and developed sound theology programs when their bishops couldn’t or wouldn’t provide them. Lay people have founded and staffed organizations designed to promote Catholic faith and action because they couldn’t rely on the hierarchy to do it. Some have moved from one diocese to another when they have found themselves in untenable situations, enabling them to enthusiastically support the Church in their new location. Others have been able to work within the existing structures, volunteering for committies, working in Church offices, or serving as extraordinary ministers in an effort to build up rather than tear down.
Priests and laity alike, finding themselves on the outside looking in, have sought additional instruction and formation in order to help retake the citadel. Some of these lay people have become priests, deacons or religious; some of these priests have become bishops. Many laymen have made a point of befriending their priests, becoming sources of encouragement and support. Still others have formed or joined prayer groups, both for their own nourishment and to pray for their parishes, priests and bishops. All this is part of the vibrant life of the Church, which is growing stronger again precisely because, in the face of injuries they have suffered at the Church's own hands, Catholics have still asked how they can serve.
Another assessment of our problems, strengths, weaknesses, motives and tactics is always timely. When we have a complaint against the Church, we very much need to address it with the good of the Church in mind. When we’re feeling that we haven’t been treated right, we very much need to try to grow spiritually as a result. The Church is Christ’s body, not ours, and this should remind us of something very important: When you have a beef with the Church, leave me out of it.
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