On raising our voices in and for the Church
In his commentary “Exit, voice, and loyalty in the Catholic Church” (with which I completely agree), Phil Lawler applies to the Church the three basic responses people make when they are dissatisfied with any institution of which they are a part. Phil concludes:
If you, as a morally responsible actor, recognize that the current situation in the Church is harmful to the faithful, then you have a responsibility to work for change. Exit is not an option. And loyalty? Well, the question is: what are you loyal to? If your loyalty is to the Church—to the Body of Christ, the People of God—then you have no real choice but to raise your voice.
I suspect that the great majority of readers of CatholicCulture.org are among those who are already raising their voices. After all, this is essentially what we do here. But again and again I hear from people who think they are properly raising their voices without paying attention to the limits within which Catholic voice-raising ought to operate—limits which Phil makes a point of stating earlier in the paragraph.
First, what does Phil identify as our responsibility when faced with a situation in the Church that is harmful to the faithful? It is this: “You have a responsibility to work for change.” Second, for whom is this done? “The Church...the Body of Christ, the People of God.” Third, what is the chief limitation Phil places on that responsibility? “Exit is not an option.” In other words, three depressingly common responses among dissatisfied Catholics are immediately ruled out:
- The first is raising our voices merely in the sense of being loud, without a charitable care for the members of the Body of Christ.
- The second is contenting ourselves with mere verbal condemnation instead of seriously working for change.
- The third is separating in any way from the authority of the Pope and of our particular bishops—which, however rationalized, is always a form of exit from the Church.
Through the prophet Isaiah, God says “my servant whom I have chosen…will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick, till he brings justice to victory” (Mt 12:18-21; cf. Is 42:1-4). Those of us with a tendency to be self-righteous in our anger do well to bear this in mind. And we must also remember that Satan can use our anger against us as easily as he can use the complacency of the lukewarm against them. In addition, we need to reflect deeply on the reality that those who withdraw from the Church in order to preserve their own “spiritual peace” or protect their own “orthodoxy” have no more a claim to instruct Catholics than do those who have (whether materially or formally) fallen away into secularism.
The tensions of the Christian life in the world—fully embodied within the Church—demand redemptive suffering. To raise our voices in the wrong way is to refuse the cross, whereas carrying this cross is the only claim we have for anyone to listen to what we have to say.
Working for change
There are a thousand ways to work for change, but condemning, complaining and separating from the Church are not three of them. The old expression still applies, that it is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness. Writers for CatholicCulture.org must be painfully aware of this precisely because the very way we have chosen to work for change involves pointing out what is false, wrong and evil while proposing what is true, right and good. This means, in a sense, that our apostolate is one step removed from real life. It is not a matter of effecting real change in real situations but of helping to form others to effect change.
How easy, then, to assume a glib superiority! Pitfalls include:
- Lack of charity
- Incorrect understanding
- Conclusions without sufficient evidence
- Failure to see the whole of a complex problem
- Over-emphasis on a preferred solution that is not mandatory
- Confusion of our own opinions with the truth
- Emphasizing the partisan over the reasonable
- Slipping away from the authentic mind of the Church
There are other, hopefully less common, pitfalls. One worth mentioning would be the temptation to propose bizarre theories to explain the obvious, theories which prove others to be deliberately in the wrong, so that we feel justified in distinguishing ourselves absolutely from the perfidy of those whose actions or ideas we oppose.
I want to emphasize that it is never sufficient to seize the rhetorical high ground—not even morally. Working for change means rolling up our sleeves and making sacrifices to enrich the spiritual and moral habits—and all the authentic Divine and human goods which follow—of our families, friends, parishes, schools and communities. Moreover, nothing is more calculated to keep us grounded than participation in plain old Catholic apostolic work.
This grounding is an aspect of humility. Sniping does not ground us, and neither does righteous declamation, nor self-righteous separatism. Take this as an admonition from someone who has at times taken the road of smug superiority—and has always regretted it.
Though being right is a value so important that we can never abandon it as a goal, we are not put in this world to be right. We are made to draw into the closest union with God possible in accordance with the gifts we have received from His hand. Nor is correctness the source and summit of the Christian life; that honor belongs to Christ alone, who comes to us in sacrifice and gift. Wise spiritual directors always emphasize that the test of whatever spiritual program we follow is personal holiness, that is, growth in the ability to live in accordance with God’s will, including the beatitudes.
Now even reciting the beatitudes in some fine translation may make us feel wonderful. But the reality they represent is that Christ saved us through obedience to the will of the Father, in self-emptying love for those to whom He came as savior, neighbor and friend. It is not possible to imitate Christ through any lack of obedience or love. Even when we raise our voices to proclaim the true and the good, we must recognize that we are called to a prolonged work of sanctification, of ourselves and of others.
Above all, this is a practical, concrete work which brings a blessing to our lips—and not a curse.
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