In his encyclical “Deus Caritas Est,” Pope Benedict XVI joins “the ministry of charity” in proclaiming the word of God and celebrating the sacraments as the expression of the church’s “deepest nature.” What is more, charity, which Benedict equates with love, is called the “indispensable expression” of the church’s very being.
These are inspiring words addressed to everyone in the Catholic Church. But there is a problem: the words are often not matched by reality. To be sure, there are armies of known and nameless Catholics who powerfully witness to love. There are many devoted clerics and vibrant parishes and spiritual movements. Most of us, we can hope, have even had our own high moments, expressive of charity.
But we should be honest with ourselves, especially when considering the church as institution and how it is perceived in the world. Are we known by our love?
Since the encyclical is addressed to everyone in the church, we might want to consider whether the answer to that question has something to do with us.
Indeed, there have been members of the hierarchy who, like Archbishop Mark Coleridge in Australia, have worried about a “clericalism understood as a hierarchy of power, not service.” But there is at least a perception among many Catholics (including the 10 percent who have left the church in the last decade) that power is a greater concern to members of the hierarchy than service to “proclaiming the word of God,” the sacraments and “the ministry of charity.”
I would be surprised if I were the only priest to have been asked painful questions like the following: Is having a male, celibate priesthood more important than the liturgy itself or than other sacraments administered only by a priest? Why is it supposedly forbidden to even raise this question?
If proclaiming the word, living the sacraments and charity mark the church’s deepest nature, why does it at least appear that our highest priorities are rules and self-protection? In the public eye, the church is perceived as mounting its most urgent opposition in matters of sexuality and ecclesiastical law rather than of justice, charity and service.
Such a confusion of priorities is exemplified in incidents like the full-page indictment and excommunication of a sister who supports women’s ordination while some highly placed clerics, profoundly compromised by their actions of injustice and disordered attachment, seem to be quietly passed over. The confusion is intensified when newspapers throughout the world give front-page coverage to a Vatican document that, by its presentation, appears to assert a strange moral equivalence between attempting to ordain a woman and the abuse of children or the disabled, or the distribution of child pornography. They are all considered “grave crimes.”
I do not think such questions betray hostility to the hierarchy or the church, although I know many people who have left the church because of them. But there are also many who abide in painful conflict, like the appellate court judge in Illinois who wrote in The Chicago Tribune that maybe she should be excommunicated because she has questions similar to those reported above. As a committed Catholic and mother who loves the church, she cannot abandon it, because “walking away would break my heart.”
Perhaps the whole church can learn from her. For members of the hierarchy, one hopes that they do not ignore her plight or belittle her complaint. May they always embody what Archbishop Coleridge calls the way of service, rather than power. And we can hope, for the church and the world, that our bishops’ model for love is the one who said, “as I have loved you.”
As for the rest of us, the Illinois judge exemplifies the fact that none of us can say, “I am the church” or “They are the church.” We are all the church; and our union of hearts and minds is not found in our state of life, but in the saving Lord the church has given us through all its years of splendor and, yes, its crying need of reform.
As his followers, we will be known, then, like the great ones who have gone before us, not for our self-righteousness or anger, our resentment or judgment of others, our human-made laws or pet causes, but for our love.