Author note: This article was written just before the church exploded into another sex abuse scandal, with all the accusations and recriminations that followed, leading me to ask me if it was still relevant or accurate. Reading the piece again, I believe it is still on the mark, as it raises the question: Who are church leaders and the loudest voices really paying attention to—each other or the people of God?
The church in the United States is not divided, it is not polarized, it is not at war with itself. In no meaningful way are millions of Catholics in this country at each other’s throats about liturgical styles, homosexuality, Vatican II, priestly genders, Mass translations or what kind of pills a woman can morally ingest. People do not have the time or money or energy to be angry at popes or angry at people who are angry at popes. They have to work or sleep or put up swing-sets for their kids.
Some Catholics may disagree on some things, but a statistic does not measure where in their body, in their mental space, in the hours of their day, those disagreements live. Talks by learned panelists or grave churchmen do not capture the precise amount of time millions of churchgoers grumble about ecclesial issues. In fact, most Catholics do not spend much time there at all.
If you work in Catholic media or pay attention to articles and conferences and organizations or any number of public discussions of Catholic life, you are always hearing about “our divided church.” The connotation can be that we are spiraling, breaking apart, shouting across the aisles like Question Time in Parliament. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has even said that the church is in a civil war.
The church in the United States is not divided, it is not polarized, it is not at war with itself.
Over the past 15 years, I have been everywhere for church. Missioned by the Society of Jesus to study or teach at Catholic schools, attend Catholic conferences, make pilgrimages to Catholic holy sites and give retreats at Catholic spirituality centers, I’ve attended Masses on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in Greensboro, Vt., on a plains American Indian reservation, in Berkeley, St. Paul, Chicago, New Mexico, St. Louis, Milwaukee and New Orleans, not to mention the churches in my hometown of Omaha and my grandparents’ parish in Billings, Okla. Rich and poor churches, black and white, rural and urban and suburban.
In none of these churches, nor over coffee after Mass, nor in the adjacent Catholic schools or retreat houses, nor in conversations in kitchens or bars or at baseball games are Catholics bickering with each other about Catholicism.
At times it can look like they do. In one Midwestern diocese, some of the young priests banded together and let it be known that they did not want Bishop X appointed as their new leader. A polarized church!
But really? Did those young priests truly represent their flocks? I am all but certain that had people in the pews known of this seething anti-Bishop X stance, they would have found itover the top.
Another bishop offers a dispensation for eating meat on a Friday during Lent. His email box fills up with furious, over-the-top responses about his lack of orthodoxy. Clearly a church at war.
People are less into “church issues” and more into the basics: Christ has died, Christ has risen.
No. A skirmish in a tennis match. John McEnroe flipping out at an umpire, not an all-out battle between the men’s circuit and all umpires.
When the updated Mass translation came out in 2011, a professional churchwoman insisted to me the people of God would reject it. They would refuse to use it, would sabotage it, would demand it be taken back. No such thing happened. (Granted, I wouldn’t have minded if it had been questioned more strongly by the faithful.)
People are less into “church issues” and more into the basics: Christ has died, Christ has risen; my life is hell, but God is love; for reasons I can’t adequately explain, I am unable to go without the Eucharist; seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened up to you; clothe the naked, feed the hungry.
Or maybe they are disconnected from church issues because their Catholicism is little more than a weekly habit. Church is what they have always done on Sunday, and it makes their mom or boyfriend or inexplicably pious 7-year-old daughter happy.
Catholics do not focus on epic abstract quarrels (a dubia? Does anyone really know what a dubia is?) as much as they do on whether their parish is welcoming, the choir at least tries, the grade-school principal is competent, the church leaders treat their staff fairly. They want to know if the pastor is putting the collection money to an actually needed renovation of the church sanctuary. Or if he is mobilizing a sweeping fantasia of marble altars, gold leaf ceilings and triumphant statuary as a working out of his own unreconciled impulses toward conquering death, God and insignificance. People can tell which is which.
People want a church that is engaged in their lives, that is with them, that cares for them. They want to be called out when they are being pathetic and know it. They want to be called to something better. This is what most people spend their energy on. The undramatic fundamentals. Your everyday young new priest can wear a somber cassock and sing the Mass all he wants, but if he is humble and decent, if he is with people in their struggles and pain, if he speaks to reality, they will welcome him. Love covers a multitude of chanted Gospels.
Catholics have preferences, sure. Some go to a “gym Mass,” where things are looser, priests improvise the prayers, laypeople preach, songs are more fun. But the gym Mass people do not fume at the people who go to the church Mass.
People want a church that is engaged in their lives, that is with them, that cares for them.
High school theology faculties can fall into camps around curriculums. Theology graduate programs sometimes quarrel over words like complementarity, intrinsically disordered, disruption vs. continuity in relation to Vatican II and any other topic you please. Young priests and older priests can be at odds with each other. But none of this makes for a schismatic church.
It has been indicated that opinions about Pope Francis can fall along political lines. Liberals like him more than conservatives. But this difference of opinion about their leader very rarely manifests itself in actual Catholic lives. Most people don’t live there.
Granted, maybe a divided church, a polarized faithful does not and never would look like scores of people in the pews sniping at one another. Maybe this church war actually is taking place but is simply fought by the professionals, by mercenaries. Maybe the “battle” in the church is a war like most American wars these days: a tiny minority of rugged citizens who on the regular people’s behalf are fighting out there on the front lines.
“People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf,” goes the George Orwell quote that was not by George Orwell. Perhaps Catholics go peacefully to coffee and doughnuts after Mass only because pitiless churchmen stand ready to argue violently about theology in their stead.
American Catholics are not constantly at odds, rent apart, breaking down into hopeless divisions.
Most Catholics, one could say, can serenely pray the rosary and coach C.Y.O. with little worry of conflict and agitation because a small number of other Catholics carp over minority reports of papal commissions, give pleading talks on the New Evangelization in church undercrofts, deliver lectures about how Bible passages say one thing but actually mean another, fume that no one understands the West’s “contraceptive mentality,” argue on Twitter about the pope’s orthodoxy and generally take up arms against “the other side” within the church.
If that is what makes up a war, so be it. And perhaps more Catholics should be engaged in the theological issues that can strafe the global church. But rightly or wrongly, church “professionals” and activists do not speak for everyone. Sometimes their urging is toward a war few people really asked for.
I am writing this in what is called a media “echo chamber.” (Here, it is a “Catholic media” echo chamber. Did you even know such a thing existed?) An echo chamber is where people in journals like this one (or on podcasts, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) make claims that people in other media outlets respond to. These responses then are responded to, rebutted or developed by others in the echo chamber, and on and on, you get the point. We only hear and write about what our colleagues hear and write about, not what “the people on the ground” are concerned with.
I am writing this, I think, particularly for the echo chamber. Sometimes we need to hear it. The more you feed the wolf the bigger the wolf gets. The more you focus on discord and distrust, the more suspicious we actually may become of each other. A teacher who spends all his time on the unruly kids only gives those students what they want—attention. And the rest of the class suffers.
No one is saying that professional Catholics shouldn’t talk about distress in the church. It is more about putting it in context. American Catholics are not constantly at odds, rent apart, breaking down into hopeless divisions. We need to keep our eyes on reality, on how things actually are in the church we serve. Reality is the only place the good spirit lives.