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Jim McDermottFebruary 04, 2022
A graphic with two paper silhouettes of heads facing each other, one with a gear inside and the other with a heart.(iStock)

Recently America published an editorial on the need for church leaders to start listening to those who have left the church.

While many who read the piece agreed that yes, it is high time that more church leaders reached out to former Catholics, some questioned the motives of such a conversation. Is this really about listening and learning from us, some wondered, or about trying to get us to come back to Catholicism? Because those are not the same thing. In fact, many pointed out, they are often in conflict with each other. If you’re just talking to me simply because you want to “win me back,” are you really interested in listening to me at all?

These are important questions about the way the church thinks about conversation. They are also a challenge more broadly, I think, to the ways we relate to people we do not understand or with whom we disagree. When I enter into a conversation with someone with another point of view on politics or a moral issue, am I interested in hearing from them, or am I just there to convince them that they are wrong?

How do we do conversation well? I am no expert (trust me!), but here are a couple thoughts gleaned from people wiser than I over the years.

Is this really about listening and learning from us, some wondered, or about trying to get us to come back to Catholicism?

1. The greatest obstacle to meaningful conversation is our own agenda.

You know that thing where you are in a conversation and something someone else says reminds you of an experience you had, and then you are so eager to share it you interrupt the flow of the conversation to get your story out? Or you wait until there is a pause in the conversation, but in the meantime you have been so invested in watching for that moment when you can jump in that you have completely stopped listening to the conversation itself?

This is the problem that happens in a many conversations. And it is the problem to which our editorial’s commenters are alluding: Our lips might be saying “How are you?” to those who have left the church; our heads might be nodding as they talk. But if internally we are focused on figuring out how to convince them they were wrong to leave, we are not actually listening to them. We are just strategizing.

The theologian David Tracy of the University of Chicago talks about conversation as a place of revelation. He argues that, in a good conversation, everyone involved is an equal partner, adding what they want; and each is capable of shifting the direction of the conversation. But also—and more important—the conversation they have is something alive and independent of them all. It is the thing that happens among them as they talk, a journey with twists and turns—none of them expected.

I think that is a really useful image to bring to bear when entering into a significant conversation: I am hopping into a boat with these people. We are all bringing agendas. But once we set out on this conversation, I have to let those go and just see what happens. We are all taking a ride.

Our lips might be saying “How are you?” to those who have left the church. But if internally we are focused on figuring out how to convince them they were wrong to leave, we are just strategizing.

2. Know that you are afraid.

In my life as a priest I have often seen church interactions with former Catholics framed in terms of a desire to help them come back to the God who loves them. Many dioceses have launched “Welcome Home” campaigns centered around this image of returning home.

But, as our editorial commenters have pointed out online, these interactions often seem to assume two things that do not necessarily follow: First, that those who have left the church are no longer in contact with God; and second, that the church gave them no good reason to leave in the first place. Twitter commenter Pablo Wangermann captures this concern well: “Did ppl who no longer attend catholic church ‘leave religion behind’, or did they walk away from a church that does not ‘smell of the sheep’, where bishops cherry-pick the faith to be overtly political, where the remorse and atonement for sexual abuse by clergy has been minimal?”

The fact is, while we call them “lapsed” or frame them as having lost their home, many former Catholics have left the church precisely because church leaders refused to offer real care to them or others, or to take their concerns seriously. Rather than having fallen away from God, leaving the structures of the church is what has enabled them to leap more deeply into a relationship with God. Put simply, many of them might be happy to share what it was like being in the church and why they left. We need to listen.

The suggestion that a conversation partner has come to save them can come off as arrogant and self-deluded. But I wonder if the primary emotion that underlies a lack of real listening is less arrogance than fear. Many earnest Christians are afraid of their diminishing voice in the public square, their diminishing numbers and their diminishing collections. Some Catholics might be afraid of what others’ departures suggest about the commitment they have made to the church, or about the church’s very future. Describing other people as the ones in jeopardy and trying to drive the conversation accordingly can be a way of coping with those fears.

While we call them “lapsed” or frame them as having lost their home, many former Catholics have left the church precisely because church leaders refused to offer real care to them or others.

If we open ourselves to real conversation with others, we are almost certainly going to be challenged. Former Catholics are going to tell us about the ways we have hurt them and continue to do so. They are going to present us with issues in the way we proceed that we do not want to look at, that show us parts of ourselves that are ugly, cruel and unredeemed. And that is scary.

This extends to lots of meaningful conversations. If a Democrat and a Republican sit down together, or people of different racial, gender, orientation or ethnic groups, they are going to hear about experiences that they cannot readily make sense of within the parameters of their own platforms and agendas. That is actually the opportunity that those conversations offer; we are putting ourselves in a position where we can be surprised and given gifts we did not know we needed.

But both beforehand and along the way, that can be a very intimidating ride.

But as so many spiritual directors have taught me over the years, if we acknowledge that dynamic at work in us from the start—I am afraid to have this conversation—we are less likely to be ruled by it. In fact, it can be liberating. Who said we had to be in the charge in the first place, or to have all the answers? Certainly not God. That is actually kind of his thing.

To acknowledge your fears is in a sense to be freed to be who you really are, another flawed and vulnerable human being trying to be better. And rather than a contest of opponents or enemies, conversation ends up becoming a place of welcome, where we are all accepted and seen as we are.

Rather than a contest of opponents or enemies, conversation ends up becoming a place of welcome, where we are all accepted and seen as we are.

3. A good starting point for conversation: Learn to be interested in other people.

When I was in film school, the film and TV producer Tom Nunan gave us a series of “nuggets” of advice about working in Hollywood. And his very first nugget was this: “Always be nice.”

It sounds like common sense. Also, you can hide quite a vast array of cruelties behind a “nice” exterior.

But Nunan went on to explain that he did not mean niceness in the sense of being polite or presenting the appearance that you care. No; what he meant was, we all need to develop a practice of actually being interested in other people, to be curious about their lives not for any purpose of our own, but just because they are out here having lives, too. To put it another way, we need to work at being a friend.

For most of us, that takes practice. It takes real effort to develop a disposition of interest in others, to learn to step aside from the worries and agendas of our own lives to fully see the others in front of us and give them our attention.

But like everything you practice, the more you do it, the better you get at it. And the more fun it can become, too. When we’re actually curious about other people, we open ourselves up to the possibility of being surprised, maybe even to whole new relationships. The world goes from something we have to push through to get to where we need to go to a setting for adventure.

What would it be like to enter into interactions with others with the question, “I wonder where this conversation will take us?” What would it be like for church officials to meet with those who have left the church thinking, “I wonder what can I learn?”

What would it be like for church officials to meet with those who have left the church thinking, “I wonder what can I learn?”

4. Look to the Annunciation.

Think of Mary at the Annunciation. She is just going about her own life.

Then the angel Gabriel shows up out of nowhere. We have no sense that she was expecting him. It is not even clear he bothered with human conventions like knocking first. In most artistic presentations he just shows up in her room. And at his first words, she is “greatly troubled.”

It seems to me this is an apt image for us. Real conversation usually does not happen on a schedule or by our plans. Our conversation partner is also not what we expected or how we want them to be. It may make them seem anything from rude to terrifying, and yet they are in fact an angel. They come bearing gifts.

We do not have to understand those gifts in the moment, or even like them. Our job is just to listen now, and then to hold what we have been given in the silence of our hearts and let it grow.

In the church we sometimes characterize those who have left as disaffected or lost. But in fact maybe they are the angels that God has sent to help us become what he wants us to be.

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