What I Learned from a Not-So-Good Catholic

(The following is an excerpt from William Cavanaugh’s article ‘The Church Among Idols’. I lack the Catholic perspective but it is a good read and speaks to the church in America and beyond.)

As Pope Francis has grasped, it is not a lack of clarity but a lack of charity that has made belonging to the church unappealing and has put the credibility of the entire gospel in doubt.

Pope Francis is himself a sign of hope in the church, and I believe that hope will continue to pop up in different places at different times as long as the Holy Spirit remains promised to the church. The devil will continue to play Whac-a-Mole with such hopes but will never win the game.

The center of gravity of the church has shifted to the Global South, and there are many signs of life there, especially in Africa and Asia. Since moving to DePaul University in 2011, I have been a research fellow, and am now director, of the Center for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, a center for research on the Catholic Church in the Global South. We host scholars and practitioners from around the world, and whatever temporal hope I have for the church comes from my encounters with these tremendous people, so often wise, brave, faithful, and alive.

Just before the pandemic hit, I attended the Pan-African Catholic Congress at Bigard Memorial Seminary in Enugu, Nigeria. The academic papers were accompanied by conviviality, shared meals, and dancing. I could not fail to be impressed by the liveliness of Catholicism there. Bigard is the largest seminary in the world, with 855 seminarians. To hear them singing in chapel with one voice in English, Latin, and Igbo is to be hit by a wave of sound and spirit. There are another 20 seminaries in Nigeria bursting at the seams, and as many women religious in formation as men. Catholicism is deeply intertwined with social, economic, and political realities across Africa. Africa is now something like what Latin America was to me as a young Catholic in the 1980s.

But one thing I have learned is not to put too much stock in the usual, temporal ways of measuring vibrancy and—God help us—success. The devil will whack the church in Nigeria just as surely as he has whacked it elsewhere. There are already plenty of signs there of chaff mixed with the wheat, and dark clouds are on the horizon. I am not the first to warn of coming abuse scandals in Africa, and the issues of financial impropriety and the children and concubines of clergy have begun to be discussed publicly.

It has been a great joy to continually relearn the gospel afresh through the theologies and practices of Christians from parts of the world very different from my own. It is a fool’s errand, however, to expect those Christians to save the church. The church anywhere is always on the verge of failing. It is only through the action of the Holy Spirit that somehow life and hope break through the suffocating confines of sin.

I got into theology because I was fascinated by the church, and I have worked extensively in ecclesiology. But finally I have realized that I have had too much church and not enough God. I recently heard a bishop explain that Catholic school is where he learned to love the church; he did not say where he learned to love God. In fact, in his talk on Catholic education, he did not mention God at all. The Catholicism I was raised in was too much about being Catholic, not enough about contemplating God. For most Catholics, myself included, it would have been embarrassing to ad-lib prayer in front of others or to talk, with a straight face, about a personal relationship with Jesus. Being Catholic was an identity, best expressed by cheering on the Notre Dame football team.

I have come to see that that effort is also misguided if it is too tied to forging an identity, even an identity as a Christian. Too much attention to the church means not enough attention to God, not enough devotion to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit who are the only proper end of our life on earth.

If the church in the United States rises from the ashes, it will not be because we elected the right president who packed the federal courts with judges who will defend the church’s prerogatives. But nor will it be because the church has successfully established its brand as a prophetic agitator for social justice. The church is only attractive when people can see the poor Christ in it. The church should be a sacrament, a material form through which God is seen—a window to God, not an object in itself.

My own work on Eucharist and politics is on the wrong track if it makes the Eucharist seem useful. Theology ultimately needs to be contemplative, to help us see Jesus Christ, the compassion and self-abandonment of the Father through the Spirit.

Because salvation history is ultimately a comedy and not a tragedy, however, even idolatry is redeemable, and idolatry even betrays a certain positive dimension of human striving. We see this ambivalence in Paul’s reaction to the Athenians in Acts 17. He is repulsed by their idolatry but also sees it as evidence that they are groping for the true God. As Paul explains, God created everything and everyone so that they might seek God, for, as even the pagans say, “We are all his children” (Acts 17:28).

In my own case, I remain eternally grateful to the church for making me the kind of idolater I am. I may have had too much church, but I came to love God through the church, and I would not have found Jesus without the church. I am now embarrassed by the teenage arrogance with which I tossed the devotional kitsch in the trash, and I dearly wish I could find my grandfather’s gruesome Sacred Heart. It was a sacrament, an icon, a symbol of my grandpa’s devotion—not an idol. The idol was my own pride. I hope that the rest of my journey will increasingly turn my many idolatries toward contemplation of God.

I love my fellow travelers on this journey, and I am sad to see the church in disarray. I hope that people return to celebrating the liturgy once the pandemic subsides. But the church is always on the verge of failing, and recognizing this allows for some hope that God, not we, will do something new. As Thomas Merton wrote, “Hope then is a gift. Like life, it is a gift from God, total, unexpected, incomprehensible, undeserved . . . but to meet it, we have to descend into nothingness.”

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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