In much of the secularized world, we live in a climate that is somewhat anti-ecclesial and anti-clerical. It’s quite fashionable today to bash the churches, be they Roman Catholic, Protestant, or Evangelical. This is often done in the name of being open-minded and enlightened, and it’s the one bias that’s intellectually sanctioned. Say something derogatory about any other group in society, and you will be brought to account; say something disparaging about the church and there are no such consequences.
What’s the proper response? While it’s easy to take offense at this, we must be careful not to overreact because, as a church, we should not be fundamentally threatened by this. Why?
First, because a certain amount of this criticism is good and helpful. Truth be told, we have some very real faults. All atheism is a parasite feeding off bad religion. Our critics feed off our faults and we can be grateful that our faults are being pointed out to us – even if sometimes over-generously. Criticism of the church is healthily humbling us and pushing us toward a more courageous internal purification. Besides, for too long we have enjoyed a situation of privilege, never a good thing for the church. We generally live healthier as Christians in a time of dis-privilege than in a time of privilege, even if it isn’t as pleasant. Moreover, there are some important things at stake here.
We must be careful not to overreact to the present anti-ecclesial climate because this can lead to an over-defensiveness and put us in an unhealthy adversarial position vis-à-vis the culture, and that’s not where the gospel asks us to be. Rather our task is to absorb this criticism, painful though it is, gently point to its unfairness, and resist the temptation to be defensive. Why? Why not aggressively defend ourselves?
Because we are strong enough not to, and that’s reason enough. We can withstand this without having to become hard and defensive. Current criticism of the church notwithstanding, the church is not about to go under or away any time soon. We are two and a half billion Christians in the world, stand within a two-thousand-year-old tradition, have among ourselves a universally accepted scripture, have two thousand years of doctrinal entrenchment and refinement, have massive centuries-old institutions, are embedded in the very roots of Western culture and technology, constitute perhaps the biggest multinational group in the world, and are growing in numbers worldwide. We are hardly a reed shaking in the wind, reeling vulnerably, a ship about to go under. We are strong, stable, blessed by God, an Elder in the culture, and because of this we owe it to the culture to model maturity and understanding.
Beyond that, even more important, is the fact that we have Christ’s promise to be with us, and the reality of the resurrection to sustain us. Given all this, I think it’s fair to say that we can absorb a fair amount of criticism without fear of losing our identity. Moreover, we must not let this criticism make us lose sight of why we exist in the first place.
The church exists not for its own sake or to ensure its own survival, but for the sake of the world. We can easily forget this and lose sight of what the gospel asks of us. For example, compare these two responses: At a press conference, Cardinal Basil Hume was once asked what he considered the foremost task facing the church today. He replied simply: “To need to try to save this planet.” Compare that response with that of another cardinal who, in a recent radio interview, was asked the same question (What is the foremost task facing the church today?) and replied, “To defend the faith.” Who’s right?
Everything about Jesus suggests that Hume’s view is closer to the gospel than the other. When Jesus says, “My flesh is food for the life of the world”, he is affirming clearly that the primary task of the church is not to defend itself, or ensure its continuity, or protect itself from being crushed by the world. The church exists for the sake of the world, not for its own sake. That’s why there is such a rich symbolism in the fact that immediately after Jesus was born, he was laid in a trough in a stable, a place where animals come to eat; and it’s why he gives himself up on a table in the Eucharist, to be eaten. Being eaten up by the world is largely what Jesus is about, namely, risking vulnerability over safety and trust over defensiveness. At the very heart of the Gospel lies a call to risk beyond defensiveness and to absorb unjust criticism without fighting back: “Forgive them, they know not what they do!”
The church is meant to give itself over as food for the world. Like all living bodies it needs sometimes to protect itself – but never at the cost of losing its very reason for being here.
I always appreciate Fr. Rolheiser’s thoughts and insights, even when the level of selflessness, egolessness, and consequent humility, is somewhat challenging to take on for myself. It’s a goal, and I just try to make a little progress every day. In regard to the topic of this article, I recall the Franciscan adage, “Preach the Gospel…use words if you have to.” Perhaps sometimes we accomplish the most for our Church in ways that are not vociferous, or even audible. I will be thinking about that now.