Missouri contains lots of former democrats who self-identify as “Truman Democrats”—some who knew the home-state president personally. Among the principles they revere are integrity, civility, hard work, dignity of life, and care for the lowly. When asked why they are no longer democrats they sometimes say: “I didn’t leave the democratic party. It left me.”
Many Catholics who leave our church or exist on the margins hold similar sentiment. Though strongly rooted in church culture and practices, they believe it has forfeited crucial virtues like honor, dignity, integrity, and closeness with Christ—or they are frustrated that a multitude of ecclesial weaknesses have lately been exposed. They might say, “I haven’t left the Catholic Church, but it sure left me.” If the church has lost its way and leaders are not interested in getting back on track, we should probably all jump ship. If, instead, the church is becoming more honest, vulnerable, and transparent, along with the times, we should probably stay and work together through the chaos, helping the institution follow Christ more closely.
Way too many young Catholics now self-identify as spiritual-not-religious (SNR). They desire a deep understanding of the divine realm, eagerly put their faith into action by reaching out and serving others, and seek healthy and wholesome relationships that reinforce a non-judgmental morality; but they aren’t interested in an organized religion that emphasizes hierarchical power, legalistic regulations, stringent rubrics, non-inclusive attitudes, and worship that is largely irrelevant to them. They don’t want to topple statues of saints or paint crude graffiti messages on churches or defund the clergy. They simply want us—church members and officials—to follow in faith, lead with love, serve in self-surrender, and humbly help heal those who suffer. Essentially, they want us to point them to God and no longer pretend to contain God; they realize, as we all do, that God cannot be contained by any religion or worldly enterprise.
At Saint Charles, during this covid crisis, a few people who live a notable distance have inquired about joining our parish as virtual members. They cannot be present physically but want to grow spiritually by participating in on-line events, enhancing their relationship with our community, and supporting the efforts we make to accompany one another in Christ. The church will certainly exist differently in future years and non-traditional parish members may be a normal aspect of community life. As with many possible realities in the post-covid world, we will operate differently than in the past—hopefully with a listening heart toward those who feel that we left them.
Like political parties, the Catholic Church and other religions are the means—not the end. The former should be the means to a more just and fruitful society and the latter a vessel that takes us closer to our heavenly destiny. I pray that we don’t leave any more Catholics because of our institutional self-centeredness, hypocritical decisions, or misguided values. Rather, let us reclaim the virtues of acting justly, loving tenderly, and walking humbly with God, virtues that will help us defeat external challenges like Covid-19 and internal challenges like focusing on the institution rather than on God and His people.