When I was ordained over thirty-three years ago, I entered a covenant with the Catholic Church. She graciously accepted me, with all my faults, as her ecclesial son; and I vowed to honor her and, with God’s grace, to do my best to serve others through her. My favorite images of the church are those that reveal her as the People of God, the Body of Christ, the Temple of the Holy Spirit—primary images of the Second Vatican Council. I am grateful when I can ably connect people to the Lord through her offerings, e.g., spiritual guidance and counsel, sacramental preparation and discussion, introduction of families or individuals to one another for mutual encouragement, assistance in the education of children, and helping adults experience communion with God in unexpected ways, places, and times that unite them to His holy altar.
In the mid-1970s, the Jesuit priest, Avery Dulles (later Cardinal Dulles) presented his six famous Models of Church: 1) Mystical Communion, 2) Sacrament, 3) Servant, 4) Herald, 5) Institution, and 6) Community of Disciples. I can relate most easily to the first and last because, to me, community and communion are at the heart of all that the church is and gives: what we share with God and what we bring to others. The middle two, heralding the Good News and being servants of the divine will, capture well our daily task of putting faith into action through words and deeds. The second is magnificent when we recognize the sacred in creation—the outward signs that bring grace and unite us with Christ’s mission; unfortunately, the Church as Sacrament can occasionally harm if we dispense or withhold sacraments, using them as weapons to “lord it over” others. The fifth, Church as Institution, is necessary because every earthly enterprise or way of being needs structure; but it fails its purpose when the organization becomes more important than the reason it exists.
Following the example of Jesus, who sought to improve His own church, we would do well to work on the corporate, bureaucratic side that sometimes puts legalism before love, formula and rubric ahead of sincere prayer, judgement ahead of mercy, ostentatiousness in place of simplicity, uniform thinking in place of critical thinking, arrogance instead of contrite hearts, and referencing herself to seek clarity instead of referencing God. As Jesus warned, following guides that wear blinders will lead us along dangerous paths; these dysfunctional attitudes have led some to promote indoctrination over education, political ideology over morality and the common good, and to forfeit common sense. I do not want to be a blind guide but to enrich the covenant and strengthen the church by seeing more clearly and helping others see.
When we label people or their situations as irregular, disordered, or invalid, we get off track from imitating Christ. It is embarrassing to see cardinals in lace and sequins calling for more manly liturgies or clamoring for orthodoxy when they know that Jesus was among the most unorthodox churchmen in history. Though the church is graced, she is not perfect. I love her and think it is worth addressing and improving the dysfunctional attitudes and actions that detract from her mission. Pope Francis has been addressing such matters as best he can during his years at the ecclesial helm. I want to assist on levels that I am able.
Two examples of concern for me are found in the Sacraments of Reconciliation and Matrimony. Too often weekly penitents shuffle into confessionals repeating sexual habits that they despise and that they have been told are mortal or deadly sins, worthy of the fires of hell. So, they confess them, only to return the next week to repent them again; it is not an act of love but of fear. Most of these poor souls suffer from psychological torment that we exacerbate by perpetuating their fright and permitting, even encouraging, their horrible cycle of dysfunction. Judgment on marriage seems equally dysfunctional when we honor unions that are valid and licit according to church guidelines, irrespective of spousal disposition, while stating that those in which Catholics wed outside the church are not valid or licit and, therefore, not sacred. To me, it is rather arrogant to define whether a couple’s union is holy or not. Of course, I am not so naive to think I can solve these sorts of issues, but I realize it is healthy for us to address them anyway.
I remain grateful that on the function-dysfunction-spectrum, there is far more good functioning within our church than bad, and so much to love. It gives me hope that we will eventually change our dysfunctions by facing them, much as Jesus faced the demons in the desert.