Another day, another essay about the cruel, unjust, inflexible Church forcing innocent people to suffer.
We hear, for instance, that the Church wants women to die of sepsis rather than deliver an unviable preterm baby. Or we hear that the Church is anti-birth control pills, and so a woman in danger of haemorrhaging every month should just pray harder.
Or that the Church teaches marriage is indissoluble, and that means an abused wife and her kids need to keep coming back for more beatings. Or that the Church requires us to torture dying people with resuscitation over and over and over again, because life is sacred.
None of this is true, of course. It’s not even hard to find out that none of this is true. Even without a fancy theological degree or a background in canon law, all it often takes is a skeptical eye and a few minutes of research to discover when the teaching of the Church is being horribly misrepresented.
If we are open to hearing it, we’ll often discover that, in the situation the author describes, the Church actually makes all kinds of allowances that are neither cruel nor unreasonable nor unjust. But somehow, this information doesn’t make it into the angry essay.
Why is this so common?
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Sometimes this is due to malice. Sometimes an author has an axe to grind against the Church, and is willing to twist facts or omit information to make the Church look as bad as possible.
But sometimes, the misrepresentation is profound but sincere. And it’s harder than you might think to clear up this kind of error.
What often happens is that the Church really does teach something wise, just, and compassionate that would alleviate suffering or at least not compound it; but the suffering person is surrounded by Catholics who, in the name of the Church, teach or imply things that are cruel, unreasonable, and unjust. And their friends pile on, and they apply guilt and psychological pressure, and they ostracise anyone who doesn’t knuckle under to their personal opinions masquerading as dogma.
Here we have a real problem. It’s all very well to say, “But what really matters is what the Church actually teaches!” In practice, what really matters is what people hear. What matters is what they experience when they meet the Church on earth.
Imagine I hear from everyone that clafoutis is really hard to make, but then I look it up and find out it’s really pretty easy, and then I make it, and then I am happy because I have clafoutis, the end. That’s easy to solve.
But it’s easy because it’s just clafoutis. Spiritual struggles, on the other hand, are often so intertwined with our relationships and our family histories, our psychological state, our past bad experiences, our memories, and our emotions that it’s entirely possible to know intellectually that the Church teaches X, and yet with every fibre of our beings still feel that what the Church really wants is Y, and Y is horrible, and the Church is horribly unjust for wanting it.
Or it’s very hard to get to the point where we even have the courage to look it up, because we’re afraid it’s going to be even worse than we think, or that we’re even worse than we think. It’s hard to think clearly and act freely when you’re broken; and we’re all broken.
In other words, it matters what the Church teaches, but simply holding a teaching isn’t sufficient. If I have a million dollars locked away in a safe, but I don’t know the combination, and several people are angrily shouting random numbers at me every time I try to figure it out, and they’re also angry at me for not getting the door open, I don’t really have a million dollars. The million dollars may be there, but they’re not mine.
Well, despite what you may believe about the privilege of my upbringing, my marriage, or my relationship with the Church, I have struggles of my own. The last time I had a serious doubt about the divinity of Jesus? That was Saturday. So.
But even so, or maybe because of that, it’s taken me a long time to learn to stop bringing the dogma hammer down on my own head, and even longer to realise how much damage I’ve done by swinging it at other people. So here’s what I’ve been working on, so as at very least not to be part of the problem, when I have an opportunity to share what the Church teaches:
I know what my limits are. None of this, “Well, I feel like I remember hearing from someone, possibly a priest, or anyway a really holy person, that in your situation, you absolutely must . . . ” No. If someone asks advice in a fraught situation, I will find some trustworthy resource or person to consult, and defer or refer to that. Matters regarding marriage and sexuality, end-of-life decisions, and medical and bioethics decisions, in particular, are exceedingly complex and often must be judged case by case; so it’s a bad idea for amateurs to try to explain them in a quick Facebook comment.
I will try to be gentle. I struggle with this one tremendously, as you will know if you read my work. If I’m too angry or impassioned about the situation to be gentle, especially if I take it personally, I will step away from it and let other people respond. The fate of the Church does not lie solely on my shoulders, but the truth delivered with a hammer is just as destructive as a lie delivered on a silver platter.
I won’t speak as if life will be easy and edifying if people simply obey what the Church teaches. It won’t. Most people will come up against some kind of dreadful struggle in their lives, and it’s downright inhuman to behave as if they must have brought it on themselves by being sinful, or that obedience always feels awesome.
I will remember that struggles I don’t have are still real struggles. If I’m straight, I get zero credit for avoiding gay porn. If I’m in a strong and happy marriage, I won’t pat myself on the back for staying faithful. If my pregnancies are easy, I won’t wave away the temptations suffered by people who go through 40 weeks of hell.
If I have a supportive and friendly faith community, I’m allowed no snobbery toward people who are isolated or judged harshly by their fellow Catholics. If my parents raised me to love God, I’m not holier than people whose parents raised them to fear God. And so on. If some matter of faith comes easily to me, that should make me more compassionate toward people who struggle, not less.
(Of course the flip side is also true: If I do struggle with something, I won’t assume that everyone who remains faithful hasn’t struggled! Much suffering and growth is private.)
I will pray for the struggling person, especially if he’s annoying or frustrating. Accurate information about the faith is indispensable, but it’s not sufficient. Only the Holy Spirit is sufficient. The goal for every soul is not to die while fearfully, resentfully following all the rules, but to die while yearningly running toward God. So the most effective act of exegesis may be a quick prayer that the suffering person would encounter God’s love. That’s where conversion of heart happens.
When we love the Church, it’s reasonable to be irritated and even angry when we see her teachings misrepresented. But it’s not only our job, as a Catholic community, to teach her laws. It’s our job to teach her nature. It’s always possible to look up some bit of dogma; but if people go looking for what the Church is really like? That’s us. So let’s act accordingly.