People leave the Church for all kinds of reasons. Usually it’s more than one reason; but sometimes people will be able to point to the one thing that tipped them over the edge. Very often, it’s the sex abuse scandal. But also fairly often, it’s something that sounds less serious. It sounds like something that people should be able to get past:
“I was going through a rough time in my marriage and a priest gave a jerky sermon about divorce, so I walked out and never came back.”
“I was trying to organise my grandmother’s funeral, and the parish secretary was so rude, and even mocked the music I chose. That was the last time I set foot in a church.”
“I was in the back with my crying baby, and an usher angrily told me to control my kid. I decided if they didn’t want me, I didn’t want them either, and that was that.”
These things are upsetting and demoralising, and can legitimately make us angry. But are they worth leaving the Church over?
When someone tells stories like these, other Catholics will often respond: Well, if you’d leave Jesus and the sacraments for something small like that, it shows that your faith was weak and shallow to begin with. If you leave the Church because of sinners, your faith was in man, not God.
I used to believe this. I no longer do. Or at least, I see a bigger picture of why humans — including me — do what they do.
Don’t get me wrong. When someone decides to leave the Faith, there couldn’t be more at stake. It’s one thing if someone decides they’re quitting their tech job and taking up weaving, or they’re tired of Twitter and they’re giving up social media. I may think they’re making a mistake, but they can live with the consequences.
But when you hear that someone has had enough of the Church, it’s so hard not to say, “Yes, but . . . don’t you want Jesus? I know that one Catholic you met was so cruel and awful, and I’m so sorry that happened, but are you really prepared to give up Jesus, just because of that? This is your immortal soul we’re talking about! Eyes on the prize! Get over it!”
But it occurs to me that everyone’s priorities are skewed — people who leave the Church because of the sins of other humans, but also people who stay in the Church because of the goodness of other humans.
Because let’s be clear: Those of us who steadfastly remain in the Church do so in part because of relatively shallow, less-than-theologically-pristine reasons. Yes, we really do. Part of why we’re willing to put up with pain and nonsense because we still get Jesus is because we’re getting a lot else to help us along, besides things that are clearly Jesus.
So many people who’ve never left the Church, or who have drifted and come back, or who’ve had a terrible breach that they’re working on repairing, will probably tell you that they’re there because of Jesus and the Eucharist and maybe confession.
But they will also tell you about goodness and truth and beauty they have encountered with their senses, with their emotions, with their bodies. They may even be able to point to something specific, something little, that tipped the balance and started them on the path back:
“Once when I was six, I lost my lunch bag and I was crying, and a kind nun gave me a hot grilled cheese sandwich, and it was so good. I never forgot it.”
“When my addict brother died, strangers from the Catholic church donated money so he could be buried with dignity.”
“When I was in college, I was jogging through the park in the rain and I heard some church bells, and for some reason, I went into the church and heard the best sermon of my life so I signed up for RCIA.”
“My babysitter used to tell us stories about St Martin De Porres and they always stuck with me. I like animals, too, and I thought it would be nice to be like him.”
This is . . . petty stuff, right? A sandwich. A church bell. A little bit of money. An animal story. These are not great, weighty, immutable truths about the Trinity or salvation history. And yet these little things can be enough to tip the balance and make people walk into a church, or give it a second chance, or melt their hearts enough so that old pains and sorrows begin to seem manageable.
If anything, I’ve heard more of these kinds of stories than I’ve heard stories about the last straw that led someone to leave.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we will acknowledge that a lot of what keeps us Catholic is the little stuff. And if we’re even more honest, we’ll acknowledge that the little stuff isn’t actually little.
We aren’t souls trapped in petty, disposable bodies. We’re body and soul together, and the temporal and the spiritual are all mixed and mingled in with each other. That’s not a bad thing. It’s the way that Jesus chose to make contact with us: In our human lives, in time, in bodies, in emotions, in human contact.
So yes, we’re Catholic because we’re there for Jesus. We’re there for God. But as much as we’d like to believe we’re turning up solely for spiritual reasons, there are myriad prosaic things tethering us to the central spiritual truths of our faith. We can only encounter God mediated through other people, and through things like music, and acts of charity, and grilled cheese sandwiches. Thanks be to God, that’s how it works.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that, since we’re people of the flesh, we entitled to skip out on Christ if we don’t like the kind of party his people throw for us. What I am saying is: when we encounter someone who seems to have left for petty reasons, we should not despise them.
Instead, we should scrutinise our own lives and identify the equally petty things that are keeping us in the Church. We should thank God for these things, and we should look for ways to provide them for other people. Sometimes they don’t mean much, but sometimes they might be the one thing that tips the balance and sets someone else on the path toward God.
Everybody’s faith is shallow, ladies and gentlemen. None of us is bound to Christ solely because of our own profound personal efforts of faith. All of us are here, and lucky to be here, because of grace, and that grace almost always reaches us through small, seemingly superficial points of contact. That’s how it works.