11 November 2008

Old and New Struggles with the Church

Ronald Rolheiser, OMI

Today a lot of people are struggling with the church and this is more complex than first meets the eye.

Statistics show that in the last fifty years there hasn't been a huge drop-off in the number of people who say that they believe in God. Surprisingly too there hasn't been a huge drop-off in the number of people who name a church or a denomination to which they claim to belong. The huge drop-off has come mostly in one area, actual church-going. People still believe in God and their churches even when they don't often go to church. They haven't left their churches; they just aren't going to them. We aren't so much post-Christian as we are post-ecclesial. The problem is not so much atheism or even religious affiliation, but participation in the church.

Why? Why does our culture struggle so much with the church?

Liberals like to think that it is because the church has been too slow to change and that it is unhealthily out of step with today's world. Conservatives like to think the opposite, namely, that people have grown disenchanted with the church because it has changed too much and been too accommodating to the culture. There is some truth in both views, but analysts suggest that there are other reasons, reasons to do with the general breakdown of family and public life.

It is not just church-life and parish-life that are in trouble today. Declining church attendance is paralleled everywhere: Families and neighborhoods are dissipating and breaking down as people guard their privacy and individuality more and more. Civic organizations and clubs are finding it hard to function as they once did and there is simply less of a sense of community everywhere than there once was.

No wonder that our churches are struggling. Churches and parishes are, by definition, communities that are not based upon private intimacy, that is, they are not made up of people who choose to relate to each other on the basis of being like-minded. Rather churches and parishes are, by definition, made up of people who are called together despite their differences to meet around Christ and a set of values that molds them into a community beyond private preference. But that is not easily understood in a culture that believes meaningful community can only be formed on the basis of private choice and a personal need for intimacy. Today we don't just bowl alone, we also do spirituality alone.

People today tend to treat their churches in the same way as they treat their families, namely, they want them to be there for them, for rites of passage, for special occasions, and for the security of knowing they can be turned if needed, but they don't want them to interfere much in their actual lives and they want participate in them on their own terms. People no longer feel they need the church. They admit their need for God and for spirituality, but not their need for the church. Hence we have the popular notion that says: I want spirituality but not the church.

Finally, there is too the notion that the church as an institution is too flawed, too fraught with compromise, too narrow, too judgmental, and too hypocritical to be credible, to be the institution that mediates salvation. Jesus is pure, but the church is flawed, goes the logic. Hence, a lot of people choose to relate to the church very selectively and very sporadically.

I have never found a better answer to that than the one given by Carlo Carretto, the Italian spiritual writer, who loved the church deeply but was honest enough to admit its faults. Late in his life, he wrote this ode to the church:

How much I must criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you! You have made me suffer more than anyone and yet I owe more to you than to anyone. I should like to see you destroyed and yet I need your presence. You have given me much scandal and yet you alone have made me understand holiness. Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful. Countless times I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face - and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms! No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you. Then too - where would I go? To build another church? But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects. And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ's church. No, I am old enough, I know better.

That's an insight that can help all of us, both those of us who are going to church and those of us who aren't.

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