Why we (still) need the Catholic Church
There is a scene from the second season of “The West Wing,” in which the deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman, is debating the merits of a bill with his law school buddy-turned-congressman from across the aisle. The fictitious bill in question is modeled after the actual 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, and Josh proceeds to rattle off some of the more pejorative statements made about homosexuality by the congressman’s colleagues in the days leading up to the vote, before adding, “Matt… you’re gay!” His friend calmly acknowledges both the ugliness of the remarks and the truth of his own orientation, prompting a nearly apoplectic Josh to demand, “How can you be a member of this party?”
The congressman then articulates a creedal-type profession of the party platform he espouses, including a belief in limited government, strong national defense, and the private sector as locus of job growth. He concludes that his membership in the party doesn’t have to be reduced to that one particular issue. “It doesn’t have to be all about that.”
As a lifelong Catholic who has worked for the church in some form or another since high school, I am constantly reminded of this scene. I currently serve as a youth minister here in D.C., and many of my daily conversations with friends follow a similar course. Disaffected peers, like Josh, demand to know, “How can you be a member of this church? This church that refuses to ordain women, that condemns contraception, that has perpetrated systemic cover-ups of child abuse?”
Recent events like the censure of a prominent American theologian, clashes with the Obama administration over the HHS mandate, and the Vatican-instituted overhaul of religious sisters have only intensified these conversations, providing me with a unique opportunity to offer my own profession of faith. And it begins with Scripture, which conveys to me the core truths about who we are as both individual disciples and a community of faith.
I believe that the word of God was given to us that we might grow in right relationship—with ourselves, with our God, and with one another. The Greek word used most frequently for justice is dikaiosune, which scholars tell us might be translated to that term, “right relationship.” My friend Rabbi Rachel Gartner delivered a powerful sermon on Yom Kippur this past year, challenging all who heard to remember that Torah calls us to “do the hard work” that relationships require. She posited that, in this age of Facebook, when it may be easier to de-friend someone than to slog through the often difficult process of repairing that relationship, Torah has never been more relevant. So, too, does this hold true during a time of discord in our Catholic Church.
Is it possible, as some say, to follow Jesus without religion?
Community was central to Jesus’ mission, and it remains a core of his church. So often we think of Jesus’ miracles as healing persons of physical ailments like leprosy or blindness, but we do not comprehend the larger significance of this healing act. Lepers in his day were prohibited from entering the town due to their disease, and the woman he encounters at the well is there in the heat of the day because she is not welcome among those who gathered there in the cooler morning hours. In each instance where Jesus encounters a person in need of healing, the individual is transformed by being restored to fullness of community.
It is telling that, when Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, he does not instruct them to say, “My father…” but, “Our Father… Give US this day OUR daily bread.” So often I hear the refrain among my contemporaries, “I pray, but I don’t see the need to show up to church or be part of a denomination,” to which I respond with the example of Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps is, indisputably, the best swimmer in a generation. Perhaps ever. And yet, he trains with a team, despite the fact that swimming is ostensibly an individual sport. The reasoning is simple: we need a group of people to challenge us, sustain us, support us.
The same is true of the spiritual life. Imperfect though we all are, as humans, we need that community, that “team” to challenge us, support us, and sustain us during life’s myriad struggles, joys, and despairs. The community of faith we call church helps us survive a broken heart, forces us to confront the ethical implications of our consumer lifestyle, and assists us as we navigate difficult decisions like end of life care for aging parents. Moreover, members of the community compel us, by their example, to break out of the self-centeredness of our daily routines and ask how we might serve others. How we might feed the hungry, as did S.O.M.E. founder Father Horace McKenna, S.J. How we might provide shelter to the homeless, as did Sister Mary Scullion. And how we might care for the sick and orphaned, as did Father Angelo D’Agostino, S.J.
They are who we are called to be: They model discipleship in the community of faith and challenge us to do the same. As for all the news about Catholic clashes or the latest partisan church squabble– as the congressman attested to Josh, “It doesn’t have to be all about that.”
Michael Bayer is a graduate of Georgetown University and the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley and has served as campus minister at the University of San Francisco and the University of Michigan. Michael is currently the Director of Youth Ministry at St. John the Baptist in Silver Spring.