The Catholic Church: A Dysfunctional Family

If the Church is truly a family, then it’s not all about “Dad.”

As a family, the Catholic Church has some “dysfunction.” So remarked Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, during his inaugural address as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). In using what he wryly called “talk show vocabulary,” Archbishop Dolan attempted to open up discussion not only about why Catholics leave the Church but also about the Church’s mission in a purportedly “post-ecclesial” American society.

Archbishop Dolan’s remarks defied some expectations and fulfilled others. But there was a fundamental issue underlying everything — it was hinted at, alluded to, but never fully articulated. Just as one would expect in a dysfunctional family.

Archbishop Dolan’s election as president as of the USCCB came as a surprise. He vaulted over the conference’s vice-president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, who would ordinarily have been chosen on the basis on seniority. This led some commentators to surmise that America’s bishops had elected a “culture warrior” to do battle against dissenting Catholics and a faithless society.

In content and in tone, Archbishop Dolan’s address was not a call to arms to fight an external threat. Instead, it was an invitation to look inward. His remarks began by focusing on the phrase “love for Jesus and His Church must be the passion of our lives.” This love must be reclaimed at a time when fewer people realize that “Jesus and His Church are One.” A challenging task, as Archbishop Dolan made clear, especially since the Catholic Church is perceived as a church of “sinners.”

Instead of taking refugee in the equivalent of a rhetorical bunker, Archbishop Dolan readily admitted the sinfulness of the Church’s members. Indeed, it is precisely because we are all sinners that we need the Church: not just as teacher, but also as community. The talk was interspersed with references to Graham Greene and Dorothy Day, who both explored in their writings how and why the church persists in spite of, and yet because of, its failings. Dysfunctional it may be, but the Church is nonetheless a family — both earthly and supernatural.

Archbishop Dolan most certainly defied expectations that he would become a modern day crusader, armed to defeat the Church’s enemies. He did fulfill the expectations of those who pointed to his thoughtfulness and affability.

Archbishop Dolan avoided focusing exclusively on the contentious issues besetting American Catholicism: abortion, birth control, gay marriage, and ordaining women. Clerical sexual abuse was not mentioned explicitly, but it did provide a clear subtext. Archbishop Dolan attempted to bolster the morale of his fellow bishops, while at the same time calling them to reflect deeply on the current state of affairs in which not a small number of Catholics have decided that they no longer want anything to do with the Church.

But here there could have been another point — it was there, just under the surface, struggling to get to the light.

Many Catholics still love the Church. It’s just that we feel that the Church doesn’t love us.

Usually, blame for this state of affairs is placed directly at the feet of bishops — Archbishop Dolan admitted as much during the course of his speech. But I would say that those who identify the hierarchy as the sole problem are replicating a very hierarchical view of Catholicism that ignores the deep dysfunction at the core of much of Catholic life in the United States.

If the Church is truly a family, then it’s not all about “Dad.”

I know many Catholics who have left the Church — friends and family members, teachers, and professional colleagues. Many find difficulty with Catholic doctrine. Many have found that the cover-up of sexual abuse confirmed their deepest suspicions about how power and authority are exercised by clergy and in Catholic institutions.

But underlying it all too often is a love for the Church that is not reciprocated by fellow Catholics.

New parishioners often find themselves unnoticed, and long time parishioners find themselves forgotten. Those with a non-Catholic spouse find no provisions made for welcoming them. Catholics in professional contexts find themselves caught in a culture war in which both sides refuse to recognize the other as “Catholic.” The examples are endless, but they all point to a love, and a need for love, that is not fully understood or recognized. Rank and file American Catholics can’t blame this all on the hierarchy, because we are the problem as well.

The beauty of Catholicism — its theology, spirituality, and ritual — comes alive not as an administrative project implemented by religious bureaucrats. Instead, this beauty is realized in how Catholicism is lived by laity, religious, and priests together as Catholics. Likewise, the dysfunction of American Catholic life — its hypocrisy, faultfinding, and coldness — becomes truly unbearable not at the top, but down below.

When you love the Church, sometimes it just hurts too much to stay in it.

American Catholics like myself who remain do so because we have found communities–sometimes large but most often small—in which we can share the love that Catholicism can inspire and make us feel. These communities are often rather tenuous creations, having been stitched together from the tattered fabric of American Catholic life. I do not think that Archbishop Dolan would fundamentally disagree with the majority of these observations, since his speech did open a space for considering such issues honestly and openly.  We American Catholics often don’t love one another enough. And when we do love one another, as in any other dysfunctional family, it’s usually in all in the wrong ways.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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