It’s not hard to understand why people are so excited about Pope Francis. Since his sensational interview last week, many have said that with his personal warmth and determination to put doctrine in the background, Francis is just the man to bring a lot of fallen-away Catholics back into the church.
Maybe. But I’m an ex-Catholic whose decision to leave the Catholic Church is not challenged by Francis’ words but rather confirmed.
Just over two decades ago, when I began the process to enter the Roman Catholic Church as an adult convert, I chose to receive instruction at a university parish, figuring that the quality of teaching would be more rigorous. After three months of guided meditations and endless God is love lectures, I dropped out.
I agreed that God is love, but that didn’t tell me what He would expect of me if I became a Catholic. Besides, I had spent four years dancing around the possibility of returning to the Christianity of my youth. When I made my first steps back to churchgoing as an adult, I found plenty of good people who told me God is love but who never challenged me to change my life.
What needed changing? Lots. My own brokenness was plain to me, and I was ready to turn from my destructive sins and become a new person. The one thing I didn’t want to do was surrender my sexual liberty, which was my birthright as a young American male. I knew, though, that without fully giving over my will to God, any conversion would be precarious. By then, I was all too wary of my evasions. To convert provisionally — that is, provided that the Church didn’t hassle me about my sex life — would really be about seeking the psychological comforts of religion without making sacrifices.
What I was told, in effect, in that university Catholic parish was that God loved me just as I was — true — but that I didn’t need to do anything else. It dawned on me one day that at the end of this process, all of us in the class would end up as Catholics but have no idea what the Catholic Church taught. I bolted, and a year later, I was received into the church in another parish.
If you know about the Catholic Church only from reading the papers, you are in for a shock once you come inside. The image of American Catholicism shown by the media is of a church preoccupied with sex and abortion. It’s not remotely true. I was a faithful Mass-going Catholic for 13 years, attending a number of parishes in five cities in different parts of the country. I could count on one hand the number of homilies I heard that addressed abortion or sexuality in any way. Rather, the homilies were wholly therapeutic, almost always some saccharine variation of God is love.
Well, yes, He is, but Sunday School simplicities get you only so far. Classical Catholic theology dwells on the paradox of God’s love and God’s justice. As Dante shows in the Divine Comedy, God’s love is God’s justice poured out on those who reject Him. In the Gospels, Jesus offers compassion to sinners rejected by religious rigorists, but he also tells them to reform their lives, to “go forth and sin no more.”
Was I frustrated because the priests wouldn’t preach God’s judgment instead of God’s mercy? By no means. I was frustrated because they wouldn’t preach God’s judgment at all, which is to say, they preached Christ without the Cross. I knew the depths of the sins from which I was being delivered, and it felt wrong to treat His amazing grace like it was a common courtesy. As the reggae song says, “Everybody wants to get to heaven, but nobody wants to die.”
In his recent book about Anglicanism, Our Church, the English philosopher Roger Scruton says the greatest problem in the modern world is the “loss of the habit of repentance.” Broadly speaking, there seemed to me to be no particular interest in the American Catholic church in repentance, because there was no particular interest in the reality of sin. The stereotypical idea of the Catholic Church as a sin-obsessed, legalistic hothouse surely came from somewhere. But for Catholics like me, born in the late 1960s, this cramped and miserable picture of the church may as well have come from antiquity.
The contemporary era of global Catholicism began in 1959, when the newly elected Pope John XXIII sought to “open the windows” of the fusty old Church to the modern world by calling the Second Vatican Council. Three years later, in his opening address to the council, the charismatic and avuncular pope called for “a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith,” without compromising on doctrine. A fierce spirit of the age blasted through those newly-opened windows, scouring nearly everything in its path. The coming decades would see a collapse in Catholic catechesis and Catholic discipline. The so-called “spirit of Vatican II” — a perversion of the Council’s actual teaching — justified many subsequent outrages.
In 2002, when the clerical-sex-abuse scandal broke nationwide, the full extent of the rot within the church became manifest. All that post-Vatican II happy talk and non-judgmentalism had been a facade concealing what then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — later Pope Benedict XVI — would call the “filth” in the church. Many American bishops deployed the priceless Christian language of love and forgiveness in an effort to cover their own foul nakedness in a cloak of cheap grace.
During that excruciating period a decade ago, rage at what I and other journalists uncovered about the church’s corruption pried my ability to believe in Catholic Christianity out of me, like torturers ripping fingernails out with pliers. It wasn’t the crimes that did it as much as the bishops’ unwillingness to repent and the Vatican’s disinterest in holding them to account. If the church’s hierarchy cannot commit itself credibly to justice and mercy to the victims of its own clergy and bishops, I thought, do they really believe in the doctrines they teach?
All this put the moral unseriousness of the American church in a certain light. As the scandal raged, one Ash Wednesday, I attended Mass at my comfortable suburban parish and heard the priest deliver a sermon describing Lent as a time when we should all come to love ourselves more.
If I had to pinpoint a single moment at which I ceased to be a Roman Catholic, it would have been that one. I fought for two more years to hold on, thinking that having the syllogisms from my catechism straight in my head would help me stand firm. But it was useless. By then I was a father, and I did not want to raise my children in a church where sentimentality and self-satisfaction were the point of the Christian life. It wasn’t safe to raise my children in this church, I thought — not because they would be at risk of predators but because the entire ethos of the American church, like the ethos of the decadent post-Christian society in which it lives, is not that we should die to ourselves so that we can live in Christ, as the New Testament demands, but that we should learn to love ourselves more.
Flannery O’Connor, one of my Catholic heroes, famously said, “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” American Catholicism was not pushing back against the hostile age at all. Rather, it had become a pushover. God is love was not a proclamation that liberated us captives from our sin and despair but rather a bromide and a platitude that allowed us to believe that and to behave as if our lust, greed, malice and so forth — sins that I struggled with every day — weren’t to be despised and cast out but rather shellacked by a river of treacle.
I finally broke. Losing my Catholic faith was the most painful thing that ever happened to me. Today, as much as I admire Pope Francis and understand the enthusiasm among Catholics for him, his interview makes me realize that the good, if incomplete, work that John Paul II and Benedict XVI did to restore the church after the violence of the revolution stands to be undone. Though I agree with nearly everything the Pope said last week in his interview and cheer inwardly when he chastises rigorist knotheads who would deny the healing medicine of the church to anyone, I fear his merciful words will be received not as love but license. The “spirit of Pope Francis” will replace the “spirit of Vatican II” as the rationalization people will use to ignore the difficult teachings of the faith. If so, this Pope will turn out to be like his predecessor John XXIII: a dear man, but a tragic figure.
In his interview, the Pope used a metaphor for the church that is often employed by Eastern Orthodox Christianity: he called it a “field hospital” where the walking wounded can receive treatment. He’s right, but it’s important to discern the nature of the cure on offer. Anesthesia is a kind of medicine that masks pain, but it’s not the kind of medicine that heals the underlying sickness.
There is, of course, no such thing as the perfect church, but in Orthodoxy, which radically resists the moralistic therapeutic deism that characterizes so much American Christianity, I found a soul-healing balance. In my Russian Orthodox country mission parish this past Sunday, the priest preached about love, joy, repentance and forgiveness — in all its dimensions. Addressing parents in the congregation, he exhorted us to be merciful, kind and forgiving toward our children. But he also warned against thinking of love as giving our children what they want as opposed to what they need.
“Giving them what they want may make it easier for us,” he said, “but we must love our children enough to teach them the hard lessons and compel them toward the good.”
True, that. And I cherish this pastor because he loves his people enough to teach us the hard lessons, and to compel us past mediocrity and toward the good. Catholic priests of the same mind and orientation as my Orthodox pastor — and I know many of them — are telling me that the Holy Father, by signaling to his American flock that God is love and the rest doesn’t really matter, just made their mission a lot more difficult. But that is no longer my problem.