An article written by Notre Dame professor Cathleen Kaveny in the Oct. 22 issue of Commonweal magazine is just the latest instance of a distressing trend in the Catholic commentariat, namely, the tendency to reduce the Church to the level of one voluntary organization among many.
Kaveny observes that many cradle Catholics, who are serious about their faith, have in recent years, as a matter of conscience, left the Catholic Church to worship in mainline Protestant or evangelical denominations. She avers that the Church hierarchy “ought to be worried” about this development, but not because those who have abandoned the Catholic faith have put themselves in spiritual danger, but rather because their leaving should prompt a thorough reconsideration of certain ecclesial policies and teachings. The exodus of so many good, dedicated Catholics should compel the bishops, she argues, to change Church doctrine in regard to contraception, an all-male clergy, same-sex marriage, etc.
Matter of indifference
Now I’m not going to explore in detail those issues that have already been analyzed, ad nauseam, from every possible perspective. I would like rather to draw attention to an underlying conviction of Kaveny’s, which provides the hinge upon which her article turns. She says that dedicated Catholics today are more willing to leave the Church behind than were their parents and grandparents, precisely because they have come to see that “God’s saving grace is everywhere, not merely within the structure of the Roman Catholic Church.” Since God’s love can be accessed anywhere, why would one feel particularly obligated to remain loyal to the Catholic system? Kaveny’s argument reminds me of an observation that the comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell made some years ago. He said that since all religions and mythologies are telling the same basic story, it doesn’t really matter which tradition one follows, though, he suggested, it is probably best to stay with one’s “software,” the religious heritage in which one was raised. It also calls to mind Martin Luther, who insisted that churches are simply communities of the faithful, voluntary organizations that followers of Christ can join or quit according to their preference.
The problem, of course, is that Kaveny is drawing from her premise the unwarranted and irresponsible conclusion that belonging to the Catholic Church is fundamentally a matter of indifference. All of the great theologians — Origen, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, John Henry Newman, among many others — held that the divine grace is indeed available outside of the strict confines of the Catholic Church. The Second Vatican Council inherited and reiterated this tradition when it spoke of “rays of light” that can be found in all of the great religions and philosophies of the world, and Thomas Aquinas clearly taught that God is in no way constrained to act through the instrumentality of the Church’s sacramental system.
Means of salvation
Nevertheless, the mainstream of the theological tradition has maintained that membership in the Church is of crucial importance, precisely because it recognized the Catholic Church as the fullest expression of Christ’s grace and the ordinary means of salvation. Neither Thomas Aquinas nor the fathers of Vatican II would be even vaguely tempted to deny the indispensability of the missionary and evangelical work that draws people into the embrace of the Catholic Church, for they understood that Catholic liturgy, sacraments, biblical interpretation, apostolic authority, moral teaching, sacraments and Eucharist are the privileged means by which Christ desires to sanctify his people. The Catholic Church has all the gifts that Christ wants to communicate to his people, and that fullness is, quite simply, lacking in any other church or religion.
Have Church people — even of the highest rank — said and done stupid things over the centuries? Of course. Was the handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal by certain bishops inept, even in some cases, scandalous? Yes. Was the recent Vatican statement that seemed to characterize the sexual abuse of children and the ordination of women as equivalent moral evils an example of shockingly incompetent public relations? Obviously. Are any of these “good” reasons for leaving the Church? Absolutely not. Our very doctrine of original sin predisposes us to expect that human beings tend to go bad. We should, then, mourn the fact that Church people have sinned; we should certainly do everything in our power to address ecclesiastical problems institutionally and morally; but we shouldn’t use expressions of human fallibility as an excuse to abandon the mystical body of the Church.
Father Robert Barron, founder of WordOnFire.org, is the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois.