Question: My daughter told me that she belongs to a group called “Recovering Catholics” that meets once a month to talk about how they can shed the bad effects of their Catholic faith. Have you ever heard of this kind of thing before? How can I respond to my daughter?
— Name and city withheld, Massachusetts
Answer: It is not unusual to find groups of ex-Catholics here and there, and one finds descriptions of them in the more liberal Catholic publications. Often they take the form of loose get-togethers of disillusioned Catholics who have had bad experiences with the Church, mostly with its clergy.
First of all, you can assure your daughter that there is much to be disillusioned about in the Church: insensitive clergy, especially on matters of sexuality and marriage; atrocious preaching, of which there is plenty in every diocese; clergy and pastoral leaders who are rough in their handling of people seeking the baptism and confirmation of their children; priests and deacons who don’t take the time to provide intelligent counseling for people; carelessness in the handling of funerals; etc., etc. In most people’s minds, all this is overshadowed by the child abuse scandal and its repeated appearance in other countries.
While one should never underestimate the abuse by clergy in their pastoral responsibilities, one cannot lay everything that is wrong in the Church on their backs. Every Catholic — clerical and lay — is responsible for the reputation of the Church. The average Catholic is probably not aware of how he or she affects the perception of the Church by other Catholics — and by non-Catholics. When Catholics practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, Christ’s ministry is extended in the world and adds to the presence of the Kingdom of God. A question every practicing Catholic, disillusioned Catholic and ex-Catholic could well ask themselves is: If the Church were like me, what kind of Church would it be, and what image would it have in the world?
There is something not quite right about Catholics of various shades of commitment expecting the rest of the Church to be better than themselves. As Jesus taught, looking at the beam in one’s own eye first is the place to begin criticism.
You can also help your daughter ponder the truth of the goodness in the Church at large and in the souls of so many faithful Catholics. When we look at the Church, we do well not to look at its institutional dimensions (as important as these are), but at the saints and holy ones who make up the great processions of God’s people across history. Ask your daughter to consider the good priests and religious she may have known, to count the positive experiences she has had in the Church — and not least to call to mind the good Catholic relatives, friends and neighbors she may have known, and still knows. It is always good to remember that the Church is not and never was the community of the perfect. Even in the very first days of the Church, there were scandals and imperfections. Peter and the first apostles were not paragons of perfection.
Getting together to discuss the Church as if it were a psychiatric disease is not likely to produce good and mature results. It is more likely to solidify anger and resentment. Getting the group to volunteer at a local Catholic charity and see the real Church at work is one way out of the useless rut the group may be in.
Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to firstname.lastname@example.org. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.