Cardinal Dolan: No Church without Christ

New York Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan returned to his old stomping grounds in Milwaukee on Sept. 5 to urge the faithful to always remember that Christ and the Catholic Church are one and to offer three ways to help those who have fallen away from the Faith understand that intrinsic link.

In a speech given in the historic Milwaukee Theatre as part of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s Pallium Lecture Series (see sidebar), Cardinal Dolan, who served as Milwaukee’s archbishop from 2002 to 2009, began by citing the narrative of St. Paul’s conversion, during which a radiant light from heaven caused him to fall to the ground and a voice was heard saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4).

Jesus, Church are one

“Now, my brothers and sisters in Christ, parse those words very carefully,” he told the sold-out crowd of 4,000. “The Master did not say, why are you persecuting my disciples, why are you persecuting my followers. He didn’t say, why are you persecuting my friends, he didn’t say why are you persecuting my people, why are you persecuting my Church. No. Jesus said, why are you persecuting me? In other words, Jesus and his Church are one.”

After his conversion, St. Paul (Saul) studied the Christians in order to learn about Jesus from them. Paul could write so poetically about the Church, Cardinal Dolan explained, because he learned about it from its living stones — Jesus’ disciples. St. Paul came to love Jesus passionately through his acquaintance with the Church.

“This is very critical today because we live in what scholars are calling a post-ecclesial era,” Cardinal Dolan said. “People now want a king without a kingdom. They want a shepherd without a flock, a general without an army, spirituality without religion, faith without the faithful, and Christ without a Church. And for us Catholics, that is impossible.”

The most “itching” pastoral challenge today, he said, is that the world no longer sees a need for the Church and the growing sentiment that there can be Christ without a Church causes Catholics to shudder.

Falling away

According to institutions like the Pew Research Center and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, for the first time in history people are identifying themselves as ex-Catholics. The second-largest Christian denomination in the country is fallen away Catholics, at 10 percent of the general American population.

Cardinal Dolan pointed out that there also is a lot of growth in the Church. For example, last year 3,000 people came into the Catholic faith in the Archdiocese of New York at Easter. Also, one frequently hears about prominent figures entering the Church. And 80 percent of Catholics still remain loyal to the Faith.

Still, he said, the problem remains that people do not see the intrinsic connection between Jesus and his Church. He noted evidence from the Pew Research Center that other inherited religions also are experiencing the dilemma of members falling away from the faith into which they were born.

Steps to growth

The cardinal proposed three possible ways to resolving this critical issue. First, Catholics should form a new model of the Church as a spiritual family. There are many beautiful images of the Church, Cardinal Dolan said, and all are true. However, his hunch is that the model of the Church as a spiritual family would take off if applied enthusiastically.

“Ninety-nine percent of Catholics are born into the Church,” he said. “When someone asks us why we are Catholic, we answer that it’s because we were born into a Catholic family. We don’t choose our spiritual family, the Church, anymore than we choose our natural, human, earthly family. Catholicism is in our DNA.

“We might temporarily drift away from, become angry with, be scandalized or confused by our spiritual family, and it’s the same with our human family,” he told the audience. “But with our spiritual family, like with our human family, we never leave it.”

Second, Cardinal Dolan suggested a renewed emphasis on apologetics. “Do you know what apologetics is?” he asked. “It’s the art of compellingly and convincingly defending our faith.”

Often parents come to him after their adult children have left the Church asking, “What did we do wrong?” The cardinal in turn asks, “What did we, as Church, do wrong?”

“We’re failing to equip our children and ourselves with the art of critically, compellingly and convincingly defending our Catholic Faith,” he said. “I don’t mean the combative, arrogant, in-your-face kind of apologetics that may have been associated with the apologetics movement in the past. I mean a humble, well-rounded, cheerful, competent, rational apologetics.”

Having a solid foundation of apologetics will allow Catholics to adequately answer questions and survive the irrational attacks on the Faith that proliferate from every direction today.

“We need apologetics now more than ever,” he said.

Third, Cardinal Dolan believes Catholics need to “fess up” to the sinful side of the Church.

“We need a repentant Church,” he said.

There is a large number of ex-Catholics because they’ve been shocked by the sinful actions of the faithful, including the clergy.

Therefore, we can’t — and shouldn’t — deny that the Mystical Body of Christ has warts. We admit the flaws of the Church and love it all the more, he said.

“The Church is the refuge of sinners,” he said. “When people say that they left the Church because it’s sinful, we reply, ‘well, we are, too.’”

Marge Fenelon writes from Wisconsin.