Critical Mass

In the July 30th edition of Time magazine, staff writer Lisa Takeuchi Cullen has a dilemma.  She wants the warm comfort of the mass with all of the childhood associations it holds for her.  But she doesn’t want to be accosted with the priest – or the Bible’s – interpretations on how she should live her life.

It’s a situation I’ve grown used to hearing about – Catholics who disagree with some or all of the Catholic Church’s stances, but still consider themselves staunchly Catholic – even if they haven’t darkened a Catholic pew in decades.  There is something powerful and mystical about being born or baptized a Catholic that Protestants don’t seem to have.  Protestants are willing to change congregations and even denominations without a lot of effort or angst.  But for a Catholic – even a non-practicing one – to entertain the notion of leaving the Catholic church is a no-no on an order with no other no-no I know of.

Cullen is brutally honest.  Give me the rich symbolism.  Give me the comfort of the visual associations of the Mass.  Give me the smells of frankincense and the intonations of choirs and chanters.  But give them to me in a language I don’t understand and never intend to.  That way, I can’t be forced to reconsider my stance on abortion.  Or stem cell research.  Or sex outside of marriage.  I want to live my life the way I want to live it, but I want the warm fuzzy benefits of feeling as though I belong to this ancient community.

I appreciate her honesty, even if I decry her calculating rationalism.  I’m no Catholic, but it seems to me that if you want to call yourself a Catholic (or a Lutheran, or a Presbyterian, or a Little League player, or a bridge club member), then it’s understood that you follow the rules.  You may not like them.  In which case you should seriously consider why you want to keep coming.  Maybe it will boil down to the aesthetic comforts that Cullen cites.  But participation in or membership in a larger whole assumes a certain level of acceptance not only of the organization itself, but the rules and bylaws through which it remains in existence.

We post-moderns don’t care for this.  We don’t, as a rule, believe it.  We believe that we can call the shots, take what we like from this system or that system – even if the two systems are completely adversarial and incompatible – and form our own special set of beliefs and behaviors that accomodate our preferences and lifestyles.  Forget centuries of theological thinkers who have carefully and persistently tried to hammer down the core elements that make one a Catholic.  That’s all unnecessary.  I can build my own Catholicism however I like.

Tragically the church has facilitated this – any church, not just the Catholic church.  All too often churches have been content to count attendance and tithing and call it even.  The hard work of continuing Christ’s counter-cultural proclamation of another kingdom – a kingdom not of this world, and where our personal likes and preferences and desires are considerably second place to God’s – is rarely referenced.  Let’s not make waves.  Let’s not rock the boat.  God knows it’s precarious enough trying to keep everyone somewhat happy as it is without challenging their understandings of how the world works, or their role in the world, or what Christ is calling them to.

Ultimately, if we continue to follow the lead of Cullen and millions of others, the church will disintegrate.  We’ll each worship privately in our homes however we so choose – perhaps that will mean making Belgian waffles, or perhaps that will involve sleeping off a hangover from the night before, or perhaps that will mean feeding the homeless.  But whatever it involves, it will be our decision.  Not because of any systematic examination of what church means, but just because we like it that way.

And darn it, if we like something a certain way, who is God to tell us otherwise?

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