The perfect is the enemy of the good

Working in the church reform movement, I see, hear and read a lot. Sometimes I think I’ve seen it all. But I still have a few eyebrow-raising first times, like just this week.

Dealing with some correspondence, I learned about a parish where the pastor reportedly ordered all “liberal Catholics” in his congregation to disperse. At Mass, he said he did not welcome them and they should go away. To emphasize his point, he put a sign in the parking lot proclaiming: “A vote for Obama is a vote for evil.”

Really? This is how he leads a complex spiritual community in a complex world? By stooping to the moral level of middle-school cliques that don’t let outsiders sit at their lunch tables, that write magic-marker insults to kids they don’t like on the insides of bathroom stalls?

Those who are comfortable pursuing a “smaller, purer” Church don’t realize the dangers inherent in their quest. Exclusion, by its very nature, is all-consuming. It is an engine that keeps on chugging, a mill perpetually demanding new grist. If the reactionary fringe ever banished all liberal dissent, it would not suddenly dwell in the peace of Christ. It would, in the absence of other scapegoats, cannibalize itself.

The surviving remnant would become like the bishops at the early councils, who were said to argue so ferociously over theological points that they yanked each other’s beards. They would cultivate an atmosphere where opportunists, using doctrinal purity as a cover for achieving power and status, would tattle on perceived competitors in order to eliminate them. In the end everyone would be surprised to learn just how small you can go, just what shrinking really means for a Church accustomed to having a voice in the world.

I recently read writer Frank Schaeffer’s autobiography Crazy for God. His father, the famous evangelical leader Francis Schaeffer, was originally a Presbyterian pastor. With his wife, Edith, he got involved in denominational splits over biblical inerrancy and other fundamentalist tenets. The Schaeffer family moved to Europe and their church community was ultimately, poignantly reduced to their little mission, L’Abri, located on a hill in Switzerland.

L’Abri survived its precarious beginnings and succeeded, but only because Francis and Edith Schaeffer made a partial about-face from their obsession with orthodoxy. They cultivated a reputation for open-door hospitality and for critically engaging the arts and culture of the Sixties.

The perfect, or at least the pursuit thereof, is the enemy of the good. We have the Church in the first place because Jesus walked among the diverse, messy multitudes saying, “Come to me, come to me.” Leave the separation of the weeds from the wheat to God, or all you’ll do is ravage the crop.

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