An earlier version of this post appears on my personal blog.
“So why do you stay?”
Two Saturdays ago, that question was posed to me–and to the other three members of our panel–by a gathering of women religious near Boston. They had invited us to talk to them about our experiences as young adult Catholics.
It wasn’t a surprising question. We were all contributors to the book Hungering and Thirsting for Justice. We spoke from our narratives in that book: the spiritual memoirs of justice-seekers who remain in a church that, as often as not, is a stumbling block for justice-seekers.
One of my fellow panelists said she stayed because teachings about birth control, sexuality, and women are not the whole story. There is still Jesus, the sacraments, the saints, and our rich tradition of social thought, not to mention the prophetic witness of vowed religious communities like the one that invited us.
Another fellow panelist said she didn’t necessarily think of herself as “staying” in any conventional sense of “staying.” My third fellow panelist said that after a lifetime of formation, she had a Catholic soul whether anybody else liked it or not.
I found elements of myself in all these answers. But I framed mine a little differently.
I said I stayed, first of all, because of faces. The faces of (much of) my family, the faces of the intentional community I lived with in college, the faces of the women I’ve fallen for, the face of the priest who told me that I might forget who I was but God never would, the faces of the people who have most affected me: these are Catholic faces.
In other words, the church to me is people. It can be hard to remember when the church is also a colossus that does things to you and those you care about. But it’s true.
I also said I stayed because of stories. My story is bound up with a larger Catholic story, which in turn is bound up with countless other stories. By remaining Catholic, I am part of Oscar Romero’s story. I am part of Dorothy Day’s story. I am a part of Jean Donovan’s story. I am a part of the story of the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador.
In a special way, I am a part of my Polish ancestors’ story. Catholicism was a major way they preserved their identity while being invaded by, well, the rest of my relatives: Germans from the west, Russians from the east. As with Ireland, it was hard for Poland to maintain a state. So they maintained a culture, one defined by the church, and that culture never broke.
I told the sisters that for me to leave the Catholic Church would be a betrayal of these faces and stories. Now, that is purely a matter of personal discretion and individual judgment. Nothing is wrong with being non-Catholic. Nothing was wrong with my forebears who were German Lutherans, Scottish Presbyterians, and Russian Orthodox. Nothing is wrong with switching to nondenominational or Episcopalian or UCC if that’s what you need to keep you sane. But for me, because of some intuition I freely admit I can’t articulate, it would just be unthinkably disloyal.
The nuns, I believe, understood. I know there are many who would not understand. In the United States, religion is like much else: a consumer choice. If you don’t like the package deal on display in the store’s front window, you should see if they have a better item. If they don’t have one, you should go to a store that does. What sense does it make to hold vigils in front of the store until corporate changes the product line? It’s a free market and a free country, after all.
And for several reasons–America’s largely Protestant culture, the history of Western Christianity in general, and the preoccupations of a Catholic hierarchy that still takes many of its cues from the now-retired Benedict XVI–we are inclined to think of Catholicism, and of religion overall, as a set of propositions. These propositions are clear and distinct. They are to receive assent. You agree to the bylaws in order to join the club. And so the woman who is ordained a priest through RCWP, or the man who is partnered with another man, is obviously “outside the faith.” Right? I mean, let’s just make it official already.
We have trouble thinking of religion and faith in a different sense, one that is less intellectual, less individualistic, and older. We have trouble thinking of it as tribe and peoplehood, as image and metaphor, as poetry and storytelling around the fire, as sacred spaces and sacred faces, as culture and formation, as a toolbox of mind and heart, as questions that never leave us.
The journalist Chris Hedges–who has his problems lately, but who is another of the faces that has influenced who I’ve become–is the son of an activist Presbyterian minister. He himself went to seminary at Harvard Divinity School. After Hedges’ pastoral internship in a blighted Boston neighborhood convinced him of the church’s impotence and hypocrisy, he dropped out of the ministry. But, as he wrote in the book Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America, leaving the church did not make the church leave him:
I decided that July night in Roxbury not to be ordained. I decided I would have nothing to do with the church. I decided I would leave the United States for Latin America, where military regimes were suppressing popular dissent and death squads were dumping corpses on the roadsides. I would write about the conflicts in Argentina and El Salvador. I would give a voice to those who battled for social and political justice. It was as close as my generation would come to fighting fascism.
I decided many things. But in my youth, inexperience and anger, I did not understand that life has a way of deciding things for us. The themes and conflicts that define our lives are often not of our own choosing. We cannot pick our demons nor our angels. The anger toward the church, anger over its hypocrisy, anger over the way it treated its ministers, especially my father, anger over the way it treated me, did not free me to think or speak in another language. The fundamental questions, those formed within me by the church, would never change. And the questions, in the end, are what define us.
So why do I stay? Because I did not pick my faces or my stories. They picked me. They made me ask certain questions. I continue to ask those questions compulsively. And I always will.