Paul Elie wrote a column in the New York Times on Friday suggesting that Catholics ought to consider “giv[ing] up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.” If Benedict can resign, says Elie, so can we:
For the Catholic Church, it has been “all bad news, all the time” since Benedict took office in 2005: a papal insult to Muslims; a papal embrace of a Holocaust denier; molesting by priests and cover-ups by their superiors. When the Scottish cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned on Monday amid reports of “inappropriate” conduct toward priests in the 1980s, the routine was wearingly familiar. It’s enough to make any Catholic yearn to leave the whole mess for someone else to clean up.
Elie says he’ll go back to his Brooklyn parish after Lent. But he thinks protest might be helpful to a church that has lost its way:
A temporary resignation would be a fitting Lenten observance. It would help believers to purify and deepen our faith in the light of our neighbors’ — “to examine our own religious notions, to sound them for genuineness,” as the American writer Flannery O’Connor put it. It would let us begin to figure out what in Catholicism we can take and what we can and ought to leave. It might even get the attention of the cardinals who will meet behind the locked doors of the Sistine Chapel and elect a pope in circumstances that one hopes would augur a time of change.
I count myself as a Paul Elie fan and I’m sympathetic to many of his points. Like many of my colleagues (see here and here), I’d paint a somewhat more complex picture of Pope Benedict’s papacy, but I can understand the resignation that would drive someone to a fast of this kind.
Yet Catholicism is so complex. There is so much beauty amid the ugliness about which Elie so rightly speaks. Just this week, at St. Louis University, I experienced some of that beauty.
The SLU community gathered to hear Dr. Jonathan Smith from the Department of African American studies read Fr. Claude Heithaus, SJ’s famous 1944 homily
that ended racial segregation at SLU. In the summer of 1944, SLU became the first school in St. Louis and the first university in any of the 14 former slave states to admit non-white students.
Fr. Heithaus begins his homily by shaming Christians and calling them to honor the truth of their faith above social conventions:
It is a surprising and rather bewildering fact, that in what concerns justice for the Negro, the Mohammedans and the atheists are more Christ-like than many Christians. The followers of Mohammed and of Lenin make no distinction of color; but to some followers of Christ, the color of a man’s skin makes all the difference in the world.
He ends by calling the congregation to stand and repent of their cooperation with evil:
For the wrongs that have been done to the Mystical Body of Christ through the wrongdoing of its colored members, we owe the suffering of Christ an act of public reparation. Let us make it now. Will you rise please? Now repeat this prayer after me. “Lord Jesus, we are sorry and ashamed for all the wrongs that white men have done to Your Colored children. We are firmly resolved never again to have any part in them, and to do everything in our power to prevent them. Amen.”
As I stood in the College Church repeating these words I was struck by the way in which the universality of Christianity and its prophetic teachings from the gospel forward allowed Fr. Heithaus to see a truth to which so many remained blind. “If Jesus Christ is right, then whosoever is unfair to a Negro, even in his own mind, is wrong,” he said. And in linking his own prophetic denunciations to those of the tradition, he changed St. Louis University.
Like most Catholic universities, we still need to confess our failure to welcome a truly diverse study body. Thank God for the prophets of today (James Cone, Bryan Massingdale, Alex Mikulich, Laurie Cassidy) calling us to live the Christianity we profess.
Still, it is moments like these that keep me in my pew.