Of the fate of contemporary Catholics, Flannery O'Connor once said that we must suffer at least as much from the Church as for it. Certainly, the past weeks have been a cause for suffering for Catholics of all political stripes, but the suffering takes on a particular flavor for progressives. We are deluged by questions from those who think of themselves as our colleagues and comrades. Actually, only one question: "How can you still stay in the Church?"
When I answer, I insist that the terms be defined properly. It is an error of vocabulary to assume that "the Church" is a direct synonym for "the hierarchy," "the bishops," "the Vatican." Those of us of a certain age remember traveling abroad during the Vietnam years when we would be asked, "How can you still call yourself an American?" Our answer was: we are not the White House. We are not the Pentagon. We are the people protesting; America is larger than your words suggest. Why must I believe that the church is Pope Benedict and not the courageous nuns who took real risks to defy the American bishops on health care in the name of the poor whom they serve? Some say we owe the passage of health care to these brave women; their position would not have been so effective if they had been speaking not as nuns, whose lives had been dedicated to the Church, but, say, as a group of nurses or social workers. The Church has a very long history; this history includes a fair share of scoundrels; it also includes those whose heroism was achieved despite the opposition of the official Church: Joan of Arc and Oscar Romero, to name only two.
An important source of the Catholic imagination is the parables of Jesus, and so I would like to explain the position of people like me in the form of a parable.
There was a family that owned a very large house, surrounded by extensive property. It also owned a business which employed many people and controlled great assets. Through a series of machinations, the family business and most of the wings of the house were taken over by a group of uncles: the most rigid, punitive, and aggressive of the family. One part of the family was relegated to one of the house's side wings. The uncles kept insisting that they really had no right to be in the house at all; their proof was the architecture of their wing: it had so many open doors, and the uncles were very distressed that they had no control over who was going in and going out. The marginal people said they thought maybe that wasn't so important. Meanwhile, the uncles surrounded the windows of their house with increasingly strong steel bars; they included metal detectors at the doors, and a machine for reading retinal prints, just to make sure they were firmly in control.
The marginal people were aware of the great psychic cost of inhabiting the part of the house that was so fragile and so far from the center. Also, they were aware that the uncles controlled the money and had it in them to cut off the heat and the water, make it impossible that they continue to meet, serve, and eat with their friends.
"How can you stay?" their friends kept asking. "In staying, don't you suggest that you are one with the uncles?" But the marginal people refused to leave. Because they knew that their father had left them the house as well, and if they left, it would be only in possession of the uncles. And they believed that the house was too important for that. For one thing, they worried about all the folks who wouldn't make it through the uncles' detection systems.
How do some of us stay in the Church? In grief, in sadness, with a resolve not to be shut out by those who say they are speaking in the name of the Father. We just don't believe them. The Church is not an institution; it is the people, people who are now wounded and scandalized, not only by the sexual crimes of priests, but more important, by the cover-up by those in power. In 1959 the election of Pope John XXIII was a surprise, a kind of miracle. It happened once. It could happen again. We wait, in stubborn hope, for the return of miracle. We want to make sure some of us are at home when it happens.