THE BLOG
11/15/2013 01:19 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Telling the Difference Between the Church and Hell

You can't be Catholic by yourself. It's a contradiction in terms. You can only be Catholic with other people. And Hell, as a character in Sartre's play, Last Exit, famously observed, is other people.

I was reminded of this truth about Hell while reading Laurie Goodstein's piece on the reactions of "conservative" Catholics to the papacy of Francis. The story opens with the words of Bridget Kurt, who took a prayer card with an image of Francis down from her refrigerator and threw it away. After working as a hospice educator and a pro-life activist, she feels slighted by his suggestion that being too single-minded in the pursuit of these issues risks losing sight of the totality of the Gospel. "It seems he's focusing on bringing back the left that's fallen away, but what about the conservatives?"

I'm not fond of the words "conservative" and "liberal," particularly when they're used to describe Catholics. Being Catholic, after all, means being part of the Body of Christ. Words like "left" and "right," "conservative" and "traditional," all remind me a little too much of Dante's Inferno, Canto 28, where those who spread dissent and division while alive are punished after death by a demon with a sword who splits them open, over and over, leaving their guts to hang from the gaping wounds.

And I have to admit that Kurt's complaint left my own guts squirming.

Kurt is not the only "conservative" Catholic who feels ill at ease with Francis' pontificate. Goodstein has a knack of finding the telling quote, and this article is loaded with them. Matt C. Abbott, a Chicago journalist, likens the last few months with Francis to a roller coaster, at least for "orthodox and conservative Catholics," and adds, "I'm not a big fan of roller coasters." Steve Skojec says that Francis has come dangerously close to articulating heresy and asks, "What kind of a Christian tells an atheist he has no intention to convert him?" Some claim that Francis' actions are all perfectly in line with those of his predecessors, though his off-the-cuff comments are easily misrepresented by the media. Others see Francis' pontificate as the harbinger of a time of trouble for the Church, a time that will see the rise of a "dark" Church.

All of this fear and rancor directed against Francis leaves me a little fearful and rancorous myself. I can already see the sword. So let me start off by saying that I empathize with these voices. I suspect that if Catholics who are very happy with Francis thought about it, many of them would empathize too. I say this because I'm not a fan of roller coasters. Having gone over to agnosticism and come back, there's a part of me that wants my non-believing friends to feel the same joy I felt in coming back to the Church. I agree that the secular media never really gets the wholeness of Francis' message, which is not simply a rubber-stamping of a "liberal" political agenda.

Most of all, when I read Bridget Kurt saying "Now I feel kind of thrown under the bus," I want to tell her, "I think you are now feeling what I, and many other Catholics, have felt for the last thirty years."

But Kurt's language suggests that she feels that her anger with Francis is qualitatively different from the anger that others felt with his predecessors. She implies that "liberal" Catholics "fell away" from the Church out of their own willfulness, while she, and other "conservatives" who continued to practice "are being pushed under the bus" against their will. This is certainly not true to my experience, and I suspect that many others who have left the Church at some point in their lives would say the same. I was raised in a post-Vatican II Church that, for all its turmoil, felt like a hopeful place. I loved the doctrines of the Church, and when I realized that the official doctrine of the Church offered no place for my sexual feelings, I struggled precisely because those doctrines were so important to me. But as Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under John Paul II, repeatedly pounded away at LGBT Catholics, the pain of staying in the Church became unbearable.

That pain might be likened to having your guts cut open with a sword. I hardly think I'm the only one who has felt it. It's the feeling of those who love the Church, only to find themselves pushed under a bus, so that others do not have to ride the roller coaster of doubt and faith with them. It's an old wound. And those who live with old wounds live with the constant fear that someone will open them up again. That's what scares me when I read Kurt's words.

But at the risk of opening old wounds, or inflicting new ones, let me ask whether the insistence of Kurt, and others who agree with her, "that all the church's doctrines are true and beautiful and should be obeyed," doesn't actually disguise a fear that the doctrine might error at times, precisely because it is incomplete. And frankly, how can it be complete, how can it be Catholic, if it ignores what so many of the baptized who question it have learned about the mercy of God?

Let me go further and ask if the anger that she and some other Catholics feel at Francis' actions does not actually disguise the fear that in their own actions, words, and complacencies, they have pushed their brothers and sisters on the left side of Christ under the bus? And if I ask these things, they should know it is only because I'm aware that the anger of many "liberal" Catholics has the potential to do exactly the same things.

Sartre was an atheist. The last thing I want to suggest is that Catholicism is Hell. Yet telling the difference between Hell and the Church is not always easy. Christ embraces people who really are different from us. Sometimes it hurts like hell to embrace them along with him. But walking away will only leaves us all bleeding.