For a lifelong member of a large institution, at what point does a stance of healthy dissent toward that institution become a full-fledged breach? For a dozen years or so I’ve lived in a state of tension with the two most elemental institutions in my upbringing, the church and the state. My experience is not unique. I know countless others who happily grew up in the ways of the church and the nation, who recited the pledge of allegiance and the Nicene Creed, who cannot remember a time before they felt the secure embrace of their Catholic and American identities.
In fact, the two went hand in hand to a remarkable degree. When I conjure up images of the parish church of my youth, one of the most enduring images is of two flags hanging side by side high above the altar—the American flag and the flag of the Vatican. What I felt when seeing those two emblems together was pride and something more basic—a deep-seated identification with all that is good and right and godly. Church and country, faith and nationality—the flags symbolized twin truths about myself, unassailable pillars of strength and substance so much larger than myself that I could, I fervently believed, spend a lifetime pondering them.
Discovering the folly of youthful dreams and the fallibility of childhood idols is a needful rite of passage into adulthood and ought not be lamented. I easily relinquished my dream of being a pro football player and quickly forgot the pain of being dumped by a certain high school junior with whom I believed I had found true love. The trouble is, unlike these temporary sources of identity, my membership in the Catholic Church and my American citizenship cannot be casually cast off when they lose their luster.
In the wake of recent months’ events, I find myself increasingly at odds with those two seminal institutions under whose flags I was reared. More and more I find myself suspicious of nearly every dictate from Rome and Washington alike, shaking my head at the righteous claims and pronouncements by Mr. President or Mr. Secretary of Defense or His Eminence. For instance, Saddam Hussein is, by all accounts, an irredeemably heinous thug, but my outrage toward him is less passionate than my disappointment and disdain toward my own country’s bellicose and hypocritical grandstanding on the issues of weapons and the exercise of sovereignty. Similarly, while I loathe the ways in which Muslim extremists play out their equation between religion and jihad, I feel more deeply the pain caused by a church hierarchy that sees itself as unaccountable to laity and priests.
Abuse of power in institutions of which I am a part, institutions whose goodness I was raised to trust, is far more riling to me because it is closer, more personal. I am implicated in its failure just as indelibly as I am indebted to its success. When church leaders, for instance, fail to take responsibility for abuses of power, regarding themselves as above the people and above reproach, I feel even more outraged on behalf of the countless laypeople and priests who have worked tirelessly in the name of the church. North Korea is recognized universally as one of the most unenlightened and oppressive regimes in modern history; but when I see the leaders of my country, which recently announced that it would not hesitate to employ any weapon in its arsenal to defend itself, chastising North Korea for reactivating a nuclear facility, I wonder just how enlightened we really are.
My question—by no means a new one—is, how does one live with a jaundiced eye? The obvious answer is, either opt out or work for change from within. I have tried both. Let’s just say I have too many roots both in my Catholicism and in this country to abandon either one; and I do work for change, albeit in barely perceptible ways. So now what? The larger problems that I have with both the institutions in question are not about to change—perhaps never will.
The real question may be more constitutional than institutional. That is, it’s not so much, how do I live with this pope or that cardinal, this president or that chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but rather how do I live with imperfection. (Now there’s a softball for my friends and family to hit out of the park.) Having a critical disposition brings a discerning and restless temperament to every aspect of one’s experience, including the most trivial observations I may make in a supermarket checkout line.
As usual, tidy answers to this predicament are beyond my ken. I do know, however, that tension and dissent are the voices of yearning, and the possibility for knowing deep happiness and deep yearning at the same time is part of what imbues a people and a faith with an inexhaustible complexity. It is the propensity to mine and celebrate this complexity that makes me who I am; and it is the freedom to do so that makes me, still, an American Catholic. Learning to see the state of tension as a state of grace, feeling in dissent the woof and warp of my humanness, striving to appreciate more deeply the gifts of faith and freedom that I was given at birth—these are steps I can take. At the end of the day, they seldom feel particularly satisfying or just. And I’m not sure I know what would.