There are many minor irritants I face as we launch into another year. At the top of the list are the continual assaults of demeaning advertisements. One genre portrays us as preferring the latest electronic toy to any human relationship: we hush those around us as we try out our new app; others roll their eyes when they see us using last year’s iPhone; if we long for companionship, we can “see if someone is searching for you. Find out on Mylife.com.”
More directly related to the year 2012, we face a billion-dollar campaign for president in which the only comic relief from boring talking points and empty slogans might be the possible candidacy of Donald Trump, a man weirdly unburdened by self-knowledge. By his own testimony, of course, he is “big, huge”—a reference not only to his wealth and properties but to his ego, inflated, like so much of our nation, by self-display.
We face as well a political commentariat, carefully crafted and segmented to fit our prejudices and ideologies, from MSNBC to Fox News. We will be treated to hosts like Joe Scarborough and Chris Matthews, both masters mostly of interviewing themselves.
Looming above all the ephemeral irritants, there remain two inescapable challenges that will outlast the election and the year. They are the failure of middle- to upper management in our country and in our church.
In the wake of two trillion-dollar wars that have ushered in the rejection of the just war theory and the legitimization of assassination and torture, of growing immiseration for the middle class and poor and of refusal to consider banking, election or health care reforms, the U.S. Congress has achieved the lowest approval rating ever recorded. At 9 percent, our senators and representatives are esteemed about as much as pornography and polygamy. Perhaps our legislators have lost touch with the average American family, whose wealth has declined over the last 25 years while the median net worth of a member of the House of Representatives has more than doubled.
The problem of leaders “losing touch” with those they are supposed to lead may be confronting the Catholic Church as well. First, let me be clear: Bishops, Catholics and Christians can no more be caricatured or monolithically lumped together than politicians or any other group. Nonetheless, there are troubling indications that the failures in leadership among politicians are mirrored by those of religious leaders.
The latest data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveal that one-third of Americans who were raised Catholic no longer consider themselves Catholic. In fact, the top three religious groups in the United States now are Catholics, then Baptists, then former Catholics. Should this prod us, commissioned to pass on our faith, to ask some probing questions of ourselves?
It is true that dioceses have mounted stirring, often beautiful campaigns, calling unchurched Catholics to “come home.” But this raises two questions: Why did they leave? And what are we calling them home to?
As to the first question, there is no simple answer. Reasons may range from being deeply scandalized by the disgrace of sexual abuse to the self-serving rejection of challenging dogma or moral practice. But there does seem to be a growing number of disaffected Catholics who think they are leaving an institution whose primary commitment is resistance to abortion and same-sex marriage. This is unfortunate not only for those who leave the church but for those who stay as well. As important as our pro-life and traditional marriage commitments are, they are not the center of our faith. The mystery of Christ is the center, and it is to this that we should be calling former Catholics back.
Just as leaders of a nation must call its citizens to a common good beyond any particular vested interest, so also leaders of our church must call the disaffected not merely back to the church but to the One without whom the church has no legitimacy or mission.
If we Catholics all return home to our true center, we will indeed have a bounty of “Welcome-homes.” Coming back to a church focused on Christ rather than itself, some who have left us may discover what they were looking for when they left. And all of us might find ourselves newly empowered to challenge a disordered culture, just as courageously as our Lord did.