“I don’t need a Church to tell me I’m wrong when I know I’m wrong. I need a Church to tell me I’m wrong when I think I’m right.” - G.K. Chesterton
When we complain about the Church, it usually boils down to one of two complaints. See if either of these sound familiar to you:
#1 “The Church needs to just shut up about issue X. Everywhere I turn it seems like the Church is obsessed with issue X when issue X is really none of their business in the first place, yet Christians are always trying to persuade people about issue x and even vote to impose their views about issue X on other people. They even financially support the cause and lobby the government to create laws based on their views on issue X. The Church needs to keep their views to themselves because in this country we have a separation of Church and state and we don’t need these Catholics forcing their views on other people.”
And . . . #2 “Oh yeah, and another thing that drives me crazy about the Church: they don’t speak up enough about issue Y. Issue Y is one of the most important issues of our age and yet the Church hardly says a thing about it. Why don’t they spend money and lobby and vote on issue Y? The fact that they don’t take a strong stance on issue Y shows what total hypocrites they are and they don’t care about the common good. They are just corrupt pawns of the political party A.”
Either of these ring a bell? I know they do for me. I hear these two opinions all. the. time. And often right next to each other, spouted by the same person, sometimes even in the same conversation or social media feed, failing to see that they contradict each other. These opinions are especially prevalent when it comes to political discussions. Whether its liberals saying the Church needs to shut up about abortion but speak up about the dignity of refugees, or conservatives saying the Church needs to shut up about climate change but speak out on the importance of traditional sexuality, the formula is the same. And despite our pretense that these objections stem from principled, well-defined parameters about the appropriateness of the Church speaking into people’s lives, what these arguments actually boil down to is this: I want the Church to speak out on only the topics I agree with. Beyond that, I think they should butt out and let me live my life.
Unfortunately for those of us who live in democracies, our societies are structured around the idea that we all, to some extent, get a say in one another’s lives. A government of, by, and for the people means that many aspects of our society will be determined by those people. Certainly we have crafted institutional limits like the Bill of Rights that guarantee us certain freedoms beyond the reach of the tyranny of the majority, but the very nature of democracy makes us subject to one another’s will. These limits include freedom of conscience and religion so that the government cannot become a theocracy, yet this freedom also guarantees religious institutions and people the right to cast their votes and their voice in support of what they believe will promote the common good.
However, this “I want the Church to agree with me or shut up” attitude is not just an opinion expressed by those whose political views are in tension with Catholic social teaching. It’s the opinion of pretty much every person in history (including me). Nobody likes to hear someone else—especially someone in a position of authority—telling them that they are wrong. We like people to agree with us and reinforce our ideas. We certainly don’t like people telling us to run our lives contrary to how we’d like.
C.S. Lewis once famously wrote, “If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.” What he meant is that the Judeo-Christian tradition is extreme in its demands and it makes accountability of one another a priority. The book of Genesis chides Cain for not being “his brother’s keeper.” The Prophet Ezekiel tells us if someone sins and we did not warn them of the dangers of their iniquity, that God will hold us accountable (Ezekiel 33: 1-9). The epistles of the New Testament are filled with verses that extol the virtue of accountability to one another (Gal 6:1, Col 3:16, Hebrews 3:12, James 5:19-20). Even Jesus himself lays out a strategy for how to handle a brother who has gone astray (Matthew 18:15-20) and then ends his ministry with a call to go evangelize the world (Mathew 28:19). Christianity is not a keep-it-to-yourself religion. Jesus didn’t give us that option.
Jesus does caution us however not to flaunt our religion for prideful reasons (Matthew 6:1-8) and to be careful to judge not lest we be judged (Matthew 7:1-2). But these exhortations don’t mean to mind our own business and stay silent about issues that matter. They are reminders that speaking a correction must be done with the utmost humility and gentleness because we are also sinners who need the truth of God spoken into our lives. We also do well to recognize that not every statement or action by the Church or its representatives is above reproach and we should not accept them unthinkingly. Quite the contrary, it has often been the job of the prophet and the saint (and also Jesus) to call religious leaders to task. Perhaps most importantly, corrections must be spoken in compassion and out of concern for the other. The prophetic voice quickly devolves into self-righteous nagging if we forget the words of Jesus to love our enemies and neighbors as our own selves (Matthew 5:44, 22:39). Moreover, if we fail to examine our own lives more rigorously than our neighbors, we join the ranks of the hypocritical Pharisees Jesus so often denounced (Matthew 7:3-5).
These are not popular ideas in 21st Century America. The pervading “live and let live” mentality of our postmodern society often paints even the smallest criticism or correction as an act of hate and violence and it is easy to adopt that mentality without even realizing it. Moreover, our fiercely individualistic culture glorifies “doing it my way” and “being true to myself” as high virtues and disdains obedience to another’s will as the ultimate self-betrayal. As Christians striving to navigate this cultural landscape, we do well to remember the following two points.
When speaking the truth, we should expect to be met with hostility. A great many of the heroes of our faith faced vicious persecution. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, John the Baptist, the apostles, Jesus himself: each of them paid a high price for their prophetic message.
When we are on the receiving end of a correction (whether from the Church, another Christian, or some other source) our first reaction should not be defensive dismissal. The “who are you to talk to me about my life” reaction may seem utterly appropriate, but it is not Christian. Yes, we are called to be that voice crying out in the wilderness but we first must heed the voice ourselves.
So the next time we balk at a message (or lack thereof) from the Church, let us not fall automatically into our standard defenses. Rather, with an open heart and mind, let us prayerfully ask for the grace of wisdom, understanding, humility, and (most unpopular of all) obedience to the will of God.