If you ask me—and I know you haven’t—the current bout of Catholic anger is not only futile but counterproductive. It’s an awkward opinion to hold. The current consensus in one sector of the Catholic Internet commentariat is that you have to tell everyone how angry you are with the bishops over their maladministration of the Church and loudly demand reform. Why? Because a lot of Catholics are angry and want you to be angry, too, so you have to feed their expectations; otherwise, you’ll risk losing your audience. So let me explain to you why I’m not playing that game.
The First Three Reasons
First, the bishops already know Catholics are angry with them. Some are equally frustrated with the status quo. Those who aren’t still fear where our anger will lead to if they don’t quickly and effectively address the need for reform. The recent message from the Vatican stopping their current initiatives until Pope Francis confers with the heads of the national conferences didn’t relieve the USCCB of their anxiety. If anything, that bombshell only heightened their own frustration. They don’t need me to remind them of what they already know too well.
Second, continual social media griping won’t speed up the pace of reform. Lay Catholic anger, righteous or not, doesn’t make the ordinary obligations and challenges of Church administration go away (which is why withholding our donations is a bad idea). In fact, most bishops must wedge reform efforts into calendars already stuffed with local crises and concerns. Some of the frustration the American bishops feel must come from the fact that they had to upend their schedules in order to attend a meeting that the Vatican’s announcement reduced to episcopal griping around the water cooler. My yapping at them won’t help.
Third, most of us don’t know enough to make practical suggestions. Some members of the Catholic chatterati have worked in seminaries or diocesan chanceries; some have been at least partially through priestly formation; some are reporters or scholars who have done the appropriate research. The rest of us know something’s wrong and needs to be fixed—that’s all. Once you’ve said that, you’ve said all you can usefully say; anything more is ignorant yabba-yabba. I don’t know enough about the bishops’ job to tell them how to do it better.
What’s Wrong with Catholic Anger?
Fourth, anger—even Catholic anger—is nothing to encourage, let alone exploit to gain social media followers.
Catholic teaching is somewhat ambivalent on anger. On the one hand, as a passion, the Church considers it morally neutral; on the other, as a desire for revenge, it’s considered a sin against the Sixth Commandment. This echoes the psychologists’ and psychiatrists’ take: It can motivate positive, constructive actions, but when too frequently or easily provoked it’s deleterious to one’s physical and emotional health. Nurtured and encouraged over the long term, it’s destructive to charity, truth, humility, and justice.
Moreover, angry people—especially angry idealists—are easier for demagogues to exploit. Lenin, Mussolini, Hitler, Castro, Mao Zedong—just in the last century or so, we can name several figures who rode into dictatorial power on the wave of their countrymen’s anger. As a lesser example, we can look at the Bush Administration’s perversion of our post-9/11 rage against terrorists to support the bloody, costly, and unnecessary invasion of Iraq on the thinnest of pretexts backed by questionable evidence. Anger biases and weakens prudential judgment, allowing even good causes to be subverted by power-seeking sociopaths.
The most insidious thing about Catholic anger is that it eventually, inevitably creates a kind of anti-witness to Christ. In this “toxic Catholicism”, we spend more time complaining about everything that’s wrong with the Church and its leadership today, not to mention outing “fake Catholics” and bashing the enemy political tribe, than we do spreading the gospel message. The constant public torrent of whining, sneering, and backbiting paints such an ugly, unhappy picture of the Catholic faith that non-Catholics must wonder why anyone in their right mind would want to join us.
Trusting in God
Fifth, there’s really very little we laypeople can do about the situation. We can write our bishops. We can write to the Vatican. We can write blog posts and grumble on YouTube vlogs. And in doing so, we’ll compete with perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands of other voices all trying to make their opinions known. Why bother, when all you can knowledgeably say is, “I’m angry and I want you guys to do something about this”? As I said before, the bishops already know Catholics are angry; they already know something has to be done.
And I’m okay with that.
I’ve said before that there’s a certain kind of freedom in knowing that you have little power to affect an outcome. That freedom only comes with learning to trust in God for all the things we can’t personally change, with learning to listen to him saying, Dude, I’ve got this. You go do what you can and let Me worry about the rest of it. Tomorrow and next year and twenty years from now are all unfinished scripts. Today’s problems are challenging enough without borrowing tomorrow’s (cf. Matthew 6:34).
The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine—but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight. (Hilaire Belloc to Anglican bishop William Temple)
Throughout her long life, the Church has suffered bishops, priests, and religious who were fools, scoundrels, or lunatics. Christ never promised us that our leaders would all be sane, virtuous, and wise. But He did promise us that the gates of Hell would never prevail against the Church He founded on Peter the Rock (Matthew 16:18) and that He would be with us to the end (Matthew 28:20). The Church needs reform; so long as she’s run by humans, she will always be in need of reform. But the Church does not need to be “saved from” anything or anyone.
Focus on the Gospel
Last, the most important thing we—the laity, priests, and religious—can do to reform the Church is to return to preaching and living the gospel message.
The gospel is the raison d’être for the Catholic Church: to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe everything that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). The crucifixion of the Son of God, the reason for it, and the consequences of it—that is what brings people into the Church … not our hierarchy, or our liturgy, or our cultural legacy, or our social doctrine. That’s why our primary symbol is a crucifix, not a miter.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that the bishops don’t matter or that they’re not integral to the apostolic tradition. I’m saying that the gospel—and therefore the Church—is not “about” them, save in the fact that they too are sinners in need of Christ. I’m saying that every social-media post dedicated to venting our anger at the bishops is a post taken away from spreading the gospel—the one thing we can do to revitalize the faith. I’m saying that if we turn our energies back to what’s supposed to be our primary focus, we’ll be surprised at how fast other problems get sorted out.
In a sermon he gave in 2009 to fellow priests, Fr. Bill Casey of the Fathers of Mercy quoted Abp. Ven. Fulton J. Sheen: “Strong love makes strong actions, and the measure of our zeal in bringing souls to the feet of Christ is the measure of our love for Him.” The kind of young people who will become the kind of future bishops, priests, and religious we need will come from parishes whose members are consumed by zeal for the house of the Lord (Psalm 69:8-13; cf. John 2:13-22), not from those burning with anger.
What Better Time?
I finish this article the day before Thanksgiving, in the waning days of Ordinary Time and the 2018 liturgical year. In just a few days, the penitential season of Advent begins a new cycle. What better time to rededicate ourselves to living the gospel than in the time of preparation for the coming of the Christ? What better time to find again the love of God that has consumed apostles and reformers for 2,000 years?
So no, I’m not going to spend another paragraph on the sins of the hierarchy or feeding Catholic anger over something we the laity can’t do bubkes about. I hope that doesn’t disappoint you. But I get the sense that other Americans are sick and tired of angry people clogging up social media with their consciousness and righteous rage. There are still people who want to know about God, what He has done for us through Jesus Christ, and what we can do for Him in response. So there is still a need for Catholic writers to write about the faith.
The scandals are ephemeral and will eventually fade. The need for evangelization is permanent: it will end only when Christ returns. Let’s get back to our main business—laying souls at the feet of Christ.