I engage in a correspondence with a number of old high school friends. We attended Central Catholic High School in San Antonio together in the early sixties, and I would like to deposit this recent letter of mine here as well. It is about the journey of faith and the struggle I have had being a Catholic. It is my hope that others engaged in the same struggle may find it of some interest.
Here is the letter:
Today, I heard the Ireland has ended its embassy to the Vatican, and I’m moved to respond. Over the past 10 years, Ireland has gone from being in its heart a Catholic country to being a secular one. This change has, in large part, been due to the appalling scandals of abuse that have been uncovered in the Irish church, and the poverty of spirit that church leaders have shown in their response to them.
I haven’t fallen away from the Church, but rather have entered into a profound struggle with myself over the Church. The idea that it is failing on an institutional level horrifies me beyond words. For most of my life, the Church has been deeply essential. I’ve had many strange experiences, but contextually, I have had them not only as a human being but as a Catholic. At one point I participated in a confidential colloquy about what the Church would do if extraterrestrial beings actually showed up.
While qualifying my thoughts with the central notion that this is not a very likely event–whether they have somehow managed to get here or, more likely, have not–I took the position that the Church should take the moral lead in making certain that they were legally recognized as human and extended human rights.
All the while, though I continued to struggle not with my faith but with my faith in the Church. Of course, I know its history well, and therefore know that we are living in a period of exceptionally good popes who are facing exceptionally hard times. I have wondered if perhaps the Lord, in watching over the Church, has not sent men like the last seven popes because He understood the difficulties that the Church would be facing. For example, Pius XII managed to preserve the integrity of the institutional Church through the rigors of the Nazi occupation of Italy–an amazing feat, but one that cost both him and the Church dearly. People forget that he was completely surrounded by Nazis after Kesselring arrived in Italy. He was helpless before them. Of course, he had to make concessions, and some of them were not attractive ones. But the Vatican was not looted, most of its priests were not shot or transported, and, in the end, the institution did not end up with blood on its hands. An amazing feat of statesmanship.
Similarly, I am deeply concerned about the issue of pederasty and how it has affected the Church. I am not so certain that the trial that has been held in the press has had an entirely fair outcome, any more than Pope Pius has been judged fairly. There is a powerful novel out now called Faith by Jennifer Haigh. It is written from the viewpoint of a woman whose brother, a priest, is accused of pederasty. You might consider reading it, so I will not describe details of the plot, except that the book makes a moving and powerful case that many of the accused have hardly been granted a fair hearing, and that a lot of money has been tendered on very little evidence by bishops desperate to extricate themselves from a catastrophic scandal.
I am not saying that none of it happened. Far from it, what has provably happened is truly atrocious, and the Church’s response to it has been inept, to say the least. But I really wonder if the scandal is as deep as it has been portrayed. The Church has been tried and convicted in the press, and I have always found the press to be a poor jury and a dangerously hasty hangman. However, what has been proved is so atrocious that it has led me to think that the institution itself has failed fundamentally. My kids would never dream of sending their children to Catholic school, as I believe I have commented in this correspondence before, and that grieves me. I can understand it, though.
But where does this leave one’s faith? I will die a Catholic, but not a believer. My wife distinguishes between uncritically believing something that cannot be proved and having faith, and I think she’s right. For me, faith is a matter of bearing my doubt and continuing on anyway. I have deep personal reasons for this. Every night, give or take, at about eleven, I have meditated for half an hour or so, then ended my day with a decade of the Rosary. And yet, I don’t know that I ‘believe’ any of it. I do have faith, though, in the immense organ note of tradition that sounds down the ages, of mass after mass from the Last Supper onward, and in the extraordinary beauty of our simple prayers, that have been with us now across the whole magnificent adventure of western civilization, drawing us back, again and again, to the mystery out of which our most successful of all human cultures was born.
It goes deeper than that, though. Every so often I feel–or think I feel–a lonely, immeasurably kind and alert presence that I sense is God flowing in human experience, and in my own small life, too. I sense an innocence that is quite appalling in its immensity and surprising in its simplicity. It inspires in me a deeply protective instinct, which in turn draws me to my own moral center: am I doing anything in my life to disappoint that innocence?
For me, what is good about the Church is that it offers a refuge for those of us who seek to engage in the moral struggle that is always on offer to human beings, to somehow reconcile ourselves in conscience with the institutional Church despite its current moral failures and its dark past. In the end, I find myself coming through all my struggles to about the same place that Evelyn Waugh arrived at in the conclusion of Brideshead Revisited: that the storms of the Flyte family had actually been animated by a hidden need: that the chapel at Brideshead not be deconsecrated.
If our generation of Catholics has anything to give to the Church of the future, it is our clear embrace of its present failure, but also our refusal to turn away from what is always on offer within its mysterious heart: the sacrament that it has carried across the millennia, and expects to carry to the end of time. No matter our doubts, we must not let it be deconsecrated.
And yet, I wonder: does the sacrament even exist? How can I know? Soon, the Advent Candle will be lit. In it’s glow, I will find a little respite from my doubts. As I join in the celebration of the season, though, there will return to mind knowledge of how many Gods men have loved and love now. Why is Christ any more true than Krishna, or Mary than Kali?
When I go to Mass, I will remember the ritual of Mithra from which it took its form, and Tertullian’s desperate assertion that Satan had gone back in time to plant the Mithraic ritual, in order to cause Christians to doubt. I will doubt. But I will not stop returning to faith, and the faith. Not because I don’t want to. I quit all the time. But then the loneliness of mortal life draws me back to the comfort of the pews.
Incidentally, if you think that the present scandals are the worst thing ever to happen to the Church, do pick up a good history. Over its long life, it has committed many a sin and terrible. And yet, there has not been a single day passing in two thousand years without there being, somewhere, somebody saying mass.