A good friend recently told me he's fed up with the weakness, hypocrisy and apathy in the Catholic Church. The scourge of "fat priests" is so acute for him that he's even considering withdrawing from that fellowship. Surely he can find people elsewhere who will at least "do something". I didn't say it at the time, but what I now realize I should have said is, "Good luck – tell me what prophetic valor you find out there."
There's no denying the Church is often, in fact more often than not, embarrassing and disappointing. (In fact, dogmatically speaking, there's NO denying this proposition -- human fallenness -- about the Church in her human dimensions!) But there is also no denying that the Church, rooted in the Scriptures and the living witness of Christ, maintains an amazingly prophetic edge. As God said to Jeremiah (chapter 1),
17 But you, gird up your loins; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. 18 And I, behold, I make you this day a fortified city, an iron pillar, and bronze walls, against the whole land, against the kings of Judah, its princes, its priests, and the people of the land. 19 They will fight against you; but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you, says the LORD, to deliver you.
Few if any groups in history have lived under such an explicit and far-ranging prophetic mandate as that of the Catholic Church. Paradoxically, this mandate becomes all the more clear and compelling when it's turned against the Church herself in light of her failures. Yet, lest we reify "the Church" as some massive "bad apple", we must ask, "Am I any better for any longer?" Ultimately, the balance of "judging the Church" must tip in favor of God's mercy and God's power as lived authentically and incandescently in her saints, doctors, martyrs and mystics. For the truth is the Church's failures are in fact the failures or sins of this or that particular priest or lay person or deacon or child. God's mercy and power are, by contrast, that unseen but unmistakable dynamism that maintains the Church as one living Body in all ages "walking in righteous deeds" ("For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." Eph 2:10) (To gain some perspective, consider other "movements" in history. Marxist socialism, for example, has been around for approximately a century and a half, and in that time has spawned incalculable damage [Stalin and Mao, to name the two "biggies"]). Can one really wag a finger at THIS WHOLE massive reality? Or is one in fact not more guilty of wagging a finger at this or that "worthless" believer? Before wagging, never fail to ask: "Am I any better for any longer?"
And so, if my friend were to leave for "greener pastures" of activism and uprightness, I genuinely wonder what he'd find. After all, his whole complaint is premised on the fact that life in the world has grave problems in need of fixing. How does it make sense to hike into the world, expecting it to be a pasture of goodness, when the whole issue is that the Church fails to adequately tend the pasture of inqiuity we call "the world" and "modern life"?
As for the Gospel today (Mark 6:17-29), I wrote the following epigram: "El bailar del mundo es la muerta de los santos. (The dancing of the world is the death of the saints.)" (Reading in Spanish is very inspiring for writing in it.)
Both the passages (Jeremiah 1 and Mark 6) have a connection, in my mind at least, with my friend's discontent. How easy it is to wag a finger at "the Church" for not "fixing the world" without taking stock of how persistently the world unfixes itself. "St. John the Baptist -- what a fool! What good could he do with his head cut off! What did he really accomplish? Herod went right on being a sod and the wheels of injustice went right on turning." And that's just the point.
When we look at the world, and the Church in it (although more accurately, since Christ's Ascension, we see the world in/through the "lens of" the Church), what proportion of the mix is the Church's failure to "fix" the world and what proportion is the world's own perfidious willfulness to remain broken? How much of the drama of Mark 6 was St. John's failure to stop the debauched dance and how much was the king's glee to keep the dance going, even at the cost of " a righteous and holy man" (6:20)? The Church "fails" as often as it does largely because the world does all it can to keep dancing; for it knows that to stop dancing is but to join St. John in the dungeon.
There are some who may reply, "But you're just blaming the world in order to save your own ecclesial skin!" Oddly, this brings us full circle, back to the initial complaint that it's the Church's fault for not fixing the world's problems, for being corpulently passive in the face of evil and injustice. But which is it? Does the world need fixing or doesn't it? Is the Church right to resist worldly evil (even if unimpressively at times) as the world's problem, or is it right accommodate human evil (and thus be a corpulent ally to that evil)?
Suddenly emerges another popular canard, namely, "The Church imposes artificial moral strictures on an otherwise healthy human nature. Humans, if left to themselves, will take care of themselves just fine, you paternalistic holy-rolling S.n.O.B." But immediately that small question returns: Which is it? Is the world basically "okay"? Or is it truly fallen and corrupt? If the former, why complain when the Church does nothing (or does too little) about the world's "problems", since they aren't actually "problems" at all? If, however, we affirm the latter – the world's fallenness –, why complain when the Church steps in with its "medieval" strictures? We may deride those strictures as naïve, ineffectual, backwards and any other modern epithet we can dig up, but we certainly can't fault the Church for hypocrisy ("bad faith") when it uses what it has for the good it believes should increase. You simply can't fault the Church for its failures if you also fault her for her ideals. Conversely, you can't bless human nature if you also lament the evils of natural human life. You can't fault the Church for her failed prophetic witness against evil if at the same time you encourage "natural human behavior" as an unqualified good (or at least an "okay"), since human nature as lived is patently the source of today's evils. In the world of the Scriptures, this means Herod could not fault St. John for being a party pooper if he also felt "disgust" at his beheading. If the Church is foolish from the very start to oppose raw "human reality", then we can hardly be upset when she is beheaded by a hypocrisy that enervates her stand against the reality of raw human injustice.