Friday, August 22, 2014

The Anti-Evangelization of Forming Outsiders

Recently I was tagged in a post on Facebook by someone who was upset about something that one church official said in one diocese in the United States.  The person who tagged me in the post did so with the best of intentions and with, I am sure, a desire to find a resolution.  My point here is not to discuss the particular issue that was raised in the original Facebook post, but rather to discuss the reaction that followed.  

Within seconds of the person posting their story, the responses started piling up.  "The Catholic Church disappoints yet again."  "Things like this are why I left the Catholic Church."  The comments included rants about priests molesting children (the original post had absolutely no connection to this topic), attacks on the character and intentions of the particular people in the diocese who were at the heart of the story, praise for a Catholic institution that prides itself on teaching contrary to the Catholic Faith on a host of moral issues, and what seemed like an almost boastful anti-witness of Catholics who have left the practice of the Faith.  The anger and hatred towards the Church was not below the surface.  It was there on full display.  In some instances, it seemed almost gleeful.

From what I gather, these comments were not coming from strangers who only had some vague non-personal relationship with the Catholic Church.  No, these were Catholics. These were--in large part--baptized Catholics who, given the opportunity, could not resist the chance to dismiss, despise, and deride the Catholic Church.  Again, my purpose here is not to debate the particular issue that was raised.  Instead, I am interested in the reaction.  One diocese in the entire Catholic world said one thing and, all of a sudden, the comments were flying on how the "Catholic Church" is doing something terrible.

I know that it probably shouldn't, but the reaction surprised me.  It surprised me not because people disagreed with this particular diocese's decision (the issue revolves around a moral issue, but I honestly think the whole situation could easily be solved to everyone's satisfaction).  What surprised me was how quickly Catholics were ready to disagree publicly with "the Catholic Church" and how so many of the commentators--some of whom I presume still practice the Faith--were ready to talk about "the Church" as "them" and not "us."

If the integrity of one of my friends or family members were being questioned publicly, my initial inclination would be to give the person the benefit of the doubt.  I would look for every possible reason as to why they were being misunderstood.  And, even in the end, if I disagreed with my family member or friend, I'd do my best to presume that they were acting in good faith.  Why?  Well, I know that everyone is entitled to those kind of presumptions, but I probably don't always so easily give them to those who are not my friends and family.  But, I want to give them to my friends and family because . . . they are my friends and family.  I love them.  I don't want them publicly bashed or for people to judge them harshly.  I always feel the same way about the Church.

I've lived my whole life in the Church.  I've been a priest for seventeen years.  Believe me, I've seen bad decisions and human weakness.  It would be futile for me to defend every decision I've seen made by leaders in the Church.  It would be futile for me to defend every decision I've made.  Do I think there are occasions when people in the Church make decisions for evil reasons?  Yes.  Do I think that there are occasions when people in the Church make decisions that arise from viciousness or incompetence?  Yes.  I could write you a list of instances!  But, for me, those instances are the exception to the rule.  When those things happen, it is those instances that ought to be condemned and corrected.  I wouldn't leap from that instance to a condemnation of the whole Church.

So, what has happened?  How did we form so many Catholics who think of themselves as being "on the outside?"  Where have we failed in our Catholic formation?  I see it in certain Catholic high schools.  In an effort to portray themselves as "more enlightened," they set themselves up as a parallel Magisterium.  Instead of forming disciples who follow Christ, they form observers who approach Christianity from the outside.  I see it in "skipping over Jesus Christ" and in the "reduction of Christ."  Pope Francis has said that we need to return to what is essential.  What is essential is Christ and the encounter with him.  Sometimes, we skip over this encounter and focus only on morality.  Of course the moral life is an integral part of Christianity, but it seems we can't gain disciples by simply fighting moral issues from one trench to the next.  We need to begin with the person of Christ.  At the same time, we cannot reduce Christ to a nice guy who said nice things and wants us all to be nice.  

I think another place where we are making a mistake in our formation of people is by concentrating all of our efforts on the "front door."  I was recently speaking to a young evangelical and I was complimenting the ways in which evangelicals attract people.  His reply surprised me.  He said, "We are good at getting people in the door, but we are losing them out the back door.  There has to be something inside."  Our discussion went on from there to the importance of the liturgy and preaching.      While it is of value to teach people how to invite others into the front door of our churches, there has to be something beautiful and true being lived inside.  Focusing almost exclusively on "front door" evangelization without a renewed emphasis on faithful preaching, liturgical beauty, solid catechesis, the importance of the Sacraments--especially confession--and a profound experience of the communion of the friendship of the Church will not help to form disciples.  "Going out and making disciples" has to be a going out from the experience of living discipleship already.  Training people to make disciples will only work if the people we are training to "go out" are being fed inside.

To invite those on the outside to come inside, we have to be "insiders."  We have to be people who love what we've discovered on the inside and who want to bring others to share in this encounter.  It seems that instead of forming insiders who go out, we've been encouraging those on the inside to become outsiders.  We have countless Catholics who have gone outside and now stare at the Church as observers.  They've been taught that to be an enlightened Catholic means to stand outside and comment on what goes on in the inside.  The Church is "them" not "us."  This is the anti-evangelization.  The Church has its work cut out for it.  Many of its own institutions and structures have adopted this anti-evangelization as their primary mode of formation.  

When Pope Benedict XVI preached at St. Patrick's in New York, he said that to many in the present culture, the Church seems legalistic and "institutional."  In the face of this, he went on to say, "our most urgent challenge is to communicate the joy born of faith and the experience of God's love."  He went on to comment on the nature of cathedrals.  He said that from the outside, the windows look dark and dreary, but when viewed from the inside, they come alive and reveal their true splendor.  He said that this is an image of the Church.  From the outside, it can seem dreary and foreboding.  But, when lived from the inside, it is an experience of grace and life.

In the face of what is a large-scale institutional deficiency, we have to figure out where to begin.  John Paul II, Benedict, and now Francis have all, in their own way, shown us where we need to begin.  We need to begin again from Christ.  We need to begin from the inside.


  1. I see what you're saying. And I sometimes feel as you do. But also, it's because I love my family and its members that I have complained about them. An outsider would think that I hate my brother because I'm always complaining what a jerk he is. But I don't. I think the term is loyal dissent.

  2. I can't speak for the individuals who posted comments on Facebook but perhaps for some of them there are serious wounds behind their remarks. Maybe it's not a case of them feeling "more enlightened" but rather it stems from a past hurt or a sustained injustice that to this day has never been corrected, resolved or even acknowledged by those who profess the teachings of Christ. We all have different experiences and what may be an exception for one might be the rule (real or perceived) for another.

  3. I am on the outside because the Catholic Church, supports adultery, remarriage and all manner of crimes, religious and secular, against abandoned spouses.

    This is from very personal experience that is beyond any question.

    I have no respect for the institution as it exists today, and less than none for the clergy who have the power. You, are my enemy. The more influence you have the greater enemy of truth, you are.


  4. My heart goes out to you, Karl. You're a lost sheep the Church should be bending over backwards to find and heal rather than ignore. I pray for you and for a more Christ-like Church.

  5. I was heart-broken to read Karl's comments because it seems as if he was really hurt by the Church. We can certainly debate the validity of that but it is clear that he feels marginalized in some way. I figured I would post comments here saying that I felt for him and was praying for him and the Church too. (Don't we like it when we know someone cares enough to pray for us?) I see you chose not to post these comments on your blog. That's entirely your right and frankly, I was surprised you allowed Karl's comments on this page to begin with since they were so negative but isn't there a missed opportunity here? He is a lost sheep and maybe there is no getting him back into the fold but saying nothing only or silencing those who would reach out allows his wound to fester even more. If we say we're all about the encounter and the tender gaze of Christ but then respond in a manner that runs contrary to that then isn't that potentially harmful to the New Evangelization? I think in one of your older posts you said you regretted the times when you came off as a fortress locked tight (or something to that effect). My previous comments to Karl were meant to reach out to someone who obviously has a broken spirit. Sometimes lost sheep tell us things we might not want to hear but ignoring them does not serve the Church very well.

    - a long-lost sheep

  6. Greetings All. Among the things that I'm not good at is keeping up with posting and replying to comments on the blog. I see them on my email, but in order to reply to them and post them, I have to sign in to the blog and do it from there. Since I get so few comments on this blog, I forget to check the comments with any frequency. Perhaps if I cannot keep up with posting and replying to comments, I should remove that feature from the blog. Sorry if I offended anyone.

  7. I apologize for assuming you refused to post my original comments. I came to this conclusion because there have been a couple of times in the past when my comments have not appeared. In this case I felt strongly that Karl's post should not go unanswered so that was my motivation for sending the follow up remarks. I think as long as people are civil and avoid the tactics of internet trolls, even negative comments can sometimes be insightful and shed some light on the different viewpoints Catholics may encounter in the real world.

    - a long-lost sheep

    1. No apology necessary. I'm just not good at keeping up with the comments (or email for that matter!). I'm surprised though that your comments have not previously appeared. Usually, the only time that I do not post comments are either because they seem to be some sort of "spam" containing a link to another site or because I printed one comment, replied, and then it appears as though is going to be an open ended comment debate--that I know I won't be able to keep up with! So, apologies if somehow your comments got lost in the shuffle! God Bless!