The sentences are succinct, determined. “There are too many rules in Catholicism.” “Women are second class citizens in the Carholic church.” “Priests are hypocrites and perverts.” “Catholics are prejudiced and ignorant.” Each highlights perception, hints at stigma and reveals some aspect of truth. Somehow the word “Catholic” with a small “c”, with the meaning “universal”, opens up a deeper understanding. It’s very nature embraces the breadth of humanity with all its strengths and all its imperfections.
Rules are articles of custom, of social and generational norms; different than laws and separate from legalities, rules are guidelines to nurture what is most essential in a life of faith. The “rules” understood by one may be the guidelines for another; in some way, the rules represent the culmination of learning, of hope, of digesting human experienc in a particular age. To be bound by rules may be the perception, and there certainly are groups within Catholicism that live by strict rules in communal settings with common goals. But there is also the more common reality that the most essential factor is faith itself, finding footing and community in common expression…through liturgy and sacraments, holidays and seasons. There is flexibility and so there is hope.
The second is a reflection of a male-dominated hierarchical structure which allows women limited access to the corridors of church politics and power. There is undeniable truth in that, but it is not the whole story. Women were active and present from the outset. In some cases, they were trapped by historical context ; in some, women made history. Women carved kindness and spirituality into daily practice, pioneered movements of commitment, became sources of wisdom. Bypassing the power structure did not leave them powerless and does not leave them ineffective. But it is true that women live in the church in a different way than men.
Scandal after scandal has proven that some priests and members of the hierarchy are hypocrites. And, yes, some are perverts. In a wide institutional structure made up of human beings, what else could be expected? In the current atmosphere of transparency and technology, how could it be different? And in the light of history, such exposure has offered opportunities for change and growth. However, the reality of scandal means that therefore also priests who are not hypocrites but humans struggling like the rest of us even with the grace of ordination. It also means that there are good, emotionally and mentally healthy people being maligned by the scandals. So they are harder to find, challenging to trust, and ultimately learning like everyone else.
Lastly, the charges of prejudice and ignorance are tossed at Catholics in subtle and serious modes. These points are often attached to politically volatile topics and controversial public issues, viewed as sound bytes without substance and widely accepted by the secularized world. There is a certain irony in that. Exploring it, looking carefully, means a much deeper journey of learning is necessary.
Any of the four bears a validity, but each can also be a dismissal of great possibility. To look further into what Catholicism is actually about, to look at the why and the how and the vision and purpose, the generations past and the lessons learned may actually be worth it. The cost of not questioning four statements like that can be hefty. And yet, the weight of personal experience with Catholics and the Church may be the very reason for their inception. Bad experiences seed those moments an d lead to those choices.
So for each Catholic, each person, remembering what it means to be both Catholic and catholic, means that who and how we are matters, how we interact and communicate and live makes a differnce to self and others. And for that, it is the words of Teresa of Avila in the music of John Michael Talbot that are most fitting: “Christ has no body now but yours, no hands,, no feet on earth but yours…”