A good friend, who happens not to be a Catholic, expressed surprise that I have been openly critical of the church in some of my posts, even though he knows that I remain a faithful Catholic.
I recalled at once the words of Mario Cuomo: "If the church were my religion, I'd had given it up a long time ago. Christianity is my religion, the church is not."
It takes someone with a broad view of history and the reality of church politics, perhaps, to make this important distinction, which many Catholics do not make. If they remain active in the church, they may disagree with or ignore the statements that come from the Vatican or the American bishops, especially when it comes to moral and social issues. They may seek advice from their confessors on such topics as contraception or follow their own conscience.
We who remember the spirit of the Second Vatican Council know that the church as a human institution should be the object of criticism, and, as Cardinal Newman said more than a century ago, the laity have a responsibility to play a role in the ongoing reform and renewal of the church. The Council also reaffirmed the primacy of conscience for all who constitute the church.
People like me, who have read a great deal over the years and have a critical view of clerical power, need an awareness that "Rome has spoken" is not necessarily the final word. I think of the crisis in the priesthood, as an obvious example, and the large defections by angry ex-Catholics weary of official teachings on sexual morality that do not conform to the reality of people's lives.
I do not attend Mass because of church doctrine or theology or because of what priests say or do as men but because of my spiritual needs, which are fed by the Eucharist and the word of God. I need to be part of a community of prayer, preferably one with deep roots.
I know that, when the faithful disagree with a teaching of the church (such as the ordination of married men or women), we who are the church have an obligation in conscience to respectfully disagree. Don't patriotic Americans have an obligation to critique unjust laws and corrupt government practice?
Hence the recent tours by "nuns on the bus," who challenged the bishops in some of their appeals to the conservative cause, by emphasizing the needs of the poor and hence the need for Obamacare, among other things during the recent election campaign. Many of us who consider ourselves liberal Catholics cheered these nuns and their long record of courageous service.
One of them, Sister Margaret Farley, a theologian censured by Rome, asked a telling question this past summer: :"Is it a contradiction [in our Catholic tradition] to have power settle questions of truth? Or to say we know all we can know?" A bold and important question. History is replete with thinkers who have been unjustly silenced by the teaching authority of the hierarchy, only to have their views later validated by history.
Hence someone like Garry Wills, a Catholic intellectual whose historical books and articles reach a wide audience, is among those faithful to Catholic tradition who look critically at what the official church says--not in matters of settled dogma but in those moral issues on which there is divided opinion.
The church has, in a sense, been kept alive, theologically, by discussion and even dissent, by critical inquiry--at least among the elite. Now that lay people have become as well educated as priests, they can look, as I try to do, with a broad historical view at the church and can, as mature Catholics, respectfully agree to disagree with certain practices and teachings. Thus I can make a distinction between my faith, a personal matter, and my adherence to the church, whose efforts in many areas I support, especially outreach to the needy.
I have chosen to remain within the troubled institution of the Roman Catholic Church, aware of its imperfections and sins, yet mindful of what is more important: the tradition of public prayer, the liturgy that enables the religion itself, not the institution, to survive and flourish.
Recently, the retiring Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams made one of his many astute observations that is relevent here: "Christianity is not essentially a big idea we must try to spread by arguing the truth, but a cultural tradition, centered on the church's ritual." In this cultural tradition, he goes on, supreme authority belongs to the cross and resurrection, which the church performs in the Eucharist.
So the church is an essential vehicle for communicating something more important than the institution itself: the life of faith, sacraments, and prayer through an ancient and ongoing tradition of practice. My religion is not about theology or philosophical arguments. As the old saying has it, what we believe is secondary to how we pray and what we do, the cultural language we speak.
I choose to remain faithful to the cultural language made possible by the church in which I was raised, mindful that "church" means much more than the men who run it.