I am an American author, English professor, and editorial consultant interested in many things: my main project now is finishing a book on silence and contemplative prayer. This is the result of years of reflection on my upbringing as a Catholic and my work in Christian spirituality. I have written about Thomas Merton and Milton's "Paradise Lost" as well as a book on cats, not to mention a series of grammar textbooks.
I capitalize Church partly out of habit, partly to signify that I refer to Holy Mother the Church, as Catholics once referred to their often unholy community of believers.
Today, as bishops are found guilty either of predatory crimes and coverups or worldliness or moral blindness, it is inevitable that many within the church should be critics. Richard Rohr in his current series on prophets ("Daily Meditations")reminds us that criticizing the church is "being faithful to the very clear pattern set by the prophets and Jesus" himself. We criticize what we love and want to improve; this is very different from hateful attacks.
What I've read lately about the hierarchy are honest and helpful critiques. Elizabeth Scalia in America (8 May) calls herself a "mad, fed-up Catholic." She refers to the presence of too many spoiled princes and too few true servants, in other words, an institution crippled by clericalism, in which laypeople still have a tiny role. She writes, I think, as a prophet.
So does Margaret Renkl in the New York Times (1 July), who reminds us of the primacy of the informed conscience. When a bishop (as recently in Indianapolis) demands that all teachers in Catholic schools be considered "ministers" and therefore forbidden to marry those they choose (such as same-sex partners) and when such a bishop fires these well-qualified gay teachers, many thinking faithful might well object. Obedience to bad morality is not required.
Renkl reminds us what is often overlooked: the principle that says Catholics should be informed of church teachings, study them, listen to the arguments and pray for discernment goes back to Thomas Aquinas and has been re-affirmed by Pope Francis. This process might well result in our respectful disagreement with the official teaching, which is often the case in sexual matters about which the celibate clergy are often unenlightened. She does not say this principle of the "primacy of the informed conscience" was also re-affirmed by the Second Vatican Council, which conservatives in the church tend to minimize.
Do these and many, many other upset and angry Catholics belong outside the church? No! Our tradition has always thrived on conflict and respectful dissent. To leave the church and go it alone is to cater to the cult of individualism. We need to be part of something larger than ourselves. Again, Rohr comes to our aid: We got the idea of church, he says, from the Jews who taught us that we need a kind of collective good that unites us, strengthens us, transforms us. Because "there is no way that we as individuals can stand alone against corporate evil or systemic sin."
So for individuals to say that the church is guilty of corporate evil and systemic sin is a duty, based on fact, not a heresy; it is part of the prophetic tradition and is a sign of health, the first step, perhaps, in healing. Now others must join these individuals and demand change.