The Church Annie Selak Wants: Part I

The following is part I of my response to Annie Selak’s recent piece in the Washington Post:

2011-12-24T232416Z_01_MXR24_RTRIDSP_3_POPEOn Valentine’s Day, Annie Selak, “a lay minister in the Roman Catholic Church” revealed to the world what kind of church young Catholics want. She titled her Washington Post piece, “The church young Catholics want,” and in it she summarized some of the many noble desires of young Catholics for the future of their Church. She sees young Catholics wanting “a church that takes our experience seriously,” “that emphasizes the inclusive ministry of Jesus,” “that embraces that God is everywhere,” and “that engages struggles and is open to dialogue.” Her words merit discussion, both as the Church seeks to navigate its relationship to the modern world and as young Catholics seek to navigate their relationships to Catholicism.

In desiring “a church that takes our experiences seriously,” Selak states that “the church seems distant from what is actually going on in the world. We want a church to ask the questions we are asking, rather than ones that seem trivial and irrelevant at worst.” She cites the sexual abuse crisis and the new translation of the Roman Missal as examples of these “trivial and irrelevant questions.” Here, a response is difficult to make, largely because her examples don’t seem to make sense. Few things could be less trivial or more relevant than a sexual abuse crisis or a new translation of the Roman Missal. Indeed, in our world of rampant ‘expressions of sexuality,’ perhaps a sexual abuse crisis is a sign that some members of the church are too close to “what is actually going on in the world.”

To cite the new translation of the Roman Missal as “trivial and irrelevant” is perhaps to misunderstand what it means to be Catholic. Part of “Catholic identity” is, at the very least, to attend Mass every Sunday, so for a Catholic fulfilling the minimal obligations, the new translation will be experienced more than 3600 times in a lifetime. For a Catholic, what could be more important or relevant than the translation of the Mass? Selak’s article even ends with a quote from the Mass, which itself calls into question the claim that translation is irrelevant.

Regardless, the Church, in my eyes, does seem to take experience seriously. Our previous pontiff wrote hundreds of pages on love, sexuality, and relationships. The current pope has written about the pervasive lonelinesses in our current culture, and his words have struck the hearts of countless young Catholics, including my own. During a time of great loneliness in my own life, the words of Pope Benedict XVI made me feel loved, wanted, and important. What could be more relevant than that? The problem may be, not that the Church isn’t engaged enough in what we do, but that we aren’t engaged enough in what the Church is doing.

Current cultural debates show that the Church is more relevant than ever, playing an important role in the discussion of gender roles, the meaning of sex and sexuality, the relationship between government and religion, and countless other debates. The Church’s relevance is what makes Ms. Selak publishable in the first place.

Secondly, Selak calls for “a church that emphasizes the inclusive ministry of Jesus.” She reminds us that Christ reached out to those in society who were marginalized, and she points out two groups who she sees as particularly marginalized in current society: “women and people who do not identify as heterosexual.” She claims that “the Vatican has repeatedly shut down any dialogue surrounding the ordination of women and church teaching on homosexuality.” Here, Selak betrays herself in revealing that she does not merely want a church that includes such people; she wants a church that changes its teachings according to the desires of such people.

She forgets that the church does not only seek to include and draw in the marginalized. The church is also responsible for preserving and promoting the integrity of the Gospel message. It is such a responsibility that brings about its call for inclusion. But one teaching cannot be sacrificed for the sake of another. They all must be brought together into a coherent, organic whole. One must note that Christ does not call others into Himself and then adjust his teachings according to others’ lifestyles or desires. Rather, the humble of heart come to Christ and are changed themselves. The question is not so much about how we can change to be more inclusive, as it is about how we can present the teachings of Christ in their full integrity. There are better and worse ways to present these teachings, but none of them can be abandoned if the Church is to remain true to the ministry of Jesus.

That being said, the Church has a constant calling to reach out to those who are marginalized in the world. One may note here the fact that the Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization in the world, that the Knights of Columbus was started to help widows in New York City, that many prominent Jews praised Pope Pius XII for his aid to Jews during World War II, that the largest pregnancy resource centers in the United States were started and are still run by Catholics.

As a young Catholic myself, I don’t see the Vatican “shutting down” any new dialogue. Those advocating a change in teaching regarding women’s ordination or the Church’s teaching on sexuality have shut down dialogue. The Church has given response, and these advocates have failed to make new arguments that take note of this response. The state of the “dialogue” has become so shrill that one may wonder whether such new arguments are even possible. The Church has responded to them, but I don’t see them responding to the Church.

Another young Catholic wrote to Notre Dame’s campus newspaper a few years ago with similar concerns:

“Reading the recent debates over women in the priesthood, one is disappointed to see how many at this University are simply stuck in the past. They seem boxed inside a narrow, ossified way of thinking that we had all hoped was about to give way to a fresh breath of reason and openness. They appeal to the ideals of a time they really don’t know – a time they certainly were not around to see. From their nostalgic tone, one would think this one epoch of Church history had been the definitive instantiation of Catholicism, an epoch from which progress and advance were unnecessary, if not harmful. I’m speaking, of course, about the 1970s… I don’t mean to rant. It’s just disheartening to see well-intentioned colleagues shy away from the overwhelming justification of the male priesthood simply in order to follow the rigid banner of decades past. People. It’s 2009.”

You can read Part II by clicking here.

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