Sunday, October 23, 2011


I have had contact with several lapsed leftist types lately and have been shaken to the core.

You know the type. The type who, when it comes up that you go to Mass, get a pained expression on their face, lean in as if they were talking to a not-very-bright infant, and say "Oh. You see, think everybody should be allowed to sit at the table." The type who believe that THEY are the "free-thinkers," THEY are the truly compassionate ones, they are the ones who are performing the hard, HARD works of mercy (preferably in a way that is highly visible and garners them lots of praise) while the rest of us naive children who have not yet grown up and experienced the real world go to church.

Nothing delights these folks more than a priest who has broken his vows, unless it is seeing the Church pay out millions of dollars to sexual abuse victims and, say, having to close a parish (though they will then make a great show of parading back to Mass every so often with the defrocked priest and both taking the Eucharist, triumphantly “flouting the rules” and thereby establishing, as one of these folks put it, “The Better Church”).

No, literally, I reacted to the phrase as if I’d been shot: moaning, and writhing about, and all but foaming at the mouth. The Better Church? Don't you mean the actual Church? I wanted to say. No-one stands at the door of a Catholic church and says you can't come in if you're poor, if you're cheating on your husband, if you're addicted to internet porn, if you're having gay sex, if you're a drunk or a prostitute or a charlatan or a swindler or a pederast priest or an arms dealer or a venture capitalist, if you're insane (thank God, or they would never have let me in). No-one stands at the front of the Communion line with a ledger and demands, Are you a sheep or are you a goat? Have you gone to Confession?  No one asks, or even knows, in a city anyway, whether you're Catholic.

The problem is not that the Church is exclusive; the problem is that we are. What bothers us is not that everybody can't sit at the table; it's that everybody is allowed to. What bothers us is that the Church tells us what love looks like, then leaves us entirely to the honor system, to the individual conscience, and we all tend to feel that our conscience is more finely honed than anybody else's. I certainly lean, or have historically leaned, to the left. So I am partly speaking for myself--in fact, let me speak only for myself, before I converted--when I say the people who refuse to attend Mass on principle are the last people who want everyone around the table: they want themselves and "the poor." What they can't stand is the thought of being associated with the wealthy, the Pharisees, the war-mongers, which would lower them in the eyes of their peers, which would be a terrible blow to their identity, which would require them to actually try to love their enemy.

To try to make up our own church as we go along, to believe that we can have our own private church with our own rules, our own whims, our own laws, our own desires, our own truth, is to have a parish of one. That is the Church Without Christ established by Hazel Motes, the protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood, whose integrity, in the end, consisted in blinding himself with lime, pilgrimaging the roads of the rural south with bits of broken glass in his shoes, and dying in a ditch. And make no mistake. O'Connor wasn't saying that Hazel Motes was grotesque: she was saying that we are: trying to make our own way by our own wavering, false light.

Part of the genius, the subversion, of the Catholic church is that it continually gives the lie to our sentimental notions of compassion. We think we're compassionate but we tend to be compassionate to those we think will be compassionate back. We think we love but the love is often about us and the image we like to project. We think we're radical but we are deeply conservative, deeply frightened of The Other, deeply desirous of the first place, the place of security, the place of prestige, whatever prestige may mean to us and our peers.

That is why to be a follower of Christ is always to be on the outskirts. That is why to be a practicing Catholic is always the most radical, the most counter-cultural, the most scandalous place to be. It requires us to stop pointing the finger at everyone else and to try and understand them. It requires us to admit that no one of has the whole picture, the whole answer, and that every single one of us is integral to the coming of the Kingdom. It requires us to acknowledge that while we're "putting up" with them, they're putting up with us, too.

Perhaps the real genius of the Church is this: no matter how we lean politically (and more and more, my impulse is not to lean at all), nothing shatters our egos like worshiping with people we did not hand-pick. We might think we're all about subversion, but the last power we want subverted is the power of "control" over what we worship, over the Person or thing to which we give our bodies, our hearts, our souls. The ignominy of worshiping with people who seem to believe something very different from what we do! The distastefulness of sitting in the same pew with people who would not say hello to us on the street and to whom we would perhaps hesitate before saying hello back! The humiliation of discovering that we are to be thrown in with extremely unpromising people!--people who are broken, misguided, wishy-washy, out for themselves. People who

We don't come to church to be with people who are like us in the way we want them to be. That is a club, a civic organization, a movement, not a church, or rather not the Catholic church. We come because we have staked our souls on the fact that Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that the Church is the best place, the only place, to be while we all struggle to figure out what that means. We come because we cannot live, breathe, work, love without the Eucharist. We come because we hunger for the holy, because we yearn with all our hearts for the invisible to be made visible, to suffer with him, sit in the Garden at Gethsemane with him, eat with him, sleep with him, pray with him, live and die with him, spend eternity with him. We come because we believe he knew what he was doing--all evidence sometimes seemingly to the contrary--when he said: "You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."

We come because we'd be hard pressed to say which is the bigger of the two greatest scandals of God: that he loves us--or that he also loves everyone else.



  1. Here, here! Great post.
    I wonder if those of us who have "leaned left" will appreciate it more. But I suppose the message is true for all.

  2. Thank you for turning me upside down, properly :)

  3. Heather, when I read this I was reminded of a posting from the blog "Pray Tell: Worship, Wit & Wisdom." Here is the link:

  4. Yes! Words cannot convey how welcome, how cheering, how true this post is!

    Confession: I went through 2 phases of extreme narrowness in my churchmanship. The first was of a narrow-left variety (subconsciously, I was all: I've read Thomas Merton! What do I have in common with these people who thoughtlessly rattle off the Creed at auctioneer's pace and vote for Bush [41]?) Then, about three or four years later, I was very narrowly and insanely "right-wing": selling my John Donne and George Herbert because they were Anglican heretics (I wish I was joking about that!) and throwing away my John Ashbery books because of his private life. Nowadays, I hope, I pray, that I'm much more patient, much more open, much more accepting (I've reacquired all those poets, and frankly don't care about my co-parishioners' politics) ... but golly, I've got work to do!

    Keep working on me, Heather! You are quite the salutary influence!

  5. "That is why to be a follower of Christ is always to be on the outskirts. That is why to be a practicing Catholic is always the most radical, the most counter-cultural, the most scandalous place to be."

    So I look forward to the day when we the first gay Pope is elected then Heather. :-))
    I agree to some extent with what you say but I'm afraid I'm not a cheerleader for the institutional church at present. It needs a radical overhaul and no I'm not a leftie, or a rightie nor middle of the road fence sitter or whatever label people would like to ascribe to me.

  6. Welcome to my world... sigh... Glory to God who humbles the proud (e.g., myself) in order to show them that His love knows no limits or exclusivity, and that all are welcome at the Eucharist.

  7. Great post Heather....Love that last line!

  8. I love your work, Heather, but I couldn’t disagree more with big chunks of your latest post…

    With due respect, the biggest scandal is not that God loves us or that He loves everyone else. No, the greatest scandal is that the Church tells us, the laity—in no uncertain terms, mind you—which ones God loves. You’re right: nobody stops us at the door to ask us probing questions, but the Church hierarchy and Catholic dogma separates the chosen from the not-so-chosen.

    ~If you’re gay, you’re out. If you’re a practice gay sex, you’re damned.

    ~If you’re a pro-choice politician, Bishops in some parts of the country deny you Communion.

    ~If you’re a woman, get used to second-class citizenship because that’s all you’ll ever achieve.

    ~If you’re practicing artificial birth control, you are a sinner.

    ~If you are a divorced Catholic, you risk exclusion if you remarry.

    The idea that, in this day and age, we should blindly accept that some of us are less-than is absurd.

    From on high, we are told that the sexual abuse scandal was an aberration and we need to move on. Tell that to a victim just coming to terms with the fact that he or she was violated by a priest, a holy man. Tell that to the families of those blindly trusted—and then were told to keep it all quiet.

    No, the scandal is the arrogance of a Church that needs to humbly beg forgiveness each and every day—and continue to pay and pay and pay until children’s lives are somehow made whole.

    Your post, Heather, struck me as mighty judgmental. Seems those who stay away from the Church are subject to the same kind of silent scrutiny as those who fill the pews.

    You say we shouldn’t expect the Church to function like a club…but unless we buy the whole package we cannot be true members of the Church. If you don’t, you’re out. Sure, nobody asks you to sign pledge, but we all know when push comes to shove, we don’t belong.

    Lastly, I think we attend Church for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is community. Often the mystical parts of the Mass escape us—or we are too closed off to receive what is being given. If one doesn’t feel welcome in that community, well, it’s pretty hard to go week after week. To assume people stay away from Mass because they feel they are somehow better than those who attend is as bold as it is erroneous. Some of us stay away because we hope for more and pray for more…and have our hearts broken Sunday after Sunday because nothing seems to change.

    Like I said before, I love your stuff, Heather, but “The Better Church” must have been written when you were angry or hurt or both. I wish you peace.

  9. We are all human and we want the church to be "OUR" church.

    It can't be. It is run by the Vatican and it has to remain that way.

    We all pick and choose-and yet,as someone posted- I don't feel like a second class citizen. How could I when Mary is worshipped so devoutly?

    We'll all sinners and at least we
    know even on our worst days, when no-one cares,understands, we have an off-putting conversation with a family member, meetings are asylums, work is torture, GOD still loves us.

  10. Wonderful post, and powerfully true. You entirely miss the point and are not reading with open eyes if you repeat back at the author the things she deals with handily and in the spirit of the Gospel.

  11. Excellent post. So much of this resonates with me. I think we all have the impulse to think of ourselves as the only ones who 'get it' and then set up our own groups accordingly. With something as powerful as worship and Eucharist, there is a strong tendency to desire worship with only those people who pass our personal smell test.

    Thank you for pushing back against that tendency.

  12. Astonishing, Heather -- one of the comments in this thread accuses you of being angry and hurt. That commenter himself just radiates peace and love! The milk of human kindness by the quart in every vein.

    No, I have to agree with you, Heather -- we are a shockingly open, capacious, rambunctious, "here comes everybody" type of Church!

    And yes, there are rules. But these rules are only the Church's expression of a moral law that is almost self-evident to anyone who has eyes to see. The Church isn't inventing anything. It's telling us the way the human animal operates.

    Guess what, folks? We're not perfect! The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a club for respectable people. And it'd be a (pardon the vernacular) piss-poor hospital if it didn't acknowledge the reality of the disease (yes, Dad, some things ARE sinful).

    As for second-class citizenship in the Church, I think the Church has almost gone overboard in recent years to apply "the medicine of mercy" to all us peccant souls. I certainly don't feel second-class. Why? Because sometimes I can't approach the Eucharist? Silly!

    Well, I do begin to go on at length, and I don't want to start a dust-storm in your combox. In honor of the Church's critics, I'm going to go listen to the Smiths' 1987 anthem "Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before."

  13. "Dad", you completely missed the point of the article and if anyone is coming off "angry" and not at "peace" it is you.
    You've also put forth several misconceptions of Catholicism, namely the idea that gays are "out." That is completely false. People with same sex attractions who lead a chaste life are in full communion with the Catholic Church. I know of a few and some of them blog and state that they have never felt as much peace as they have in being in full communion with the Catholic Church. However, the Church will not ever accept the lifestyle of homosexuality just as it won't accept any sex outside the confines of marriage or any other sin as a good. The Church sees sin as harmful to those that partake in it. As far as who the Church calls a sinner, everyone on earth today is considered to be a sinner and that includes the pope.
    Being in communion with the Church means you ACCEPT all that she teaches to be TRUTH. If you don't accept all that she teaches to be Truth then it is you who are rejecting the Church,(NOT the other way around,) and therefore you should not bother to partake in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It would make you a liar. There are plenty of other churches and religions out there to choose from and many start from those who think they know "better" which is basically what this article talking about. We all think we know better, including myself. It's takes an act of humility to realize that, no, I don't have all the answers. I have to look outside myself to find objective Truth and I see that in Catholicism. And it also means that just as I am not perfect I should not expect the person sitting next to me in the pew or the priest up on the altar to be perfect either.

  14. Amen, Heather!

    I don't have the problem in my simple little church. Not that you'd notice, anyway. We are of every race, color. We do not go to church for fellowship, though that can be ok. I go because I know I am a wretched sinner and, without Jesus, I would not even be able to breathe. I suspect everyone else there has to lean on Him, as I do. Those are our leanings. Neither left nor right, but on the Lord.

  15. Sex is really the biggest problem people have with the Church.

    People, come back! The rules won't change, but Mother Church will work with you.

    May the peace of the Risen Christ be with you all.

  16. Dear Dad,
    You don't sound like a Catholic but for what it's worth read and learn the catechism.

  17. My hunch is that Heather is more frustrated than angry, Dad.

    I share her frustration. A number of my friends and family are ex-Catholics and Catholics more inclined, when it comes Church matters, to quote from the New York Times op-ed pages than from the masterpiece that is the Catechism -- which to my knowledge, none of them has actually read (My recommendation that they do so is usually met with rolled eyes).

    I have my own 'issues' with the Church, but these are trivial matters alongside the treasure that is the Eucharist. And I am grateful the Church moves far too slowly to suit popular culture, with its cheap grace and falsehoods. This is one reason why being a faithful Catholic is to be radically countercultural -- to have to courage to say No when it seems that everyone around you is mindlessly jumping the turnstile.

  18. Thanks, as always, folks...

    That the Church needs to "humbly beg forgiveness each and every day" is just why or a big part of why I go to Mass. I go, among other reasons, as penance for my own terrible shortcomings and the shortcomings of the Church; for joy at all she has given me. Of course I feel the sorrow and the terrible wrong of the sexual abuse scandals: I also know that by my own less-than-stellar behavior, I have in some sense contributed to it. That’s what saves me from being consumed with anger and hurt at the sins of others: repentance for my own sins.

    All I can do is share my own experience of the Church, of being hungry enough for the truth, lonely enough, broken enough, so that from the moment I stumbled into my first Mass, I have seen the Church as my Mother. Also from the beginning, I instinctively understood that Christianity is not social work, nor is it mere humanitarianism. I had seen the limits of rights—women’s rights, sexual rights, political rights. I had been the recipient of every right know to man and my soul was sickened unto death. I came in with massive wounds from hanging around sleazy bars for 15 years, from promiscuity, adultery, three abortions, squandering my inheritance in the mire, from living in a single room occupancy welfare hotel while I went to law school for a degree I was too drunk to use. So I had seen the “real” world. I know all about the real world...

    When I came into the Church, I was sober, I desperately wanted to be “good,” I was in a faithful but deeply unhappy marriage. I wanted more than anything to sit at the table and for everyone in the world to be around the table as well. And I also instinctively understood that to have everyone around the table costs. I understood that I was utterly loved and accepted and invited, in spite of my bad track record, and that implicit in the invitation was that I was going to want to be called higher; that in order to get in any kind of shape to welcome the next person to the table, I had to take responsibility for growing up. I had to look at my hurt, my childhood, my neuroses, my anger, my resentments, my fears, my sexual wounds. I had to stop blaming everyone else, start asking for help, getting spiritual direction, examining my conscience, praying. I ended up having to answer the call of my heart to write, to give up the money I made as a lawyer. I had to learn to bear the unrelenting tension of being a mature human being, of, as it’s transpired, having no companion, of never knowing where my next bit of money is coming or whether it is coming at all, to constantly stretch myself, constantly go beyond my comfort zone, to leave the security and familiarity of my room, my circle of friends, my neighborhood, my culture, my demographic, to go beyond my melancholic temperament, my angst, my fear of not being liked, to spend hours of unpaid time a week staying sober and helping another alcoholic stay sober, to spend hours and hours of unpaid time a week writing this blog, writing essays, writing books, because that’s how important I believe it is, that’s how much I long for everybody to be around the table. Because the table is the table of Christ. For me there is no other table. And to sit at the table of Christ, you have to be willing to die for the One who sits at the head of it.

    That the Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified is a given. But I can’t do any of that without the Church, without the Sacraments, without the Eucharist, without Christ.

    I’m sorry, Dave/Dad, your experience and understanding of the Church have been so different and so painful. Because for all her failings, the Church has given me a reason to live, has given my suffering meaning, has given me a mission.

    And who will be there to welcome the next person—to welcome you--if I don’t order my life around being there myself?

  19. Diana, also, thanks for the link. Have been thinking of how we're all welcome at the barroom, too, but of course the table of the Church is a very different table than the table of the barroom...we're all welcome and yet there has to be some stringency, some meat...seems we are ever destined to teeter between being too stringent, or stringent in the wrong spirit, and being not stringent enough...

  20. I often think that if I spent the time I fritter away online praying instead, the state of my soul would be much better. -Lisa Hendey

    Adios! Vaya con Dios!

  21. Beautiful. The thing is that no matter what, no matter how much humanity fails us, Christ is there. That's His promise to us. Yes, our humanity sucks. That's not what the Church is. This is Heathers exact point. Christ promises us an escape from all that is wounded and wounds. If we go simply seeking Him, not "community", not "certainty", not "equality", not "justice", not a "lifestyle"...just Him, He is there. Thank God.


  22. Heather, I'm not able to stop by every single post, but I'm rarely disappointed when I do wander by. You speak such truth and I can relate to so much of what you say. It's very painful to look at the world and the Church the way you do. It's difficult to realize that we are all in need of redemption, that we are all sinners. But you are right. We all need the Church and it exists for us and can be our sanctuary. But we need reminding that people within the church are imperfect and fail daily. It's so hard to separate out the erring human beings that comprise the Church and the Church that welcomes everybody because it is Christ's home. Once we are able to do that, we can fall safely into her arms.


    My own thoughts on inclusiveness.

  24. Hi, Heather.

    This MUST be listed in the blogroll as your latest 'Crème de la Crème' post. :)

  25. Thanks, Chip, good work, check it out, folks...

    Paul, the creme de la creme posts come up the way I have it set by readership--but I like this one, too! And of course I'm glad you did...

  26. @Chip -- love your post on inclusiveness! The last lines especially --

    If we want to persuade anyone that Jesus Christ is worth living for, we must treat everyone with genuine love and kindness, not considering ourselves better but only as recipients of an undeserved pardon. On earth the kingdom of God includes everyone, even those who persecute it. Just ask Paul.

    Amen! :)


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