Published June 2, 2005
Even before Pope Benedict XVI stood at the Vatican window for the first time, newspapers started airing reports about people who hoped he would change church teachings.
Invariably, such news stories bring up predictable topics.
Someone will say, “Well, they need to ordain women priests,” and someone else will chime in, “And ditch celibacy,” and then another person will drag out the standard protests that abortion and euthanasia are justified.
Many people making these complaints aren’t Catholics themselves, and their arrogance surprises me. After all, I can’t imagine protesting the fact that Muslims face Mecca when they pray, given that I am not Muslim.
Still, many of the disgruntled are indeed Catholics—and it might be tempting to say to them, “Oh, just go and find another religion.”
But that seems cruel. After all, they are our brothers and sisters too, and besides, I have a more personal reason: Until recently, I was one of the disgruntled myself, usually calling myself “liberal” or “progressive.”
Today, if I had to choose a title, I would say I am a garden-variety Catholic who is enormously grateful to belong to a church that has definite standards.
And I would venture a guess that Catholics who are unhappy with church teachings are hard pressed to turn their backs on her because they realize she offers graces we cannot get anywhere else.
For example, the vast majority of Protestants regard the Eucharist as a re-enactment of the Last Supper, nothing more, while we embrace the belief, taught by Jesus and his earliest followers, in the mystical Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Which means, as Catholics in a state of grace, we can attend Mass any day of the week and encounter Jesus. Who could easily turn their backs on this huge gift?
Surely, Catholic teachings about the Blessed Virgin Mary are another compelling reason why unhappy Catholics stay in the church, since she is a mere footnote in Protestant denominations.
Before the Reformation, belief in the Real Presence, along with veneration of Mary and the other saints, were considered part and parcel of what it meant to be a Christian, but today, only Catholics and Orthodox Christians embrace these doctrines.
In many ways, the Catholic Church is like the cathedrals of old, which were built to shelter generations of believers until the end of time.
When Jesus said to Peter, “Upon this rock I will build my church,” it was no accident that Jesus used the image of a rock. He wanted his church to withstand the ravages of time.
Envision walking into Notre Dame Cathedral, built in the 13th century, and demanding that this rock-solid structure should be renovated to appear more modern. Obviously, people who treasure its rich history would be horrified.
Still, many disgruntled Catholics expect church teachings, which are as rock solid as that cathedral—and have lasted much longer—to give way to modern popular opinion.
Problem is, opinions can go horribly wrong.
An example: Imagine that in the year 2030, opinion polls show that the majority approves of giving lethal injections to folks over 60, to save money and free up space for younger people.
Now if you really believe popular opinion should dictate morality, this scenario would not seem horrendous, but it obviously is.
Instead of polls and opinions, the church bases morality on Jesus’ words in Scripture, along with teachings handed down from the apostles, popes and doctors of the church.
From the earliest days, Christ’s followers, writing in “The Didache,” defended the standard that abortion was wrong and based the belief on the commandment against killing.
Today, over 2,000 years later, that same rock-solid standard explains the church’s opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, a process that entails destroying human life in its early stages.
The news media focus on trendy social issues when airing the views of Catholics, but what determined whether people stayed with Christ or not, in the Gospels, was something more mystical.
When the crowd heard Him offer them His body and blood, many called it a “hard saying” and walked away from Him that day (John 6: 60-66). Jesus turned to the 12 apostles, and asked if His words had shocked them.
“Do you also want to leave?” He asked.
“Master, to whom shall we go?” Peter replied. “You have the words of eternal life.”
The truth is that Jesus’ teachings, as handed down by the Catholic Church, still are “hard sayings,” especially in a world that is largely secular.
For example, today human life in the secular mind is seen as disposable. In U.S. laboratories, human life is being created, experimented upon and then destroyed, and this is considered progress.
More than ever, Peter’s question “To whom shall we go?” is one all Catholics face today.
Where else, besides the Catholic Church, can we go to encounter Jesus in the Eucharist?
And where else can we find teachings about life preserved for over 2,000 years, despite changes in popular opinion?
Before His death, Christ prayed, “That they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you….” (John 17: 21).
This prayer is often interpreted as a plea for today’s Christians to put aside differences—but I believe Christ’s prayer applies to the Catholic Church itself. And if we present to the world a face that is disgruntled and divided, we are turning our backs on His heartfelt plea.
A recent convert to Catholicism told me about her joy in finding a church where teachings on abortion, euthanasia, cloning and stem-cell research were part of a life-affirming fabric.
This woman owned a copy of “The Catechism of the Catholic Church,” and she turned to it often to understand church teachings on such issues and had also delved into papal encyclicals, such as “The Gospel of Life,” a must-read for all Catholics.
And what brought her to Catholicism? The same thing that draws so many converts: a longing to stand on rock-solid ground and to become part of a community that has lasted over 2,000 years.
My hope is that those among us who are disgruntled will remember Jesus’ prayer: “That they all may be one.” And then endeavor to become the answer to His prayer in the eyes of the world.
Lorraine Murray’s latest book, “How Shall We Celebrate? Embracing Jesus in Every Season,” is available at www.catholicbookpublishing.com. She also is author of “Grace Notes” and “Why Me? Why Now?” a book for women with cancer. E-mail email@example.com.