Months ago, I was asked to give a talk during Lent at my parish. The title of the talk was to be “Disagree with the Church?” As many of us know from experience, speaking in front of friends can be more challenging than talking with people you may never see again. By the time I gave my talk last Friday, there was an extra challenge: For weeks, there had been much public debate, within the Church and society, about several teachings of the Church. I approached the question as an invitation to grow.
I can testify first-hand that it is reasonable, and to be expected, to find ourselves asking questions about a teaching of the Church. In all areas of our lives, we mature and better understand when we ask questions and seek answers. Christian faith is also a revealed faith. We do not decide what to believe. We do not construct a faith. We receive a faith. God reveals it to us and fulfills it in the life, death and Resurrection of Jesus. The Lord has entrusted the Church with the work of articulating the gift of the faith, in every age, in every time. If we believe that God desires all that is best for us, then one way to examine and work through a question or disagreement is to think of the parent-child relationship: A parent insists on certain things for the good of a child, because at some stages of development, the child simply cannot grasp why the rule or parental guidance is wise, right, best, and prevents harm, for the child. Perhaps you remember, as I do, your parents saying “As long as you live under my roof, it will be done like this.” God desires we live under His roof, and as the new translation of the Roman Missal makes clear, we welcome Him under our roof. Our relationship with God is not between a parent and an immature child. As children of God, we desire to build a harmonious relationship with the One who desires that we grasp all the good He has to offer us. Psalm 19 captures the beauty of living under God’s roof.
Blessed those whose way is blameless, who walk by the law of the Lord. Blessed those who keep his testimonies, who seek him with all their heart. They do no wrong; they walk in his ways. You have given them the command to observe your precepts with care. May my ways be firm in the observance of your statutes! Then I will not be ashamed to ponder all your commandments. I will praise you with sincere heart as I study your righteous judgments….With all my heart I seek you; do not let me stray from your commandments…. In your statutes I take delight; I will never forget your word.
When you find yourself disagreeing with what the Church is teaching, God calls you to a deeper conversion and to mature in the faith. We believe in a faith that cultivates the intellect and nurtures reason. Questions are welcome! Struggling with the Church can be part of conforming our minds and heart to Jesus and to the faith He gave us. It is committing ourselves to practicing a grown-up obedience that discovers the meaning of the Latin root of obedience, obedire– to listen. We commit to take up the issue in a spirit of humility, to pray that we will listen to God’s word, to study the teaching of the Church, to discern the path toward truth. For many of us, this may be the work of a lifetime. Often it is the work of conversion, of configuring our minds and hearts more and more to the mind and heart of Jesus, Our Lord. The fundamental principle for the Catholic is that one cannot separate love of Jesus, and the teachings of Jesus, from the teaching and love of the Church. We affirm this whenever we pray in the Creed “I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” The Church is the sacrament of salvation, it is the place we enter most fully into the life of the Risen Lord.
Asking the foundational Question
I came of age in a time in the Church during which the question of women’s ordination was being actively discussed and debated. I wondered as a lay woman “Am I crazy for wanting to work for the Church?” “Will I be able to speak honestly and credibly about the role of women in Church and society?” “Is the Church inherently sexist?” The question that seemed most popular, the question that seemed to get the most attention, was related to ordination and the role of leadership and power in the Church. The most popular question though is not always the most fundamental question. We need to go to the beginning, where we will find questions, and answers, that help us ask and get answers to the later questions. The foundational question is “What is the role of women in the Church, when women are created in the image and likeness of God, and yet the sin of sexism has persisted since the Original Sin?” Jesus has always called women to holiness, to be full and active participants in building of the Kingdom of God. In every age, the Church has honored women who have fully and perfectly lived the Gospel in their lives and are models for women and men in all ages. As Blessed John Paul II said in Mulieris Dignitatem, although the Church is not inherently sexist, she has at times failed to fully recognize and appreciate the “feminine genius” and call forth the gifts of women. This failure has been a loss for the Church. Understanding sexism, and differentiating it from the vocation of priesthood, helped me appreciate the Church’s teaching that women and men are equal, different in some ways, and complement each other. Today is an age when society is questioning the role of gender, suggesting it is something we can choose, something we can change. Society is skeptical that gender is something that God gives us, when He creates us, to express who and what each of us is fundamentally. In fact, it is impossible to separate me from being women or to understand me without understanding me as a woman. I believe the Church’s teaching offers a model of preserving the unique gift of male and female, and their relationship, to what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God.
Often, areas of possible disagreement with the Church grow from facing the limitations of the human experience. One effect of Original Sin is that we have an impulse to want it all and to want things our way. Sometimes, we can’t see that “our way” ultimately may harm us. The Church’s teaching can feel like it is impinging on our human freedom, rather than freeing us for God. Trusting what we can’t always see or understand is another cost of discipleship.
My husband and I came face-to-face with this before we met and after we married: We were single longer, and met and married later, than many others. For the years we were single, we had to trust that whatever vocation God had created us for and called us to, He would reveal it and give us everything we needed to live it. Being single was sometimes especially challenging for me as a woman, because I had always wanted to have biological children, to be a mother. We had to trust again, when we received the devastating diagnosis of infertility and wanted to remain faithful to the teaching of the Church – some of her most beautiful teachings – on life, marriage, family, and sexuality. In our loss, we have received some priceless gifts. First and most importantly, we were reminded that with God all things are possible. If God intended us to have children, then it would happen in some way that was consistent with the eternal truths He has entrusted to the Church and written on every human heart. If God had not called us to this vocation, then we wanted to trust we would discover what God had in mind. Our prayer life became stronger and richer, because we had placed ourselves in God’s hands and committed ourselves to discerning His will for us and our marriage. We have discovered that we share in people’s lives in a way that we would be unable to if we had children. We have opportunities to serve the Church in ways that have been unexpected and wonderful. None of this fully takes away the sorrow of what cannot be or our sense of loss. However, turning loss into new life, and seeking solace for sorrow, has turned us toward the loving, always-present embrace of God. A friend, realizing that she is not called to have biological children, “I look forward to Heaven, to seeing with God’s eyes the fruit of why He called me to this vocation.” I love that sense of hope and confidence in living with the mystery of the unfolding of God’s plan.
The Thinking Disciple
Is it wrong to question the teaching of the Church? No. Questioning is the practice of faith seeking understanding. Is it wrong to disagree with the Church? It depends! If disagreement is one stage in the process of ongoing conversion, then it is just that. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel in Genesis 32, it is the age-old story of the child tussling, questioning, stretching with the parent. I think God welcomes and enjoys the match and your maturing. If disagreeing is the easy way out of praying, studying, discerning, discussing, and receiving the Sacraments, then you are cutting yourself off from growth, Grace, and God. God invites you into the closest possible relationship with Him, so that you can be with Him forever in Heaven. Will you say “yes?”