August 26, 2018 - To whom shall we go?

Jesus then said to the Twelve, "Do you also want to leave?" Simon Peter answered him, "Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God."

John 6

Why attend Mass?  Does it make sense to stop attending Mass in response to institutional scandal?

Certainly, part of the reason many attend Mass is to hear an educated voice interpret the Scriptures and challenge us to live the well-lived, whole, abundant life informed by a lifetime of serious commitment to spiritual thought and discipline.  Faith that the Church is effectively identifying and developing such voices has certainly been damaged.  To be blunt, although it has done a better job of weeding out predators among its ranks in the last decade, that is a ridiculously low bar.

On the other hand, as I argued in my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation, there is much, much more going on at Mass than a lecture.

Presumably we attend Mass because we believe it is good for us – an integral part of living the well-lived life.  Presumably we attend Mass because we believe something is done there that connects us to the divine in a way that we are humble enough to know we can’t accomplish on our own. Spirituality and community are not separable.  In today’s Gospel the apostles stay – not because they are commanded to, nor out of loyalty – but out of self-interest.

What is the fundamental problem and how can it be resolved?

The Church’s commitment to celibacy is often cited as the root of the problem.  Celibacy among the clergy is not a command from God. Nor does it come from antiquated notions of purity. (And, no, it’s not a ploy to keep priests from dividing up Church property among heirs.  It is, after all, Church property.)  It is one of several disciplines almost universally observed by clergy across religions, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Taoism. Historical Judaism had the Nazarite vow. Confucianism requires celibacy while mourning. Only Protestantism and Islam have no tradition of it. It is one of several disciplines uniformly observed those who dedicate themselves, either temporarily or permanently, to a completely focused religious life.  It inevitably goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to other expressions of asceticism: eating sparingly and fasting periodically, avoiding alcohol, living as simply and gently as possible, living communally, relying on alms, avoiding excessive engagement with the world, etc..  For thousands of years and across virtually every culture, it has been asserted that asceticism leads to spiritual insight worth sharing. 

Another virtually universally accepted principle is that asceticism must be practiced consistently and programmatically.  Only then does it have a chance to become second nature, effortless and spontaneous.  Only then does the adherent find spiritual wisdom, and only then can he or she speak with authority. To be celibate but eat without restraint hardly makes sense.

The root of the problem is this: the Church has demanded adherence to some of these as a price of admission, but they cannot be cherrypicked, and they must be motivated by more than mere obedience.  The idea that the Church must dispense with the asceticism altogether is clearly a mistake.

The Church is addressing the symptoms of an exceptionally serious problem.  In the long term, however, I hope the Church rededicates itself to identifying and developing clergy who are committed to the full palette of spiritual disciplines and for the right reasons.