There are some big questions surfacing these days about what it is to be a follower or disciple of Jesus, and what is the role of the church, or of any religious system, in all this.
For example, is sharing in Eucharist the right and need of all people, or is it a reward for good behavior and thinking right thoughts, and threat of its withdrawal a weapon to keep folks in line? Is society really evil and a threat to religious freedom, or is society where the Reign of God happens since it is where people are and live? Which is is more important in a relationship – its quality or its mechanics? Why is there such a disconnect between the lived experience and pastoral needs of folks on the one hand, and on the other the disciplinary and management structure of the church? Why does church management (it certainly does not qualify as leadership) consistently ignore the lived experience of the folks, their talents and wisdom, the practicalities of their daily living, and instead attempt to impose its dictates on all? Is it time for the church to stop carping on marriage and focus instead on Holy Matrimony?
Celibate males, who seem to have been calling the shots through much of church history, rarely have any firsthand experience of the pain of a failed marital relationship. They cavalierly issue decrees on how folks have to fit in with given norms and similies of marriage, and if they don’t, punish them for their failure and pain by denying them Eucharist, always, of course, in the name of Jesus who never did any such thing during his time among us. They take the position, it seems, that this is how Jesus would act if he had all the facts. The lifestyle of church managers keeps many of them from having to experience the pain and messiness of ordinary folks’ daily life. Relationships are rarely neat and orderly, and often messy, but they are real and happen among real persons, not subjects of a law. Management, whose decrees are far removed from many folks lived experiences, claim to speak for Jesus. And so they establish procedures for folks to get back to the good graces of the church, procedures that are often experienced as humiliating, invasive, and abusive. Put bluntly, the system neither recognizes nor cares for the pastoral needs of the folks. Maintaining power, order, and control is much more important. Apparently that is ok, because “The Church Says . . .”. Always in the name of Jesus. Jesus said “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). Management seems to reverse this, teaching that folks have to obey management’s rules first before they can draw near to Jesus. Its consequences for folks remarrying after divorce is a good example, as are those for “unacceptable” relationships. Folks who would offer sincere pastoral care are often brutally sanctioned for their efforts.
Is society really evil? Francis doesn’t seem to think so. Fortunately it doesn’t look like our young folks think so either. American church managers see society as dangerous to religious freedom. Whose religious freedom? It seems that in their minds they are the only ones entitled to this. Any who do disagree with them are not. Francis points out the good that is happening in the midst of evil and suffering, and encourages folks to let their relationship with Jesus move them to get involved and make things better. He might be saying the same thing about the evil that is in religious institutions and systems where folks are being mistreated and abused, punished for thinking and questioning.
A number of respected theologians throughout the world are asking if it is time for the church to get out of the marriage business and focus instead on Holy Matrimony. Marriage is a civil matter with civil consequences, none of which need concern the church. In many countries a couple must get married civilly before they can have a religious ceremony which has no civil impact. Sounds to me like a good idea. If a civilly married couple chooses to have a religious dimension to their marriage they can approach a church and ask for a religious celebration of Holy Matrimony. Their choice.
It seems, rightly or wrongly, that in many cases the only way to get any good done in many areas of the church these days is through some form of disobedience. Many priests and pastoral care ministers are faced with this on a regular basis. But, then, Jesus did the same. He welcomed and ate with folks deemed unclean by the religious system of his day. He touched the untouchables, spent time with outcasts, spoke and acted forcefully against abuses, lived and moved among the people. He reminded them constantly that they had direct and immediate access to their Father, and lived his Father’s love. It seems in many ways he is doing the same things today through his followers, many of whom are experiencing the same mistreatment as he did.
It must be said that there undoubtedly are many wonderful and pastoral church managers whose decisions reflect their own personal pastoral care and courage. They just are not well-known outside their own territories. If they are known, often they are sanctioned in some way.
There is another basic question: which is more important – meeting the pastoral needs of the folks, or keeping an institution’s self-preserving laws? Often one has to make a choice, as often the two are mutually exclusive. As both Benedict and Francis have said, the basic role of any who would be followers of Jesus is to live in an open and trusting relationship with Jesus, and go wherever it takes them. And be ready to take up the cross.
Just sayin . . .