The failure to be courageous
why people leave the Church
David French’s recent article, “To Do the Right Thing, You Might Have to Die,” gets at something really crucial.
He starts by talking about the actions—or rather inaction—of police officers during the school shooting in Uvalde, TX. Why is it so scandalous to us that the police officers didn’t risk their own lives to save the students? It’s because, as French points outs, when a person assumes the authority of being a police officer they are also assuming the responsibility of putting their own life at risk to save others. So when they utterly fail at that responsibility we are rightfully angry.
French then connects the shooting in Uvalde with the recent sexual abuse scandals in the Baptist church. Both, he claims, display a failure to be courageous, a failure of those in authority to put the good of others before their own self-preservation. French says:
At the root of a failure of courage is often a failure of love. C.S. Lewis wrote that courage is “not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” Jesus said, “No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.” What we witnessed from the police in Uvalde was the triumph of self-love over love of others, including of the young kids bleeding in that room.
At the testing point, the officers were confronted with a question, “Whom do you love?”
“I love me,” they responded, and they stood down.
That declaration, “I love me,” is endemic in our nation, and it’s not just endemic when lives are on the line. It’s dreadful to read the comprehensive report on the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee’s response to abuse allegations and understand exactly how much of the misconduct was driven by the desire for self-preservation. Preserve the assets of the ministry. Preserve the power of the leaders.
I believe that this failure to be courageous—this failure to put myself at risk for the sake of others—is rampant in the Catholic Church as well. There is, to borrow a phrase, a preferential option for the institution. This is on display whenever bishops protect predator priests, whenever Catholics throw their coins in with political saviors, and whenever dioceses hide behind their lawyers to avoid liability.
The Catechism says that the Church, “urged on by the Spirit of Christ, must walk the road Christ himself walked, a way of poverty and obedience, of service and self-sacrifice even to death, a death from which he emerged victorious by his resurrection” (CCC 852).
In other words, the mission of the Church, and of every single Christian, is to be willing to die for the sake of others. To be courageous. To love.
However, the Catechism then immediately says, “On her pilgrimage, the Church has also experienced the ‘discrepancy existing between the message she proclaims and the human weakness of those to whom the Gospel has been entrusted’” (CCC 853).
That discrepancy between the Church’s calling, her very identity, and her actions rightfully causes scandal.
In my entire adult life I can’t recall one significant time when leaders in the Church in the US chose self-sacrifice over self-protection, when those with authority took up their responsibility to sacrifice for the sake of others. There seems to be so much fear of losing power and privilege, fear of losing savings accounts and property, that leaders readily grasp at worldly security.
This is essentially a kind of atheism. It’s an utter lack of trust that God is who he says he is, that he will protect and provide for the Church, that he will bring resurrection from death. This practical atheism, this crippling fear, is the spirit hiding behind the Church’s scandals. And it has consequences.
For the past several years I've heard discussions throughout all levels of the Church about why young people are leaving. There are a variety of opinions and perspectives, most of them I think have aspects of the truth, but the answer that resonates most with my own experience as a millennial and the things I've heard from my peers is scandal.
People in my generation have grown up in the aftermath of the priest abuse scandal. We have seen so many Catholics with platforms engage in partisan politics, confusing adherence to the Revelation of God with adherence to party platforms. We have seen bishop after bishop after archbishop after cardinal make headlines for covering up and perpetuating sexual abuse. All of this has been a very real part of our experience in the Church and must be considered when we ask ourselves why young people are leaving the pews.
People leave because they’ve been abused, ignored, treated as a liability, and discarded for the sake of preserving the institution. People leave because their children, siblings, friends, and peers were treated this way. People leave when they realize that those in seats of authority over them don’t have their back because they are more interested in self-protection than self-sacrifice.
Before we point fingers at the secular culture for why young people are leaving our pews in droves, perhaps we ought to pull the log out of our own eye. The Catechism goes on to say:
“Only by taking the ‘way of penance and renewal,’ the ‘narrow way of the cross,’ can the People of God extend Christ's reign. For ‘just as Christ carried out the work of redemption in poverty and oppression, so the Church is called to follow the same path if she is to communicate the fruits of salvation to men’” (CCC 853).
Penance and renewal.
May the Holy Spirit give us Wisdom to reflect on how our own fears and inaction have wounded others, Justice to prevent us from judging those who have left, Truth to help us realize that those who have left have something to teach us, and Courage to risk our lives for the sake of others.