Larry at Acts of the Apostasy blogs here about the curious fact that Catholics who bail out still refer to themselves as Catholics. He gives a list of what they call themselves: ex-Catholics, liberated Catholics, thinking Catholics, free Catholics etc etc. Why do they have to cling to the name Catholic I wonder? Have you ever met anyone who trumpeted the fact that he was an ‘ex Anglican’ or a ‘Post Presbyterian’ or a ‘Liberated Lutheran’? I’m sometimes called an ‘ex Anglican’, but I wouldn’t call myself that.
It’s a sad thing when anyone has to define their spiritual status in terms of a denial rather than an affirmation. Every convert to Catholicism that I’ve known has praised their Protestant background and affirmed it. They’ve simply moved on to something bigger and fuller. It’s not so much a case of rejecting what they had before, but a case of finding and embracing ‘More Christianity’. This is a positive and ultimately joyful process.
On the other hand, when you listen to the ‘ex Catholics’ more often than not all you get is a stream of anger, rage, frustration and bitterness against the Catholic Church. Sometimes it is understandable. Some people have been genuinely wounded by the hypocrisy, sin and scandal of Catholic Church leaders. Others have been let down spiritually by poor catechesis, awful liturgy, bad administration and general incompetence. Some have left because they really didn’t find what they needed in the Catholic Church and this is a failure of Catholicism. However, all these things don’t account for all the ex Catholics. There are more who have left through their own sin, their own lack of faith, courage and perseverance.
What is unfortunate is that so many of them ultimately define their spiritual status as a negative. They’re defined by something they’re not instead of something they are. This is the empty heart of all of Protestantism as well. Although there are so many strengths within the Protestant churches, there is still an empty place–a kind of sore point or open wound, and it is their underlying anti Catholicism. Even when they are outwardly tolerant and positive towards Catholics there is still this deep antipathy, a profound knowledge that ‘the Catholics can’t possibly be right’.
Catholics should not have this attitude towards Protestants, and I have to say that in fifteen years as a Catholic I’ve never met any Catholic who is as intrinsically anti Protestant as most Protestants are intrinsically anti Catholic. This makes sense since Protestantism was founded as a reaction to Catholicism. It is therefore the ultimate ‘ex Catholic’ institution.
I can anticipate the combox now: “C’mon Father. You’re always taking pot shots at Evangelicals and Anglicans. You’re just as anti Protestant as you claim they are anti-Catholic.” I reject the charge. I do criticize Anglicans and Evangelicals, but I do so for what they deny, not for what they affirm. There’s a difference.
Finally, what are we to make of the ex Catholics and Protestants who blame the Catholic Church for her historic failures, scandals and weaknesses? What are we to say to those who scream, “What about the inquisition, the burnings at the stake, the witch hunts, the pedophile scandals, papal profligacy in the Middle Ages, the corruption of selling indulgences, the index of forbidden books, the clericalism and the power struggles!”
Two things: Are the Protestants free of sexual scandals, financial corruption, selling God’s grace, censorship, persecution and power struggles? I think not. Secondly, why is anyone surprised that these things exist within the Catholic Church? The history of the Catholic Church is riddled with sin and scandal just like the Old Testament is. The people of God have always struggled with sin and scandal within their ranks. That’s what life is like. It’s a constant struggle with sin and scandal. Grow up.
What’s this idea that people think the Church is going to be perfectly free of human frailty and failure? What kind of unrealistic dream is that? Furthermore, wouldn’t you be distrust any religious organization that was totally free of human failure, flaws and weaknesses? Don’t those religious cults where everyone goes around with a pasted on smile in a fake sinless perfection give you the creeps? People who are otherwise smart and grown up cry out, “The Catholic Church is a fraud! I’m leaving!” and they slam the door as they go.
They’re big babies. They haven’t grown up enough to realize that in this world you’re always going to have sin and scandal. They have some kind of immature, adolescent idea that the Church is going to be perfectly sinless, and usually their need to point the finger at the church is tinged with the other mark of immaturity– a terrible (and embarrassing) self righteousness and pride. They’re so obsessed and outraged by the sin and scandal of ‘the Catholic Church’ that they are blind to the sin and scandal in their own lives.
I think it was Abp. Fulton Sheen who once met an ex Catholic on a plane. The man was going on and on about the corruption and graft and simony and nepotism in the Catholic Church. Sheen listened and then said, “What is it that you have stolen?” The man was instantly stunned into silence for he had been guilty of serious theft. I suspect this problem is epidemic amongst ex Catholics.
Listen carefully to their most grievous complaint against the Church and you may glimpse what sin is unconfessed in their own life.