When an old friend left Lutheranism for Rome many years ago, I asked him the same question I asked of Richard John Neuhaus when he left. Where is the Rome you speak about? When I look to the local Roman Catholic churches I find vacuous praise choruses, irreverence for the House and Table of the Lord, ignorance of the church's doctrine and teaching, and outright disdain for the church's hierarchy and moral conviction.
It is a common complaint. Methodists complain to me that there are no "real" Methodist congregations anymore. Baptists complain that the churches have all become mirrors of evangelical and non-denominational folks on Sunday morning. Presbyterians know little of double predestination or of Calvin. Yes, that is the complaint. No one has made it more pointedly than Rod Dreher when he left Rome for Constantinople.
Read it all, but here are a few paragraphs from the whole story recounted by Rod Dreher in I’m Still Not Going Back to the Catholic Church | TIME.com:
If you know about the Catholic Church only from reading the papers, you are in for a shock once you come inside. The image of American Catholicism shown by the media is of a church preoccupied with sex and abortion. It’s not remotely true. I was a faithful Mass-going Catholic for 13 years, attending a number of parishes in five cities in different parts of the country. I could count on one hand the number of homilies I heard that addressed abortion or sexuality in any way. Rather, the homilies were wholly therapeutic, almost always some saccharine variation of God is love. . . .
In 2002, when the clerical-sex-abuse scandal broke nationwide, the full extent of the rot within the church became manifest. All that post-Vatican II happy talk and non-judgmentalism had been a facade concealing what then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — later Pope Benedict XVI — would call the “filth” in the church. Many American bishops deployed the priceless Christian language of love and forgiveness in an effort to cover their own foul nakedness in a cloak of cheap grace.
During that excruciating period a decade ago, rage at what I and other journalists uncovered about the church’s corruption pried my ability to believe in Catholic Christianity out of me, like torturers ripping fingernails out with pliers. It wasn’t the crimes that did it as much as the bishops’ unwillingness to repent and the Vatican’s disinterest in holding them to account. If the church’s hierarchy cannot commit itself credibly to justice and mercy to the victims of its own clergy and bishops, I thought, do they really believe in the doctrines they teach?
All this put the moral unseriousness of the American church in a certain light. As the scandal raged, one Ash Wednesday, I attended Mass at my comfortable suburban parish and heard the priest deliver a sermon describing Lent as a time when we should all come to love ourselves more.
If I had to pinpoint a single moment at which I ceased to be a Roman Catholic, it would have been that one. I fought for two more years to hold on, thinking that having the syllogisms from my catechism straight in my head would help me stand firm. But it was useless. By then I was a father, and I did not want to raise my children in a church where sentimentality and self-satisfaction were the point of the Christian life. It wasn’t safe to raise my children in this church, I thought — not because they would be at risk of predators but because the entire ethos of the American church, like the ethos of the decadent post-Christian society in which it lives, is not that we should die to ourselves so that we can live in Christ, as the New Testament demands, but that we should learn to love ourselves more.
Flannery O’Connor, one of my Catholic heroes, famously said, “Push back against the age as hard as it pushes against you. What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross.” American Catholicism was not pushing back against the hostile age at all. Rather, it had become a pushover. God is love was not a proclamation that liberated us captives from our sin and despair but rather a bromide and a platitude that allowed us to believe that and to behave as if our lust, greed, malice and so forth — sins that I struggled with every day — weren’t to be despised and cast out but rather shellacked by a river of treacle.
I finally broke. Losing my Catholic faith was the most painful thing that ever happened to me. Today, as much as I admire Pope Francis and understand the enthusiasm among Catholics for him, his interview makes me realize that the good, if incomplete, work that John Paul II and Benedict XVI did to restore the church after the violence of the revolution stands to be undone. Though I agree with nearly everything the Pope said last week in his interview and cheer inwardly when he chastises rigorist knotheads who would deny the healing medicine of the church to anyone, I fear his merciful words will be received not as love but license. The “spirit of Pope Francis” will replace the “spirit of Vatican II” as the rationalization people will use to ignore the difficult teachings of the faith. If so, this Pope will turn out to be like his predecessor John XXIII: a dear man, but a tragic figure.I suspect that he will find similar problems with Eastern Orthodoxy. There are Orthodox parishes in which Orthodoxy is practiced but there are also many in which tradition simply means what we did before and where ethnic identity trumps faith and confession. I do not mean to disparage any particular group but to suggest that this is the common problem of all Christians. We struggle to live up to our confession, to be in practice who we claim to be on paper, and to keep tradition the living faith of the dead instead of the traditionalism that is the dead faith of the living.
Do not lose heart. Call your parish to account. Speak to your priest, pastor, minister. If our confession means little in terms of what we do on Sunday morning or how we live Monday through Saturday, then what is the purpose of believing? Surely this is the condition that reformers in every generation have faced. Surely this is the true form of ecumenism -- for what good or value is there in bringing together people who say one thing and do another or a people who have no confidence in what they have believed, confessed, and taught? If there is hope for any congregation and church body it will come from renewed confession and renewed practice, consistent with Scripture and what we confess... or it is unworthy of us and of the Lord!