Monday, August 19, 2013

Making Church a "Safe Place"

E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post recently wrote a very interesting column with considerable impact, I believe, for the Church.  It wasn’t about the Church—though it was about religion and politics.  Dionne claims that the Republican party has a bleak future because the “Millennial Generation”  (those born after 1980)  do not buy into the social conservatism of the Middle Aged and older and are not inclined to espouse the social agenda that energizes the Republican base.  Dionne points out that the Millennial Generation also tends to be non-religious and estimates that it is for the same reason.  Organized religion is identified with social conservatism.  This can, I believe, be quite unfair.  The mainline Protestant Churches, dying as they are, have espoused a liberal social theology.  Women are fully empowered in the mainline Protestant Churches and Same-Sex relationships are not only accepted, but for the greater part, blessed.   And yet the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, the Presbyterian Church—these groups annually see a notable decline in membership.  But my concern is for the Catholic Church.  I see in parish after parish that the 30 somethings are missing.  You simply don’t see people under 45 or 50 in Church.  Twenty years ago we expected the 20-somethings to be doing something else on Sunday morning but we assured ourselves that “they will be here when they have children of their own to raise.”   And twenty years ago that prophecy generally proved true, but no longer.  Of course many of the Millennials don’t have children.  Or if they have children they are not in the traditional two-parent mixed-sex relationship to which we once restricted the term “marriage.”  And not being in that traditional relationship, they don’t feel welcome in the Church—or at least in the Catholic Church.
One of my big themes when I go around speaking is that today everyone knows what the Catholic Church is against, but no one knows what it is for.  We don’t have to be ready to bless same-sex marriages in order to make same-sex couples feel welcome in Church.  And of course the issue isn’t making same-sex couples welcome in Church, the issue is making people, regardless of lifestyle choices, welcome in Church.  (And I do not mean to imply here that same-sex orientation is a “choice.”  Only pre-Neanderthals still spout that nonsense.  Sexual orientation is not a choice but the styles of life which we choose for ourselves—Middle Class suburban, Yuppie, mid-town sophisticates, rural greenies, etc—while dictated by economic limitations, are choices.)   And it is not that becoming gender blind or orientation-blind will fill our pews, but stopping the ugly judgmental face we put to the outside world will go a long way in making the Gospel of Jesus Christ look like something positive for the world rather than looking like some sort of fatwa that calls for death to anyone who diverges from Christian sharia. 
I think this is the message Francis has been trying to get out with his remarks on the plane back from Rio and WYD.  We don’t have to change our basic moral convictions but we do need to change our moral attitude.  And I think we need to change our basic conception of the Church from the Community of the Righteous to the Community of God’s Beloved, remembering that we are beloved of God not for our personal virtue but for God’s own mercy on our broken lives.  When we realize that we are all beggars at the feast of Grace that God has laid out we will stop judging the person in the pews next to us and when people feel that it is safe once again to go into church without being judged, we might find our churches filling up. 

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