I must confess that I enjoy trying to defend unpopular causes. That is why Nixon is my favorite president from the mid-20th century and William Jefferson Clinton is my favorite from more recent times. Forget about Truman and George W. Bush. When I think about Nixon and Clinton, I think Shakespearean contradiction. I think Truman and Bush, I think fast-food franchise managers. I can’t help it.
Nixon and Clinton have facets, a complexity and a substance that seem interesting against so many of the one-dimensional characters on the public stage today. So, too, the Catholic Church has complexity and substance. Bad publicity, though, stalks the church like deer flies in the summertime circling a gardener.
In our area, as elsewhere, the last years have brought a spate of church closings. In Gloversville, St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart are gone. In Johnstown, St. Anthony’s and Immaculate Conception are gone.
In Amsterdam, in Schenectady, the picture is the same. Many parishioners remain frustrated and angry about the closings of their parish churches. Their reaction is entirely understandable.
Enough is enough
Still, some unpopular causes deserve a defense. As far as an unfashionable cause worthy of a vigorous defense, right now there is no better unfashionable cause on the public stage than the Catholic Church.
Understand: I am not, neither have I ever been nor will ever be, a Catholic. Nevertheless, I ask now in these short months before Kateri Tekakwitha’s canonization on Oct. 21, why is there such a seemingly vicious public need to pick on the Catholic Church? It is not even just a local response. It is also an international phenomenon. In 1517, or perhaps in 1789, sharp, persistent criticism of the Church was justified. In the early 1940s, too. But what about now in 2012?
Enough is enough already. One would expect that the American tradition of tolerant intolerance (or is it intolerant tolerance?) would have by now slowed the media spite and stemmed the flow of lawsuits.
Nope. Once again reason and sense are being displaced by public emotion.
One or two issues seem to have focused the excessive criticism.
It really is so not difficult to defend this historically vital, yet humanly flawed institution.
We may, for instance, not agree with the Church’s stand on abortion — I certainly don’t. Still, we can be glad that some public institution represents, however idealistically, the sanctity of human life.
We may be put off by the recent pedophile scandals, as I am. Still, we should recognize that the overwhelming majority of Church leaders do NOT behave badly, and that very many good men are motivated by ideals and values that go way beyond the jaded material orientation of U.S. public culture.
We may, furthermore, disapprove of the some of the activities of the Vatican Bank, as well as the alleged and exaggerated operations of Opus Dei — as I do. Still, we can acknowledge that both are just parts of a diverse and complex organization, and neither by any means epitomizes the Church’s general values.
Likewise, we may condemn the history of anti-Semitism in the Catholic Church — as I do. Still, we can observe the positive recent changes in Catholic policies toward Judaism.
And who says institutions — just like individuals — can’t improve over time by becoming more ethical and just?
We may also be put off by theological mumbo-jumbo, as I am. Still, centuries of theological cant haven’t completely confused the simple ethical message of its founding figure. In spite of some of its perplexing theology, Catholicism continues to provide spiritual insights that are of universal value. As also does, for instance, Conservative Judaism and various traditions in Islam.
We may be rightfully appalled by the past barbarity of the Inquisition. Still, though, we need to remind ourselves that the Catholic Church is so far beyond those dark centuries that condemning it in 2012 for those past actions is as unreasonable as it is to point to two centuries of slavery in the old American South as a reason to dismiss the credibility of the present U.S. legal system.
Change comes slowly
Times change. Human institutions evolve. I haven’t yet mentioned the continuing gender-ism and authoritarianism within the Church. Such practices are not really excusable by contemporary standards, but one could argue, however weakly, that at least the Catholic Church doesn’t choose its leadership based on which leaders deliver the best media sound bites and attract the most PAC money.
The Catholic Church remains a “slow-change” institution. That is a main reason for its survival for the past couple of thousand years. But it does evolve, albeit slowly.
And let’s face it: A close examination of any Protestant or Jewish denomination would reveal similar human and financial problems faced right now by the beleaguered Catholic leadership. It is just that the Catholic Church is a huge institutional target right now.
The main point is that the Catholic Church, despite its imperfections, is worth defending against unfair criticism. After all, the Catholic Church has complexity. It represents some important values. It has facets and contradictions. Its complexity, even some of its contradictions, is refreshing against the backdrop of the literalness of so much public culture around us.
Its charity work in many areas has been remarkable in many ways. And, at the very least, the Catholic Church stands for values beyond seeking personal gratification and inflating business profits. At its best, it is one of the few forces around that give spiritual values a profile on the surface of public reality.
Essential human institution
It may be time for many of us to face historical reality: Whether we believe in the literal truth of what is taught by organized religion — and many people don’t — we can still acknowledge that organized religion has magnified necessary values and created meaning for many people. That gives it a significant role in the 21st century world.
The Catholic Church continues to serve a useful human function; its survival, even if it is imperfect, remains important for the future good of humanity. Against the backdrop of persistent erosion of historical perspective, the Catholic Church is an essential human institution.
Let’s keep its faults in balanced perspective.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.