It seems like Ash Wednesday came early this year; I feel like I have been swallowing ash for weeks, anyway.
The ferocious controversy engendered by the Health and Human Service department’s new contraception mandate has launched a thousand vitriolic press releases and ignited uncountable Internet flame wars and blog skirmishes. Leaving aside the moral, practical and political variables that are supercharging the “debate,” the deportment of many of the good Christians “dialoguing” about the matter should be a source of distress in its own right.
Outsiders are locking miters with the U.S. Catholic bishops, but inside the church itself a creeping factionalism accelerates the animus. On the left, Catholic “progressives” mock the bishops, seeing them as a crooked gang of celibate old men making rules for women; and on the right, conservative firebreathers continue their scorched church policy, offering new directions toward exit doors for Catholics caught in the middle. See these Christians: how they love to fight each other.
This is not what I signed on for. Where’s all the good stuff that used to energize me about being Catholic? Where’s all the feeding of the hungry, the clothing of the naked, the caring for the sick, the loving as we have been loved? Where is the community gathered to break bread not heads? The broader secular culture already regards us as somewhere between delusional and dangerous, we seem to be hurrying to confirm that diagnosis.
It is not inappropriate to feel adrift during Lent. Moses and the Israelites wandered the desert lost, no doubt anxious, wondering where all the suffering and struggle was taking them, wondering if this guy Moses really had any idea where he was going after 40 years. And Jesus’ own 40 days was no picnic either. Likewise adrift in the desert, taunted and tempted by Satan, wondering if he were up to the task that lay ahead, perhaps puzzled and marveling at his own swirling emotions and indecision.
Perhaps the Catholic Church in America resides in a desert of its own making as well. The faithful fall away, shell-shocked by scandal, disgusted by the disharmonies promoted by religion in civic and geopolitical life. Unfortunately during periods of conflict in recent years the church seems to do no better than embrace the snark and sarcasm at play in the wider culture. When we could be witnesses, we have been combatants. Change a few of the words around and many Catholic blogs could be mistaken for a redstate.com or a moveon.org.
What does it mean to be Catholic in America? How do we distinguish ourselves? We came to this promised land and found ourselves taunted and tempted, and we have succumbed sometimes to those temptations. Today, one mark of this church could be the way it disagrees with itself.
This Lent, Catholics are at the edge of the desert and the distance we have to travel seems impassable. As disheartening and confusing as these conflicts feel while we experience them, the church has survived much worse before. I have faith that there is a way out of the desert, even if I can’t quite see it just now. Maybe the church that leaves this wilderness will not be the same one that enters it. Maybe it will be closer to the church I thought I belonged to.
Kevin Clarke is an associate editor at America Magazine, a weekly Jesuit publication.