Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Giving Up Church for Lent

Anyone who's read this blog would probably be astonished to know that since my last post, I found myself thrown headlong into Catholicism, the faith I was born into and raised in. Yes, after sampling beliefs from all over the world, I ended up right back where I started. And I didn't step back in half-heartedly: I was attending Mass every single day and saying the Rosary every night before bed.

The short answer to what happened was that I had a very profound religious experience that led me back. The long answer isn't something I'm willing to divulge at the moment. In the time since it happened, I've taken to heart some advice from Orthodox author Frederica Mathewes-Green, who cautions people to be wary of religious experiences, as they quite often come down to emotional projection.

I will say that the time back in church has done me some good. I think it's humbled me and made me less angry and spiteful. I've been better able to come to terms with whatever mystery illness is having its way with my body, and I'm finding the humility to seek forgiveness from people with whom I've burned bridges in the past.

But now I've hit a couple of walls. One has to do with negative Christian attitudes toward "the least of these" -- the poor, the outcasts, the forgotten, those on the margins of society. The very ones Christ embraced during his earthly ministry.

But the larger issue I'm having is one of church policy on the sacraments.

Anyone raised Catholic knows the importance of the Eucharist to spiritual life. One of the main reasons I was going to Mass every day was that communion was my spiritual fuel. That amazing, intimate encounter with Christ every day brought me closer to him and to God. It deepened my prayer life. It helped open a lot of doors and answer a lot of questions I'd always had about Christianity and had never had answered. I felt like I was finally getting it -- as if I'd had a Catholic version of Enlightenment.

Well, it didn't occur to me at first that the church doesn't recognize my marriage as valid. I was very happily partaking in the sacraments and making progress on my spiritual path, until the day I realized the church wouldn't even want me taking communion, because I got married 13 years ago when the church wasn't a part of my life. Back then, I didn't even give it a second thought. Why would I? I'd moved on and never intended on going back.

Slam on the brakes. Now what do I do?

Well, I had a few options. I could pursue a convalidation, which basically means reciting my wedding vows in front of a priest, so that the church would see the marriage as legitimate. I could pursue a radical sanation, which means the church validates the marriage without a convalidation if one party is unwilling to take part in a proclamation of vows in the church. Or I could just take communion anyway, knowing the church considers me to be living in a state of mortal sin, and let God and my conscience sort things out.

A convalidation is always an option, and I know my wife would go through with one if I asked, but she's not a Christian and never has practiced organized religion. She was baptized Catholic as an infant, but that's it. I would be asking her to compromise her conscience by having her recite our vows in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, before a priest, in a church whose theology she doesn't believe in.

As for option No. 2, I've been told in so many words that a radical sanation would probably not be granted.

That leaves option No. 3. That's the path I was determined to take at first, but I'm uneasy with it, knowing that the church does not want me to partake.

But it's not just that. It's a matter of principle. Because here is the utter absurdity of my situation: I could divorce my wife, get an annulment from the church -- since it doesn't recognize my marriage -- and receive communion in good standing; or I could continue to be a faithful husband and good father, keep my family intact, and be told by the church that I'm committing a mortal sin and am unwelcome at the table.

Tell me: On what planet does that even remotely make sense?

It's when I came to that realization that it hit me, and hit me hard, how the church gets the Eucharist entirely backwards. For those unaware, the Catholic church only offers communion to Catholics -- but not all Catholics. Only those who have been baptized and received the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) can partake. And even then there are exceptions. If you're aware of a mortal sin, you are also not to partake. That includes Catholics in civil marriages (i.e., marriages that didn't take place in the Catholic church) and Catholics who have divorced and remarried, regardless of circumstance.

Yes, you can get an annulment. Yes, you can get a convalidation. But both situations express a rigidity that the church would do well to back away from, because all it succeeds in doing is alienating people with sometimes difficult life circumstances. It judges all equally -- Catholics who got married when away from the church along with active Catholics who deliberately flout the requirement to marry in the church; and Catholics who may have had no choice but to divorce along with those who for whatever reason simply didn't take their marriage vows seriously. 

The bottom line is this: We shouldn't have to qualify in some way to receive. Jesus didn't shut anyone out. He simply said "Do this in remembrance of me" at the Last Supper -- where even Judas was present, for goodness' sake. Jesus didn't pick and choose who got the loaves and fishes when he spoke -- he just fed everyone who showed up, and multiplied the food to make sure none went away hungry. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty." Then he adds: "The one who comes to me I will never turn away."

I heard a Catholic apologist recently justifying the church's closed communion, pointing out what Paul said in 1 Corinthians about those who were acting in an unbecoming way toward the Eucharist. Some in the church at Corinth were taking all the bread and not sharing with others, while some were getting drunk on the wine. To save the Eucharist from scandalous behavior, this apologist said, the church regulates who can and cannot receive -- and, moreover, he said, the church is only trying to save people from themselves, since Paul said that those not in a proper state of grace who partake in communion will be eating and drinking condemnation on themselves. 

But that's not for the church to decide. If it were, the person distributing communion would have to quiz every communicant before handing over the bread and wine. Even Paul said, in that same context, that it's up to every person to examine his own conscience before receiving. It's not the priest's job. It's between God and ourselves. 

In fencing off communion, the church seems to think we have to be holy and worthy before we receive, but none of us is ever worthy. We profess as much at every Mass, when we recite the words of the centurion: "Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed." Instead, we should always be able to receive in an attempt to make ourselves more holy and worthy.

I read once about a priest who said he was only able to administer communion to non-Catholics in case of an emergency. He said that anytime a Christian came to him seeking communion, he considered it an emergency. That's as it should be. Jesus didn't fence himself off. "The one who comes to me I will never turn away."

If I didn't care about the church, if it hadn't been helping and fulfilling me in other ways, I wouldn't care so deeply about this issue. But I know I can't be the only one in this situation, and frankly, it's both hurtful and insulting. This is an issue the church desperately needs to examine.

So with all this in mind, I've decided that for Lent this year, I'm giving up church. It breaks my heart to say that, but I feel the church has given me no other choice. I'll try to continue with my prayer life on my own the best I can. I do have a few meetings coming up with people in the church that were already scheduled, and I'll see those through. I may also continue to explore other options in the Christian family, including the Orthodox church (which appeals to me in some ways but also has its own issues, in my opinion) and the Episcopal church (which offers open communion and is welcoming to all, but sometimes seems so open that it doesn't appear to really stand for anything, a common problem with left-leaning social-justice denominations). But once Lent is over, I have no idea where I'm going to be. Maybe I'll find nowhere else to go and end up right back here, although I can't see that happening right now.

At the moment, I have health issues to contend with and plenty of other responsibilities to family and work. So I'll be busy and distracted, but I still can't say I'm happy to feel as though I've been forced into making this decision. I want to be part of the church. But I've discovered, sadly, that the church will push you out the door just as quickly as it pulls you in.

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