Voices from outside the Church

Open House, a Catholic Magazine and Blog of Scotland, recently published an article by Fr. Carl Chudy reflecting on the North American experience of the Synod of the Church, 2021-2024.

Like other continents worldwide, the North American experience of the Synod of the Church, called by Pope Francis in 2021, has been extraordinary. The final report for the continental stage of the Synod states, ‘Profound joy and enthusiasm were experienced by many, while resistance, suspicion, and anxiety were aroused in some’. This joy and resistance make sense in a Church today that is bedeviled by polarization, yet the sheer number involved in this stage is somewhat staggering and shows the passion for the Church on all sides.

The continental stage in North America consisted of twelve virtual assemblies (sessions): seven in English, three in Spanish, and two in French. Attending these assemblies were 931 delegates. Among them, 146 bishops participated in one or more virtual assemblies. Almost 90% of the dioceses and eparchies in the United States and Canada (236/267) were represented in the assemblies. The reliance on virtual sessions, though, was criticized and led at least one bishop to lament that the Synod had a ‘lukewarm’ welcome by some bishops.

That said, my concern as a religious missionary seeking to serve the mission ad gentes of North America, and beyond, is not only for the voices within the Church but particularly for those outside it. My interest in the shifting sands of religiosity in North America, beyond Christianity, led me in 2021 to focus on research on those who left the Catholic Church in our local area, particularly on the dynamics of the birth of disaffiliation in Catholic families.

Dwellers and seekers
Listening to the stories of those who left church practice should be an essential and constitutive dimension of what it means to be a faith community. But it is rare for those who struggle with the Church to experience dialogue with family or the Church where their doubts are heard without judgment, and a real dialogue about their ecclesial misgivings can take place. When I refer to the faith community in this context, I generally refer to two groups of people. The first are the dwellers, clergy, and lay people who find a home in the Church’s sacramental life. The second are seekers looking for more authentic faith experiences, sometimes not found in their local church environments. Both dwellers and seekers make up the whole faith community.

The Synod offers a remarkable opportunity to dialogue and listen to those who are disaffiliated or feel estranged from the Catholic Church, not as a problem to be solved but as an occasion for personal and communal discernment to fathom what God is saying to all of us, both dwellers and seekers. The final report of the Continental Phase says: ‘What emerged from the assemblies was a recognition that there are strong tensions within the Church’.  Mediating that tension means making accompaniment with seekers a habitual and ongoing discernment. Dwellers and seekers make up one ecclesial community where we need to ask the question that Charles Taylor offers: Who does the Church speak to?

Disaffiliation experiences
On the occasion of the Synod, we invited ten men and women of various ages and backgrounds to share their stories of disaffiliation as part of our Catholic Disaffiliation Project. We left the interviews open-ended, offering them space to tell their story without much prompting. They appreciated the opportunity to share their experience in the synodal process, hoping that church leadership would listen carefully and heedfully to their experiences in the Church. Even though the sampling of interviews is small, they show the diversity and scope of people who may or may not identify as Catholic.

For lack of space, I will not go into this group of people’s fascinating and challenging disaffiliation experiences. Instead, I wish to outline two overarching frames by which to understand these stories of departure from the Church that may help Church leaders and families understand better how we approach these disaffiliation experiences. The Synod is calling us to elicit pastoral responses that are concerned with the deep faith and spiritual longings these stories reveal.

Sacred stories
Disaffiliated stories are sacred stories. Their narratives as well as the ecclesial experiences that helped shape their decisions are complex. Their meanings need to be fleshed out and discerned together. We hear stories of search and hope, frustration, and crisis in their desire for belonging, believing, and values that undergird their moral life. Instead of merely a ‘failure’ of one’s faith by exiting the Church, dialogue unveils the experience of disaffiliation often as ‘one of the most theologically significant phenomena in contemporary Catholic life’.  Stories of disaffiliation are sacred journeys because they reveal deep spiritual and social longings and unresolved wounds in the Church, family, and society. They invite a pursuit to understand their lives sacred and spiritual impulses.

People of all ages often wrestle with what it means to be Catholic in significant ways. Hence, everyday Catholic life contains an ambiguous daily theological play between normative and non-normative beliefs and practices. The theological space to speak openly and frankly about real-life beliefs and practices and the doubts accompanying them is often absent. Yet, whether it meets official expectations or not, it is this space where Catholic ideals and realities blend in convergence and divergence and where the whole Catholic identity may be more fully understood.

Perhaps, for this reason, many Catholics generally do not merely absorb ideas from pulpits and religious education classes. Catholics exercise ‘interpretive authority’ when engaging their tradition, and ‘lived religion’ means a process that is never disconnected from the flow of people’s everyday lives. Some religious meanings in spiritual understanding, values, and religious practices may be necessary, and others may be deemed less so.

Common Ground
In any dialogue, one of the first considerations is seeking common ground with those who differ from you. The practical theologian Terry Veling offers some examples of the practice of disaffiliated Catholics and Catholic theological traditions that are important starting points in affiliated and disaffiliated engagement.
•    Appreciation and respect for human cultures, with a constant need for dialogue among us.
•    Appreciation of Catholic social teaching, stressing the dignity of the human person and the inextricable tie between the love of God and the love of neighbor.
•    Appreciation of God’s presence in the ordinariness of life, which our rich sacramental tradition expresses.
•    Appreciation and respect for faith working together with reason and (science), and for faith working with good works, particularly with the environment.
•    I would also add the common ground among religious traditions in our multi-religious and multi-secular communities.

When people depart from church practice, they often take core elements of their Catholic faith, like Veling’s list. People leave church practice but not necessarily faith in God for many different reasons. In their departure, they take elements of their Catholic faith with them as they attempt to live their faith lives outside the church tradition. Thus, aspects of the Catholic faith, even though lived outside the Church, are enculturated in many ways into the more prominent secular ambient beyond the institutional Church.

The Synodal Church struggles to be in dialogue with Itself. The dialogue the Synod calls for with those who experience estrangement from the Church, for whatever reason, is the same dialogue with others who may not be disaffiliated but struggle to find a home in the Church. The final report of the continental sessions for North America states: ‘In fact, one of the major factors that were seen as breaking down communion was the experience of many that certain people or groups feel unwelcome in the Church’. Those groups include ‘women, young people, immigrants, racial or linguistic minorities, LGBTQ+ persons, survivors of clergy abuse, people who are divorced and remarried without an annulment, and those with varying degrees of physical or mental abilities’.

Calling it a challenge for the immediate future, the document also says Church leaders must focus on unity, lest polarization threatens the cohesiveness of the Church. Baptism and the Eucharist ‘must be seen as primary sources of our identity and unity as the People of God, and before any racial, ethnic, social, economic, political, or ideological differences’.

Dr. Michelle Dillon, the author of Postsecular Catholicism, aptly structures the approach of this dialogue within the Church with these questions: ‘How can the Church forge new directions in language, doctrinal thinking, and institutional practices that find greater resonance with the lived experiences of increasingly secularized Catholics and others? At the same time, how can the Church share the rich tradition of the Church that answers the deepest of spiritual longings in a secular age?’ The challenges in the North American Catholic Church show strong tensions within the Church that need to be addressed pastorally. Pastors and laypeople must learn to engage in this dialogue with empathy and love, something, quite frankly, that we are generally not familiar with.

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