It is a timely and entirely legitimate question. The church has been implicated throughout history in a dark cornucopia of misdeeds. Why would anyone want to stay in the church?

In his article in which Father Ron Rolheiser poses this question, he has the grace to acknowledge that “the church has enough sin to legitimize the question.” The litany of grievances he outlines against the church is deeply troubling:

the Inquisition, its support for slavery, its role in colonialism, its link to racism, its role in thwarting women’s rights, and its endless historical and present compromises with white supremacy, big money, and political power.

Who could blame anyone for not wanting to be associated with such a grievous history of wrong? It is not easy to argue in favour of continued allegiance to such a deeply flawed institution. Father Rolheiser does his best to make his case and pleads the cause of church with wisdom and insight. He does however start in a place that seems to me muddled and false when he writes:

The same charges might be leveled against any of the countries in which we live. How can we stay in a country that has a history of racism, slavery, colonialism, genocide of some of its indigenous peoples, radical inequality between its rich and its poor, one that is callous to desperate refugees on its borders, and one within which millions of people hate each other? Isn’t it being rather selective morally to say that I am ashamed to be a Catholic (or a Christian) when the nations we live in share the same history and the same sins?

It is a false equivalency to equate church with country. The Roman Catholic Church is not a nation. The adherents of any church freely choose to associate themselves with the particular body of faith in which they express their spirituality and seek to nurture their faith. Allegiance to a volunteer organization can easily be renounced without any real harm. Nationhood is not freely chosen; it is not easy to renounce statehood.

This raises one other point on which I part company with Father Rolheiser. In his last point he argues that:

Finally, and most important, I stay in the church because the church is all we’ve got! There’s no other place to go….Where else can we go? 

The answer to “Where else can we go?” is “Many places.” There are today in the world countless expressions of faith. There are innumerable genuine communities of faith springing up all over the world that represent serious, committed and devout attempts to embody faith in genuine ways.

Father is just wrong when he dismisses faith expressions outside the church saying that

Behind the expression, I am spiritual, but not religious (however sincerely uttered) lies either an invincible failure or a culpable reluctance to deal with the necessity of religious community, to deal with what Dorothy Day called “the asceticism of church life”. To say, I cannot or will not deal with an impure religious community is an escape, a self-serving exit, which at the end of the day is not very helpful, not least for the person saying it.

You do not need the Roman Catholic Church to be forced to “deal with an impure religious community.” There are multiple opportunities in the variegated spiritual landscape of our day to find an “impure religious community.” Every one of them will provide ample opportunity to rub up against the barbed wire edges of other people.

The Roman “church, for all its checkered history and compromised present,” is definitely not “all we have” when it comes to gathering for the burnishing business of being a spiritual fellowship. Father Rolheiser is correct, “There is no pure church anywhere for us to join, just as there is no pure country anywhere for us in which to live.” His church is not the only not-pure-church you can find. There is a multitude of not-pure options out there to choose from.

With those two provisos, Father Rolheiser’s other two arguments seem strong and wise.

First he points out that it makes sense for him to stay:

because the church is my mother tongue.

He goes on to pay touching tribute to the gifts he has received from his faith community:

It gave me the faith, taught me about God, gave me God’s word, taught me to pray, gave me the sacraments, showed me what virtue looks like, and put me in contact with some living saints. Moreover, despite all its shortcomings, it was for me authentic enough, altruistic enough, and pure enough to have the moral authority to ask me to entrust my soul to it, a trust I’ve not given any other communal entity.

I have never, nor would I ever, “entrust my soul” to any institutional manifestation of faith. But I do understand the feeling of having a “mother tongue.” The church of my childhood became the church of my adult expression of faith. It is my spiritual family in which I have been challenged and through which I have learned and grown in faith. When my family lets me down, I do not abandon my family. I seek instead to be a better member of that family and live more deeply the values that can encourage my family to be more fully the community we are intended to be.

Most of all I resonate with Rolheiser’s second argument in favour of staying:

the church’s history is not univocal. I recognize its sins and openly acknowledge them, but that’s far from its full reality. The church is also the church of martyrs, of saints, of infinite generosity, and of millions of women and men with big, noble hearts who are my moral exemplars.  I stand in the darkness of its sins; but I also stand in the light of its grace, of all the good things it has done in history.

Like Father Rolheiser, I have seen, far too often, the sins and shortcomings of the institutional expression of faith in which I exercise my spiritual life. But I have also seen the light and the beauty in this community. I have seen countless gifts of kindness and love manifest through this flawed organization. I have heard truth here. I have been challenged to deepen my understanding of what it means to live deeply in this time-bound material realm and to open my heart to the vast mystery of the universe.

For the time being, the good that I see and the richness I experience in my particular little institutional expression of faith, makes staying in the church a viable tradeoff. But I understand and feel deep compassion for those who find they have reached the tipping point and can no longer sail aboard the particular leaky creaky old vessel that has been their “mother tongue” in the past. I only pray that they may find a new boat in which to navigate the powerful waters of light and life to a deeper encounter with the sacred Source of all life.