Bible study participant #1: “It bothers me that women don’t have more leadership roles in the Church.”
Bible study participant #2 (visibly agitated): “Jesus never ordained women.”
I was leading a Bible study group at my former church. I have no recollection of the passage we were discussing, but as it happens from time to time, the conversation veered a bit off track. Worried that the discussion could turn into an argument, I reminded the group of the rule to refrain from challenging what other people chose to share, and repeated the original study question.
We moved on.
I regret that. I wish #1 could have talked some more about her perspective on the position of women in the Catholic Church without fear of immediate judgment. Right or wrong, #2 needed to hear that there are sincere and committed Catholics who aren’t convinced by the same arguments.
We need spaces within our churches where people can question and share doubts; and, conversely, listen to those who are on a different journey than us. Faith ebbs and flows on the spiritual journey. Sometimes it’s about big issues: a death or traumatic event might lead you to return to the big questions – or even doubt the power of God. Other times the foundation is strong, but we struggle with this or that particular teaching or practice. Sometimes it isn’t doubt at all, but merely another perspective that has been ignored in the community for too long.
This process of doubt and questioning can be very necessary for the development of a mature faith. Doubt can help us do away with idols – false notions of God and self that inhibit our spiritual and emotional growth.
In the world of Catholic ministry, we like to tell ourselves the myth about Catholics in the pews: there are the five percent who really believe and are engaged … and then there are the rest. The vast majority show up to Sunday Mass and practice their faith inconsistently, but the five percent volunteer for stuff and show up to Bible studies. “Intentional disciple” is a favorite buzzword used to describe the five-percenters.
The standard of a successful parish is how much you can change that ratio.
All myths contain truths, and it is true that there is usually a small core of Catholics in a parish community that do the lion’s share of the support and work needed to keep the parish functioning.
With that said, I see three problems with the myth:
First, if you really listen to the five-percenters, they have a wide variety of beliefs (not always the official ones) and also experience doubt.
Secondly, the myth assumes that the rest are not practicing Christian discipleship in non-traditional ways outside of the bounds of “acceptable” church participation.
During my time as a minister of adult faith formation, I met many Catholics that did not meet the current criteria of an Intentional Disciple™, but were living and breathing discipleship. Maybe they didn’t come to the parish socials, Bible Studies and retreats. Maybe their Sunday Mass attendance was spotty. Maybe they were in an “irregular” relationship. And yet they used their time, talents, and treasure to serve the disadvantaged of the larger community (often heroically). Those stories often go unacknowledged in the church.
Finally, this myth tends to frame our current notions of church programming and participation as the gold standard of Catholic faithfulness. They’re not. Like everyone else in the Church, those in leadership can have blind-spots toward certain aspects of the Gospel.
In summary, this myth can create a closed system that is unresponsive to the concerns of those who live both on margins of the parish community and the outside.
Where do those with doubts and questions go? Yes, some Catholics find ways to reconcile their questions with serious commitment to their community: finding a confidant, a supportive small group, or focusing on more pragmatic concerns. Sadly, some are led to believe that there is something defective about their faith struggle.
Many, of course, simply give up and leave. Millennials are leaving mainline churches in droves…and not returning. For the most part they not abandoning belief in God, but they’re also less likely to study and talk through their issues in an embodied church community.
Can the Catholic Church, a Creedal Faith that places great value in the unity of believers, cultivate safe-spaces where pilgrims can air and wrestle with questions and doubts without fear of judgment? I think that, for the sake of transmitting the Gospel to future generations, the answer has to be yes.
Thankfully, there are some great examples of how we might start this in our churches. I hope to highlight many them in a series of upcoming posts.
I’ve been particularly intrigued by the rise of a certain sub-genre of Christian podcasts. As far as I know, the sub-genre doesn’t yet have a name. The best way I can describe it: Christians having no-holds barred conversations with others about faith and doubt.
They often feature plenty of swearing, but more importantly, the freedom to express faith and doubt without a filter or fear of judgment.
Here are some examples:
I’m not sure who started it all, but many of the other podcasts point to Bad Christians as their inspiration. Matt, Toby and Joey are three guys with backgrounds in evangelical Christianity. They get together weekly with guests to have conversations about what fellow Christians struggle with or how people view Christianity in different perspectives. They’re not afraid to question and reconsider what they think they know about Christianity.
Two former evangelical pastors. One guy became Catholic and one is no longer a believer. They drink and talk about anything that comes to mind. Great stuff about faith and doubt, and how to live with both.
Similar to Bad Christians in many ways, but Catholic. One key difference is that they don’t spend any time questioning the core doctrines of their tradition. Don’t worry though, they are very honest about the struggles of faith and are open to the some hard hitting conversations about the way Catholics do church. It’s quite remarkable to see a dynamic of balancing active faithfulness to the institutional church and openness to sincere internal dialogue.
Threshold Podcast is just a few weeks old, but originated as a parish series. A Catholic layman and priest down with friends (of many stages and types of belief) asking them about what they believe. No arguments, no apologetics; just a sincere desire to understand what makes people tick spiritually. The priest is a metalhead, so extra points for them.
Hosted by some Millennials on staff at America magazine, this one departs a bit from the freewheeling conversational model. The interviews and current events segments are structured, but never forced. The best part of the show comes at the end, when each of the hosts shares their “desolation and consolations” an Ignatian spiritual practice. They don’t hold back.
Do you have spaces where you feel safe sharing questions and doubts about your faith? If you feel comfortable, share in the comments!