Welcome to the first Catholic Blog Day! Read more here. The theme today is, fittingly, Penance.
Sunday afternoon the Superhusband and I sat around complaining about all the things that Catholics like to complain about. “Too bad,” I finally said, far too late into our festival of grumpiness, “That we’re so lousy at prayer and fasting.”
Monday morning the readings came as no surprise:
Peacemakers, when they work for peace, sow the seeds which will bear fruit in holiness. (James chapter 3.)
When Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why were we unable to cast it out?”
“This is the kind,” he answered, “that can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.” (Mark chapter 9.)
I’m convinced there is a particular demon, I call him the church-ocracy demon, who tries to stir up all kinds of trouble in the Church. He’s the one behind those weird bureaucratic moments where kind, loving Christians find themselves at odds, because each is trying to do the Lord’s will, and do it diligently. He’s the one who tries to change the famous verse to read, “Wherever two or more of you are gathered in my name, there will be a policy, paper, or program that drives at least one of you to distraction.”
Jesus promised the gates of Hell would not prevail against the Church; we should not be surprised, therefore, when our parishes become the front lines of the enemy’s advances. In order to win a battle, there must have been a battle to win.
The Church Militant is not an army of automatons. There is a time for simply shutting up and following orders, yes. Today we fast and abstain in part merely because the Church has said we will. This is the day, this is how you will proceed; the direction is clear, and we follow it. It is no hollow exercise, for certain; but nor is this the day, for example, to say with either jealousy or scruples, “Gosh, meat isn’t any big deal for vegetarians, shouldn’t they be made to do something extra?” Eat less, pray more, today is the day, here are the orders on who what when where and how.
But the virtue of obedience is not the virtue of idiocy. The critics of the Church imagine we are all little robot-agents, wired by microchip to a master-controller sending orders from his lair in a Vatican basement. We do crazy things, after all, like saving sex for marriage, and only marrying one person at a time. Surely there must be some kind of drug in the holy water, right?
Inside the Church, we pervert the virtue a different way, bickering over minutia, or actively dissenting from the clear teaching of the Magisterium, but then using the cover of “obedience” to spare ourselves the long, lonely walk to Calvary that comes from refusing to follow illegal orders.
But the church-ocracy demon comes into his own in the vast middle between extremes, where we are neither complaining bitterly the tile is just the wrong shade of beige, nor being asked embezzle funds or cover for a child abuser. There is a great wide territory where it is difficult to find the balance between engaged, thoughtful participation in the life of the Church on the one hand, and peaceful, joyful obedience on the other. And what does obedience look like, anyhow?
Good Christians disagree. Good Christians who love one another, who love Christ, and love the Church, disagree about what policies and procedures need be put in place. Sometimes we disagree lightly — mere tastes or preferences are involved. Other times, we each feel the other is making a grave and damaging mistake.
The demon is not in the disagreement. The demon is not in holding our ground when we honestly feel we must, even though it mean we find ourselves at odds with our friends. The demon is in the voice that whispers bitterness, fear, jealousy, and rage into a situation that is, simply, two or more Christians disagreeing on some matter.
And it is only driven out by prayer and fasting.