decline-of-christianityThe New York Times editorial page has really been into this papal resignation business lately. I’m not generally one of these people who talk about the conspiratorial-like motives of certain media outlets “against the church” as I hear from time to time. I simply do not believe that this claim is true. However, there has been a fair share of problematic pieces that have run in recent weeks and the latest, by the author Paul Elie titled “Give Up Your Pew For Lent,” is one of the worst that I’ve read so far. What makes matters worse is that Elie is generally a good writer whose work includes a relatively well-received book about four iconic American Catholics (Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy). However, as is made clear in this op-ed contribution, this does not guarantee that he has an adequate understanding of what the Eucharist is all about or why “giving up one’s pew,” as he suggests, could never accomplish that for which he is advocating. In fact, it actually undermines his agenda.

This is how Elie summarizes his premise:

Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon.

So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.

The problem is, that by making this parallel, Elie is unintentionally equating the pope with the church because the resignation of one of the bishops of the community of believers is not at all the same as the Body of Christ, which is the church, not coming together for what the Second Vatican Council in its text Sacrosanctum Concilium teaches is the source and summit of our life and faith. The pope isn’t the church, we are the church — all of us, including the pope and every other baptized woman and man.

There is an ethical dimension and a baptismal obligation we have to recognize that we gather each week to be renewed and challenged by the Word of God and nourished at the Lord’s Table. But this is not simply some club, like the Knights of Columbus or Elks Lodge, which ought to be protested. It is the very heart of our faith.

In a sense, I understand what Elie is suggesting. He’s interested in calling the People of God to be more mindful, more aware of their priorities. But it is precisely in the hearing of the word and the breaking of the bread that becomes the privileged place of that rediscovery.

See, what Elie misses from the start is that the pope resigning from an office in the church is not the same thing as Joseph Ratzinger refusing to participate in the celebration of the Eucharist this weekend. If the assembly doesn’t gather, there is no Mass. And, if there is no Mass, there is no church. As Henri de Lubac has pointed out in his lucid work: the Eucharist makes the church.

Elie goes on:

In traditional parlance, Benedict’s resignation leaves the Chair of St. Peter “vacant.” So I propose that American Catholics vacate the pews this weekend.

We should seize this opportunity to ask what is true in our faith, what it costs us in obfuscation and moral compromise, and what its telos, or end purpose, really is. And we should explore other religious traditions, which we understand poorly.

He is absolutely correct about the need to ask “what is true in our faith,” but the beginning and end of the search does not take place in spiritual lone rangers exploring on their own. The source and goal is the community, is relationship, is Body of Christ. What is most true about our faith is the radicality of relationship: with God, with others, with all of creation.

What Elie, probably with the best intentions, is suggesting misses the point of his aim. If he wants Christian women and men to be more committed to their faith, more aware of the ethical and praxiological implications of the Gospel they profess, more interested in working for justice and peace — then they should fill the pews this Sunday and every Sunday.

And, if this is Elie’s point, they shouldn’t stop there! They should form small faith communities, engage in outreach and work to fight injustice in our communities, reflect on the word of God and its implications for today, consider learning more about the actual meaning of the liturgy and the history of the church and the significance of doctrinal faith claims.

Elie’s suggestion bears the same offensive logic that certain politicians who used the “self-deportation” rhetoric does. His call is for “self-excommunication” — literally moving outside of regular communion and participation in the life of the community, the Body of Christ, which is the church.

I’ve got news for you, Paul Elie, change doesn’t happen outside the church according to your proposal. Change happens through those who are committed to the real meaning of what it is we do when we gather together as the Body of Christ, regardless of how it might appear on the surface, to renew ourselves in our mission and our fundamental identity. Change is ushered in by the wisdom of those who strive to understand their faith — the very definition of theology according the Anselm of Canterbury: Faith seeking understanding. Change in the church is the work of the Spirit uniting and moving the People of God, which is a Pilgrim people, closer to the Creator who lovingly brought us into being and always already desires to be in relationship with us. 

To suggest that we forgo that relationship in order to be more individualistic is a sad and misguided suggestion indeed. I understand the frustration expressed in this advice, I feel it too, but “giving up your pew” this weekend is not the answer.

Photo: Stock


  1. With do respect I think that as a layman we are frustrated that the magisterium largely surrounds itself with yes men. WE the moderate Catholics feel by and large as if we don’t have a voice and leaving feels like a lot of our only choice.

  2. This is a rather beautiful post. Thank you. I remember learning about the fears of many Americans when JFK was running for president that the Catholic Church (or the Vatican) would rule America. It turns out that the opposite is more likely true – that an American Identity will rule a Catholic’s thinking.

    It takes no small amount of courage and fortitude to choose to remain inside the fold of the Catholic Church and to turn on the light. To sit in our own discomfort, fear, hopes, confusion, ignorance and perceptions long enough to allow God to work some sort of miracle of understanding.

    I don’t doubt our ability to do so. I pray for our incentive to do so. I also pray for a little less American Exceptionalism and Individualism in our Catholic discussions. And a little more Universal perspective.

    Thank you for the post.

  3. I agree Fr. Dan, leaving the church makes no sense at all. The Eucharist is the high point of my being Catholic. It is the summit! Sure I don’t like what has been happening in the church, but I continue to love God and the God that is in one another. Deacon Bill Coffey

  4. Amen Father! Thanks for the article, We do have a choice, to stay and be a voice for the reform of the Church, which historically has come from OUTSIDE the hierarchy. Jesus never left the Jewish faith, the religious leaders could not let go of their ego & follow Him. Let us be faithful to Him in the Eucharist with trust and confidence that in His time the changes needed will happen!

  5. Thank you Bro. Horan, for your well-chosen words. A deeply committed who can understand a well meaning critic. Kudos!

  6. Dan, I think that you are missing the point of what Paul Elie is saying: It is ok to step back (or out of) your place in the Church to look at the bigger picture. Like you say, to get your priorities straight.

    The Pope leaving the his position as Pope is not the same as leaving the church. But neither is stepping outside of the particular place you hold in the particular parish church the same as leaving The Church – or the body of Christ.

    You say some things that I do not understand:

    (1) “But it is precisely in the hearing of the word and the breaking of the bread that becomes the privileged place of that rediscovery.”

    Are you saying that without the experience of the liturgy of the Mass, we will not come to know ourselves as the People of God in an unique and special (“priveleged”) way? You may be right, but I’m not sure that this is taught and experienced in a way that is real for most people.

    (2) “If the assembly doesn’t gather, there is no Mass. And, if there is no Mass, there is no church.”

    But I thought that the Church was the People of God. If we know ourselves as the people of God, who come together in many ways and places, then we know that God is with us (in us, around us, above us, below us). Are you saying that this insight be exclusive to our coming together in a Church setting to celebrate the Eucharist?

    Finally, you say:
    (3) “To suggest that we forgo that relationship in order to be more individualistic is a sad and misguided suggestion indeed.”

    Where did Paul Elie suggest forgoing “relationship”? His suggestions were to look around at some of the ways that others are worshiping God. Listen, learn, reach beyond our comfort zones. Then come back.

    Yes, we must forever be seeking to understand and live our faith. That means, in my book, being able to risk having it all fall apart (or leaving for awhile) and trusting that the Spirit will lead us where we need to be.

    In order for the sacramental Church to become more relevant and available to a secular world, she must open her doors and be willing to step outside. It seems to me that the wind of the Spirit flows both ways – both out of the Church into the world, and from the world into the Church.

    1. Dear Shoofoolatte: If you will allow this former Roman Catholic (now Episcopal priest) to weigh in here: I feel this is a powerful piece and just shared it on my parish’s FaceBook page. I was educated by Franciscans in grade school & in college and so have an affinity for the writer.

      To answer your first two questions:
      1. Yes: without the experience of the gathered community’s breaking bread and breaking open the word, it is nearly impossible to be Christian. That is not to say there are not other ways to be formed (private spiritual practices, service to others) rather to say that the liturgy is central. Without a communal understanding, we wind up deluding ourselves and creating a god in our image. We need the correction, education and formation that occurs through a participation in Christ’s mystical Body.

      2. See answer #1. I don’t believe the author is saying that the body cannot/does not gather in other ways, rather he is protesting that absenting oneself from the central way the church experiences itself as Christ’s Body is the spiritual equivalent of cutting off your nose to spite your face.

      I agree with your final comments–that the Spirit is alive and moving in many ways–within the Church and in the world generally. The challenge always is to carry the strength received into a hungry world while also carrying the concerns of the world into our worship. In our Episcopal tradition, one of our Eucharistic prayers puts it this way:

      “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table for solace only and not for strength.”

      Strength on your journey!

      1. A lot of us are not clergy and perhaps come to similar conclusions as Ellie. We perhaps do not see liturgy as necessary in quite the way ordained clergy see it. When one is dependent on others, sometimes it’s very good for one’s spiritual path to separate from the dependency and try to find another more internalized reason to continue to participate in liturgy.

        And the truth is, when one is totally dependent on others, as Catholic laity are on clergy for their sacramental life, there is very little reason for tolerance for those who see things from other perspectives. One mostly hears ‘love it or leave it’. Maybe taking a ‘vacation’ for a week or two to visit other religious destinations really would be a gentle way of sending a message while learning about other faith traditions.

  7. Thank you for your significant contributions to keeping us as people of faith in conversation, in the process of faith seeking understanding and of embodying our faith day by day.
    Paz y bien!

  8. Filling the pews validates the episcopacy, who are corrupt. So doing that changes nothing for the better. Filling the pews may make things worse, and they are bad enough.
    Should one want a Church that is fully Christian, staying in the RCC will not do that, will it? Not unless Vatican 2 is implemented, and V2 is being reinterpreted into something else as time goes on.
    Membership in the RCC, a material institution is voluntary, membership in the People of God is involuntary and God given.
    As Jesus did not found a Church, we have a responsibilty, if we belong to one, to have it be one that practices what Jesus preached.

  9. The Eucharist is not the only thing that happens at mass. There is also the homily. Very often, the homily devolves into a purely political culture-war screed. Then it becomes ethically problematical for many people of conscience to be present. Our presence suggests our agreement; either agreement with the content or acknowledgement of an obligation to pretend to agree.

    The clerical estate, currently much too eager to mix in temporal politics, exploit this appearance of passive laypeople sitting respectfully while their clerical superiors instruct them. In lobbying secular governments they point to it as proof that their opinions are widely shared. Thus, anybody who attends mass becomes, however unwillingly, their co-conspirator.

    As far as I am concerned, this is the important question: should one allow one’s presence to be used to promote causes that are morally dubious, if not outright evil, simply in order to receive the Eucharist?

  10. Interesting comments. I rarely get hooked on the ‘let’s leave the pew’. More often I feel that my lack of support is felt more potently in the collection basket. The faith that Jesus beliefs grew into with the help of the Spirit is shared in the Mass: community, word and Body and Blood. The socio-political structure and hierarchy seem to have grown away from the source and summit.

  11. Elie also wrote: “That is why this Sunday, I won’t be at the Oratory Church of St. Boniface in Downtown Brooklyn, even though I love it there — a welcoming, open-minded, authentically religious place.”

    If I were a person in leadership at that oratory, I would be deeply offended that, in spite of all the hard work put into making the oratory into the kind of place it is, a valued member would rather boycott the local prayer community in order to make a quixotic gesture toward a pope that hasn’t even been elected yet. It looks like a tantrum.

  12. Once I said to a friend: If I really believe that the Eucharist is the Body of Christ that I can take into my mouth and my body, how can I stay away from Mass? I mean, if this is a special gift from God to us, how can any of us refuse? Why are we not there every day en masse?

    This is an ongoing problem for me. I’m sacramental. This life, this earth, is holy – suffused with God everywhere. I was raised Catholic. Life was first presented to me as sacramental, and that sense of sacredness has stayed with me. I love joining the Trappist monks at their Mass, which is said very slowly and can go on for over 2 hours. And I will often stop in on a weekly Mass somewhere – usually off the beaten path, like in a university or hospital chapel. I even seek these places out.

    But I am not a regular. Several years ago I stopped attending my local parish Church on a weekly basis. Why? I don’t know that I have a good reason, other than that I come away feeling sad, drained, un-fed. Like I am going to an assembly that is no longer relevant to me. Or trying to fit into a club to which I no longer belong. Every now and then I try again. Maybe some day it will click.

    I still identify myself as a Catholic, though I suppose that many would describe me as “lapsed”. And though I love exploring the mystical and contemplative aspects of other religions, most of the spiritual writers that I read are Catholic. There is no issue of faith that I know of that I disagree with.

    A few months ago I was hospitalized and a woman brought me communion. I was very sick and I welcomed the bread with a kind of hunger and need, even if I found the prayers and gestures surrounding this event to be confusing and disturbing. Something about it felt hokey. The woman wanted to stay and talk Jesus with me,and I had to politely tell her that I needed to sleep.

    I wonder about this. Perhaps I don’t believe anymore that the Eucharist is really the Body and Blood of Christ. Or that it can be made manifest and real only by certain people, rules and rituals. Then why do I love going to the monks’ Masses?

    As for Paul Elie’s article in the NY Times, I liked it. I agreed with it. I don’t understand why so many people are offended and upset by it. Maybe like Paul Elie, I’m standing on some strange margin of the Church. Not exactly mainstream, but still passionately being fed and loved and led.

    Thomas Merton once said that he wasn’t “that kind of Catholic” when criticized in the Louisville archdiocesan newspaper. Some of the more dogmatic priests of the diocese used to sneak through the woods around his hermitage hoping that they might find him and straighten him out.

    Maybe there are many different kinds of Catholics these days, and we are not all on the same page at the same time. It’s good to know from Paul Elie and Merton and others that I’m not the only one who is supposedly out of step.


  13. Well put. I am a big Paul Elie fan, and like you I think his piece is well-intentioned but misses the mark. I’m used to people who are not Catholic or religiously literate making the “Pope=church” statement, but I’m not so used to it from someone who lives out their Catholic faith.

  14. I think this is not so surprising given the egregious failures in leadership now culminating with the Pope’s resignation. Everyone runs for cover when the shepherds just make excuses for themselves. We can only hope that things get better.

  15. I think that this is not so surprising given the egregious failures in leadership. The flock is scattered when the shepherd’s make excuses for themselves and running for cover can be expected in such circumstances.

  16. Imagine yourself a woman in this “community” you speak of. Instead of male. You would never be good enough to be a priest, your experience of God would be dismissed; your sense of being called to minister to the people of God would be ridiculed and rejected. Then tell me staying home from the pew is a bad idea, if only for one day. Imagine the male preaching from the pulpit is ranting on about the significance of community, how it is the basis of Catholicism, and imagine you are excluded, quite literally, from full participation in that community. Using that argument is shameful.

    1. On the contrary, the argument is not shameful; it’s not even an argument. It is most simply the faith of the People of God. The exclusion about which you speak is, indeed, shameful. Don’t mix the two together, and don’t shoot the messenger. Calling the church, which is the Body of Christ, to be its truest self is what I’m proposing — what Elie proposes is superficial protests that will amount to nothing.

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