A Catholic Gospel according to Brené

Mike Lewis, on his excellent blog Where Peter Is, had a thoughtful and provocative essay on the tensions in today’s US Catholic Church titled “What can we offer to the world?”That question has nagged at me and in the process taken me in a different direction than Lewis heads in his essay.  Lewis follows the lead of most Christian theologians in explaining what the church has to offer as a moral code – a suite of values and ethics by which to live one’s life. I would suggest we take one further step back and ask first what people need, and then answer Lewis’ question in that light.

As much as we may think (other) people need a moral code (or a better moral code), that’s not, frankly, what people themselves need. Here I draw on researcher, social worker and speaker Brené Brown, whose decades-long qualitative research on shame and vulnerability has led her to a simple and powerful declaration of what people really need, which is the certainty to be able to say:

I am worthy of love and belonging. I am imperfect, but I am enough.

Traditionally, religion has offered moral codes as ways for people to achieve the ability to express that declaration with certainty. If you follow these rules or live out those values, you are worthy of love and belonging. In culturally dominant religions, anthropologists would tell you that the purpose of the religion is to prop up the moral code of the dominant culture by adding a dimension of spiritual worthiness. In religions not connected to the dominant culture, the moral code is often viewed as subversive and can occasionally spark revolutions. 

The bad news is, and here I side with Lewis, Christianity (and especially Catholic Christianity) no longer provides the dominant moral code in our culture, nor do its leaders enjoy a presumption of moral authority necessary to assert it as such.

The good news, though, is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t primarily focused on moral codes at all; it’s focused on more foundational affirmation of Brené Brown’s declaration, with perhaps a tweak. And that is the Good News that Christians should be focused on spreading.

The fundamental truth of the Gospel is that we are each, all of us, forever worthy of love and belonging because God in fact loves us. The truth of the cross and resurrection is that, even the worst that we can do (crucifixion) cannot outweigh God’s love (resurrection). We are not only imperfect; we are fundamentally broken. And yet still, for God, we are enough.

The morality we focus on isn’t the precursor to worthiness, it’s the response. That is, we don’t strive to “be good” to achieve worthiness but as a way to show gratitude and return the love and belonging we’ve been given. St. Augustine was right: Love God, and do as you will. Our moral code, taken on the side of already-enough-ness, isn’t a codification of do’s and don’t’s, but a charge to live grateful for the confidence of our affirmation and in such a way that we see the worthiness of everyone we touch and, what’s more, we help them see it in themselves, too.

Catholics have been passed by other expressions of Christianity in operationalizing this reality. I think particularly of the evangelical traditions that emphasize an evangelization that leads by belonging – by connecting believers new and old into small faith communities, they make tangible the sense that members really do belong and offer a structure that frees members to show each other their worthiness. Catholics (and mainline Protestant denominations) have some catching up to do here.

That said, I believe Catholicism has some structural advantages that we could lean into. Ours is a 4-dimensional faith in ways that I’m not sure others can claim.

First of all, our sacraments make us tangible in ways that others are not. Much is made about the sacrament of reconciliation as a weapon of shame and guilt, and as a relative newcomer, I can’t dispute that that characterization may be baked into people’s past experience. But here’s what I see in the sacrament of reconciliation as well as the confiteor (the part at the beginning of each mass where the congregation confesses its shortcomings and is given absolution): they provide a real, experiential sense of forgiveness that allows you to move on. 

Look, I was raised in the United Methodist tradition and have great affection for it. I parroted the argument against confessing sins to a priest that goes “I can go straight to God any time I want,” and I agree that that is the case. But, my reality was, though I could do that, I’m not sure how often I actually did do that. And even when I did, the act of asking God to forgive you through a silent prayer that feels like just another internal monologue lacks…closure. Affirmation. Realness. 

When I walk into the confessional, I have a list of what I want to be reconciled to God about written on a piece of paper (hopefully not a big one). When I leave the confessional, I rip that list up and throw it away, because the ritual of reconciliation makes very real for me the experience of my forgiveness. I am broken, but I am enough. God thinks me worthy of love and belonging.

Likewise the Eucharist, while much the focus of unhelpful debate, brings the power of a faith that, even if we can’t quite fully understand it, believes that Jesus really meant what he said when he said “This is my body,” and “This is my blood.” It hits different that communion services I have attended in other denominations, at least for me. It is God tangibly accompanying us.

Second, Catholicism brings a, well, catholicity that communicates belonging in a different way. Most of the churches I have been affiliated with rest their sense of community and belonging in the local. While there are Presbyterians and Methodists and Episcopalians across the globe, you generally feel like your tribe are the folks in your congregation. That’s true for Catholics, most of the time, but there is this added dimension: everywhere around the world, Catholics are gathering to read the same readings and pray the same prayers in their own language. Every hour of the day, someone, somewhere is celebrating the Mass. And you and I get to be a part of that. That is next-level belonging.

Third, there is the even next-next-level belonging of time. Most churches have two timeframes: Bible times and right now. That is, the faith leaders and congregation think about faith in contemporary terms (often much better than Catholics do), and they think about faith in Biblical terms, but the space in between the 1st century and the 21st century is mostly a blur, perhaps interrupted by the era of their denomination’s founding. 

Catholicism connects all the dots. The history of the Church is by no means always pretty; one of the big challenges we face is reconciling ourselves to the significant failings of Catholics throughout history to be on the side that the Gospel would point us to. But we have the full timeline, and even in the darkest times of our faith, we have the bright stars of saints as examples. Whatever I am going through, someone – some Catholic – has gone through heroically already. And we belong to each other.

I say all this not to belittle Protestant brothers and sisters. Y’all are kicking out butts, in many instances, at following Jesus, and you are inspirations in those regards. I say all this to encourage my fellow Catholics, in what feels like a time of despair, to stay in the game. Because when it comes to spreading the Good News that God shows us that He has made us worthy of love and belonging, we need to catch up.

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