We’re all sometimes dissatisfied with the Church as we experience it, but Flannery O’Connor has seriously good advice for us.
That baby in the manger, he changed everything, yes. Hinge of human history, all that, of course. But when for us men and our salvation the Son of God became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, he gave mankind a new problem. He gave us us.
The Body of Christ in an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes or held in His Mother’s arms, that makes us feel warm. The Body of Christ on the Cross, that makes us feel grateful. The Body of Christ as we see it in each other and the Church, not always so warm nor so grateful. Sometimes the opposite, sometimes the opposite accompanied with curses.
An incomplete understanding of sin
Flannery O’Connor saw this well. Her Catholic friend Cecil Dawkins felt very dissatisfied with the Church. (By the way, I’d much commend O’Connor’s letters, collected in The Habit of Being. Even if you don’t like her stories, you’ll find a person you’ll probably like a great deal, also a lot of wisdom and insight and some very funny stories. Also talk about her stories that may help you like them if you don’t already.)
You can find her answer to Dawkins in her letter of December 9, 1958. She starts by saying that her friend is dissatisfied with the Church because she doesn’t understand sin — that she expects an impossible perfection from the Church. “Christ was crucified on earth and the Church is crucified in time, and the Church is crucified by all of us, by her members most particularly because she is a Church of sinners. Christ never said the Church would be operated in a sinless or intelligent way.”
God set it up this way, O’Connor continues, and why, who knows. “To have the Church be what you want it to be would require the continuous miraculous meddling of God in human affairs, whereas it is our dignity that we are allowed more or less to get on with those graces that come through faith and the sacraments and which work through our human nature. God has chosen to operate in this manner. We can’t understand this but we can’t reject it without rejecting life.”
What O’Connor says about our response to this reality really struck me. First, we easily see the bad but not nearly so easily the deeper, subtler good. “It is easy for any child to pick out the faults in the sermon on his way home from church every Sunday,” she writes. “It is impossible for him to find out the hidden love that makes a man, in spite of his intellectual limitations, his neuroticism, his own lack of strength, give up his life to the service of God’s people, however bumblingly he may go about it.”
The Church’s failings sit on the surface to be seen, as do her people’s failings. The sometimes astonishing goodness usually lies below the surface. “It is what is invisible that God sees and that the Christian must look for,” she says. “Because he knows the consequences of sin, he knows how deep in you have to go to find love.”
Second, we shouldn’t spend our lives being upset, but work for improvement as we can. “We have our own responsibility for not being ‘little ones’ too long, for not being scandalized. By being scandalized too long, you will scandalize others and the guilt for that will belong to you.” This, I think, we today really need to hear. It’s so, so easy to become addicted to the rush of anger and indignation when we read about the newest scandal, and to hit the “share” button so our friends can feel it too.
But we must still do what we can to make the Church more obviously what she is and should be. “It’s our business to try to change the external faults of the Church … wherever we find them and however we can,” O’Connor says. She lists “the vulgarity, the lack of scholarship, the lack of intellectual honesty,” problems she as a writer would have felt strongly.
“The culture of the whole Church is ours and it is our business to see that it is disseminated through the Church in America,” she continues. “You don’t serve God by saying, the Church is ineffective, I’ll have none of it. Your pain at its lack of effectiveness is a sign of your nearness to God. We help overcome this lack of effectiveness simply by suffering on account of it.”
Finally, seeing how intractable are the problems, we need to turn to God in prayer. At the end of the letter, she warns her friend against her idealistic expectation of the Church. “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness. Charity is hard and endures.” If Dawkins wants her questions cleared up, “That is done by study but more by prayer. What you want, you have to be not above asking for.”