A recent Newsweek magazine essay announced that Christianity was in "crisis."
My first thought was, "What's new about that?" For more than 20 centuries it has been in trouble, from within and without, the former no less than the latter. Somehow it has managed.
Newsweek promoted the essay with a provocative front cover that advised, "Forget the church. follow Jesus." The essay, by Andrew Sullivan, an author and columnist at The Sunday Times in London, is thoughtful and thought provoking, the kind of challenge the faithful periodically need and should welcome.
Sullivan theorizes that Christians have drifted away from their roots because the church has become politicized. He said, "The saints, after all, became known as saints not because of their success in fighting political battles, or winning a few news cycles, or funding an anti-abortion super PAC. They were saints purely and simply because of the way they lived."
How convenient and easy it is to echo the preferred secular narrative: Religious institutions are not to be trusted. Sinful bishops trying to tell everyone else, even nonbelievers, how to live. You're better off separating yourself from organized religion for a purer, simpler faith, unfiltered by hierarchies of self-serving clergy, secretive curia and stagnant traditions. In short, go it alone.
Going it alone hardly seems to have been Jesus' example. He gathered multitudes. He proclaimed the creation of a church, a community of people united by common belief. Maybe a student of the Gospels could point out where Jesus preached that the path to salvation was to go it alone, just he and you.
Not going it alone seems to me to be the entire point of organized religion. Jesus made it pretty clear that our relation with him is defined by the quality of our relations with others. It strikes me that it's a lot harder to get to where you're going when you're alone. And the church provides the structure that facilitates that trip.
I'm more familiar with the Catholic Church than other Christian denominations. Its not-going-it-alone statistics are: more than 600 Catholic hospitals accounting for 12.5 percent of American hospitals and more than 15.5 percent of all U.S. hospital admissions. Four hundred health care centers and 1,500 specialized homes. Some 235 are residential homes for orphaned and other children. Emergency food, clothing, financial, shelter, medical and other assistance for more than 6.5 million people annually. Millions of students of all denominations in Catholic schools. Such is the essential nature of Catholic belief.
But there were few warnings of a "crisis of Christianity" when church's beliefs stoked the civil rights movement. Or when a 19th-century pope, Leo XIII, was far ahead of his time in his groundbreaking encyclical Rerum Novarum, in which he courageously defended the rights of working men and women.
Back then, such "politicization" strengthened the church. Inspired believers rose to admirable heights in the name of social justice. The church was involved in politics up to its neck, but there were no calls for abandonment of the structural church, or for believers to remove their noses from America's business.
We all are quite aware of current polls that show that Americans, especially younger ones, are turning from traditional and mainline religions to a more "individualized and private" faith. In contrast, a USA Today story reported an increase in "reverts," which are people who are returning to the practice of the religion of their childhood and youth. I don't know which is right.
But the current trashing of organized religion because of its involvement in civic discourse is seriously misplaced and politically opportunistic. No doubt, it will worsen when Republican Mitt Romney duelsPresident Barack Obama for the presidency. Already, Romney's Mormon religion is decried as too conservative because it believes good works are more a matter of personal volunteering and charitable giving as opposed to constant and growing government intervention from a distance.
The church itself acknowledges that it is a human institution as well as a creation of God. Therefore, like all humans, it struggles and sins. So, it is constantly in crisis. But not because it reaches outside of itself. It is precisely because it reaches outside of itself that it has survived 2,000 years.