Turbulence, in the Sky and in the Church

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

I don’t recall if it was on my flight to or from my Florida vacation this summer, but at one point the pilot announced, “Folks, we expect to be passing through a little turbulence in a few moments, so we’d like you to return to your seats and check your seatbelts to be sure that they’re securely fastened.

And please remain seated for the duration of the flight.”

Now, if you fly very often you’ve probably heard similar announcements. Turbulence isn’t at all unusual. It’s caused by unstable air that’s often found on the edge of a thunderstorm, or while passing through a cloud bank or flying over mountains. Turbulence usually isn’t harmful to the plane which is built to withstand tremendous forces, but it can be dangerous if unsecured bodies or other objects fly around the cabin.

It strikes me that the turbulence in the air is a fitting image of the turbulence in the Church these days. And in this case it’s being generated by both external and internal forces.

First, the Church is being buffeted by external forces found in the changing winds of our contemporary world.

These include threats to religious freedom, in our own country where the federal government is interfering in the life of the Church, and even more dramatically in other countries where Christians are being attacked – suffering violence and even death – simply for being Christian and practicing their faith. Another source of turbulence for the Church is the relentless challenge to traditional moral values which are pivotal for the Church and society – the dignity of human life and the definition of marriage for example. And we know that the Church is passing through the dark clouds of secularism, atheism and hedonism that make the living-out of the Christian Faith more perilous everyday.

But some of the turbulence is coming from unsettling forces within the Church too.

Here I think of the rapid decrease in sacramental practice among the faithful – with fewer Catholics attending Sunday Mass, young couples living together without the blessing of marriage, parents not having their children baptized and educated in the faith, and more of the faithful even eschewing the traditional funeral rites of the Church.

The Church suffers today from the widespread lack of knowledge and understanding of the fundamental doctrines and moral tenets of the Catholic Faith. So many, even among the faithful, are unable to explain what the Church teaches and why, often leaving it to the secular media to present and apply our doctrines.

The Church is roiled with controversies among its members, with headlines and the blogosphere pitting the “Vatican against the Nuns,” with priests in Western Europe defying their bishops and disobeying key teachings and disciplines of the Church, and even the Vatican itself seemingly unable to govern – with backroom intrigue, public conflict among senior prelates, investigations of the Vatican Bank, and leaked confidential documents of the Pope.

Is there any question that these are turbulent times for the Church? How does one survive the journey through the unfriendly skies the Church is navigating?

Well, the first thing is to keep some historical perspective. The Church, like the planes in which we travel, is built to withstand the significant turbulence that’s part of our journey, and has done so for two-thousand years. As challenging as these times are, there have been worse, much worse, and the Church has survived both the external attacks on its existence and mission, as well as the embarrassing defects of its all-too-human leaders and members.

Some are now predicting (perhaps hoping for) the total collapse of the Catholic Church. Consider this quote: “People look upon the Church and say, ‘she is about to die. Soon her very name will disappear. There will be no more Christians; they have had their day.’”

It’s instructive to note, however, that this description of the dying Church was used by St. Augustine 1600 years ago! It reminds us that our moment in history is but one brief passage in the long and rich history of the Church.

Second, we can point to all the good things the Church represents and does every day. Even during these discomforting times the Catholic Church is a large, diverse and vibrant community with many, many dedicated and fully-engaged clergy, religious and laity. The Church continues to offer a positive and fulfilling perspective of human life and illuminates the path to eternal salvation. More than any other institution on the planet, the Catholic community provides a vast array of pastoral services, educational opportunities and social services – genuine expressions of charity, justice and peace – in our own country and around the globe. It’s important to be aware of and proud of all the good the Catholic Church does every day!

And finally, we should remember that the Church has survived the years and continues to carry on its mission because it’s so much more that just another human organization. The Church was founded by Christ and is guided by the Holy Spirit. While its members are human, its mission is divine. “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of time,” Jesus promised.

So, fellow traveler, be of good cheer. Do not be afraid. Without a doubt the Church will survive the turbulent skies of the moment and will arrive safely at its final destination. But in the meantime, fasten your seatbelts. Might be some rough skies ahead!