Sin & Suffering in the (Domestic) Church

Simply stated, this is a trying time to be a Catholic. Maybe it’s never easy, but the sound bytes and barrage of media coverage – from Ireland, from Germany, from Denver, from D.C. – make it impossible to take one’s Catholic identity lightly these days. There is new pain, there are old wounds; there is true guilt, there are false attacks. It’s tough to sort through and decide what or whom to believe. What pains me most as a new mother is that children are at the heart of much of this suffering.

This is not a political blog or a commentary on church happenings. So I’m not going to write about sex abuse scandals or health care reform or the hierarchy’s positions on any of it, per se. What has been turning over and over in my mind instead is the idea of the domestic church and what it means for me during this time as a Catholic.

For those who aren’t familiar with the concept (and I certainly had never heard of it until I got to graduate school, sadly), the church teaches that the family is a “domestic church” – a real, albeit miniature, manifestation of the church itself. Pope John Paul II wrote at length about the domestic church, calling the family “a school of deeper humanity” where members learn what it means to be a disciple of Christ, caring for others. The notion of the domestic church underscores the reality that family life can be holy, sacramental, and profoundly formative in our understanding of what it means to be a Christian. This is why the church understands parents to be the first catechists for their children, since what we learn and experience at home is just as important – if not even more so – than what we learn within the four walls of a parish. A family’s relationships and rituals, teachings and traditions, faith and forgiveness are all a part of their domestic church.

So what does this have to do with the current state of affairs in the Catholic Church? My musings on the domestic church this week led me to realize something essential: just as the domestic church is a true realization or reflection of the larger church, so also the inverse is true. Whatever happens within the institutional church also happens within the domestic church. Meaning that the very same sin or scandal, crisis or cover-up, that arises in the larger church can – and does, and will – arise within a family’s life as well.

And this is where my mothering spirit is profoundly challenged. It’s very easy for me to pass judgment on others, to blast them for the way they handle this situation or that crisis. It’s tempting to become self-righteous and declare that I would never do likewise, that I’d never sin that egregiously, that I’d never act so un-Christlike while claiming to follow Christ himself. But the truth is – I do. I sin. I cover it up. I exclude others. I pass unfair judgments. I turn away from my brothers and sisters in need. I think only about myself and the pursuit of my own pleasure. I try not to, of course. But I still sin. All the time.

So reflecting on the domestic church has helped me to realize that the large-scale sin and suffering in the church is the same small-scale sin and suffering in our own homes. And what pains me even more is that, knowing fully that this is our broken human reality, S. will enter into it fully as well. Though I can barely imagine it now, with his gummy grin and his sweet laughing hugs and his innocent baby eyes, he will soon grow to be just as flawed and broken as the rest of us. He will sin, and some of that sin will inevitably cause me great suffering. I don’t know a family where that isn’t the case, where each child at some point hasn’t been the source of pain or worry or anxiety for the parents. This is the reality of humanity, and of love.

My challenge, therefore, is to imagine how I would react if the same sin, scandal, suffering that’s happening in the wider church were happening in my own home, to my own family. How would I act? What would I tell my friends? Where would I turn for help? Would the shame and the sorrow or the anger and the rage overtake me? Or would I be able to practice true, radical, Christ-like love and forgiveness? Would I stay stuck in Good Friday, or – even in the darkest hour, in the deepest pain – would I be able to remember the promise of Easter Sunday and Resurrection?

All I can do is hope so, and pray. Pray for the wisdom and strength and understanding to recognize that each sinner out there – whose dark side hurts those around them, sometime in terrifying ways – is not only a child of God, but a child of a mother as well. The sin and suffering in the wider church is the sin and suffering of our own homes. It has never been differently.

It’s a profound challenge that God is setting before me, as Lent draws to a close and Holy Week dawns. To realize what it would mean for my heart to be transformed into the heart of Christ. I could no longer judge harshly, or turn away blindly, or sit idly by, or curse it all and leave in a huff. Instead, I would have to enter into the suffering, embrace the brokenness and live the hard truth of the forgiveness. Love asks nothing less. And if I would do it for my son – which I would, and I will – then I must be willing to do it for the rest of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

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