Before e-mail, I could have never received personal messages from hundreds of people in a single day. But as our weekly e-mail newsletter has grown, so has the number of readers who take the time to respond (and, yes, I read them all). Most of the messages are positive in tone, and some contain useful criticism, which we take to heart. But there are always a handful that are downright mean and cynical.
I mentioned this to Fox News commentator Fred Barnes, and he said that he stopped responding to e-mail because people were so vicious. I told him that I expect bad manners from those we criticize, but I’m always surprised when it comes from our allies.
Flannery O’Connor is famous for talking about the mysterious dimension of manners. In the case of rude e-mails, I fear that what’s really being expressed is simply a lack of hope. I never hear from these folks when we send out bad news, but try sharing some good news—such as our September 8 meeting with Bishop Wilton Gregory, Theodore Cardinal McCarrick, three other bishops, and staff from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)—and the naysayers get online in a hurry.
“What’s the use of talking to the bishops?” they ask. “Why are you wasting your time?” they wonder. Actually the messages get a lot more vitriolic than this (and a lot more personal). Fine. It’s my job to hear what’s being said. But from my vantage point, I wonder if some people have completely given up on—or forgotten about—the supernatural body of the Church. This mystical reality trumps whatever has happened in history, and it trumps the human failings of our bishops, priests, and laity.
A few weeks ago, my conversion story, An American Conversion: One Man’s Quest for Beauty and Truth in a Time of Crisis, was published by Crossroad Publishing. At the center of the book is a chapter, titled “A Letter from St. Louis,” about an epistle I received from Dr. James Hitchcock, the well-known historian of the Church. I had written to him after reading his book, Catholicism and Modernity, in which he lamented the gradual Protestantization of the Church in the years following Vatican II. He wrote back to me a magnificent letter most of which I printed in my book—explaining that being Catholic means believing in the mystical reality of the Church that always lies behind its historical appearances.
Our September 8 meeting with the bishops was an act of hope, grounded in the grace that undergirds our common life in the Church. Catholics who have grown grouchy from the years of disappointment in Church affairs need to remind themselves that priests and bishops hold offices consecrated and linked directly to the priesthood of Jesus Christ and His apostles.
To those who scoff at such a meeting, I ask a simple question: Where else do we as lay Catholics go when we have deep concerns about the future of the Church? Who else is there to talk to? A Protestant sensibility would lead us to create a small, select group of the pure few, separate ourselves from the corrupt and defiled many, and nail our list of grievances to the door of the USCCB.
As you probably know I am an ex-Baptist minister. As a convert, I am always conscientiously aware that the church I chose 20 years ago thrives and flourishes because of the Holy Spirit and not because of human wisdom and expertise. (Though these qualities can help along the way.) Several speakers at the September 8 meeting reminded those present that we were meeting with the successors to Christ’s apostles. I take this statement to be more than mere rhetoric, mere words intended in only an honorific fashion.
The day after our meeting, the USCCB announced its official support of a federal marriage amendment that would make marriage between a man and a woman the law in all 50 states. In doing so, the bishops displayed their moral leadership, and we should all thank them. Their action demonstrated in a visible concrete way that the hope we placed in them on September 8 was not in vain.