Not of the world, but the world matters

Most of us Catholics are too worldly, as we know from every examination of conscience -- and yet in another sense we're not worldly enough. We live in the world, but as Jesus says, we're not of it (Jn 17:16). But what does that mean in real life?

It can mean "worldly" as in "a man of the world." It can mean someone who lives entirely by the world's standards, or someone who knows how the world works and how to make his way safely through it.

Judging from the way people speak, many articles in the Catholic press, and a lot of homilies, Catholics as a whole aren't so worldly in that second sense.

The general Catholic assumption is that we're in the world the way a nuclear submarine is in the ocean. The church lives a self-sufficient life, adapted to the world's conditions, but not much affected by them and doing basically what she wants. (I'm speaking of how we mostly see the church, not about what she is.)

And that's a mistake. God gave us the church as a supernatural institution, but one made up of fallen human beings. People in groups act in certain ways. That's why your parents told you to avoid bad companions.

We live dependent on the church being supernatural. But when we don't understand her as also a human institution formed by history and society, we can't think well about how to help the church better resist the world. We let down our guard because we don't know what to watch for.

Look at the typical response to the church's sex abuse scandals. Almost everyone -- bishops and priests, Catholic writers, secular critics, your friends at church -- explains the horror in moral or intellectual terms. They blame bad people (the abusers and the bishops who hid the abuse) and bad ideas (dissent, their idea of Vatican II, "rigid conservatism," etc.).

In the same way, Catholics almost always offer moral and intellectual solutions to the problem. They call for more personal holiness, prayer and adoration, better catechetics, liturgical change, better community, more social action. And yes, we need these things.

But we also need to understand the world in which we do them. The closest many got to a "worldly" explanation was blaming the bishops' "boys' club" (and their institutional self-interest) for hiding as much as possible "for the good of the church."

That was true, but it didn't go very deep. The church in America had grown into an institution vulnerable to infiltration by abusers and the temptation to cover it up. The problem went deeper and was much harder to fix than just the leaders protecting each other.

That's not an excuse, but it is a basic reality of human life we must think about carefully.

It's a personal matter for me. A few months after I entered the church in 2001, The Boston Globe exposed the horrors of the archdiocese's hiding of abusive priests. Evangelical friends popped up to say, "Bet you're sorry now!"

I said no. With my upbringing and natural bent of mind, it seemed to me obvious that something so big and venerable, which had grown across the world for 2,000 years, and (unfortunately) frequently gained worldly power, would today be the kind of thing it is: unable, as a whole, as a visible institution, to live up to its own preaching, though preserving many signs of its true nature. I might not have entered the church if I hadn't seen that.

The church isn't a nuclear submarine, unaffected by the water around it. It's a sailboat moving across the ocean. The sailors sail to a destination they know, using the map they've been given and the skills they've been taught.

They're not of the ocean, but they're in the ocean. Very much in the ocean. The tides, the winds, the currents, the storms, everything affects them, and some of it could sink them.

The sailors must know how to read the signs, how to use the winds and currents, and how to stay afloat through the storms. The better they know the ocean, the more likely they are to get where they're going.

The alternative is for the church to be only a lifeboat, floating about at the mercy of every element. We want to be sailors so at home in the ocean that we can get where we want to go, because we understand the ocean, and what it does to us. This requires remembering that the church is human as well as divine.