Our Wayward Family – Why We Should Care About Those Who Have Left the Church

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This past week I had unexpected gall bladder surgery. The following post is based on an article I wrote for the school newspaper at Regent College, updated for the context of this blog. The original post was written while I was Anglican.

The last two weeks I have written posts on the demographic realities of Catholic America. In both posts, I argued for narrow and conservative boundary drawing. There are dangers in such an approach, however. It is easy when we draw narrow boundaries to become puffed up pharisaical elder brothers. Sadly, a lack of mercy and evangelistic hospitality is a pitfall that we conservative Catholics all too often fall into. This attitude can be especially strong in our approach to those Catholics who have left the Church or who are only marginally involved. This is a mistake. It is critical, as I argued over the last two weeks, for the Church to be what she is and not to try and appeal to the whims of those who have left in order to win them back. At the same time, it is also critical that she be hospitable, always inviting return, especially with baptized Catholics. In the end, those Catholics are our brothers and sisters.

Some want to claim that those Catholics who haven’t devoted themselves to a life of discipleship aren’t real Catholics. This is especially tempting when talking about young people who leave. Often, a crypto-Calvinist notion sneaks in that says that young people who left the Church aren’t a concern because they were never truly part of the Church. Such a viewpoint would claim that those individual’s faith was never really their own. Yet, we know that it is through baptism that we enter the Church.

Moreover, the view that wayward Catholics aren’t real Catholics contains an implicit individualistic volunteerism that I find unhelpful. This mistaken view splits off the individual’s faith from the Church, from the people of God, and from the work of God in a way that neither Scripture nor the Tradition of the Church would support. It is God who saves, and though our faith participates in God’s work, the full story is more complicated because our faith necessarily exists within the framework of the already present people of God.

We are saved by the actions of God, and God’s chosen method of salvation throughout Scripture is the calling out of a people. First, God calls Israel, then in Christ Israel finds its fullest representation and we are grafted into the people of God through Him. The people of God—the Church—is primary, and it is only within that context that our faith matters. Before the coming of Christ, for example, the people of Israel did not, in one sense, choose whether to be Hebrews or not, they were God’s people and were then judged on that basis on whether or not they accepted God’s work. In the New Testament, this covenant relationship is opened to the gentiles, but the basic DNA doesn’t change.

Baptism marks this incorporation into the people of God. Baptized young people are necessarily a part of this story because they are involved, by choice or not, in the people of God in a way that the children of non-believers are not. They are not responding to the call of faith from the outside, but from within. As with the Israelites before, the children of believers are part of the people of God—should they choose to leave the faith they are actively rejecting it in a way that may not be true of those outside.

Thus, both the Church and those of us devoted to the Church have reason to be concerned about the exodus of youth from the Church, because those youth are rejecting their place in the body of Christ, and we are perhaps falling short in discipling them. We cannot reach them by changing the Church to suit their whims, but we can work hard in the soil we are planted in to make the Church thrive so that it will be an inviting place for those who have gone astray.

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