Q: The simple message of gratefulness, love and compassion that I read on this website and hear Jesus speak resonates with me without a doubt. When I attend Mass on Sunday, I can hear kernels of this message but it is clouded by a much more judgmental and fear based theme. How can I reconcile these two messages for myself and my children while still being a member of my church community? — Dan

A: Dear Dan,

You certainly are not alone in experiencing a divide between the message of acceptance and mercy that permeates what you read in the Gospels (and which we hope permeates our website) and the official teachings of much of the Catholic Church. Reconciliation can take many forms; here are some ideas:

1) Pray and ponder about what you find to be true in your heart of hearts. Then live from that, as much as you can, with God’s grace, regardless of what context you are in. It will help clarify for you what is true in any given situation and what needs to be taken “with a grain of salt” or rejected completely.

2) Remember that someone living genuinely from their truest beliefs within an institution can help to gently mold the institution. Perhaps only a little; perhaps only within the context of your own church community; but still, your own kindness, tolerance, and fearlessness will be an inspiration to others.

3) On page 4 of the interview about Heroic Virtue on our website, you can read a fairly lengthy answer of Br. David Steindl-Rast’s to an interviewer’s question about institutional Christianity being in a crisis, with many people turning away from it. You will see that what is of primary importance to him, as a Catholic (Benedictine) monk is to strengthen the living spirit of the Church so that it remains strong even if the external structure collapses. This is something we can all do by listening closely to Jesus’ teachings and looking for every possible opportunity to embody them. In fact, i suspect it was what Jesus himself was doing, at least to an extent, as he called out the institution of his own times (Pharisees and Scribes), sometimes gently and sometimes harshly, making it clear that their hardened dogma might be far from the ways of the living God.

4) Gently, and as you notice genuine openings, discuss these ideas with others in your congregation. You can start with an open-ended question – “What did you think of today’s sermon?” or “How do you reconcile the judgmental theme of today’s Mass with the extraordinary way that Jesus reached out to people at the fringes of society?” – and simply listen to their response. Then you will be able to tell whether there’s an open door for further conversation or whether it would be better to let that someone continue along their own way without broaching some of these deeper topics with them. You may even find, in the course of time, a group of people within your Church with whom you feel aligned. Then, through praying, reading, talking, and engaging in service together, you can become leaven in your congregation.

5) Keep reading, learning, and expanding your point of view. When you discuss ideas with people, you want to be able to understand where they’re coming from, which helps you to be non-judgmental even if you disagree. Then you can walk your talk, and you can trust that people will learn from your example, even if there’s nothing you can say to change the beliefs they hold.

Hope this gives you at least a few ideas. I know it’s a very difficult challenge, one over which some people leave the Church. It’s an act of courage to stay inside, seeing what you can change and what you cannot – nonetheless holding fast to your own faith even when you disagree.

Kind regards,
Patricia Campbell Carlson

Gratefulness.org webteam member (2001-2013) and past Executive Director of A Network for Grateful Living

Peace Trust