Most people may have heard by now that one of our local celebrity church members (she lives in Rancho Mirage), popular author Anne Rice, has renounced her membership in Christianity, though she maintains she is still in relationship with Christ. In great post-modern style, she posted this decision on her blog. Her public renunciation is consistent with her earlier public renewal of faith and return to active practice as a Roman Catholic. She chronicled that journey in a wonderful book, “Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession.” From both her commentary about the decision and the many blogs and commentaries I have read, I doubt a book is in the works regarding this latest turn in her faith journey.
Unfortunately, Anne is not alone is this action. According to recent poll figures, in the United States there are over 30 million “former” Catholics. As National Catholic Reporter contributor Tom Gallagher put it “if the … 30 Million… were their own denomination, their church would be larger than the Methodists, Lutherans and Presbyterians - combined." I have heard this referred to another way, as well. Former Catholics make up one of the largest denominations in the United States. Amazing.
As an active member and minister in the church that baptized Anne and the other 30 million “formers” I can not help wonder, “what went wrong?” What do we, who maintain our faith within the Church, need to hear in these decisions to leave?
Sometimes I think our own beliefs and ideals can mislead us, causing many, like Anne and others to expect the Church, its leaders and members, to be something they were never meant to be: perfect examples of the faith we profess. Our belief in indelible marks and celebrations of public vows can give the false impression that once baptized, vowed or ordained, people somehow give up being human. A priest friend of mine likes to joke that he would be a great priest “if it weren’t for all those #@*% parishioners.” I think many of us who are active members would love to just believe in Christ, in the ideals of faith, hope and charity, in the great commandment of loving God with all your soul, strength and might and loving your neighbor as yourself, but we realize the real trick is putting into practice the beliefs and ideals we profess. The first place, outside of our families, we need to do this is inside the gathering of folks we call Church. God seems to have entrusted this whole faith enterprise to a very imperfect band of brothers (and sisters), namely us!
I am not sure one can truly be in relationship with Christ without being a member of His body the church. I know a lot of people claim they are doing just that. Still, I think this well documented exodus of so many means we have to rethink some things. How do we communicate who we are to each other in a way that is both authentic and human? What does it mean that some of us are “set apart” for leadership and service? How do baptized members whose views and experiences differ from Catholic orthodoxy fit into the larger whole? Anne claims her decision to leave is rooted in some of these concerns, especially from her perspective, how we seem to exclude those whose views and practices differ. Other denominations have courted her but so far she seems resistant to join them. I do not have a ready plan on how we should change, but I do believe 30 million people can’t simply be ignored. At the very least we need to ask them, “Why did you leave?” as we ask ourselves “Why do I stay?” Both answers will help us figure out what to do.