Recently, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia recently gave a stirring and magnificent talk on the state of Catholicism in America, the assimilation of Catholics into modern American commercial culture, and the subsequent “silent apostasy” of many American Catholics who have become too comfortable in the world to change it (1). He urged that fear of losing members (for the Church is neither a club nor a business) should never make the Church afraid to proclaim the gospel and that if consequence of this is a smaller, lighter, more faithful Church, then so be it.
To this reasonable suggestion, some have responded with horror and over-wrought hand-wringing. Michael Sean Winters of the National catholic Reporter (2). He accused Chaput of Phariseeism, of not caring about losing members, and of denying his own need for God’s mercy (though how would MSW know that?) among other things. Yet, in his criticism of the Archbishop, Winters shows seems to have forgotten about the example of Jesus Himself in the Bread of Life discourse.
For a brief moment early in his ministry, Jesus was overwhelmingly popular. He had just fed 5000 men, as well as women and children, with miraculous bread and the crowds began to wonder if they had found a king who would keep their bellies full and their backs free of the dreaded imperial eagle of Rome. And so they came by the crowds to hear this hoped for bread-king. In the Bread of Life discourse (John 22:6-59), Jesus declared Himself the “bread come down from heaven” and that man could not have life within him unless he ate of the flesh and drank of the blood of the Son of Man. Many of his hearers, however, drew back from these shocking words. Jesus doubled down: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man, you shall not have life within you. Even many of his disciples murmured, hesitated- Jesus doubled down again, The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life, but some of you believe not.
And that was too much. A Messiah who gave bread- all well and good; As Fulton Sheen has commented, Caesar gave bread. A Messiah who gave Himself? Never. From that day Jesus lost the crowds and even many of his disciples; scripture says, “After this, many of his disciples went back and followed him no more (Emphasis mine).” He was a bread-king, but not the kind of bread-king for which the crowds had hoped! And so they left. Multiple times, the crowds and his disciples asked for clarification, giving Our Lord a chance to back off, to change His words, and multiple times, He refused to do so, knowing it would cost Him most of his followers. He was left with only a few and, not fearing to lose them either, merely turned and asked “do you want to leave to?” They did not, and left with only a dozen and perhaps no more, Jesus proceeded to transform the world.
Perhaps it was with that passage in mind that Archbishop Chaput said: “Obviously we need to do everything we can to bring tepid Catholics back to active life in the Church. But we should never be afraid of a smaller, lighter Church if her members are also more faithful, more zealous, more missionary and more committed to holiness.” Chaput never said, (as Winters dishonestly claims) that he does not care about those lost, but that we do need to speak the truth, clearly, honestly, and without fear of the consequences, even if it means many who call themselves disciples went back and followed Him no more. To say this is not Phariseeism, unless Christ was a Pharisee. But it is faithfulness, which is required regardless of the cost.
- Note: the National catholic Reporter has openly dissented from Church teaching in so many respects that it cannot be said to offer a Catholic perspective and has been forbidden by its local bishop from calling itself “Catholic.”