COMMENTARY: The Lost Sheep: Rescue or Deny?

Share this story

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/17 April) — When the State under Bismarck confiscated Church property in Germany during its secularization drive at the end of the 19th century, the State undertook to collect a “Church tax” towards the support of the Church. Today, the Church tax is distributed mainly to the Catholic or Lutheran churches, depending on the proportions of the population which declare themselves Catholic or Lutheran. The tax income of the churches therefore depends on the number of believers who declare themselves for a particular church.

When I was studying in Germany, I remember feeling very disturbed whenever I would hear of a German “leaving the Church.” A personal protest against the manner in which the Church deals with Catholic relief or with certain theologians thinking “out of the box,” could earn the retaliatory protest declaration of an individual Catholic: “Ich trete aus der Kirche aus. I am leaving the Church.” I would be shocked whenever I would hear it. How does one who is a Catholic get to heaven if one chooses to leave the Church? Was it not, “Outside of the Church there is no salvation”? Was this not one of the major tenets that made the bond of the individual Catholic to the Catholic Church inviolable? If I was born into this Church, am I not to stay here forever? Thinking to leave the Church was simply inconceivable! I didn’t think a policy or political position on any temporal issue could warrant exit by choice from the Church if the cost would be eternal salvation.

Even in Germany, leaving the Church is serious business, and the local German Church has not been shy about teaching that. On the other hand, I have met a number of Catholics who have “left the Church” for purposes of protest, but who continue to be in active communion with it, i.e., still going to Church regularly and receiving at least some of the sacraments. When I then would then ask them what the meaning of their “leaving the Church” was, they would reply that their leaving the Church deprived the local German Church of their church tax contribution. However large or small this tax was, withdrawing their tax contribution from the local Church was the purpose of their “leaving the Church.” In this case, I can understand how such “leaving the Church” can be compatible with staying in practical communion with it.

When I was in grade school and in high school in the Philippines, on the other hand, my religious education teachers impressed on me indelibly that it was through the Catholic Church that one received salvation. One was grateful for the grace of being part of the Church, and it was inconceivable to want to leave it. We were also taught that it would please God very much if we could lead someone who was out of the Church to baptism. Led to salvation through the Catholic Church, that person would be grateful for all eternity – literally.

There was a Chinese lady, Ah Kui, who worked in our household when I was a kid. She worshipped Kuan Yin – the Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion – and every morning she would pray for some two hours in front of her sacred image. I loved Ah Kui very much. She taught me fundamental disciplines in my life: how to wash dishes and polish floors, to be helpful in our family and parish community, and, by example, to pray. She had her prayer beads and prayer books and Joh stick, but so did I, even if our candles had more flame to them than scent. I think I was around ten years old when I took her aside for a very serious conversation. I told her she had to be a Catholic – so that she would not go to hell or live forever in purgatory, missing out for all eternity on heaven. She smiled, grateful for my concern. But she replied, “Joe, you have your God. I have my God. In the end: the same God.” Her reply went against all the good sisters were telling us in school. But she said so with such conviction and love, there was no way I could contradict her.

Fifty years ago, it was inconceivable that a Filipino Catholic think of leaving the Church; that was pretty much the same way it was throughout the Church. Fifty years ago, we were warned against talking to Protestants, no matter the shade of Protestantism, and forbidden to go into their houses of worship. For some reason, even though they believed in Jesus Christ, they had it all wrong. Fifty years ago, we were taught it would be better to die rather than leave the Catholic Church.

What has happened between then and now? While it is still held that God saves us through the Catholic Church, there is a greater appreciation of the fact that God loves all in the world, in its religious and cultural diversity, and wills the redemption of all. He therefore calls all to redemption through his Church in ways our theologians, religious educators, historians and social scientists may never have conceived nor can ever adequately explain. So even though we may consider the Catholic communion to have a fullness of grace and favor in our Scriptures, tradition, and sacraments, we acknowledge the holiness that is present in other communities that recognize Jesus as Savior and revere God’s word in the Sacred Scripture. Similarly, we acknowledge the holiness also present in communities of meditating Buddhists, worshipping Muslims, and praying Lumads. In this context, from within the Catholic Church, there is a disavowal of triumphalism, a drive towards honest humility, a rejection forever of forcing anyone to embrace the faith against his or her will, especially through war and violence, a desire to worship the Father through Jesus through genuine faith, not faith that is coerced, nor impelled by a conscience that is naïve, disrespected and dictated upon, but faith that is authentic, self-possessed and genuinely responsive to God.

What has also happened is sin and failure, which has seriously eroded the credibility of the Church. Where religious are vowed to chastity and priests are promised to celibacy, violations of these sacred commitments militate against the credibility of the Church and of her ministers. Where the holiness of the Church is a good so urgently yearned for in this aggressively secularized world, the scandal of widespread sexual abuse of minors by clergy, wherever it has happened, disfigures this holiness almost beyond repair. At the same time, moral failure is not confined to the clergy and religious. Marital infidelity is arguably more serious than individual failures in sexual morality, as are grievous sins against the name and property of others, egregious corruption in public and private institutions, and utter failure to credibly promote the common good in our plural society. If we are a communion of the disciples of Jesus Christ, why do we still have large numbers among us who are intolerably poor? Why are we still destroying the environment which impacts most seriously on the lowly? Why have we not better addressed the problem of ignorance in our midst, including ignorance of basic tenets of the Church? Why do we still try to settle disputes by deploying soldiers of war? It is in this context, I think, that the local Church’s choice to focus on the issues related to reproductive health emerges as an important concern – but as only one among many truly urgent concerns. Its presentation as the sole litmus test of true Catholicism, true fidelity among the bishops, and true morality among the defenders of the faith, has grated negatively on many. In exasperation, I know of many who have done what for me was at one time inconceivable. They have considered leaving the Church. They have actually left the Church.

Out of the Church, they say they do not miss being in the Church. In their new Christian communities, they have found levels of fellowship that surpass whatever they had experienced in the Catholic Church.
It was in this context that in an earlier blog, I said that many were leaving the Church, and urged Dr. Mahar Mangahas and his SWS Team to use their sociological tools to help us to understand what is happening. His recent SWS survey, he says, showed that my fear that many were thinking of leaving the Church may not be statistically unfounded. Nine percent of some 80 million Catholics in the Philippines, or one out of every eleven, have recently considered what at one time was inconceivable: leaving the Catholic Church. In terms of persons, that’s some seven million Catholics. Of course, granting the survey is scientifically well founded (as Dr. Mangahas’ sterling track record argues!), it shall belong to future sociological studies to ascertain the validity or non-validity of this survey, and not to casual denials based on Church attendance during the last Holy Week. (We have long admitted that our churches are unable to accommodate all our Catholics were they ever to decide one Sunday all to go to Mass. Loss of Catholics on the fringes would never be captured by observing numbers going to church!) More importantly, we must also delve more deeply into the reasons why so many Catholics have considered leaving. Some may be exasperated with the RH debate. Others may be yearning for more palpable fellowship and experience of Christian communion. Yet others may be searching for greater depth and holiness as they search for God in this difficult world.

Meanwhile, I thank Dr. Mangahas and his SWS team for their important finding, which I accept gratefully.

As Pope Francis suggested in his homily during his first Chrism Mass, pastors of our Church (like myself) may consider “going out” of themselves “to the edges” to bring “the oil of gladness” to our people, and being shepherds “smelling like sheep.” Where Jesus left the 99 to search for the one lost sheep, we may need to accept that if we do not shift gears, as Pope Francis is now shifting gears, we may not at all be able to leave our ten sheep in order to find the one lost sheep. We may simply say: that one lost sheep does not think like us, does not act like us, does not feel like us. Good riddance! Or we may say: the lost sheep is really not lost. Our churches are full. Our routines are healthy. Our nets are bursting. We are content. The Lord is risen. Halleluia!

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews, Fr. Joel Tabora is President of the Ateneo de Davao University. This piece is available in his blog : Permission to reprint granted by the author)

Your perspective matters! Leave a comment below and let us know what you think. We welcome diverse viewpoints and encourage respectful discussions. Don't hesitate to share your ideas or engage with others.