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July 18th, 2013

The Faith-Shaking Church

My visit to a cathedral in Toledo, Spain, didn’t inspire admiration so much as a crisis of faith.

 
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toledocathedral-12For Americans, visiting Europe has been a rite of passage since well before even Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad. And given the number of significant old cathedrals on the continent, Eurotours inevitably include churches we visit more as museums than as places of faith.

Ten years ago, I found myself on such a tour in Toledo, Spain. At Toledo’s very center is an enormous cathedral that was once a true seat of power for the Catholic Church. Begun in 1227, it took 250 years to finish this temple of Spain’s establishment religion.

I read about it in James Michener’s 795-page Iberia and went to visit with the book in hand. I went in part as a tourist, but also as an actual (if slightly disenchanted) twentysomething Catholic.

Walking in, I felt the Spanish sunlight immediately shut off behind me. The ceiling loomed nearly 150 feet above. The far wall stretched almost 500 feet away.

The space intimidated. Its massive size figured in, but so did its contents: joyless Christian iconography, battle and conquest depictions, and marble tombs. I kneeled in a pew but found I couldn’t pray.

Michener used terms like noble, tasteful, rich, beautiful and rewarding to describe various aspects of the cathedral. Yet for me, the more ostentatious artifacts and chapels I saw, the more turned off I became.

I grappled with my knowledge of the long-ago Inquisition and my all-too-recent sobering experience in the cathedral. How could I reconcile the Church I’d grown up with, loved and wanted to continue believing in with some of its less savory (and even hypocritical) history?

Michener called the place a masterpiece of concept and execution. I, on the other hand, was totally thrown. To my eyes, the Toledo cathedral wasn’t so much beautiful as showy. Despite my efforts to appreciate its history, it seemed clear to me that the artwork and architecture were more about displaying power than honoring God.

Knowing even a little about the Spanish Inquisition made that even more abundantly clear. Banning great works of literature was the least of the power-tripping that went on. Centuries of sham trials and executions were overseen by the royal family and its Church representatives. Thousands were tortured, most often on the rack, and many burned at the stake, all in the name of faith.

Michener used terms like noble, tasteful, rich, beautiful and rewarding to describe various aspects of the cathedral. Yet for me, the more ostentatious artifacts and chapels I saw, the more turned off I became.

I grappled with my knowledge of the long-ago Inquisition and my all-too-recent sobering experience in the cathedral. How could I reconcile the Church I’d grown up with, loved and wanted to continue believing in with some of its less savory (and even hypocritical) history?

The conclusion I ultimately came to was that the Catholic Church is a human institution — and since we humans by nature are flawed, so are all of our institutions. This is even true for institutions with high ideals, like churches. In fact, the higher the ideals, the more disillusioning the disappointment when the institution fails (as it inevitably will) to live up to them.

Our nations haven’t always done the right thing, either. The United States hasn’t always lived out its own declaration that all men and women are created equal; it allowed slavery and segregation for centuries. Yet it is still good for a citizen to be patriotic, to believe we will continue progressing toward our ideals. The best response is to learn and accept the history of the institution — then work to make it better.

The decade since that vacation visit to the Toledo cathedral hasn’t made it any easier to remain a faithful Catholic. In fact, tragic failings like the priest sex abuse scandal have made it even harder.

I could leave in search of another, probably smaller, church and hope it would be blameless. And maybe with a shorter history, it could manage to have demonstrated fewer failings. But since all of our institutions — from churches to countries to clubs to schools — are human, they are all flawed. In a search for perfection, I’d soon find myself searching again.

I expected my vacation to Spain to include interesting sightseeing and maybe even some kinship as a Catholic in a Catholic country. Instead, it left me grappling with a sometimes ugly history. But by being shaken, my faith has only been examined — and strengthened.

 

 
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The Author : Lynn Freehill-Maye
An Irish Catholic by birth, Lynn Freehill-Maye is nevertheless getting a new perspective on the all things Irish Catholic by living near the University of Notre Dame. A news junkie and former reporter, she has lived and worked in Iowa, Spain, Arizona, El Salvador, the Virgin Islands, Texas, and now South Bend, Indiana.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Thomas Rodriguez

    Lynn, sounds like you drank too much Protestant Kool-Aid while growing up. To me that is the root of your conflicted feelings toward Catholicism. This is common among us American Catholics: pressure from a Protestant-dominated society that also offers us all the same drink of Kool-Aid. My mother, a Catholic convert from Lutheranism, naturally had a unique perspective and taught me to differentiate between Protestant propaganda regarding the Church and the historical record, as well as all the Protestant “coded” language found in much of the tired, cliched criticism of Roman Catholicism in American society (your essay, by the way, is full of those cliches and coded language). Public, mainstream criticism of the Church has no effect upon my view of the Church because I have a good idea regarding the motives of her critics. Protestants, Jews, Moslems, et cetera, do not apologize and do not anguish about their religions but somehow want Catholics to do so. I refuse.

    • Christy Storrs

      i think you drank too much Catholic Kool Aid… it tastes like arrogance, doesn’t it?

  • Nicollette

    While this article is a great one, about all the insecurities and faith-shaking moments in a Catholics’ life, I disagree with her statement that a “Catholic Church is a human institution.” In Fact, it is not. The catholic church is an institution OF God instituted BY Jesus Christ RUN by humans trying and sometimes failing to understand our faith and God in full. It is in these well-meaning articles, blogs, books etc..that a wrong turn of phrase or connection of words like these that give the wrong idea of the church. No wonder we are so confused. It is imperative that Catholics do their research and study their faith. Once you do that, you will grow deeper in your faith as your understanding grows.

  • BJM2

    CA Nikhil D’Souza – You are right. I talk to Jesus as if he is standing beside me, throughout the day. I do not read from prayer books, just one friend to another. That is why I made Cursillo and am active in that movement – we practice his unconditional love 24/7, with no formal church building. We are there for each other just as He was and is there for us. BUT – if I want to receive His Body and Blood, I do need to go to the church. Remember – He didn’t go to church because He is church.

  • hermanojuancito

    I had a similar reaction visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome – as well as the San Croce church in Florence, and even a bit in the basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. St. Peter’s was like a mall, with people walking around, gawking and taking photos. San Croce (a Franciscan) was full of tombs of the elites of Florence.
    But the little church of San Damiano near Assisi and the church of San Bartolomeo in Rome with relics of 20th century martyrs were places I could pray and experience in their simplicity the presence of God.

    • Christy Storrs

      that is refreshing to know. thank you :-)

  • BJM2

    I so agree with DebraBrunsberg. I am a devout Catholic and will NEVER let fallible man drive me away from the one true church founded by Jesus, the son of God. I am a lector and acolyte in my church and attend mass, not because of a law, but because I want to receive my Lord into my heart through his body and blood, I always remember that all Christian churches are offshoots of the one, true church, the Catholic Church. I will never settle for a copy of Christ’s church. However, I do pray that our leaders will become enlightened about what Jesus really asked of them.

    • CA Nikhil D’Souza

      Ironically, Christ never went to a Church to pray. That is what we must remember. HE is out there, not within 4 walls.

      • GMarquez

        @Nikhil: You’re right… Jesus never went to a Church to pray… He went (regularly and from childhood) to the Jewish temple. He never turned His back on the institution His Father established… indeed He cleansed and called His fellow Jews back to the truth behind the symbols… but He never sought to destroy/avoid/neglect/abandon the traditions of the Jewish elders. The Church He founded is a clearer revelation and continuation of that truth.
        Indeed Jesus is OUT there… but He is IN there too…

  • Cmbela

    I would agree that all human institutions are flawed due to our flawed human nature and for that same reason, members of the Catholic Church often fail in their execution of the teachings and values of the church. I would also agree that it’s easy to become disillusioned and disappointed in institutions with high ideals like churches when members fail to live up to those values.

    However, I disagree that the church is a “human” institution
    and as a result, doomed to be forever flawed. The Catholic Church was instituted by Jesus Christ, who we believe to be God. Therefore the institution of the church is and always will be protected by God, despite the fact that we humans don’t get it right all the time.

    So while we can and should be disappointed in human shenanigans within the church and other institutions, we mustn’t lose faith in the true church instituted by Christ. Rather, we should work to be faithful examples of Christ’s teachings and never use human failings as a basis for disillusionment with or separation from His church.

    • Christy Storrs

      wow…

  • DebraBrunsberg

    Our Cathedrals were built to be a house worthy of the God of all creation. We should be intimidated before the Lord. Our Taco Bell churches of this modern day have removed any sense of being in a place of worship. If it weren’t that the Lord is present in the Tabernacle, they would be a disgrace. I am also thinking that you may not really know a lot about the Inquisition. I would suggest you read up on that before using that buzzword to put down the Church. The Church is holy, its members are not, have never been and never will be. I highly recommend reading the book, “Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church: A 2000 year History.” by H.W. Crocker III. This book is readable and enjoyable, even when you want to put it down because of disbelief in some of the deplorable things that some members of the Church have done. The end result is a clear knowledge that this Church would not exist if not for Jesus Christ being the head and the Holy Spirit guiding Her. Those who walk away because of externals, who turn their backs on the Sacraments because of others, show that it is more about them than it is about worshiping Christ. Learn to discern where those thoughts and feelings come from, God or the enemy?

    • Veronica

      Not every parish can have a cathedral or afford ornate furnishings. I appreciate the work and talent that went into the other cathedrals I have visited. But there is room in the world for both types of worship places. I have attended Mass in cathedrals and in simple mission chapels…and have felt the Presence of Our Lord in both types of churches. To call small, simple parish churches “Taco Bell churches” is an insult to the parishioners of those parishes. As Jesus said, “WHEREVER there are more than two of you, there I am…”

      • DebraBrunsberg

        I wasn’t talking about “small, simple, parishes nor did I even refer to the size or the inner trappings. I was talking about churches that were literally built to resemble a taco bell and whose liturgy does not resemble the Church at all. My point was why beautiful Cathedrals were built in the first place, to give Glory to God. One can do that in a small, simple parish if their intent is to do that. If one walks into a Catholic Church and there isn’t anything in there to distinguish it from a protestant Church, it is offensive to me as at Catholic.

      • Christy Storrs

        i really don’t understand what you mean by Taco Bell churches…

  • Brian Hurta

    Your knowledge of the Spanish Inquisition is most likely tainted by a post-reformation caricature: http://www.catholic.com/magazine/articles/secrets-of-the-spanish-inquisition-revealed

    Not to excuse the excesses, but as a point of reference, the period was not nearly as bloody as the wars resulting from the Protestant “reformation.”

    More distressing than sins of the past, and architecture is the fact that formerly Catholic nations like Spain, Italy, and France have almost abandoned the One True Faith, and need to be reevangelized.

    By the way, the West did not invent slavery and segregation, but led the world in ending them, though these horrors still exist in “developing” nations.

  • cacheup

    Knowing someone else feels this way is a breath of fresh air. Thank you for posting this!

    • Christy Storrs

      yes!

  • Christy Storrs

    This is exactly what happened to me after attending World Youth Days 2008 in Sydney. It was all so showy! And we did a tour of the Melbourne cathedral. I was disgusted by all the gold and marble.

    I am finding it more and more difficult to admit I am Catholic. Between WYD, showy cathedrals, our arrogant parish priest, our bishop on a power trip and the snotty Catholic attitude I get when I admit that I question Church teachings sometimes… almost enough to walk away.

    And now that I have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease and can’t receive the eucharist in the way we are supposed to as Catholics… I think I am done for good. Now the decision remains whether to baptize our second child.

    • Jessica

      Our church offers gluten free hosts. Have you asked your church if they will order them for you and others in your parish that may have a gluten allergy?

      • Debra Hernandez

        Christy, I am so sorry for the negative experiences you’ve had! Every church has imperfect human beings. Try to think of it this way: Is your family perfect? Or, do you sometimes make each other mad? Do you have that one family member that is completely annoying? Or, just plain crazy? Well, we, in the Church, are your family too. We are all the imperfect children of God, even the priests & bishops! I have learned that I am happier for having stayed and forgiven others. I am happier for having been forgiven by others. And, in my most difficult times, they have been there for me, like family! Would you walk away from your own father because of the things your brothers and sisters have done or said to you? Or, would you work with your father to create a happy family bond? Finally, it IS okay to question Church teaching. Fortunately, you’ve found Busted Halo who answers your questions without judgment. Praying for you to find peace. :)

      • Christy Storrs

        thank you Debra. i know it is ok to question the Church and its teachings. I was a youth minister with our local parish for over 5 years and encouraged the kids to continually question and seek Truth.

        I still have utmost faith in God and consider myself a follower of Christ. the Church is not my father. God is. I certainly do not hold it against him that I have had issues with the people in the church.

      • Christy Storrs

        There is no such thing as a gluten free host that is safe for people with Celiac disease to consume on a regular basis. the church offers low-gluten hosts only. the g-free hosts are considered invalid because apparently Jesus only likes to hang out in Wheat… even thoughGod created an abundance of other grains. this is sent down from thevatican.

        and the wine option is only ok if it is my own separate cup (cross contamination issue), which really takes the communal part of communion out of the equation. and since I have been taught all along that the bread was somehow more important than the wine, it really doesnt feel complete to receive only wine.

        I think the Vatican ia incredibly arrogant to continue claiming that only wheat is valid hosts when aproximately 1 in 136 people have celiac disease. do you really think God would only dwell within a vessel that about 1% of people could not consume?

    • Brendan Conway

      In addition to Gluten-free hosts as something to inquire about, I would like to point out that drinking just from the chalice is a valid option.

    • barb

      Please always try to remember that we don’t attend Church because of these externals – we may have a ‘hard-to-relate-to’ priest from move to move: but I go to receive Jesus in Holy Communion…it cannot matter how sinful or a sham all the rest is : Jesus is REAL and I need Him…maybe God has placed me in this particular parish for just this purpose: to intercede on behalf of all these needs/unholy people.

      • Christy Storrs

        you kind of missed the point here. I cannot even receive communion anymore. it will make me very ill, likely cause cancer and eventually kill me.

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