Ron Rolheiser: On Not Overreacting to Criticism

“We are meant to be food for the life of world; not the food of defensiveness, but the food of understanding, graciousness, and forgiveness.”

Today we live in an intellectual climate that, at significant places, is both anti-church and anti-clerical. In many circles, it’s fashionable today to bash the churches and organized religion. Moreover, this is done in the name of being open-minded and enlightened. It’s the one bias that’s intellectually and culturally sanctioned. Say something derogatory about any other group and you will be held to account; say something disparaging about the church, and you will be deemed open-minded.

How serious is this? What’s to be our response? While it’s irritating, at the end of the day, it’s not that much of a cause for concern; it’s a mosquito bite, really. As a church, we’re not fundamentally threatened by this and shouldn’t overreact. Why?

Because a certain amount of this criticism is good for us. We have our faults and our culture is generous in pointing them out. Bravo. Fiat. The present criticism of the church is healthily humbling us and pushing us towards a more courageous, needed internal purification. Besides, we have enjoyed for far too long a situation of privilege, never a good thing for the church. It’s far easier to be a Christian in a time of disprivilege than in a time of privilege.

But there’s something more at stake.

We must be careful not to overreact to the present anti-ecclesial climate because this will lead to an unhealthy defensiveness and put us into an adversarial relationship with our own culture and with many of our own children. That’s not where the gospel wants us to be, not at all. Our task instead is to absorb this criticism, painful though it is, gently point where it is unfair, and resist every temptation to be defensive. Why? Why not aggressively defend ourselves?

Because we are strong enough not to, and we should be adult enough to respond in a nobler way. We should not become hard and defensive in the face of this. Current criticism of the church notwithstanding, the church is not about to go away any time soon. We are a billion Christians in the world, stand within a two-thousand-year-old tradition, have among ourselves a universally accepted Scripture, have two thousand years of doctrinal entrenchment and refinement, have massive, centuries-old institutions, are embedded in the very roots of Western culture and technology, have an enviable intellectual tradition, constitute the biggest multi-national group in the world, and are growing in numbers world-wide. We’re hardly a reed shaking in the wind, reeling, vulnerable, a ship in danger. We’re strong, stable, blessed by God, an Elder in the culture; and because of this, we owe the culture graciousness and understanding.

Beyond that, too, is the fact that we have Christ’s promise to be with us and the reality of his Resurrection to sustain us. Given all this, I think we can absorb a fair amount of criticism without fear of losing our identity. Moreover, we must not let this criticism make us lose sight of why we exist in the first place.

The church exists not for its own sake or to ensure its own survival, but for the sake of the world. We can too easily forget this and, in all sincerity, lose sight of what the gospel asks of us. Compare, for example, these two responses: At a press conference in Belgium in 1985, someone asked Cardinal Basil Hume what he considered the foremost task facing the church today. He said simply: “To help save the planet.” Recently, I saw a television interview with the cardinal archbishop of a major archdiocese. Asked roughly the same question, he answered: “To defend the faith.”

Everything about Jesus suggests that Hume’s view is closer to the gospel than is the other. When Jesus says, “My flesh is food for the life of the world,” he isn’t saying that the real task of the church is to defend itself, to ensure its continuity, to keep the world from crucifying it. The church exists for the sake of the world, not for its own sake. That’s why Jesus was born in a trough, a place where animals come to eat, and why he ends up on a table, to be eaten. Being crucified by the world, eaten up by it, is a central part of what Jesus is about. Everything about him teaches vulnerability over defensiveness, risk over safety, trust in divine promise over self-protection. The Gospel calls us to risk beyond defensiveness, to absorb unjust criticism without fighting back: “Forgive them; they know not what they do!”

We are meant to be food for the life of world; not the food of defensiveness, but the food of understanding, graciousness, and forgiveness.

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