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3 Signs the Church is having an Identity Crisis

I’m told that an identity crisis isn’t a diagnosable condition (except for dissociative identity disorder), so there aren’t any typical “symptoms,” like those of a cold or flu. But I believe the following three signs indicate that we, the Body of Christ, are smack in the middle of one:

1. We’re questioning who we are.

The ground is shifting under our collective church feet, and we are trying to figure out what being “Catholic” means. Some of us question how Catholic you are if you support President Biden receiving the Eucharist. Others of us question how Catholic you are if you support capital punishment. In the mid-twentieth century American Catholics were fighting for a place at the political table. Today our political identities and our religious identities are practically indistinguishable. As a result, we doubt the credentials of Catholics whose politics differ from our own. The hymn “We Are One Body” is getting harder and harder to sing.

2. Big changes have occurred that have affected our sense of self.

One of the lead stressors of an identity crisis is experiencing a traumatic event. The damage done by the clerical sexual abuse scandal is probably the biggest crisis of soul and of credibility the American Church has ever faced. Some time has passed, and those of us lucky enough not to be directly affected by the abuse are beginning to feel some distance, but not closure. We might go for a period of time without thinking about it, but the scandal continues to be a dark night of the soul for all Catholics. And like most dark nights of the soul, it has wounded a particularly vulnerable part of ourselves – our belief in the institutional structures of the Church. Once trust is lost, it’s hard to ever feel safe again.

3. We’re questioning our values and beliefs.

In the Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s dog, Toto, pulls back the curtain and reveals that the powerful and terrifying Wizard of Oz is in truth just an insecure man, who at that very moment implores Dorothy and her companions to "pay no attention to that man behind the curtain." When the curtain opened on the sexual abuse scandal, it ended our unquestioned acceptance of ecclesial authority. We are paying less attention to the man behind the curtain. The laity are openly debating human sexuality (birth control, abortion, gay marriage, gender identity and sexual orientation), social justice (immigration, homelessness, racial equity), and church renewal (patriarchy, the ordination of women, transparency).

Despite the disillusionment this identity crisis causes in me, I’m not leaving the Church. The best aspects of Catholicism have helped me walk through the great mystery that is God my entire life and, no doubt, will continue to do so. But it sometimes feels like I’m stuck between a spiritual rock and a hard place – which wouldn’t surprise Fr. Ron Rolheiser at all, who writes:

The Church is always God hung between two thieves. Thus, no one should be surprised or shocked at how badly the church has betrayed the gospel and how much it continues to do so today. It had never done very well. Conversely, however, nobody should deny the good the church has done either. It has carried grace, produced saints, morally challenged the planet, and made, however imperfectly, a house for God to dwell in on this earth.

“To be connected with the church is to be associated with scoundrels, warmongers, fakes, child molesters, murderers, adulterers, and hypocrites of every description. It also, at the same time, identifies you with the saints and the finest persons of heroic soul within every time, country, race, and gender. To be a member of the church is to carry the mantle of both the worst sin and the finest heroism of soul...because the church always looks exactly as it looked at the original crucifixion, God hung among thieves.” The Holy Longing, p. 128

(Image: Beeler for the Columbus Dispatch)

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