The Lost Sheep: Rescue or Deny?

[Re: SWS Survey: 9% of Catholics in PH thinking of leaving the Church]

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 depend 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!

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About Joel Tabora, S.J.

Jesuit. Educator
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9 Responses to The Lost Sheep: Rescue or Deny?

  1. Maria Dolores R. Colayco says:

    Dear Fr. Joel,

    Great article…..
    I have experienced though, the temptation to leave the Church literally when we have those who are not endowed with gift of tongue…….in fact I did leave the Church fuming one time as the priest celebrating Mass was so engrossed with hearing himself…..he sang at every opportunity and had the gall to advertise the sale of his CDs at the end of his rendition in lieu of a homily. And so boldly I announced loud that he was not saying mass he was holding his own concert! And to my surprise, the whole row where I was left, too!
    But to leave the Church because of erring priests/bishops, no way will I give them the satisfaction…we derive that satisfaction when we succeed in shooing them out of the temple!

    Niña

    • Thank you, Niña! Jesus must have felt something similar to your anger when he overturned the tables of the money changers and demanded, “Stop making my Father’s House a market place” (Jn 2:16). I hope Pope Francis, through his eloquent signs, can lead us to a new Pentecost!

      • Ren says:

        Dear Father Joel, I too have considered leaving the Church, particularly since some of the members of the Philippine clergy have gotten so engrossed in shoving their political interests to other people and convincing them that deciding otherwise will only lead to damnation. I am a firm believer of the freedom to choose, and no one should be coerced or threatened to commit to a choice for fear of lashings from their own religious affiliations. I understand that faith goes beyond the faults of the men who represent it. As such, I would also like to point out that as representatives of the religion and the faith they preach, they should at least try to embody the humility Jesus showed when he explained that one should render unto Caesar’s what is rightfully Caesar’s and unto God’s what is rightfully unto God’s. They shouldn’t use religion, faith or the church to express political sentiments and convince others to vote for who they want or to believe in what they want. That is unfair and prejudicial to the rights of the people to vote according to how they see fit. We need more educated voters, not a horde of followers. I truly appreciate your post, because it expresses some of the sentiments of some of my family members and friends. It is wonderful to know that not all members of the clergy are open-minded about the situation. Thank you so much.

  2. ken says:

    In Boston, our parish priest comes out after the mass to greet his flock – a handshake, a hello, a small talk (how are you? where are you from? Are you visiting?). The priest is trying to make contact with everyone….a simple form of fellowship some of our lost sheep probably need. I hope to see this kind of encounter in Manila.

  3. mavictab@yahoo.com says:

    Sr. Nona, 

    Here’s another article I’d like to share with you.  It’s with regard to Catholics leaving the church.

    Marivic

    ________________________________

  4. Pashare po Father. Nainis nga po ako ng lumabas ang survey. Parang lahat na lang yata, pagkakaperahan ng SWS. Gaano sila kacredible? Gaano sila kasigurado sa mga data nila, samantalang umaapaw ang mga simbahan kapag may misa lalo pa kapag may special na araw katulad ng holy week at Christmas, tapos sasabihin ng SWS, kumokonti tayo… Hello… Magkano ba? Anyway, challenge din po ito sa Katoliko kung paano palalalimin ang evangelization. Sa Commonwealth, nararamdaman ko ang paglipat sa INC ng iilan at karamihan yung mga taong may ginagawang mali sa kanilang pamumuhay, pangprotection daw sa kanilang mga palpak na gawain.

  5. PazdeCristo says:

    It is the desire of every Christian denomination to maintain the membership of its followers and retain their fidelity to their shared beliefs and traditions in which they become distinguished from the different faces of Christianity. Although there is an increasing development in the ecumenical movement which dawned when Pope John XXIII was inspired to seek the help of the whole Christian world in forming the constitution of the Catholic Church in the modern times, the Vatican II, in which there are two decrees that are significant to the said movement, the ecclesiarum orientalium and the unitatis redintigratio, some Christians of a specific denomination still “felt the need” or “succumbed into their desire” of re-grounding their Christian perspective or point of view and/or their way of practice of the Faith. In spite of the fraternal love that is promoted by the ecumenical movements by virtue of our being brothers and sisters in Christ, there are, at times, surges of anger or negative feelings that we cater to each other in instances where respective members of a certain denomination decides to “cross the borders”. In most instances we easily render our judgement to the leaving member that he/she is damned for leaving the confines of the assured salvation which the group bears. But is that really how Christianity works? Is that how would Christ define the membership to His beloved flock? By human means (like a process of citizenship change)? Does form, in this case, always affect the substance or does substance necessarily need to produce a certain form? Does form alone define our status in the salvation made available through and bestowed by Christ through the faith that comes from the same Source of salvation? In this denominational wars throughout history, we have observed that Christianity has somehow turned political, and sometimes worldly, in its outlook of the Body of Christ. This has once ignited the fuse of the famous reformer, Martin Luther, against his theology professor who asserted that outside the Holy Roman Chruch there is no salvation which consequentially implies that Greek Christians, and the Saints of the Eastern Rite in particular, are devoid of eternal life as they belong outside the Church of Rome. This mentality has even created worldly justifications imminent in the reasoning of some such as: Protestantism is right because most countries in which it is dominant are economically well off and dominant in the world stage (like the two popular countries whose first names are namesake, the United Kingdom and the United States), Roman Catholicism is the guarantee to victory (look at how Manny Pacquiao has lost in his boxing bout), Orthodoxy is wrong because it has lesser members than Roman Catholicism, and the like. How far have we become in the spiritual vigor and rationality of our early Christian brothers and sisters who, amidst the simplicity of the message of the Faith, are totally transformed into the very person that Saint Paul has described in which “it is no longer I who lives in me, but Christ.” No wonder the world, even non-Christians, is in awe of the simplicity that Pope Francis personifies. Although the easiest road to solving this problem is simply to do nothing about it, this may not be the best choice that we just simply allow the respective members of each Christian denomination to easily swap among churches or ecclessial communities. Every sheep has been entrusted into a certain fold for it to be nourished, although not outside Christ, the Supreme Shepherd. But there are multiple roads to consider in dealing with this reality for we can never simply generalize the different conversions that happen within Christendom. There are those who leave because they simply believe that they do not belong to such community at the first place, obscuring the understanding of Christ (or not understanding at all!) because of the failure to connect or even be nourished. There are those who found that something is lacking in the community they religiously reside in which Cardinal John Henry Newman,a former Anglican, (NOT the American John Neumann) may be a popular example. There are those who just simply cannot agree with the shepherds they are entrusted in or even they just don’t feel it, and have engaged in “church hopping” until they find a community that suits them best in their point of view and is preferably not against any of their desires. And there are many more varying reasons behind. How do we solve this problem, if it is such at the first place? By anathemizing each other? By inquisition? By burning at stake? These roads are extreme and sometimes, as history would tell, can be wrong measures brought by wrong judgement such in the cases of Saint Joan of Arc and, as some would agree, of the passionate Dominican preacher Savonarola.Not to mention, the last two options are unChristian and inhumane in nature, and we have come past to the naivety of the Christian religion during the dark to medieval to enlightenment period. Though I do not say that we are much holier or wiser than our Christian siblings of those ages for we also owe our present mindset or point of view to the realizations of brilliant Christian minds and to the examples of brave Christian exemplars of faith of those ages. Humanly speaking, this is a hard problem to solve as hatred brought by the differences with each other will always come into the scene. Debates of theologians or defenders of their respective creeds will come into place to establish the supremacy of one over the other, the legitimacy of one over all like Alexander’s generals who quarreled in claiming their own shares to the Alexandrias left by the great general. Christianity does not work that way. As Saint Augustine has said who was also quoted by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI when asked of his role in tending the 1.2 billion Catholics, “There are many outside who seem to be inside and there are many inside who seem to be outside.” Truly, it is hard to determine to which a Christian truly belongs by substance. But the real problem inside Christianity, regardless of the denomination, is the complacence that is imminent to some (or most), the lukewarm mere church-attenders and worse, Christian only by document (like those of birth certificates). The vigor brought by the Spirit of God, as evident in the early believers, seems to be a mere concept left to people who have more interest in holiness. Christianity never distinguishes its members as bad, good and the best. Christ taught and continually reminds us through the Holy Spirit that it is the will of God for us to be like Christ, every believer for that matter must wholeheartedly focus himself to the perfection that is brought forth by God’s grace and not by mere human achievements that aims for surface holiness so that one may be acclaimed by humanity. We should, my dear brother, aim for the sainthood before God, not to consumed by the glory of the laurel of holiness but simply to please God and that His will may be fully consummated in our lives for His will can never be done or complete without our free will. This is not impossible as Pope Francis said that we, in the modern society, can become “middle-class” saints. It all begins in faith (in God), a faith that leads to Love, is nourished by Love and by His Love leads to redemption and liberation (salvation). Let us help each other within the Body of Christ to edify His Body wherein we recognize each other through the presence of the Spirit of God to whom He promised will come to those who truly belongs to Him. Let not the morose history of Christianity hinder us to work in the same vineyard of God, as Christ once said to Saint John the Beloved who seem reluctant in allowing someone apart from their group to do God’s work “For whoever is not against is for us.” There is much work to do for many souls have either not yet had an encounter or failed to have a personal relationship with our Savior. This includes some Christians visible inside the doors of the churches for, as Christ said, whoever does not gather with me scatters. In spite of this, every “body” must heal for even a small yet painful defect of a part affects the whole sum. By God’s patience, we wait for their soul’s conversion to God as Saint Monica did. By God’s spirit, we turn selfless convictions to actions just as Saint Paul in delivering the Good News. By God’s love, we conquer just as Christ did on the cross!

  6. Cedric says:

    While the number or the percentage does not necessarily say about the quality of faith of those who regularly attend the mass, the great decrease is indicative of an alarming reality for the Catholic church.

    I hope priests and lay faithful will stop trying to discredit SWS or hurl all negative propaganda against dr. Mangahas. Instead, take such finding as an opportunity for commitment to charity, compassion, and love for the forgotten and the sinful.

    ….thank you for the article, fr. Joel.

  7. anding makulit says:

    Thanks for keeping up the posts, Father! I love what a commenter on a somewhat notorious past post of yours had to say: He considers the Catholic Church an ex-girlfriend, a friend perhaps, remembered with some affection, but it’s over between them. If I saw more of your kind among the local Church establishment–genuinely discerning, communicating, receiving feedback, reaching out, daring to question–maybe I would never have left. But I have decided to take up the fundies’ challenge–Either conform or get out–even though I haven’t shifted to any other organized religion. A genuinely good life, with or without a God, is so much harder to live than an ostensibly God-worshipping life, I find. Thank you yet again for your courage and your faith.

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