Why we (still) need the Catholic Church

Cindy Yamanaka, AP Laura DeRosa of Mission Viejo, center, prays at the Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. on … Continued

Cindy Yamanaka,


Laura DeRosa of Mission Viejo, center, prays at the Mission Basilica in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. on Sunday, Nov. 27, 2011.

There is a scene from the second season of “The West Wing,” in which the deputy chief of staff, Josh Lyman, is debating the merits of a bill with his law school buddy-turned-congressman from across the aisle. The fictitious bill in question is modeled after the actual 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, and Josh proceeds to rattle off some of the more pejorative statements made about homosexuality by the congressman’s colleagues in the days leading up to the vote, before adding, “Matt… you’re gay!” His friend calmly acknowledges both the ugliness of the remarks and the truth of his own orientation, prompting a nearly apoplectic Josh to demand, “How can you be a member of this party?”

The congressman then articulates a creedal-type profession of the party platform he espouses, including a belief in limited government, strong national defense, and the private sector as locus of job growth. He concludes that his membership in the party doesn’t have to be reduced to that one particular issue. “It doesn’t have to be all about that.”

As a lifelong Catholic who has worked for the church in some form or another since high school, I am constantly reminded of this scene. I currently serve as a youth minister here in D.C., and many of my daily conversations with friends follow a similar course. Disaffected peers, like Josh, demand to know, “How can you be a member of this church? This church that refuses to ordain women, that condemns contraception, that has perpetrated systemic cover-ups of child abuse?”

Recent events like the censure of a prominent American theologian, clashes with the Obama administration over the HHS mandate, and the Vatican-instituted overhaul of religious sisters have only intensified these conversations, providing me with a unique opportunity to offer my own profession of faith. And it begins with Scripture, which conveys to me the core truths about who we are as both individual disciples and a community of faith.

I believe that the word of God was given to us that we might grow in right relationship—with ourselves, with our God, and with one another. The Greek word used most frequently for justice is dikaiosune, which scholars tell us might be translated to that term, “right relationship.” My friend Rabbi Rachel Gartner delivered a powerful sermon on Yom Kippur this past year, challenging all who heard to remember that Torah calls us to “do the hard work” that relationships require. She posited that, in this age of Facebook, when it may be easier to de-friend someone than to slog through the often difficult process of repairing that relationship, Torah has never been more relevant. So, too, does this hold true during a time of discord in our Catholic Church.

Is it possible, as some say, to follow Jesus without religion?

Community was central to Jesus’ mission, and it remains a core of his church. So often we think of Jesus’ miracles as healing persons of physical ailments like leprosy or blindness, but we do not comprehend the larger significance of this healing act. Lepers in his day were prohibited from entering the town due to their disease, and the woman he encounters at the well is there in the heat of the day because she is not welcome among those who gathered there in the cooler morning hours. In each instance where Jesus encounters a person in need of healing, the individual is transformed by being restored to fullness of community.

It is telling that, when Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, he does not instruct them to say, “My father…” but, “Our Father… Give US this day OUR daily bread.” So often I hear the refrain among my contemporaries, “I pray, but I don’t see the need to show up to church or be part of a denomination,” to which I respond with the example of Michael Phelps. Michael Phelps is, indisputably, the best swimmer in a generation. Perhaps ever. And yet, he trains with a team, despite the fact that swimming is ostensibly an individual sport. The reasoning is simple: we need a group of people to challenge us, sustain us, support us.

The same is true of the spiritual life. Imperfect though we all are, as humans, we need that community, that “team” to challenge us, support us, and sustain us during life’s myriad struggles, joys, and despairs. The community of faith we call church helps us survive a broken heart, forces us to confront the ethical implications of our consumer lifestyle, and assists us as we navigate difficult decisions like end of life care for aging parents. Moreover, members of the community compel us, by their example, to break out of the self-centeredness of our daily routines and ask how we might serve others. How we might feed the hungry, as did S.O.M.E. founder Father Horace McKenna, S.J. How we might provide shelter to the homeless, as did Sister Mary Scullion. And how we might care for the sick and orphaned, as did Father Angelo D’Agostino, S.J.

They are who we are called to be: They model discipleship in the community of faith and challenge us to do the same. As for all the news about Catholic clashes or the latest partisan church squabble– as the congressman attested to Josh, “It doesn’t have to be all about that.”

Michael Bayer is a graduate of Georgetown University and the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley and has served as campus minister at the University of San Francisco and the University of Michigan. Michael is currently the Director of Youth Ministry at St. John the Baptist in Silver Spring.

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  • Anne Bouscal

    I, too, am a lifelong Catholic who was active in the church until 6 months ago. For the many reasons listed by other writers here about the hierarchy, treatment of women and lay people, I have taken a leave of absence.

    I would like to have a faith community, but it is not currently possible for me in today’s Catholic Church. I find my community among individuals largely online, and with a few Catholics who are still active, but who accept me and my questioning without judgement. I also read voraciously writers from various faith traditions. I don’t believe that Jesus would recognize this church as it is today as something he founded.

  • marthaefay

    “Community was central to Jesus’ mission, and it remains a core of his church. … In each instance where Jesus encounters a person in need of healing, the individual is transformed by being restored to fullness of community. ”

    This sets the parameters of my dilemma around being a Catholic in this era. The “community” is being fractured, bit by bit, by the hierarchy to reduce those welcome in the community to the “faithful”. And by the “faithful”, they mean those who accept the hierarchy as setting the agenda for believe and moral action.

    My own parish was “purged” in 2005 by the archdiocese for being a “renegade parish” – ie, too progressive. I hung on for several years afterward, but, despite the new pastor’s best intentions, the congregation lost most of its progressive members. I had been an active member of the social justice committee (in fact, its chair for the last few years) and our outreach was limited more and more to non-controversial issues. And finally, we began to be harangued by other members of the community because we did not touch issues of abortion or prohibiting gay/lesbian marriage.

    My place in that community is gone. Where do I go? I should not have to parish-shop; I should be able to attend mass at any church and not feel afraid that if the person next to me understood my theology, they would be appalled and want me out of their church so that I could not contaminate its purity.

  • Catholic and American

    to those of you that oppose the Church I ask that you please do some research before posting a long winded comment otherwise you will simply look like a child who is just spouting off its mouth. the Church has made many errors over the years and because of its position these errors are greatly magnified, but it also shows that the Church is vital to the people on earth because of the hit they take when we fall, the betrayal they feel. also do not write out of anger or you will just sound stupid, please try and use reason we are, after all, rational beings. that goes for both Catholics and non-Catholics alike. really, though, if you are going to speak with authority about something then please study it first, and from both sides since we as humans are biased by nature. who ever made the comment about the Church and woman, i especialy invite you to do research since more than fifty percent of the Churches beatified saints are woman and almost all the lay saints (not priest) are woman. God Bless you all very much, and be charitable to all.

  • DavidJ9

    The Roman Catholic Church has no need for the corrupt leadership that it groans under today.

  • DavidJ9

    The hierarchy run by the Vatican has nothing to do with community. Had the bishops not effectively stolen the buildings of the congregations, congregations would be able to control their own fate rather than suffer from the organization’s top-down corruption.

    Congregations need to show courts that the bishops have betrayed the trust they claim as trustees of the parishes. They need to get new trustees, not the current corrupt ones.

  • FKohl

    Do we need community? Yes. Can community be a church? Again, yes. Do we need the Catholic Church? No, we do not, Mr. Bayer’s syllogism is flawed.

    It is disturbing that Mr. Bayer seems to view the moral and spiritual deficiencies of the church as an institution are just the “latest partisan church squabble”.

    I think that Mr. Bayer would acknowledge that an institution can stray so far from its original purpose that it is no longer acceptable to those who originally embraced it. What he seems reluctant to acknowledge is that the Catholic Church may have reached this “tipping point” – where formally faithful people, for moral and spiritual reasons, must seek community elsewhere.


    Those women saints are all DEAD. A dead saint is easier for you all to deal with than a LIVE WOMAN.

  • janus532

    I fail to see why this piece was titled as it was–perhaps by an editor rather than the author. This article in no way makes a sounds argument for “why we (still) need the Catholic Church.” And frankly, as an Episcopal priest, I’m glad to argue why we don’t necessarily need it, when denominations and institutions such as the Episcopal Church (especially) among others can offer much of what the Roman Catholic Church offers without 1. a Pope who is out-of-touch with his people, 2. unrealistic and hurtful doctrines about contraception and sexuality (and sanctioning of the religious), 3. anti-homosexuality (which I don’t believe is true to the Bible’s message), 4. wide-spread cover-ups of child sexual abuse, 4. a refusal to ordain qualified women to all orders who are truly called to serve in God’s Church, and 5. a refusal to allow clergy to marry.

    Now I won’t argue that the Episcopal Church (or any other denomination) is perfect and hasn’t suffered from some of these same issues. We have sexual abuse and cover-ups that have occured as well, and full inclusion of gays and lesbians (among many others) in the Church has not been fully realized yet. But there are quite good alternatives to the Roman Catholic Church that still provide the much-needed sense of community that Jesus taught and demonstrated to and with his disciples. (And we have nuns and monks as well.)

    God doesn’t call us to settle for something which is stuck in following its own will rather than His own. There are other ways to be true to one’s faith and God’s calling, as well as the teachings of the Bible, while not compromising oneself for outdated teachings, traditions, and doctrines that don’t resonate with our lives today or God’s will.

    Rev. Brian Turner

  • JJ1010

    Your criticism is reasoned, as is Bayer’s essay, but would not your criticism apply equally to, say, “government”? As a non-Catholic Christian, I grieve the shortcomings of the Roman Catholic Church, which I feel (see Bayer’s penultimate paragraph) is the human — note, “human” — organization with the most potential for good in the world both because of its reach and its motivation, which is completely selfless. (Yes, I know some would argue that making converts is self-interest, but it is not organizations that do the “converting,” it is individuals in relation to others.)

  • FKohl

    Thank you for your comment. Personally, I’m not sure that the Roman Catholic Church, as an organization, has the most potential for good in the world. I will never underestimate the goodness and good acts of spiritually and morally motivated individual Catholics or Catholics acting collectively. I do not believe that this goodness is the result of the policies and actions of the “Corporate Church”? Perhaps a recent example of this problem is the recent attack by the Vatican on religious women.

  • boblesch

    ‘Jesus teaches’

    silly me. i thought the guy was executed 2000 years ago

  • Catholic and American

    I hate to say this, but that is one of the most un-intelligent things I have ever heard. Catholicism is founded on Christ’s life, DEATH, and resurection. For your own sake and image, please think before you speak. God bless your soul.

  • hoyasaxa19

    For the many thousands of young people who, out of profound love for the church, endeavor to make the Catholic Church a better place, many of these comments criticising the sentiment of Mr. Bayer’s opinion are tremendously disheartening. Mr. Bayer is not defending pedophiles. And he’s not sanctioning or making excuses for corruption and ecclesial power plays. He is simply taking the words “that they may be one” to heart, and doing his part to try and make that deep prayer a reality. Let’s encourage him in his ministry. Throwing blog darts will do nothing but deepen our own anger and insecurity. It’s time to put an end to this hateful internet banter, because it has become a real stumbling block (skandalon) to living the Gospel in the world today.

  • Catholic and American

    Thank you. this is true human rational. Count on my prayers. God Bless you.

  • DoTheRightThing

    Jesus, indeed, WAS executed about 2,000 years ago – it was a Friday. And, the following Sunday (“the first day of the week”) He rose from the dead and appeared to and talked and ate with His followers for 40 more days, at which time he ascended into heaven where He sits at the right hand of His Father. And also, He is always with us until the end of time.

  • DoTheRightThing

    Ref. Turner, I strongly suggest you re-examine your faith. For if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, then you should be interested in WHAT Jesus taught and WHICH Church He founded. You may find reading the writings of (Saint) John Henry Cardinal Newman, a former Anglican priest, to be of benefit to your Christian life. To read the early Church Fathers is to see they were Catholic and united with the Pope.

  • Sairis

    I would have to agree with you on your first point of the title of the article. I would have to take it a step further though and ask why we really need a church at all to be chirstian. I fully understand and accept that a great many people feel the need to worship together under some form of leadership. However, does refusing to join a church based on the petty bickering between who is really telling God’s message and Jesus’s message. I have a bible and worship on my own with anyone who wishes to join me. I am willing to discuss the finer meanings in the bible to further understand the message with anyone. But I refuse to join a church, does that make me not a Christian? a perfect example of the bickering was presented in the process of my typing this message by DoTheRightThing, thank you for providing such a fine example DoTheRightThing.

  • Sairis

    DoTheRightThing I have a question for you, why should I join a church that at one point and time had in its entirety been excommunicated?

  • ThomasBaum

    It doesn’t say the “end of time”, it says the end of the age, big difference.

    The seventh day will arrive in due time, God’s Time.

    Time is also a creation of God.

  • janus532

    Sairis, as I think the article points out, Christianity is out community. One can’t be a true Christian on their own–community is key to the life of Christianity. Jesus most clearly tells his followers to love their neighbors and to spread his message. That can’t be done in isolation or on our own. We need both God’s help and the help of other faithful followers of Christ to help bring God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.

  • janus532

    To DoTheRightThing: it sounds like you need to re-examine the Bible. I don’t believe anything I wrote contradicted Jesus’ teachings. We may emphasize different parts of Jesus’ teachings but that’s not the same as not knowing them. And the last time I checked, Jesus didn’t start any church. Jesus’ apostles are credited with starting the Christian Church, but to confuse the Church of the first century with the Roman Catholic Church is inaccurate, ahistorical, and unfaithful to those first apostles. As far as Cardinal Newman, I’m quite familiar with him. His choice to convert from Catholic Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism was a very personal and honestly has very little do with the state of either denomination in our current times.

  • amelia45

    Time for all Catholics to take a deep breath, pray, think, pray some more. As a Catholic I can’t go back to mindless obedience to rules I don’t accept as good for me,my neighbors, or the society in which I live. It is time to speak up about what we do not agree on.

    Too often within our parishes, we have to be silent about what we do not accept. The majority of Catholics use birth control, Catholics are more likely to get sterilized as a permanent form of birth control than the general public, and the majority of Catholics support gay marriage as a civil right. But we cannot talk about it and we have to sit silent while the priest reads letters from the bishops that we do not accept.

    It is time to start speaking up, as some groups in parishes are beginning to do. Personal conscience is real – radical, unthinking obedience is not personal conscience. Your soul is not saved by mindless obedience. Do you think Monsignor Lynn’s obedience to the bishops of Philadelphia was the right thing for him to do? Or, should he have heeded the prompting of the Holy Spirit that had him make that list of abusing priests in the first place? Did he do the will of the Father by his obedience, or did he fail Him?

    We are not stupid and we have vast resources to learn about issues. It looks like it will take the people of the Church, listening to the Holy Spirit, to lead the Church out of the Middle Ages.

    Jesus promised that nothing would prevail against the Church. The Church is the people – not the stones and flying buttresses of great cathedrals. And the Church is not limited to the magisterium. The Holy Spirit resides in all of us by virtue of our baptism. We do need the Church – but we need the Church to be our partner, not our parent.

    Speak, write letters, comment on blogs – don’t be silent. Silence is acquiescence – and that is how genocide occurs and it is how children are abused. Truth is, there is room within in the Church and within faith for people of diff

  • Sairis

    Janus – “Sairis, as I think the article points out, Christianity is out community. One can’t be a true Christian on their own–community is key to the life of Christianity. Jesus most clearly tells his followers to love their neighbors and to spread his message. That can’t be done in isolation or on our own. We need both God’s help and the help of other faithful followers of Christ to help bring God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.”

    Since when is church the extent of your community? Since when is community tied together only by a church? I did not say Christianity is not necessarily needed, I said the Catholic church is not necessarily needed. There is a big difference between the two. Originally priests were set in such positions at the head of a church to help the impoverished and unlearned masses learn and worship the teachings of God and Christ. While there are some regions, and some individuals who still may require this help, the new roll of the priest hoods is to lead their flocks, like a parent leads their children. When my child is a grown man, and I am a whithered old man, I don’t expect him to need me anymore, I expect that I will need him instead. Perhaps the Catholic Church has become the whithered old father and we (the children) are now in the position that the roles of need have reversed.

    When I said I worship on my own with anyone who wishes to join me I simply mean that I do not worship in a designated church or among a designated congregation. I do not necessarily worship alone. Family and friends are community. Strangers who I only see on sunday are not community.

  • itsthedax

    All you’ve saying is that the catholic church must be the true faith, because its followers feel betrayed when the church makes “errors” (like sheltering child molesters).

    With regard to your second point. If half the catholic saints are women, why are they unworthy to celebrate mass?

  • itsthedax

    To the catholic church: Put your money where your mouth is. In the words of Sarah Silverman: “Sell the Vatican, feed the world”.

  • jpmorris1992

    The Catholic Church is the world’s largest charity, by far. People often misunderstand the Vatican’s perceived “wealth” and fail to acknowledge the accomplishments made by those in religious life. There is always more to be done to help our fellow man, but to say that the Church is selfish and has neglected the poor is absolutely egregious

  • cprdcnats

    Clohessy covered up his own brother’s abuse and coordinates with the media to smear priests without credible evidence before cases are even filed to attempt to win judgments in public opinion that an actual finding of facts under law can not.

  • isafakir

    it is impossible to live a spiritual life in constant conflict between the innermost aspirations of self and the institutionalized goals of self protection and self aggrandizement. ideology of institutions inevitably replace the divine inspiration with measurable quantifiable management quotas. ideology becomes idol.

  • isafakir

    @catholic and american: actually the early fathers of the church such as pseudo-diyonesius all agreed the birth and life of christ is foundation of the church. the living christ. he was “light of the world” living and not extinguishable. he says to nichodemus, look around you and see the kingdom in front of your face. Deuteronomy says don’t wait for someone to give it to you. being born includes dying but dying doesn’t include living. sunday is the 8th day because the believer can’t die. jesus was born and lives.

  • ThomasBaum

    Jesus said, “I Am the Way, the Truth and the Life, no one comes to the Father except thru Me”.

    Jesus did not say that there is only one way to Him so for anyone to say one must do this or do that to get to Jesus is attempting to put up roadblocks of their own making in the way of other children of God and seeing as God created each and everyone of us and going by what Jesus attempted to teach us when He said to pray “Our Father…”, we are ALL children of God.

    God is a searcher of hearts and minds, not of religious affiliations or lack thereof and It is important what one does and why one does it and what one knows.

    Just as there are many who know God’s Name that take a detour, so to speak, before being with God, there are many that do not know God’s Name that go directly and I thank God that God won the “keys” to the detours and will use them in due time, God’s Time.

    The GOOD NEWS, which Jesus asked us to proclaim, is ultimately for ALL since it would not be Good News at all if it were not for ALL but would be horrific news.

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “Jesus promised that nothing would prevail against the Church.”

    Jesus said that the “gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against His Church”.

    Jesus “won” the “keys” to the netherworld (hell and death, spiritual and physical) and will use these “keys” in due time, God’s Time.

    And Jesus very clearly stated that if was His Church.

    As it is written, “It is God’s Will that ALL be saved” and God’s Plan, which God has had since before creation, is truly catholic (universal) even tho many do not believe/think that God is capable of this and sadder, much sadder, many do not seem to want this as long as they get to the “good place”.

    You also wrote, “The Church is the people – not the stones and flying buttresses of great cathedrals. And the Church is not limited to the magisterium.”

    The people are the “living stones” of the Church and not only is the Church no limited to the magisterium, it is also not limited to Catholics or Christians of other persuasions or no persuasions at all.

    We all have different “jobs” if God would have wanted a bunch of clones, God would have made us as a bunch of clones.

  • itsthedax

    The catholic church is selfish and has neglected the poor.

  • itsthedax

    So what are your views on the church’s recent instruction to catholic nuns? The constant insistance on doctrinal purity?

  • itsthedax

    Or its an amalgum of Mithraism and the cult of Sol Invictus, leavened with some hebrew mythology. Tom-a-to, Tom-ah-to, I guess.

  • Chip_M

    The article reads like a battered spouse trying to rationalize staying with their abuser.

  • czubek

    To all you pagans out there, Happy Solstice.

  • mikestech

    And there’s the egregiousness. People like itsthedax think more in soundbites than logic.

  • csintala79

    Where two or three come together in my name, there I (Christ) am with them. It seems that having more than one makes a church, if the intent is there. The Church bases its monopoly on Jesus giving Peter the keys to the Kingdom. Where in scripture does it say Peter was the first bishop of Rome? Where is magesterium mentioned? As Church tradition is self-serving, what makes it valid, other than faith and belief? How much of Church tradition is no more valid than was its insistence on the faithful eating fish on Friday? Is there any unbiased, independent confirmation of any of this? Without tradition being used to create interpretations of scripture that do not stand on their own from only a reading of scripture, the Roman Church does not stand. If one accepts the Bible as the revealed word of God and Christ as savior, all the rest is dross.

  • csintala79

    Whether or not the Church’s motivation is solely selfless is certainly debatable. The Church’s primary goal, as an institution, is to perpetuate itself; salvation of souls is secondary. There certainly are individuals whose motivation is selfless, but one cannot make that claim for the Church corporation.

  • csintala79

    I don’t believe that congregations own the church buildings. The Roman Church is an episcopal organization (it is lead and governed by bishops). The church temporal is centrally owned and governed by the dioceses. There are some exceptions, such as monasteries and private chapels, but, on the whole, the diocese owns church property. There is quite a bit of dispute regarding this matter in the Protestant Episcopal Church today, regarding those congregations who want to defect to the Roman church or to join renegade Anglo-Catholic organizations, but the courts, to date, have upheld the ownership of property by the dioceses; the knife cuts both ways. Is any of this turmoil what Christ intended? However, it seems to inevitably beset churches, one only has to read Paul’s epistles to get confirmation of this. The Alexandrian Fathers of the early church are regarded as the most pious of the saints, and they forsaked churches for solitary caves in the desert; this offers proof that one need not seek holiness in a church.

  • wt_rd

    Yeah, some mistakes: mass murder, torture, genocide and child abuse on unimaginable scales. It’s like saying the Nazis made a few mistakes too. It’s a a threat to humanity. Every time it gains power it starts murdering.


    Religion is a crutch for the weak minded. It gives those among us an easy explanation to life’s questions, simply listen to another person’s opinion and never challenge it.