Today it is fashionable to criticize the church and blame it for virtually every kind of problem; war, prejudice, injustice and lack of equality. People point to the church's worst moments – the Crusades, religious wars, the Inquisition, its former sanctioning of racism and sexism, its historical resistance to various social and scientific advances, some of its present struggles with fidelity to its own ideals – and they conclude that the world would be better off without it.
What's to be said about this criticism?
What is interesting about it is that those offering it see themselves as grounded in sources outside the church: the ideals of reason, Marxism, secular feminism, new age philosophies, ecological sensitivity, whatever.
There is some truth to this. The church, despite carrying God's revelation and grace, has been far from perfect. It has created victims even as it created saints and, today, as in the past, many of its ministers and faithful are as much counter-sign as witness to its ideals.
Admittedly too, non-Christian sources have helped shape our present moral sensitivities.
However, something else also needs to be said: What these shortcomings point to is not a crisis of truth, as is often insinuated, but a crisis of maturation.
The reason why Christianity has struggled historically with its own ideals is because the truth of Christian revelation is not a microwave oven that can instantly penetrate and raise every conscience, but a yeast, a truth that works slowly, ploddingly, through centuries.
However, through those centuries, it has also been making some steady progress.
Moreover, those who criticize the church most strongly do so precisely on the basis of the effect of that leavening. What its critics generally fail to recognize is that the church has spawned its own critique by, through the centuries, slowly building the very moral ground upon which its fiercest critics now stand.
A number of Catholic feminists have already pointed this out, reminding those who suggest that they should leave the church of the fact that the church ultimately shaped their feminism, not vice versa.
Their criticism of the church comes from principles they learned inside the church. There is no contradiction or irony in this. It is the way things are.
Christians of every generation have experienced this, that is, on the basis of the ideals that the church has taught us we can, and are expected to, criticize the very institution that formed us. All children do that to their parents, just as, one day, their own children will do it to them.
But we need to recognize this so as not to end up in a certain adolescent grandiosity, blind to the fact that we are using the truth our parents taught us to point out their faults . . . like Christianity blaming Judaism for the crucifixion of Jesus even as we were blind to the fact that it was only Judaism that recognized the resurrection and that cross only became revelation because it happened in a Jewish setting.
Most current criticisms of the church suffer from the same grandiosity and blindness.
We see shortcomings in the church precisely because of the church's own influence within history and within our own lives. The church itself has laid down the principles for its own criticism and all those principles take root in a single one, founded on the crucifixion of Jesus, empathy for the victim, the refusal to feel at ease in the presence of a scapegoat, the realization that no event can be assessed until all its victims have been heard from.
This principle, sympathy for the victim, is specifically Judeo-Christian, seen initially in Israel's prophets and then taking on full bloom in the crucifixion of Jesus and its aftermath.
And it is a concept so novel and radical that anthropologist, Rene Girard, calls the crucifixion of Jesus and its historical effect the single most revolutionary anthropological event in history, an anthropological earthquake that ultimately exposes the roots of all violence.
It is good to know what lies at the root of our need to criticize. This puts our criticism into proper perspective.
Yes, many wars have been fought in the name of the church and many people have been victimized by it. But without the church and the Bible – which give the moral high ground to the victim – history would have been infinitely more violent, the development of democracy, freedom and social concern would have been even more tardy, and the church's critics would not, even now, have the same moral tools with which to criticize.