Much of the news about Church teachings tends to emphasize not what we are for but what we are against. Typically, it has to do with issues of moral conduct in relational or more intimate matters, such as marriage and sexuality. These are important issues, and so are the ongoing concerns about the role of women in the Church and of the interacting roles of clergy and laity.
None of the above, however, comes closer to separating the faithful from the very source of our salvation than that “heresy” by which we assume that the degree of our engagement in the Church somehow depends upon the extent of our worthiness. Surprisingly, perhaps, but also tellingly, research shows that there are two key reasons why men and women of all ages say they have never pursued a religious vocation. The first is – according to those who are interviewed – that no one ever asked or invited them to be a priest or a religious sister or brother. The second reason is that they feel that they would not be worthy anyway.
No one is worthy. The history of salvation is not about the success of human beings in saving themselves. On the contrary, it is a continual catalogue of the dismal failures of human beings in trying to find our way back to God. From the time of Babel, the bigger the towers we raise, the greater the institutional power we amass in whatever form it takes, the more we are trying to keep up with any of the ways in which the world around us gauges success, the more we fall into the delusion of the old Pelagian heresy in one or another of its flavors.
At the core of this way of thinking – whether or not history fairly attributes it to Pelagius some 16 centuries ago – is the idea that Jesus came just to give us a “good example,” and that it was up to us to follow it and be saved or fall short of it and be damned. Pelagius may have been trying to preserve the doctrine of free will and to resist the idea of predestination. Unfortunately, if Jesus is reduced to just a good and moral man, a prophet or a great teacher, our salvation ultimately depends on just the good works that we do and who of us would stand a chance?
By contrast to this notion, if there is anything that comes close to a union card by which we can claim membership in the society of believers that we call the Church, it would be our common experience of being sinners, of being unworthy. No doubt many of our young people are very well aware of their personal struggles of living up to all of the moral teachings of the Church, perhaps even questioning in the sincerest way whether or not anyone can. They would feel like hypocrites to present themselves for what they believe to be the holy calling that a vocation to priesthood or religious life is. They may be overlooking the lives of the saints who spent most of their time on earth as struggling sinners.
Nor are the Scriptures shy of recording for us the sins, doubts and failures of many of the most important figures: Peter, Paul, Thomas and even Zechariah, all among God’s chosen in some way, and all of them vulnerable to temptation and grave weakness. Looking further back, all of the prophets had their failings. It seems to be almost a pattern that “God chooses the weak things of the world so that no flesh may glory in his sight,” as the old novena prayer goes. The best witnesses to the faith often turn out to be those who have been most impressed, not by their own strengths, but by their creatureliness: Thérèse, Augustine, Francis, Ignatius and even Mary herself who, though ever sinless, was glorified in her lowliness.
Seeing the Church as a society of redeemed sinners, salvaged by the Blood of Christ, leads us not to a greater tolerance of sin but to more forgiving and supporting love for the sinner, the lost sheep whom the Good Shepherd comes to reunite with the flock. That, after all, is the role of any good pastor of souls. The humbler the shepherd, the closer to the sheep.