Three myths about the church to give up for Lent

I realize this comes a little late, but if anybody’s still on the market for something to give up for Lent, I’d suggest that the following misconceptions about the Catholic church and about Christianity in general would be dandy bits of intellectual junk to cut loose in the spirit of the season.

Naturally, the venues where these three myths tend to be most deeply entrenched — the secular media, the academy, political circles and so on — are also places where the whole idea of Lenten sacrifice is sometimes a nonstarter. Yet they’re remarkably widespread inside the church too, among people who really ought to know better. If Catholics perpetuate these ideas, it’s hard to fault the outside world for being seduced by them.

Here are three popular fallacies, in the hope that Lent 2012 might mark the beginning of their expiration date.

1. Purple ecclesiology

“Purple ecclesiology” refers to the notion that the lead actors in the Catholic drama are the clergy, and in fact, the only activity that really counts as “Catholic” at all is that carried out by the church’s clerical caste, especially its bishops. You can always spot purple ecclesiology at work when you hear someone say “the church” when what they really mean is “the hierarchy.”

(I was once called by a producer from the BBC looking for leads on a segment they wanted to do about women in the Catholic church. I ticked off a series of high-profile Catholic laywomen they could ring up, to which the producer replied: “I’m sorry, I need someone from the church.” She meant, of course, someone in a Roman collar — that’s purple ecclesiology at work.)

The truth is that the number of ordained clergy in the Catholic church comes to roughly .04 percent of the total Catholic population of 1.2 billion. If they’re the main act, then all one can say is that the Catholic show is wildly top-heavy with supporting cast.

The self-parodying nature of purple ecclesiology was once memorably captured by Cardinal John Henry Newman, who, asked for his opinion on the laity, replied, “Well, we’d look awfully silly without them.” Read more




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