Anne Rice has left Christianity. While the author of vampire novels is not a figure of such towering intellectual stature that I anticipate droves of believers following her, the arguments she gives for leaving the Church are common enough to deserve comment.
Rice claims to have “quit Christianity in the name of Christ.” The problem, she claims, isn’t Jesus: it’s his followers, who are “quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous.”
In the Facebook announcement of her departure, Rice works herself up into a rhetorical snit over how awful Christians really are: they’re “anti-gay,” “anti-science,” “anti-secular humanist,” even—wait for it—“anti-life”. Rice herself, of course, lacks such faults and is sure Jesus does, too, so he can stay even if everyone else must go.
The problem with such a line of argument is that Rice hasn’t really rejected the Church: she’s simply created a Church of one.
There are several versions of the old Christ-without-Church argument, and Rice is partially right in some of the things she says—though I don’t remember the papal encyclical declaring Catholicism “anti-life.” But Christ’s followers are quarrelsome and sometimes hostile. Remember James and John bickering over who was greater, Peter’s bombastic boasting at the Last Supper, all that bad blood over what to do with Gentile converts. And then there are the adulterers, the tax-collectors, the thief who joined at the last minute, the quarrelsome Corinthians, bone-headed Galatians, and the Apostle who condemned those Galatians in language far more intolerant than anything ever written by the CDF (Gal 3:1).
So, yes, Rice actually understates her case: the Catholic Church is filled with really horrible people (except Mary) who have completely failed to live up to the vision of her founder. (I’m still a member of the Catholic Church, but that’s fitting because I’m pretty much a moral clod myself, the same as the rest of ’em.)
But Rice’s argument, insofar as her screed can be battered into an argument, is that the Catholic Church is not just filled with infamous people, but that it has also started teaching things contrary to the will of Jesus. And I suppose we Catholics are at a disadvantage here: in order to know what Jesus taught we have to rely on what his followers (nasty folks) wrote down in Sacred Scripture as well as the living tradition handed down to us through the apostles and their successors (nasty folks in funny hats). We don’t have access to the private sources of revelation Anne Rice has—in which Jesus, apparently, endorses secular humanism.
More than entering into the specifics of Rice’s charges, it’s perhaps most important to point out the flaws in her general approach, flaws likely to be less obvious because they are bolstered by the individualistic prejudices of our age and culture. We’ll start with the obvious: I am not Jesus and neither is Anne Rice. If we hope to follow Jesus, our only option is to receive the message of his life and teaching from other followers of Jesus. The only alternative to listening to Christ’s followers is to make up the message ourselves, and this is what claiming to follow Jesus without the Church amounts to.
Going it alone presents some fairly insurmountable logical and historical hurdles—who exactly introduced Anne Rice to Jesus if it wasn’t members of his Church? And how does one bridge the two thousand year gap between his lifetime and ours if one leaves out everyone in between?
Jesus preached a message that was both unsettling and surprising, a message at times almost impossibly hard to follow (Matt 5:48). Jesus’ message clashed at times with the dominant ethos of his age, and it clashes with the dominant ethos of our age too. If the Church is faithful to Jesus’ teachings it will mean telling each one of us from time to time that some of our actions, attitudes, and behaviors are wrong and need changing. That’s never an easy message to hear, but the alternative is losing Jesus.
If we reject all external Church authority we end up submitting to our own egos, doing what we want, and anyone with even an ounce of self-knowledge should recognize that such a Magisterium of Self is far more tyrannical than anything that’s ever come out of Rome. Most likely, since none of us are really all that creative—and those who trumpet their individualism tend to be the greatest conformists of all—if we reject Church authority we’ll end up trotting along behind all the unofficial magisteriums the world offers us: Hollywood, Madison Avenue, political parties, the Zeitgeist. Anne Rice’s list of anti-’s shows that she has indeed bought into the Zeitgeist and adopted the fashionable prejudices of the age. (Is there a bigger bugaboo out there than Christians being “anti-science”?) She is somebody’s follower. It just isn’t Jesus.
How do we know? Because Jesus knew just what a motley bunch his followers were, and he didn’t leave. Yes, Peter and Paul were quarrelsome and infamous—and they were also the men Christ chose to lead his Church. A wise professor once advised me, “If you find a church that’s perfect, don’t join. You’ll ruin it.”
A young Joseph Ratzinger put it more eloquently in Introduction to Christianity:
Because of the Lord’s devotion, never more to be revoked, the Church is the institution sanctified by him forever, an institution in which the holiness of the Lord becomes present among men. But it is really the holiness of the Lord that becomes present in her and that chooses again and again as the vessel of its presence—with a paradoxical love—the dirty hands of men… One could actually say that precisely in her paradoxical combination of holiness and unholiness the Church is in fact the shape taken by grace in this world…
Is the Church not simply the continuation of God’s deliberate plunge into human wretchedness; is she not simply the continuation of Jesus’ habit of sitting at table with sinners, of his mingling with the misery of sin to the point where he actually seems to sink under its weight? Is there not revealed in the unholy holiness of the Church, as opposed to man’s expectation of purity, God’s true holiness, which is love, love that does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity but mixes with the dirt of the world, in order thus to overcome it? Can, therefore, the holiness of the Church be anything else but the bearing with one another that comes, of course, from the fact that all of us are borne up in Christ?
In the end, I’ll take the Church Ratzinger describes—this Church of sinners—over Anne Rice’s Church of one.