Effie Caldarola

In my circle of friends, I have a gal pal with whom I communicate twice a year. The purpose of our infrequent base-touching is specific: Both avid readers, we like to catch up on book recommendations.

So, no Christmas cards or Facebook friendship. Just book buddies.

We once lived in the same town, and she knows my husband and I are active Catholics. And we knew her and her husband as generous intellectuals. She frequently became involved with Catholic outreach because she loved the social justice angle. We shared common values.

So, I wasn’t surprised by a parting comment in her last book summary of the good, the bad and the Booker (Britain’s top literary award).

“I would like to hear your thoughts,” she mused, after dishing on the Democratic Party’s presidential hopefuls, “about the church and being Catholic. … I love Catholic teaching about the poor, welcoming the stranger, etc. But I don’t know what it is to be Catholic. I don’t know if the institution is believers and beliefs, or a private club for men.”

Here was someone on the outside looking in honestly.

This was clear: She admired Catholic teaching based on the Gospel. But what’s with this institution?

It’s a question many people are asking right now.

We all know scores who have dropped out or are experimenting with other faith traditions. Many are young people, but I have senior friends and relatives who have split. There are many reasons, but they often boil down to the institution turning people off.

At a large faith-sharing meeting I attended recently, much dissatisfaction with the institutional church boiled up. Horror over child sexual abuse and its long history in the church emerged, coupled with the sickening revelations of cover-up by top church officials.

But the overarching question: What’s wrong with a structure that allowed this evil to fester, and can it, will it, change? Institutions are chronically in need of reform. A few women added to a Vatican committee does not fulfill an obligation to bring women into church leadership. We’re still a long way from transparency in governance, and we’re leery of half-steps.

So what would I say to my friend?

I would tell her that we drive an hour round trip to a Jesuit parish for great liturgy and music and challenging homilies. A parish where we’re told of our duty to the stranger at our border, and reminded in a homily that when Jesus fed the people on the mountainside there was no litmus test for who received his food.

I would tell her that I seek out the Eucharist because it remains an integral part of my life. I would say that without the church, there would be no St. Ignatius of Loyola, even though he himself was hassled by the institutional church during the Inquisition. Without the church, there would be no St. Francis of Assisi, or the feisty St. Teresa of Avila who stubbornly fought with bishops.

Would there be a Sister Norma Pimentel, head of Catholic Charities in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, fighting for those suffering at the border? Would Dorothy Day have had her platform? Would there be another institution running the greatest charitable efforts in the world?

For me, the Gospel is not just a how-to book for do-gooders. It’s a faith journey based on the mystery of God crucified, by sin and, yes, by powerful institutions. It’s a faith in resurrection that is the underpinning of truth and justice.

Faith is worth fighting for, and institutions are often worth fighting with. It may be a long struggle, but I’m sticking around.