Last week, Anne Rice, a popular gothic and religious novelist and revert to the Faith, announced on her Facebook page that she had decided to "quit being a Christian." Father Barron addresses her proclamation and engages this conversation on today's Word on Fire blog post.
I had read only one of the Vampire novels which had made Anne Rice famous; so I wouldn’t have characterized myself as a fan. Nevertheless, I was fascinated when I heard, several years ago, that she had reverted to the faith of her youth, renouncing her atheism and re-embracing a robust Catholicism. I turned with great interest to the two novels she subsequently wrote concerning the childhood and youth of Jesus. I found these books extraordinary, both from a literary and theological standpoint, for they attempted to get inside the subjectivity of the one who is both human and divine. Though my theological mind quarreled here and there with the way this extremely tricky portrayal was carried out, I was generally impressed with Rice’s sure-footed and orthodox manner of presenting Jesus to a contemporary audience. It was clear that the author had done her homework, studying a number of biblical scholars, historians, and theologians, and this scholarship had enabled her to enter rather deeply and convincingly into the person of Jesus. On my vacation last summer, I read Rice’s memoir entitled Called Out of Darkness
, a compelling account of the extremely colorful and exuberant New Orleans Catholicism of her youth, the bleak atheism of her middle years, and the joyfully re-discovered Catholicism of the past decade. One of the many fascinating revelations in this autobiography is Rice’s admission that the vampires of her famous series were indirect portraits of her atheist colleagues from the sixties and seventies, people drifting in a kind of spiritual wasteland. After reading these texts, I could be accurately described as an Anne Rice fan. My affection for her only deepened when I discovered that she had recommended one of my own books The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path
on her website.
And so it was with a good deal of sadness and dismay that I read her FaceBook posting from just a few days ago that, though she will continue as a disciple of Jesus, she is “through with Christians,” through with the church. She can no longer, she explained, tolerate the company of Christians (presumably Catholic Christians for the most part) who are “anti-choice, anti-Democrat, anti-gay, and anti-woman.” Now Anne Rice is a serious and smart lady, and therefore I know that this statement is much more than simply an angry outburst. And I not only understand but also sympathize with her frustration over the coarsening of discourse within Christian circles, which has made Christians seem intolerant and boorish, people in love with the word “no.”
However, what she is proposing is, quite simply, impossible. With complete coherence, Ms. Rice could withdraw from the Gandhi Society, even while maintaining her deep admiration for Gandhi, or she could resign from the Better Business Bureau, even while retaining a commitment to the ideals of that organization. But she can’t leave the church and still cling to Christ, precisely because the church is not a club or voluntary society, but rather Jesus’ own mystical body. When the risen Jesus addressed Saul, who was on his way to persecute the Christian community in Damascus, the Lord said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” In the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, we find Jesus’ great parable of the separation of the saved and the condemned on the last day. To the blessed, Jesus says, “whatsoever you did to the least of my people, you did it to me,” and to the damned he says, “whatsoever you neglected to do to the least of my people, you neglected to do it to me.” The followers of Jesus are related to their Lord as the members of a body are related to the head, for Christ and his church form together, not a society, but a living organism. To say, therefore, that one loves Christ but has given up on his church is precisely equivalent to saying “I love you, but I just can’t be around your body!”
To make this principle more concrete, consider the fact that Anne Rice came to know Christ through the densely-textured world of her New Orleans Catholicism: its art, music, liturgy, stories, and above all, its powerful spiritual personalities. More to it, she experienced the renewal of her faith through the mediation of the liturgy broadcast on EWTN. The point is that the church, with all of its flaws, remains, down through the ages, the vehicle which bears Jesus Christ to the world, just as our bodies, with all of their imperfections, remain the means by which our identities and personalities come to expression. You just can’t discover Christ or stay with him in abstraction from his body. I know that Church people, even of the highest rank, do and say lots of stupid things. I fully realize how deeply scandalous the recent behavior of some priests and bishops has been to millions of Catholics, and I completely acknowledge that certain of the church’s attitudes, behaviors, and statements over the centuries have been deeply harmful. Heck, John Paul II dedicated the last several years of his pontificate to apologizing for the ways that churchmen have caused harm, sometimes greviously, over the past two millennia. But yet, as St. Paul said, “we hold a treasure” in these fragile vessels, and the treasure is Jesus himself.
I’m convinced that it is Anne Rice’s love for Christ that has pushed her to make this move away from the church, but I fear that she is drifting toward the love of an abstract Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. This means that God entered into our grubby, imperfect world and made it his tabernacle. He continues to do so, precisely through the flawed, compromised, sometimes exasperating body of the church, and therefore the church is where the real Christ is found. Come back, Anne, we need you!
Father Robert Barron is the Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.