National Catholic Register


Does God Lead People Out of the Church?

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 3/23/11 at 2:00 AM


I wanted to run a question past you. I have a very good friend, married with 3 kids. They recently left the Catholic church for a non-denominational pentacostal-type church. She said she wasn’t being fed in the Catholic Church. And she is now truly on fire for the Gospel, and sharing it with everyone she meets. And it almost does seem that God is leading her there: so many coincidences, people put her in path, miracles taking place in her life. Do you think God could be leading her out of the Church? Should I be trying to actively engage her on this, or just keep praying for her to come back to the Church? Or could it be that God does want her in this non-denominational church? What are your thoughts on this? (I know you’re very busy, I really appreciate your help!)

No. I don’t think God is leading her out of the Church, because the Church is the Body of Christ that he has established on earth as the sacrament of salvation. The teaching of the Church is clear: outside the Church, no salvation. So it is as impossible that God is leading her out of the Church as it is that he would lead her to commit adultery or grand theft auto.

That said, it is not only possible, but certain, that God uses even our sins and failings and misunderstandings to bring glory to his name and that your friend may well be having a real encounter with God in the middle of all the confusion she is going through. This is why we are told not to judge. As far as your part in all this goes, it seems to me the best course is twofold: first, to pray for her and second, to call her back to the Church as the fullness of the Faith. Part of that is to find out what “not being fed” means to her. I suspect she means they felt isolated, lonely, and unloved — a tragically common problem in our parishes. If so, that means finding ways to answer that need, such as creating small group fellowships for prayer and mutual ministry. It may also mean they are spiritual thrill-seekers or that they have bought into somebody’s pet quack theology. For instance, some Pentecostal groups specialize in unbiblical teachings that deny the Trinity under the theory that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are all the same person wearing different hats depending on whether it is before, during, or after the Incarnation. Many practice invalid baptisms. Many hold the theory that you are not saved unless you speak in tongues. None have a valid Eucharist. Is God utterly absent from such congregations? Certainly not. As the Church teaches, God’s grace is at work in such ecclesial bodies, and many people of good will are there, attempting to obey God’s will according to their best lights. But none of that is a reason to leave the Catholic Church.

One thing that will be necessary for you if you wish to engage your friend will be to find out what theories, if any, they have embraced about why the Catholic Church is in error. This may be complicated because typically such theories get layered on over choices that have little to do with the real reasons for leaving. In other words, people join a Pentecostal sect because they were lonely and felt welcomed, but then begin to absorb anti-Catholic rhetoric as an intellectual justification for their essentially emotional choice. So several months later, the story has morphed from “I wasn’t being fed” to “I read Matthew 23 and realized to my horror that we had been calling the priest ‘Father’ when Jesus clearly commanded ‘Call no man on earth ‘father’.’  There are, of course, sensible replies to such things (as, for instance, the fact that St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “I became your father through the Gospel,” not to mention the fact that Jesus is not issuing some absurd taboo against the use of the word “father” any more than he is declaring in the same verse that you can’t call Mrs. Johnson from third grade your teacher when he likewise commands we call no one on earth “teacher”).

You may have to drill down through quite a number of the theological excuses for leaving the Church (and there are plentiful resource out there for dealing with them all due to the efforts of such good folk as Catholic Answers, Scott Hahn, Patrick Madrid, et al. But at the end of the day, what it will come down to is dealing with the root causes which are in all likelihood emotional: Something was sought that was not found in the Catholic communion. That doesn’t mean the thing sought is not there. It also doesn’t mean the thing sought was what they really wanted. Nor does it mean the thing sought was what they necessarily should want. But it does mean that the thing sought needs to be identified and looked at in light of the Tradition.

In the end, what everybody is always seeking is happiness. Indeed, St. Thomas says that we can’t *not* want our happiness, since we were made by God to seek it. And that’s because God is our happiness, and we can’t not desire him. But we *can* and do seek our happiness in wrong ways. This is the essence of sin. To turn away from Jesus Christ, fully present in the Eucharist, is always therefore an objective evil, though the culpability for that evil is often greatly reduced or non-existent due to the simple fact that the person turning away has not the slightest idea of Who is present there. In this, they are like the confused person who enters the freeway on the exit ramp and drives down it the wrong way. They may be completely sincere, honest and good: but they are still going the wrong way and it can still have devastating consequences for themselves and others.

On the bright side, there is hope. God is in the redemption business. Not a few Catholics have sojourned in non-denominational Christianity for reasons similar to your friend’s and come back all the stronger Catholic for it. I think, for example, of my friend Jeff Cavins, who left the Church at 18 to become a Pentecostal pastor and who found his way guided back to the Church step by step by the Holy Spirit. I strongly recommend you read his story, (My Life on the Rock) because it is so archetypally illustrative of the kinds of forces that are often in play both in those who leave the Church and in those who return. 

You are a good friend to care for your friends so much. May God bless your work in the vineyard!