The right to criticize
It was a lovely English Sunday afternoon and my cousins and I were gathered in the garden enjoying a very traditional tea. The conversation moved this way and that but paused for a while on the subject of the royal family. A rather witty (especially for my family) repartee ensued with subtly snide critiques of the queen and the rest of her admittedly rather odd familial ensemble.
As the lone American among the tea-sipping group, I felt a certain honor and excitement at being privy to such insider humor. Emboldened by my good fortune, I allowed my enthusiasm to get the better of me and offered my own only slightly withering witticism regarding the queen.
A sudden silence struck the once boisterous gathering and all eyes turned toward me with a look the English must reserve only for the worst of American gaucherie. My little remark was, I instantly realized, tantamount to showing up at St. Paul’s Cathedral wearing T-shirt, shorts, sandals and a baseball cap on backward.
When the withering looks finally withered away and I was able, once again, to sit up to my full sitting-up stature, I pondered this seemingly innocent, but unquestionably objectionable action on my part. I quickly realized it was not unlike when my three brothers and I get together on occasion. We spend a good deal of time laughing at the remembered foolish actions of our youth. We tease each other unmercifully regaling ourselves with stories that leave one of us reddened with embarrassment and the others roaring in merriment.
But were someone else to enter the fold and, even with the best of intentions, attempt to humorously humiliate one of the siblings, the Mayfield boys would rise up in righteous and sibling-protective indignation. The motivation, I suppose, runs along the line of: If you weren’t there for the heroic times, if you weren’t there when brotherly love surpassed sibling rivalry, if you weren’t there through the thick and into the thin, then just kindly keep your criticisms in the closet.
This past week, Queen Elizabeth II celebrated 50 years on the throne. An estimated one million citizens lined the streets on the final day regaling her with their unabashed gratitude and support.
The outpouring of good cheer seemed to surprise many outside Britain. Many of us have grown accustomed to seeing the monarchy ridiculed in the English press and TV. The Monty Python gang parodied the first family unmercifully, or so it seemed, to all of us on the outside looking in. But, when it came to showing their affection, the British people revealed in public what my British family showed me in private. The right to criticize is an earned right, earned through time and commitment. Only those who have witnessed the heroics as well as the humiliations can honestly understand and appreciate the evidence.
That lesson should be remembered as we witness the trials and tribulations of our Roman Catholic friends. The Church, reeling now from horrific revelations, has done more to feed the hungry and serve the poor around the world than most governments. Its strident advocacy of the dispossessed and disenfranchised should have most politicians hanging their heads in shame. The terrible damage done by a very few priests cannot reverse the enormous good work done for millions.
Although I certainly have strong opinions regarding the state of the Roman Catholic Church today, I find myself listening carefully to those on the inside, those who have been witness, through time and trial, of what is both good and bad about the Church. It is the faithful folk who continue to weather the storm that have both my ear and my respect.
Much has been said and written in recent weeks about the scandal of the Church. The criminal actions of a few have opened the floodgates of criticism against the many. It is indeed temptingly easy to ridicule the hierarchy and lambaste the laity, but before we do, perhaps it would be both prudent and wise to stop and ask: By what right?
Rich Mayfield is pastor of the Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church and regular columnist for the Summit Daily News.
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