Cathleen Kaveny’s column “The Long Goodbye: Why Some Devout Catholics Are Leaving the Church” caught the attention of several writers, making it one of the most-read columns on our Web site. One commentator even made a video about it.
Fr. Robert Barron teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, and is a gifted evangelist. He has written well on a wide range of subjects, including a helpful piece on celibacy for Commonweal. Often, even when I disagree with Fr. Barron’s conclusions, I find his analyses interesting and his arguments careful. This isn’t one of those times.
In his video response, Fr. Barron identifies Kaveny’s column as the “latest in a disturbing trend…in the Catholic commentariat, namely to treat the church in a kind of cavalier manner, as though it’s one voluntary organization among many.” Throughout the video, he gives the impression that Kaveny doesn’t really care that these people are leaving the church. According to Barron, Kaveny
argues that many Catholics are leaving the church, and that is true–the numbers are rather disturbing. But she says that many are doing it in good conscience…for good reasons. They’re angry at the church for various reasons, and they have left. And the bishops, she says, should be concerned about this not because it’s putting these people in spiritual danger but rather because the bishops should now reconsider a number of church teachings–about gay marriage or about artificial contraception or whatever–that would then bring these people back.
Not quite. This is what Kaveny wrote: “Like many Catholics, they have long doubted the wisdom of elements of church teaching on matters of sexual morality (contraception and gay marriage, for example) or gender roles (the all-male priesthood).” She does not write that bishops shouldn’t worry about such people because leaving the church carries no spiritual consequences, or that bishops should change certain church teachings in order to bring back defectors. That Barron suggests otherwise strikes me as bizarre, but it’s typical of the way he misreads the rest of this short piece. Kaveny is describing the decisions of devout Catholics to worship in other Christian churches. She is not endorsing those decisions.
Barron goes on to highlight ”a disturbing sort of hinge to Kaveny’s argument–namely that the church is relatively dispensable. She would say that people can leave a church really for good reason, and they’re doing it much more easily than their parents or grandparents because they’ve accepted the teaching that God’s grace is available everywhere and not simply within the Catholic Church.” This reminds him of Martin Luther, “who conceived the church as kind of a voluntary organization. What really matters is you’re justified by grace and faith, your relationship with Jesus, and then if you find the right church that helps you and so on, that’s fine. But it’s more or less a matter of indifference what church you belong to.”
Perhaps Kaveny “would say” there can be good reasons to leave the church, but she doesn’t quite say that in the column. (Never mind that Martin Luther was anything but religiously indifferent, and that Anabaptists, Protestants, and Catholics believed they were involved in a life-and-death struggle over religious truth as embodied in particular forms and communities of worship.) Nor does she say that leaving the church is “a matter of peripheral concern,” as Fr. Barron puts it.
Much of Kaveny’s column describes the way such Catholics have responded to the sexual-abuse scandal. Fr. Barron acknowledges the damaging effects of the crisis.
Have there been awfully bad responses to the sex-scandal? Yes. Where there some priests who did terrible things in the sex-abuse scandal? Yes. Was the recent Vatican statement [seeming to equate sexual abuse with women's ordination] impossibly bad public relations? Yes. Are any of these good reasons for leaving the Catholic Church? No…. Can we recognize problems, insufficiencies, fallings away from the ideal–yes, yes, yes. We can see all that in the Catholic Church, but it’s never a good reason to leave the church. We can’t treat it as one voluntary organization among many. “Yeah, that works for you, it doesn’t work for me. Yeah, it worked for me for a time, now it doesn’t.”
To close, Fr. Barron recounts an exchange between Hans Kung and Henri de Lubac during Vatican II. As the two theologians were walking to a council session, Kung shared his frustrations with the institutional church. They approached the steps of St. Peter’s, de Lubac turned to Kung and said, “But she is still our mother.” Barron concludes: “We can’t treat her as ‘take it or leave it’…. No, the church is the place where we find the fullness of life, and that always has to be emphasized.”
Yet it is precisely because these Catholics share de Lubac’s view that they are in such pain. They don’t deny that the church is their mother. They feel betrayed by her. Fr. Barron has no reason to believe their decision to leave the church was “a matter of peripheral concern.”
If we are going to call the sexual-abuse crisis a “scandal,” then we’re going to have to come to terms with what makes it a scandal. Fr. Barron doesn’t need me to instruct him on the theological import of that term. At the heart of the abuse crisis is a tragic fact: men who were ordained to nourish their people’s faith have been responsible for destroying it. It is one thing for Kung and de Lubac to debate a theological point on the steps of St. Peter’s. It is quite another for victims to figure out how to continue worshiping in a faith community that enabled their abuse. Victims’ friends and family–and many Catholics who have thought deeply about the scandal–face a similar challenge. They find it hard to grasp how such a church can provide “the fullness of life.” They worry that their kids aren’t safe. It’s not that they’re working from an attitude of ecclesial indifference. They haven’t been shown why staying matters.
The importance of making that case is something both Kaveny and Barron can agree on.