Long Goodbye

WHY SOME DEVOUT CATHOLICS ARE LEAVING THE CHURCH

Several Catholics I know and respect have recently chosen to worship in other Christian churches as a matter of conscience. I doubt that Pope Benedict XVI will move heaven and earth to accommodate their concerns, as he has done for Lefebvrists and traditionalist Anglicans. Still, I think he and other members of the hierarchy ought to be worried.

The Catholics I have in mind aren’t teenagers or sexual libertines. They stand among society’s caretakers; two are legal professionals whose vocation requires them to articulate or enforce basic norms of justice. If a conservative is defined as someone dedicated to preserving a society’s basic values, they are staunch conservatives.

Thirty years ago, devout Catholics like these friends of mine would have stayed in the church to fight or to suffer, or maybe both. What has changed? Why are they and others like them leaving? After talking with a number of people in their situation, here’s what I see.

Leaving the Catholic Church is possible for these cradle Catholics in a way that it wasn’t for their grandparents and parents. They have been taught and believe that God’s saving grace is everywhere, not merely within the structure of the Roman Catholic Church. They emphasize the generosity of a loving God, who would not refuse anyone whose knee bends at the name of his Son. So they believe that they will remain within Christ’s church, even as they loosen their ties with the Catholic communion.

They worry that in important ways the Catholic Church is not acting like Christ’s church now. 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). But for two reasons they were content to wait, praying and hoping for change. First, they trusted in the basic good sense and good faith of the church leadership. Second, they were confident in the general trajectory of the post–Vatican II church, which they assumed was solidly based in the teaching of the council, especially the council’s statements on ecumenism, episcopal collegiality, and the role and spiritual dignity of the laity.

Needless to say, their faith in church leadership has also been badly shaken by the sexual-abuse crisis.

For some, frustration boiled over after the Vatican released a statement that seemed ineptly to equate as sacramental crimes the sexual abuse of minors and any attempt to ordain women. For the women I spoke with this supposed PR gaffe raised once again the deep suspicion that among those at the highest levels of the church hierarchy there remains a deep, visceral, and seemingly inexpungable disrespect for—and even fear of—women.

These Catholics see no hope of institutional reform. The pope largely views the sexual-abuse crisis as a problem of individual sinfulness, not of broader flaws in church teaching and practices. Vatican II is fast becoming a ceiling for reform, not a floor for reform, as the emphasis increasingly falls on interpreting it in continuity with the Council of Trent in the liturgical, political, and moral realms. As we saw in the fracas over the health-care reform bill, key members of the U.S. hierarchy are calling for loyal deference to ecclesiastical authority even on matters Vatican II recognized to be within the competence of the laity, such as the technical meaning of a complicated piece of legislation.

In the end, most people are what some ethicists call evidence-based virtue theorists. They think that if you cannot get the answer to a basic moral problem right, your advice on more complicated issues will not be reliable. The inability of the hierarchy to grasp immediately the basic injustice of clergy sexual abuse undermines their claim to wisdom on difficult and divisive issues of sexual ethics. To some people, the conjoining of women’s ordination and sexual abuse showed that the hierarchy was not merely bumbling in its approach to these issues, but twisted in its ultimate presuppositions about what the real threats facing the church today are.

From the perspective of these Catholics, doctrine and practice are not developing but withering. But why not stay and fight? First, because they think remaining appears to involve complicity in evil; second, because fighting appears to be futile; and, third, because they don’t like what fighting is doing to them. The fight is diminishing their ability to hear the gospel and proclaim that good news. The fight is depriving them of the peace of Christ.

The challenge to Commonweal Catholics, then, is coming now from two sides. We have long been in conversation with other Catholics in the pews. But what do we say to Catholics who have abandoned the pews as a matter of conscience?


Related: Further Adrift, by Peter Steinfels; "Excommunicate Me, Please," from dotCommonweal

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" Vatican II recognized to be within the competence of the laity, such as the technical meaning of a complicated piece of legislation.'

So where is the vast increase in abortion funding and abortions that was predicted by the bishops if  the evil health care bill was passed??? Next spring maybe the bishops will give the few Tea Party wackos who may be elected the credit for keeping the fictitious abortion funding at bay. I predict a few bishops will embrace the Tea Partiers which is not a big deal, but the silence of the other 300 about this embrace will be a big deal at least to me and mine.

 

Thank you, Cathleen.  I've heard the reasons you give from friends also:

"First, because they think remaining appears to involve complicity in evil; second, because fighting appears to be futile; and, third, because they don’t like what fighting is doing to them. The fight is diminishing their ability to hear the gospel and proclaim that good news. The fight is depriving them of the peace of Christ."

Are these offered as moral justifications?  Or are they assertions of burn out--inability to cope emotionally?  I can understand the latter, but I have a hard time accepting them as moral justification.  The first reason: To go along lifelessly with church practices that are inconsistent with the Gospel would surely be complicit, but to stay in the church and oppose those practices is not to be complicit.  Doesn't baptism as a Christian within the Catholic tradition give us some responsibility to direct the tradition in the way of Christ? The evil will go on even if the morally sensitive withdraw.  As to futility of reform, who has been working at it in large scale and strategically effective form?   The people planning the American Catholic Council in Detroit in the spring of 2011 are having a go at it.  Why not join some effort like that?  If we are the Church, every effort we make to organize others to make change counts. I can't see the futility argument.  Undertaking some organizing effort with others who are led by the Spirit can be done with joy, peace, hope, courage. Lots of professionals know how to help with keeping the spirit intact.  These three reasons suffice only if there is no value in making the institution work.  Am I way off base here?      

What do we say to those who leave the Church as a matter of conscience? How about:

We respect your position, for it has not been easy for you to get to this place. Let's continue to love one another because you are still important to us. Peace. 

Thank you, Carol. Good points, to which I suggest adding:

Please pray for our Church! As we as Church heal and grow, please open your hearts to the possibility of a future where you and those with you might act as a bridge to unity.

>> What do we say to those who leave the Church as a matter of conscience? How about:

>> We respect your position, for it has not been easy for you to get to this place. Let's continue to love one another because you are still important to us. Peace. 

 

We need to weep with them. We need to listen to their steadfast cries for reform and renewal. We need to continuously offer reconciliation and dialogue. We need to be thankful they are not 'lukewarm' but passionate about the gospel and its proclamation. We can also pray for a breakthrough - perhaps a new council and movement of the Spirit.

Thanks Cathleen for your article. You express what is in my heart too many days and weeks. I stay because the Catholic church is my church, but I also despair of it changing in the ways I think it must to grow and thrive rather than shrink and shrivel. As Peter reports in this issue, we have lost 1/3 of our members. Not all leave out of a reflective act of conscience you describe, others drift away. But they are gone and we are poorer for their leaving.

I can only continue to pray for our future while I do what I can to stay true to the Catholic faith. A faith that our church only occasionally embodies these days.

To our brothers and sisters who must leave:

We understand, but we will miss you.  Our Church is diminished by your leaving...

 

Reading  Long Goodbye  and then Peter Steinfel's piece Further Adrift  in the same issue, October 22,  one is tempted to both thank Commonweal and weep. Thanks go for the acknowledgement of this hemorrhage - an experience most of us have lived through family and friends.  Having worked in Church reform for almost 30 years, I am sometimes tempted to lose hope that I will ever  see a renewed Church.  Those who have studied Church history over its 2,000 year life know that despite all the efforts of humans to twist, destroy and ignore the core beliefs,  it survives,  somehow.  Perhaps it will in those courageous, forward thinking, homily blessed, justice practicing scattered communities clinging to life in the world.  Or as Peter Steinfels  questions in his final sentence "Is it possible some bishop might mention this at their November meeting?" Dare we hope that this could ever happen?   I think not.  We have lost the brightest and most courageous. 

A 76 year old “cradle Catholic, I almost cried when I read this article  because I was so grateful to the author and  Commonweal for finally addressing the reasons some of us left – “as a matter of conscience.”

After five years of holding our VOTF meetings in an Episcopal Church (2002-2007) because we were forbidden to meet in our own parish in Gloucester, MA, I was tired of being angry at bishops who declared “zero tolerance” against priests while ignoring their own complicity in sexual crimes against children and tired of being angry at people who didn’t share my anger.

I didn’t leave because of clergy abuse, however.  I left in 2004 when a few bishops declared that John Kerry and those who voted for him should not receive Holy Communion.   I believe that abortion is just about the worst thing any woman can do to herself and her unborn child, but the audacity of Catholic Bishops interfering in a national election was the last straw.

Around that time, I went to a local Episcopal Church for a funeral and after hearing a woman priest say, “In the Episcopal Church, all baptized Christians can receive the Eucharist,” I made an 8-day retreat and continue to receive Holy Communion every Sunday in that church.

I am not an Episcopalian.  When it comes to politics in Church or State, I’m an Independent who doesn’t believe in litmus tests for the Eucharist and will no longer allow anyone to “diminish my ability to hear the gospel and proclaim that good news” or deprive me “of the peace of Christ.”

Thank you, Commonweal and Cathleen Kaveny.

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About the Author

Cathleen Kaveny is the Darald and Juliet Libby Professor in the Theology Department and Law School at Boston College.