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

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

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Published in the 2010-10-22 issue: View Contents
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