Recently, a group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation ran a full-page ad in the Washington Post cast as an "open letter to 'liberal' and 'nominal' Catholics." Its headline commanded: "It's Time to Quit the Catholic Church."
The ad included the usual criticism of Catholicism, but I was most struck by this paragraph: "If you think you can change the church from within -- get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research -- you're deluding yourself. By remaining a 'good Catholic,' you are doing 'bad' to women's rights. You are an enabler. And it's got to stop."
My, my. Putting aside the group's love for unnecessary quotation marks, it was shocking to learn that I'm an "enabler" doing "bad" to women's rights. But Catholic liberals get used to these kinds of things. Secularists, who never liked Catholicism in the first place, want us to leave the church, but so do Catholic conservatives who want the church all to themselves.
I'm sorry to inform the FFRF that I am declining its invitation to quit. They may not see the Gospel as a liberating document, but I do, and I can't ignore the good done in the name of Christ by the sisters, priests, brothers and laypeople who have devoted their lives to the poor and the marginalized.
And on women's rights, I take as my guide that early feminist, Pope John XXIII. In Pacem in Terris, his encyclical issued in 1963, the same year Betty Friedan published "The Feminine Mystique," Pope John spoke of women's "natural dignity."
"Far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument," he wrote, "they are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons."
I'd like the FFRF to learn more about the good Pope John, but I wish our current bishops would think more about him, too. I wonder if the bishops realize how some in their ranks have strengthened the hands of the church's adversaries (and disheartened many of the faithful) with public statements -- including that odious comparison of President Barack Obama to Hitler by a Peoria prelate last month -- that threaten to shrink the church into a narrow, conservative sect.
Do the bishops notice how often those of us who regularly defend the church turn to the work of the nuns on behalf of charity and justice to prove Catholicism's detractors wrong? Why in the world would the Vatican, apparently pushed by right-wing American bishops, think it was a good idea to condemn the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the main organization of nuns in the United States?
The Vatican's statement, issued last month, seemed to be the revenge of conservative bishops against the many nuns who broke with the hierarchy and supported health care reform in 2010. The nuns insisted, correctly, that the health-care law did not fund abortion. This didn't sit well with men unaccustomed to being contradicted, and the Vatican took the LCWR to task for statements that "disagree with or challenge positions taken by the bishops."
Oh yes, and the nuns are also scolded for talking a great deal about social justice and not enough about abortion (as if the church doesn't talk enough about abortion already). But has it occurred to the bishops that less stridency might change more hearts and minds on this very difficult question?
A thoughtful friend recently noted that carrying a child to term is an act of overwhelming generosity. For nine months, a woman gives her body to another life, not to mention the rest of her years. Might the bishops consider that their preaching on abortion would have more credibility if they treated women in the church, including nuns, with the kind of generosity they are asking of potential mothers? They might usefully embrace a similar attitude toward gays and lesbians.
Too many bishops seem in the grip of dark suspicions that our culture is moving at breakneck speed toward a demonic end. Pope John XXIII, by contrast, was more optimistic about the signs of the times.
"Distrustful souls see only darkness burdening the face of the earth," he once said. "We prefer instead to reaffirm all our confidence in our Savior who has not abandoned the world which he redeemed." The church best answers its critics when it remembers that its mission is to preach hope, not fear.
E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).