I try to write about things I care about, and apparently I still care about the Catholic Church. I can’t let it go. I was raised a Catholic. I have been a struggling Catholic, a fallen-off Catholic, a comeback Catholic, and several times an angry Catholic. I once thought myself a former Catholic, but there’s really no such thing.
I have been called a “cafeteria Catholic” by strident Catholics who believe you don’t get to pick what doctrine you follow. You can’t be a real Catholic, they say, unless you believe the pope infallible. Therefore, if you believe that women should be allowed to receive the sacrament of holy orders, if you believe priests should be allowed to receive the sacrament of marriage, then you should seek a spiritual life elsewhere — the Catholic version of Christ is not for you.
Those attitudes, combined with a general trend away from organized religion, have contributed mightily to widespread alienation from the church in the United States. In the 1950s, weekly church attendance was as high as 75 percent. Recent research by Pew and Gallup show fewer than four in 10 Catholics attend church in any given week, and, despite his popularity, Pope Francis has not reversed that trend. A few years ago, Pew found that six times as many American Catholics leave the church as convert to it, noting that “no other religious group experienced anything close to this ratio of losses-to-gains.”
I have not so far mentioned the priest sexual-abuse scandal. It has delivered crushing blows to the faithful, as more Catholics — particularly those of us who had become ambivalent about the church because of its short-sighted, homophobic and misogynistic doctrines — fell off with each new report of abuse. The church in which we grew up had been run by prelates who were negligent, indifferent or criminally engaged in coverups.
Few things in life have been as emotionally painful as the sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. I was never victimized by the monsignor and curates I served, 50 years ago, as an altar boy in a parish in the Archdiocese of Boston. But you have not experienced a true gut punch until, many years on, your elderly mother, an ardent Catholic, calls you in tears to ask if Father So-and-So ever touched you.
So here we are in Baltimore, with the 2018 U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops coming to a close without having tackled the main item on its agenda — augmenting its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People with a policy for complaints of sexual abuse by bishops. Clearly, that was one of the main reasons the abuse went on for so long — pastors, bishops and cardinals shuffling priests they knew to be predators from parish to parish, from diocese to diocese. In exposing a massive problem in Pennsylvania over many decades, a grand jury this year implicated the late archbishop of Baltimore, Cardinal William Keeler, alleging that, while bishop of Harrisburg in the 1980s, he, too, failed to stop priests who had abused children.
Reportedly, the Baltimore conference was ready to take action on this front, but at the last minute the Vatican told the bishops to hold off until yet another conference takes place in Rome in February.
So much for urgency, so much for what some considered “the most consequential bishops’ gathering in 16 years,” so much for a timely show of empathy for hundreds of victims, so much for signaling to fallen-off Catholics that they’re wanted back in the church.
The longer this goes on, the longer it takes to heal, and the longer it will be before the American church can recover from a crisis that has inflicted so much damage and turned off — in many cases, for good — Catholics once happy to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist, Catholics once (and still) proud of the church’s mission to educate children, to feed and clothe the poor, to comfort immigrants and refugees. The American bishops should have done the right thing before they left town. They could have stood up to the Vatican, adopted a code of conduct, as proposed, and embraced a lay commission to investigate allegations in the future.
And, while breaking new ground, how about addressing other issues? How about listening to your flock? Going back to the most recent Pew study: Six in 10 American Catholics say they think the church should allow priests to marry and allow women to become priests. Nearly half want the church to recognize the marriages of gay and lesbian couples.
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But I have to stop here. Because there really is no stomach for such talk. Look at what happened to the bishops in Baltimore: Stopped in their tracks from doing what should have been done, and no inclination to defy orders. It was a reminder of a sad reality — that, even without the sexual-abuse crisis, the church remains constrained by the Vatican, burdened by divisive, self-defeating doctrines of exclusion, and likely to become smaller and even less relevant.