Why We’re Still Catholics

Even a wrecked Church can't force us out of a rich faith, as much as some fundamentalists and dissenters alike might wish

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Before this month, there was just one Bill telling me to leave the Roman Catholic Church. That was Bill Donohue, the dyspeptic president of the conservative Catholic League. Donohue dislikes my commentary on the Catholic hierarchy because I believe, as do millions of other Catholics, that its penchant for misogynistic, homophobic and otherwise archaic doctrine — not to mention its appalling actions during the church sexual abuse scandal — isn’t just un-Christian but grossly un-Catholic as well. Donohue has suggested on his blog that I hit the theological door and join “any one of the mainline Protestant denominations.” Why, he fumes, “would [Padgett] want to stay? … Is he a phony or a masochist? … He is surely not being intellectually honest.”

But now another Bill — Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times — is imploring me to smell the incense and bolt the church. Not me directly, but Catholics like me (and himself) who deplore hoary and bigoted church policies like an all-male priesthood and the demonization of homosexuals. In his June 17 Times op-ed, Keller cites a line from Donohue’s new book — “I believe,” Donohue writes, “as Pope Benedict XVIth said just before he became pope, that maybe a smaller church would be a better church” — to help convince reformists that the Vatican wants us to hang up our rosaries and disappear. Change “is a lost cause,” Keller advises. “Summon your fortitude, and just go.”

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To both Bills I’d say: a wrecked church won’t force me out of a rich faith. By now, Catholics like me are used to a wide array of advisers — everyone from fundamentalist Catholics like Donohue to disaffected Catholics like Keller to atheists — warning us to get out of Rome. The calls grow louder whenever we hit another ugly sexual abuse milestone like last week’s conviction of Monsignor William Lynn in Philadelphia for endangering children by shielding alleged pedophile priests. I understand why the abuse scandal has moved many Catholics to leave the church; it’s at least partly responsible for the 5% decline in U.S. Catholic membership since 2000. But cases like Lynn’s, and less felonious examples of church arrogance like the controversial new English-language missal the Vatican has foisted on us, simply strengthen my resolve to stay.

Lynn is the first Catholic official convicted for protecting abusive priests — making it loud and clear that the vast hierarchical cover-up was as criminal as the abuse itself. Donohue and the Catholic fundamentalists insist, incredibly, that this whole sordid crisis is the result of homosexual priests run amok during the permissive, post-Vatican II era of the 1960s and 70s. But Lynn is the strongest reminder yet that the abuse scandal is a symptom of broader systemic rot in the church — decay born largely by the paranoid need to defend indefensible dogma — just as Jerry Sandusky’s abuse conviction (handed down the same day as Lynn’s guilty verdict) reflects a foul culture of delusion at Penn State.

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The new English-language missal, meanwhile, is widely derided by Catholic laity and clergy alike. These re-fashioned Mass prayers aren’t just jarring examples of bad translation — recent letters to the Jesuit magazine America call them “painful,” “stilted” and “designed to decrease participation in the liturgy” — but a prime example of the church asserting authority for the petty sake of asserting authority. By making the missal’s language tortuously truer to the original Latin — Jesus is now “consubstantial” with God — Rome hopes to remind Catholics in dangerously progressive English-speaking countries like the U.S. that the magisterium is still His Majesty.

But neither the hierarchy’s criminality nor its absurdity makes me want to leave Roman Catholicism. It just makes me all the more determined to remind the world that this dysfunctional institution that claims to speak for Catholicism in fact does not speak for Catholicism. That so many of that institution’s codes don’t represent the Christ-inspired exercise of human compassion, hope and reason that the Catholic faith most Catholics practice is based upon. As a citizen, I’m a committed American: I didn’t leave the U.S. when Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush were presidents. Likewise, as a person of faith, I didn’t join the Catholic church 30 years ago because of the hierarchy, and I’m not going to leave it now because of the hierarchy.

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I’m hardly the first Catholic to take this stance. During the throes of the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, the Dutch priest Erasmus, a humanist giant, ridiculed the folly of the Catholic church but stuck with the grace of his Catholic faith. Today there’s Bridget Mary Meehan, who in defiance of the Vatican calls herself an ordained priest, part of the growing Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement. I asked her why she just doesn’t join the Episcopal church, which does ordain women: She insisted she wasn’t about to abandon a faith idiom she’s spoken all her life just because of a defective church. “We’re leading, not leaving, the church,” she told me.

The Womenpriests are actually part of Keller’s argument: If progressive Catholics want to keep practicing their faith, perhaps they should think more seriously about forming a splinter Catholic church, as Meehan and her cohort have essentially done, rather than risk legitimizing Rome’s antediluvian dogma by remaining in conventional parishes. It could come to that. But meanwhile, Catholics like me — and millions of Protestants, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists who also embrace their humane faiths even if they distrust their institutional hierarchies — plan to be intellectually, and spiritually, honest. Meaning, Mr. Donohue, you’re stuck with us.

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