They say you can’t be neutral on a moving train, and if recent developments on the American political scene have demonstrated anything, it’s that the Catholic Church is a train headed in a pretty distressing direction: away from equality and social justice, and set on a collision course with the wall of separation between church and state.
As if the child abuse scandals from the last several decades and the complicity and cover-ups that seemed to reach to the highest levels of the Church weren’t enough, now there’s the crackdown on American nuns who, in their commitment to social justice and helping the poor, have been accused by U.S. priests and bishops of straying too far from sanctioned Church doctrine and not spending enough time denouncing feminists and gays. It’s also clear that pressure from Catholic religious leaders plays a large role in the Republicans’ “war on women” and some of the recent bills proposed to restrict access to birth control and health care for women, all in the name of religious freedom. For those of us who have been keeping an uneasy eye on the socially conservative, theologically strict and consistently anti-feminist Pope Benedict XVI since his appointment seven years ago, this most recent response of the Catholic Church really comes as no surprise.
And so it’s no real surprise that there’s push-back from atheists, secularists and humanists who’ve about had it with an antiquated, patriarchal hierarchy trying to actively interfere with the democratic processes of government. The anger and disgust is clear in a recent, full-page ad run in the Washington Post by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, asking “liberal” and “nominal” Catholics to quit the Church once and for all:
It’s time to quit the Roman Catholic Church. Will it be reproductive freedom, or back to the Dark Ages? Do you choose women and their rights, or Bishops and their wrongs? Whose side are you on? […] The Church that hasn’t persuaded you to shun contraception now wants to use the force of secular law to deny birth control to non-Catholics. You’re better than your church, so why stay? Why put up with an institution that discriminates against half of humanity?
The language of the FFRF ad is harsh, and in many ways it over-reaches when it turns from criticisms of the Church as an institution to mockery of religious belief in general. In an editorial response, E.J. Dionne writes that he is not planning on quitting the Catholic Church any time soon, and he dismisses many of the ad’s arguments as just the “usual criticism” that liberal Catholics face, saying:
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 lay people who have devoted their lives to the poor and the marginalized.
Like the FFRF ad, Dionne makes no distinction between the Church as an institution and Catholicism as a religion, and his commitment to the latter means that he’s a part of the former, come hell, high water, or anti-feminist disciplinary crackdown on the very sisters and lay people whom he credits for inspiring his Catholic faith.
But Dionne’s response weakens when he tries to tackle the most interesting challenge presented in the ad, the belief that liberals, by remaining part of the Catholic Church, can help change the Church from within:
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.
With more than a little snark, Dionne calls out the ad for its overuse of unnecessary quotation marks and off-handedly dismisses the accusation of being an enabler almost as if he doesn’t know what enabling looks like (like, say, dismissing criticisms of destructive behavior on superficial grounds such as grammar or tone). Yet for all his disagreement, Dionne doesn’t offer a single practical way in which liberal Catholics can successfully challenge, from within, the extreme conservative direction that today’s Church is heading.
Dionne’s best attempt is to recall the somewhat-feminist leanings of Pope John XXIII, who wrote in a 1963 papal encyclical that “far from being content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regarded as a kind of instrument, [women] are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.” Yet in that same encyclical, Pope John XXIII wrote that while a man “has the inherent right not only to be given the opportunity to work, but also to be allowed the exercise of personal initiative in the work he does” — “women must be accorded such conditions of work as are consistent with their needs and responsibilities as wives and mothers.” Hardly the ringing endorsement of gender equality and self-determination for women that Dionne might lead us to believe.
But even if it were, his attempt to challenge the conservative Church from within consists of little more than “wishing” that Catholic bishops were more familiar with Pope John XXIII and “wondering” if the bishops realize how their anti-feminist stance strengthens the Church’s adversaries. Neither of these seem to be very effective or practical — let alone very compassionate towards women who have more at stake than whether or not Catholicism beats secularism in a popularity contest. Dionne himself acknowledges that these are by no means new criticisms of the Church, but fails to wonder why such criticisms are on-going if the liberal challenge from within were really all that effective. All the more discouraging is that American women religious, who might be the best example of liberal Catholics challenging the Church from within its own ranks, are getting a very real taste of how Church leadership responds when that internal challenge becomes too effective and wide-spread.
In the end, Dionne never actually addresses what is perhaps the most important point of the FFRF ad. Much of the Church’s political power derives from the sheer number of Catholics who count themselves members of the Church even when Church leaders do not really represent their views at all. In fact, representing the views of lay Catholics isn’t even in the job description. The Catholic Church is not, and never has been, a representative democracy.
Politicians looking to score votes and gain support see one massive block of well-financed power consolidated in the hands of a few conservative male leaders who dictate religious doctrine and ethics for millions. They form political alliances and propose religiously conservative legislation with that view of the Church in mind…. and they do so because, for the most part, it works.
One example of why it works is the Manhattan Declaration. Sponsored by conservative Christian leaders back in 2009, it was intended to “rejuvenate the political alliance of conservative Catholics and evangelicals that dominated the religious debate during the administration of President George W. Bush” and to call President Obama’s attention to the “formidable force” that this conservative religious alliance has in pushing for anti-women and anti-gay legislation. As of today, the Manhattan Declaration has more 525,000 signatures.
A similar petition proposed by liberal Christians to counter the Manhattan Declaration and to affirm support for equal rights for all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation…. sputtered to a pathetic halt with less than 3,000 signatures.
This is too often what Catholic liberal resistance looks like. Trying to stay neutral on a moving train.
Though my own journey away from the Catholic Church culminated in a definitive break more than eight years ago, when it became known that a close family friend had suffered from on-going sexual abuse as a child at the hands of a trusted Catholic priest, my journey began much earlier than that. My devotion to the ideals of Christ — peace, social justice, care for the poor and the marginalized, the law of love — led me in search of a deeper spiritual authenticity that, according to the standards of today’s Catholic Church, had led me far astray from sanctioned Church doctrine long before I ceased to call myself Catholic.
In many ways, the Catholic Church abandoned me years before I finally woke up to the fact and left of my own accord. For years, I struggled with the feeling of being a solitary Catholic liberal crying out in the wilderness. Like Dionne, I felt beleaguered by atheists and secularists on the one side of me, criticizing Catholicism for being a monolithic monstrosity of backwards-looking conservative patriarchy, while on the other side of me were many of my fellow Catholics striving to make the Church exactly that. I braced myself against the notion of being an example of everything that a Catholic could be — open-minded, intelligent, and feminist while still being devoted to the basic teachings of the Church.
But eventually, the cognitive dissonance and the sense of betrayal were too much to bear. Unlike Dionne, I am a woman — and for that reason alone, no matter how devoted I remained to the church, I would never be welcomed into the halls of power. The efficacy of my “challenge from within” was inherently and irrevocably restricted. And though I valued loyalty and honored the traditions of my family deeply, I also came to realize that one of the Catholic Church’s most basic teachings — the teaching on which the whole damn structure hangs — is that hierarchy and inequality are divinely sanctioned.
I didn’t leave the Church because I no longer believed in Christ, or the sacred mystery of love, or the importance of religious community, or the valuable insights from Catholic theologians, saints and mystics in the past. I left because I no longer believed in the Church as a just or ethical socio-political institution. As my brilliant stepdaughter recently pointed out, “You don’t give any one leader a lot of power just because he seems like a good guy, because you never know whether or not the next one who comes along is also going to be good.” We didn’t reject monarchy in favor of democracy because all kings were bad; we rejected it because the political institution of kingship was itself an opportunity for abuse and injustice.
The same theology of hierarchy and patriarchy that buttresses the current institution is also the reason why Dionne is not, despite what he apparently imagines, participating in a democratic and representative religious community in which liberals and conservatives vie for influence. Dionne might appeal to the slightly more liberal views of previous Popes, but the fact is, as a lay Catholic he has no part in the process of choosing who the next infallible leader of his religion will be. The Catholic Church is not an institution steered by consensus. Conservative Catholic leaders are in power: they’re laying the tracks and they’re at the wheel. Liberal Catholics are little more than passengers on this train and they will, as American nuns are now discovering, one day face the angry countenance of the conductor demanding to see their tickets.
This was a difficult piece to write. Many of my closest friends, not to mention family members, are Catholics, and I hold great sympathy for those who have remained members of the Church despite the scandals and abuses over the years. They possess a degree of devotion and loyalty that is admirable.
My hope is that their devotion is not misplaced. That they do not make an idol of the institution. That they have the wisdom to see the difference between Catholicism as a faith, and the Church as a socio-political construct, and that they do not compromise the one for the sake of up-holding the other. My hope is that they follow the example of their sisters and women religious, rather than the examples of their priests and bishops. And to be honest, I hope that, in doing so, they will dismantle and remake the Church as we know it.
Because if they don’t, the Catholic Church will die, because it deserves to die. And a great tradition will be lost.