Prey, Pay and Obey

Friend and colleague Colman McCarthy, a former Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington DC, and teaches courses on nonviolence at six area colleges and high schools. (He’s also a recovering Catholic.)

A critic of Roman Catholicism, calling it “200 years out of date” and in need of a “radical transformation,” scolded a few months ago that “the church is tired. Our culture has grown old, our churches are big and empty and the church bureaucracy rises up, our religious rites and the vestments we wear are pompous.”

The critic? Italian Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, his words uttered shortly before his death last August and quoted in The National Catholic Reporter. As the rulers of the church are conclaving in Rome to select another pope, if ever a moment was ripe for Catholics to bail and become ex-Catholics, surely it is now. Even without the laments of Cardinal Martini, the church’s current dysfunctions–a clergy rife with predatory pedophiles, a Vatican run into the ground by money scandals, papal intrigues—are the tailwinds blowing many of us out the door. Our ilk and its growing numbers—really growing if the latest polls on the exodus are right—have no ill will toward those who remain, from the blessed that Christ hailed in TheSermon on the Mount to the cloistered Trappistine nuns singing the Psalms of David in Gregorian Chant. What we wonder is why they can’t understand or accept that that Catholicism is a centralized membership organization.

Male-centered, male-run, secretive, undemocratic, authoritarian, not media-friendly—do popes stage press conferences?—and headquartered in Italy, church leaders require their members to obey the rules: in this case, the doctrines, dogmas and teachings of the organizational church as interpreted by empurpled prelates who are the governing body.

Liberal Catholics, flexuous, think well of some rules and balk at others. Their calls for women’s ordination, an end to mandatory celibacy and less theological rigidity go unheeded. Yet they keep calling, unwilling to see that belonging to the church is akin to membership in any group, from the National Rifle Association to the Augusta National Golf Club.

I clapped with reverential applause when American bishops instructed John Kerry, Patrick Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi, Tom Harkin, Pat Leahy, Joe Biden and other pro-choice Catholic politicians either to toe the line or get out of the communion line. Equally, I applaud those bishops who enjoy having in their flock such fine Catholics as Newt Gingrich, Antonin Scalia, John Roberts, Rick Santorum, Clarence Thomas, Paul Ryan, Jeb Bush, Pat Buchanan and other loyalists not carping for change.

If churchmen are going to be authoritarian, undemocratic and be sticklers for rules, do it with brimful gusto—as did Bishop Michael Sheridan in a pastoral letter to his 120,000 member flock of Colorado Springs, Colorado in the election year of 2004: “Anyone who professes the Catholic faith with his lips while at the same time supporting legislation or candidates that defy God’s law makes a mockery of that faith and belies his identity as a Catholic.” Gulp.

When E. J. Dionne  in The Washington Post—he says he is not leaving the church–slams the Vatican for being “pushed by right-wing American bishops” and calls them “men unaccustomed to being contradicted,” he appears not to understand, or stubbornly refuses to understand, that church politics differs from American politics. Monsignors, bishops and cardinals are appointed. Members of Congress are elected. Popes have no term limits, presidents do. No Freedom of Information Act assures transparency when reporters have a yen for sniffing out Vatican secrets. Churchmen are accountable to the Vatican, politicians to the voters and, before that, to bankrolling lobbyists.

Typecasting bishops as “right-wing” is futile, suggesting as it does that the church has “left-wing” bishops. Occasionally one does emerge—Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit is one, the late Walter Sullivan of Richmond another—but their liberal views were seen as anything but divinely inspired by fellow prelates. Portraying the hierarchy as stonewallers because they don’t and won’t conform to liberal versions of what ecclesial leadership should be doesn’t have a prayer of persuading anyone who understands the current inner workings of Rome. Its credo remains: pray, pay and obey.

For frustrated Catholics who decline to genuflect, it isn’t as if other outlets for spiritual growth aren’t available. The Encyclopedia of World Religions counts some 10,200 organized faiths, from Abyssinian Animism to Zoroastrianism. Just shop around for a faith that’s democratic, not monarchical or hierarchical, not given to pageantry and welcoming to all genders, bents and tics. If by some miracle Catholicism begins moving in a direction, i.e., embracing the pre-Augustan and pre-Aquinas early church commitments to pacifism, nonviolence and non-cooperation with assorted just war warriors, I’ll be back. Meanwhile I’m looking into The Church of What’s Happening Now.

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