Tikkun Magazine

Should I Return to the Catholic Church?

When Pope Francis recently remarked, “The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently,” he initiated widespread conversations among and about disaffected Catholics. His insistence that the dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent” challenged some, like me, to consider returning to the church.


Credit: Creative Commons.

My journey out of the church began when our parish priest convinced my mother she was still married in the eyes of the church years after her divorce from my father. Based on this counsel, she never dated or remarried. The advice left her lonely and without a partner for the better part of her adult life. Although I took Catholic Social Teaching with me, along with a deep appreciation for my pastor Father Doyle’s shepherding of a rowdy bunch of altar boys through their elementary school years, the church’s relative disinterest in peace and poverty drove me away in my teenage years. More recently, the Catholic leadership’s corporate-style management of the sex abuse scandal and its increasingly strident stance on contraception and marriage equality—and by extension tacit support for Republican politics and policy—turned my indifference toward the church into partisan disdain.

The church is an institution designed by humans, and most are prepared to forgive understandable flaws. A resolute commitment to doctrine can project a comforting strength, but sacrificing solidarity on the altar of partisan politics is a mistake; ignoring the difficult choices parishioners face and offering dogma when faced with suffering is too. Life is sacred, and abortion is the most difficult moral challenge of our lifetime. Francis can condemn it as a manifestation of a “throw-away culture,” a violation of the church’s deep commitment to life. However, as he argues against the corrupting materialism at the heart of modern life, two more dioceses in America declare bankruptcy in order to protect financial assets from the claims of grown-up sex abuse victims. The behavior of his church exposes an unacceptable hypocrisy.

The pope claims:

If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

Despite these words, however, the church evidences no such doubt or humility. The church deploys its institutional power to truncate reflection and discourse. When Providence College cancels a speaker advocating same-sex marriage, the message is clear. The church will not tolerate or engage doubt.

If Francis would have us believe that “the dynamic of reading the Gospel, actualizing its message for today—which was typical of Vatican II—is absolutely irreversible,” he will have to undertake substantive administrative efforts to change the repressive face of the church. Reexamining doctrine is no casual undertaking, but opening the boundaries of discourse, facilitating an open examination of how to live in the modern world should not be difficult.

On September 20, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops joined with groups such as The National Organization for Marriage and the Family Research Council to support the Marriage and Religious Freedom Act (H.R. 3133), which would prevent the federal government from taking any adverse action (such as denying non-profit tax status or excluding them from any federal program or grant) against individuals and institutions that cite religious grounds for committing acts of discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. The bishops stated:

This non-discrimination bill is significant, indeed, very important. It would prevent the federal government from discriminating against religious believers who hold to the principle that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. This is of fundamental importance, as increasingly such individuals and organizations are being targeted for discrimination by state governments—this must not spread to the federal government.

Such endorsements align the church with the most strident social conservative organizations in the country—alignments many cannot countenance.

As fear and concern about the lingering effects of the recent government shutdown and debt ceiling showdown spread across the United States, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston and Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore wrote to the House of Representatives about the “vital importance” of incorporating a conscience clause “into such ‘must-pass’ legislation” in order to allow Catholic organizations to exclude contraception from employee health insurance. The bishops make the evil of contraception more important to the church than the well-being of every other government program; they align with a tactic some consider a form of kidnapping. In this moment, the church is helping the state threaten the poor and vulnerable with violence, hunger, and exclusion. It has gone beyond abdicating the role of peacemaker, becoming complicit in state actions that exclude the marginal and powerless, taking food from the mouths of the hungry, and offering support to those using their economic power to exploit workers, women, and immigrants.

My latent wish for reconciliation is a surprise; it exposes the limits of a secular morality, while simultaneously confirming the importance of moral leadership, and a place for the church in my life. But, some two weeks after Francis spoke about moderation, it looks like the pithy warning in the title of Amanda Marcotte’s September 2013 Slate article was right: “Like All Your Other Crushes, Cool Pope Francis Will Let You Down.” Only a naïve reader would see institutional change and reconciliation in an interview. Doctrine and action matter.

What actions can the pope take that might bring me back to the church? He could start by removing every bishop and cardinal tarnished by the sex abuse scandal and showing mercy, caring, and generosity toward every child abused by clergy—even if such a policy impoverishes the church. He could focus on cultivating the moral conscience that good citizenship requires without making common cause with a strident, social conservatism that rejects reason and reconciliation. He could reinvigorate concern for the poor, the sick, and the elderly, provide education to those left out of secular systems, cultivate local communities, and ordain women. He could make the church a moral exemplar.

However, as long as the church is callous and self-serving, denies women and sexual minorities full personhood, and acts like other political actors, I cannot trust the church with the sacred; it lacks the moral authority to help me with my theological ambivalence or problems in living.

Pat Oles is an associate professor of social work at Skidmore College in New York.
tags: Christianity, Rethinking Religion