A Church We Can Believe In

Before Archbishop Timothy Dolan becomes a cardinal next weekend, he will deliver a speech to the Pope and other Vatican luminaries regarding “evangelization and lapsed Catholics.” Back in the United States, Dolan has led the charge against the Obama administration’s decision to require that hospitals, universities, and other institutions that serve the general public but have a religious charter grant their employees access contraception. Dolan’s choice of speech topics in Rome suggests what may really be motivating his decision back home is to stir the contraception controversy. At a time when the scale and influence of the Catholic Church in America is in rapid decline, there’s nothing like a “war on religion” to rally your troops.

None other than Pat Buchanan outlined the decline of Catholicism in America. In 1965, there were 58,000 priests in America. By 2020, it’s projected there will be only 31,000 left, most over the age of 70. In 1965, only 1 percent of parishes didn’t have a priest. In 2002, 15 percent of parishes were priest-less. Almost half of Catholic high schools in the United States have closed since 1965 and parochial school attendance has fallen from 4.5 million in 1965 to below two million in 2002.

And those numbers all came out before the clergy sex-abuse scandal hit the front pages. In a 2010 poll, 58 percent of Catholics (and 66 percent of the general public) said they felt the Church was doing a “poor” job handling the scandals. According to the same poll, one in five Catholics said the Vatican’s handling of the situation left them feeling more negatively about the Church. Only 4 percent felt more positive. 

Meanwhile, on February 2, lawyers filed claims representing over 550 alleged abuse victims in the Milwaukee Archdiocese—which had already filed for bankruptcy from the previous inundation of claims. The following day, Dolan and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released one of its first public statements opposing the original contraception mandate. Of course, this is just a coincidence, but one that illustrates the incredible convenience for the Church of stoking this particular controversy at a time when a much more grave controversy keeps threatening the Church’s very existence.

Although deeply misguided, it’s clear why Republicans are trying to score political points by accusing Obama of launching a “war on religious freedom." The GOP has hung its electoral hopes on taking Obama’s widely popular policy measures and economic achievements and misrepresenting through associations with unpopular notions. Catholics, however, generally support Obama. Archbishop Dolan has had a warm, if not always aligned, relationship with the president (for example, this). So to read the Catholic leadership’s pushback on contraception as merely alignment with party politics is mistaken. It goes without saying that a significant motivation for the clergy are deeply held concerns about the morality of contraception. But the Church has plenty such concerns. Why go to the mat on this one? The Catholic Health Association and Catholic Charities, two of the main Catholic groups that will be affected by the decision, accepted the compromise. Why is the Church still fighting?

As a former community organizer, I can’t help but look at what the Catholics are doing here less through the lens of base building. As an organization, the Catholic Church is in decline. And there’s nothing like feeling (or creating a feeling of being) under attack to revive the bonds of association.

And, citing Pat Buchanan writings on the matter, a majority of Catholics believe that a woman can have an abortion and still remain a good Catholic. And as other studies have shown, 98 percent of Catholic women of reproductive age have used contraception, directly going against Church teachings. And now, by large margins—including a two-to-one margin among women—Catholics support the president’s “accommodation” with religious groups. Through the eyes of the Church, this is not just a threat to the sanctity of life. This is a threat to the authority of the Catholic Church in America.

Maybe instead of preparing a speech lecturing lapsed Catholics about their spiritual infidelity, Archbishop Dolan should examine his faith’s lack of fidelity to the modern needs of its followers. A religion that seems more interested in protecting abstract beliefs about conception than the very real health and well-being of women, that seems far more faithful to doctrine than science, that protects abusive priests while preaching against the sexual freedom of others, might feel marginalized not by any presidential administration but rather by its own narrow theology. The Catholic Church attempting to reassert its authority by hammering on the very sort of antiquated, anti-contraception dogma that has alienated so many people of faith is about as strategic as trying to win an election by alienating women voters.

 

Comments

I'm exactly the guy the bishops want back: I left the church 1993, having discovered its work aiding and abetting WWII war crimes in Yugoslavia against Orthodox Serbs and then smuggling Nazis 1944-1989, if you include the likes of Paul Touvier, the French Nazi collaborated hidden for decades in a Nice monastery. My disgust is simple: the bishops for centuries have thought themselves above civil/criminal law. This point was hammered home in the Cleveland sex abuse scandals, when lawyers for one victim discovered the canon law memoranda *encouraging* bishops to hide evidence from investigating lay authorities as a defense against scandal. This latest PR binge is absolutely designed to slam the door on some 30 years of bad press. It won't work. What's missing in all this is money: donations to church work above streetcorner alms (meaning helping those in one's own community or parish or the missions abroad) are off as precipitously as priestly vocations. And the nuns? Forget it. The Church has a massive recruitment issue on its hands, esp having lost the 'liberation theology' wars in South and Central America, where the Protestant evangelical churches are having a field day recruiting amongst the poor in particular. I believe the sticking point is neither celibacy nor contraception, both of which are clearly PR nightmares. No: the real sticking point is papal infallibility, the prop holding up a truly apostolic church. So long as the Roman curia is running the show (the tipping point will be another radical papacy, perhaps under an African pope), the circus will continue. Old white men, hanging on for dear life. When I think of the fervor of the church I remember as a kid (c1960), when you couldn't get a seat at Mass and there were six, seven Masses every Sunday...go figure. It's tragic...and utterly deserved. The Church, so long Communism's enemy, has, rather like capitalism, not done so well without the focus of a clear enemy. Now, it seems, the Church has to manufacture its enemies, just to hit the media cycle.

I don't disagree with anything you say, but I think that chances of a "radical papacy" e.g. Pope John XXIII, are nil. John Paul spent decades putting conservatives in place. There a few if any liberal cardinals or bishops. Having been raised a Catholic in the '50s and '60s, I can remember the excitement of Vatican II. But now it is ancient history and a fading memory of the old and disillusioned. If you want real reform and relevancy from the Roman Catholic Church, you should pray for a miracle, as Thomas More recommends at the beginning of A Man For All Seasons. However, he did not get one.

I don't think the Church's moral distraction from the Milwaukee suit will help in drawing the flock back to their empty pews.

Do the Bishops ever stop to realize their battle against the proposed birth control insurance requirement will alienate a huge pluality of American Catholics and drive another million or so from the Church altogether ? So what is the real motive at work here? Do these senior Churchmen see their role in American society diminishing too quickly. Does the curruption of power apply to the elders of the Catholic Church also?

It has alientated me. Not only on this issue, but the role of women in the church in general. These old men need to wisen up.

War on religion? Don’t make me laugh. The Republicans and Tea-publicans need a big distraction from the sorry set of presidential candidates that they have fielded. And the churches need a big distraction from all those costly court settlements - a way to rally their dispirited troops, in a a fake “war on religion”. One of the legitimate functions of government is to promote equality and fairness for all, by having everyone play by the same rules. Absolutely NO ONE is coming into our Churches and trying to tell parishioners what to believe...or forcing them to use contraception. BUT If the Bishops (and other denominations) want to start businesses that employ millions of people of varying faiths -or no "faith" at all- THEN they must play by the rules that other workers live by. ..ESPECIALLY if the churches use our tax dollars in the process.  Just because a religious group in America claims to believe something, we cannot excuse them from obeying the law in the PUBLIC arena, based on that belief. They can legally attempt to change the law, not to deny it outright. And if they want to plunge overtly into politics from the pulpit, then they should give up their tax-exempt status. Are they churches, or are they super-pacs. They need to decide., or have the IRS decide for them. Did I miss something, or when it comes to the "sanctity of life", is every single righteous Catholic still a card carrying conscientious objector, still refusing to take up arms,  still totally against the death penalty, and still against contraception and birth-control in all its forms? Oh well, hypocrisy is often at the heart of politics, and politics masquerading as religion even more so. This country is an invigorating mixture of all the diversity that life has to offer, drawing its strength FROM that diversity. But TRUE religious freedom gives everyone the right to make personal decisions, including whether to use birth control, based on our own beliefs and according to what is best for our health and our families. It fiercely protects the rights of all of us to practice our faith. It does not, however, give anyone, including the bishops, the right to impose their beliefs on others and discriminate in the name of religious liberty. People of faith should not let themselves be used as pawns in a fake war “against religion”’. The ONLY war going on here is a war against women and families who want to control their own futures. THAT’S what I call liberty! It’s a war ...a war between the lies about religious liberty, and the truth. Don’t believe the hype! Think for yourself! Postcript: An interesting point to consider is this: Mitt Romney tried to score some points by telling us that his dad was born in Mexico. HOWEVER, the REASON for that was that his Mormon Grand-dad LEFT the US in the 1880’s because laws against polygamy were passed in the US (and being a Mormon, his Grand-dad wanted to keep his multiple wives). SO... if we follow the “logic” of the people crying crocodile tears about a non-existent war on religion”, then the US should have allowed polygamy (and who knows what else) just because a particular religion claimed it as their belief. GIVE ME A BREAK!

I was a former nun. Left the Church years ago. I think what we all have to realize is what is happening in the Church is much like that which is happening with the OWS protests. The Church is split into its outdated, hierarchal male imposed clergy and" THE CHURCH."....which is the people. And very important to remember is that most of the decrees and rules of the Church are not ex-cathedra (not based on an infallible decree of the Pope which must be obeyed) The belief that one's conscience is the final word prompts many Catholics to choose other than what the old men in Rome dictate. The "hierarchy is running scared of losing their power...more frightened of that then loosing members.

Extremely well said!

Except for the fact that the church is not "loosing" its members, it is plain and simple "LOSING" them.

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