Forgive me for this parochial digression, but I will not be going to Mass this Easter Sunday.
You'll know why if you've been reading the papers. The rash of newly uncovered sexual-abuse scandals in the United States and Europe paints a terrible picture of the church's ability to protect its most vulnerable charges from the predations of its leadership. While the pattern of abuse in the church has been known to Catholics in the United States at least since the scandals in Massachusetts were revealed at the beginning of the decade, the news of Pope Benedict XVI's own complicity has finally worn through my tolerance.
That, and the awful timing. Easter is a holiday of joy for Christians: Christ is risen! These scandals, though, call for reflection more appropriate to the current Lenten season of repentance, and I sense very little remorse from the church -- not enough for me to celebrate with it when Lent ends this weekend.
There is no necessary display of profound sorrow and penance from the church's leaders, if the word "leader" is an appropriate term for Pope Benedict and the bishops who have been implicated in covering up these scandals and seen to it that those responsible get little more than a slap on the wrist. Benedict's recent letter on the sexual abuse in Ireland reeks of blame-shifting; while it apologizes to victims, it does not speak of accountability. Cardinal Bernard Law, who helped hide abuses in his Boston archdiocese, lives on a cushy Roman sinecure. Priests convicted of abuse are still shuttled from parish to parish, and criminal trials are still avoided. A 2001 directive to hide sexual abuse (lest violators be excommunicated!) -- issued by Benedict when he served as the Vatican official in charge of Catholic doctrine -- remains unaddressed.
The contradiction of being both a liberal and a Catholic has been a personal challenge, but disagreeing with the church on abortion and its archaic attitude toward women and the gay community did not, in my view, discount me from the faith I had been raised in and studied for so long. The Gospel is profoundly true to me, and the political and theological history of the church, a human institution, led me to believe that it could more fully adopt the eternal principles at the heart of Christ's teachings.
Indeed, one of my intellectual heroes is John Courtney Murray, the Jesuit priest whose uniquely American arguments about religious freedom played a key role in reforms the church adopted during the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. He recognized that change itself, rather than substance, is the challenge of reform, writing that "the notion of development, not the notion of religious freedom, was the real sticking point for many of those who opposed the [Second Vatican reforms] even to the end." If the church could recognize a separation between religion and secular government after opposing the idea for centuries, what else could change if sincere Catholics worked steadily to shift the institution?
I saw my relationship with the church as the classic problem of disagreement with an institution -- a question of voice, exit, or loyalty. I had grown up in the church, believed in it, and so favored staying to voice my dissent over exiting. After all, there are so many good Catholics and good Catholic teachings in the world. Yet it isn't easy to explain this position to friends who have left the church. I didn't feel that abandoning an institution that still influences millions of people around the world would improve anyone's lot, but my arguments rang hollow, even to me, in the face of those whose gender and sexual identities don't fit in with the rigid mores of Catholicism.
Indeed, the church's reaction to the rise of marriage equality here in the United States just drove home their point. In a petty political dispute, the Catholic Church threatened to abandon social-services work with Washington, D.C.'s government because of the District's recognition of gay marriage, a blackmail attempt whose only victims are the poor. In a similar fashion, for transparently political ends, U.S. bishops opposed a health-care bill that maintained the status quo on federal abortion funding -- none -- despite the legislation's promise to subsidize the health care of millions who lacked insurance. I don't like Rep. Bart Stupak's politics, but at least he displayed some final, personal integrity in finding a path to vote for a bill that is pro-life in every sense.
The events of the last decade increasingly convince me that it is not people who are leaving the church; it is the church that is leaving the people. How can Benedict expect to bring sinners to God or dare write that gay relationships are the "destruction of God's work," when he cannot admit to the church's own complicity in actual moral transgressions? It is truly a sad day when an institution designed to be a contemporaneous intermediary between humans and the divine is increasingly less relevant than the ancient texts at the center of the faith. The church's mandarins see their future in a faith that is narrower and clings to the past. They couldn't be more wrong.
John Allen, a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter who is more deeply versed in church politics than I, argues Benedict deserves credit for improving the church's response on sexual abuse. It is a low bar. The church's glacial pace of reform may have been appropriate in the Middle Ages, even in the last century, but for Catholicism to be vibrant in the future depends on greater, and more rapid, change. This must begin not with the doctrinal debates I would have but with the far, far simpler task of confession and penance that it would expect from any believer.
This weekend I'll pray to commemorate the Resurrection and share an Easter meal with friends. For this Sunday, at least, I'll choose exit, in the hopes that the church might someday hold itself to its own high standards.
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