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.