New York Times columnist Bill Keller suggested in a recent that essay that Catholics who are discouraged about the hierarchy’s positions on women’s ordination, women religious, and marriage equality that they should leave the church:
“Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. . . . Summon your fortitude, and just go. If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience — then go. The restive nuns who are planning a field trip to Rome for a bit of dialogue? Be assured, unless you plan to grovel, no one will be listening. Sisters, just go.”
A barrage of online comments criticizing his suggestion prompted him to write a follow-up column in which he qualified his critique of Catholicism. Reflecting on a visit to Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia church, designed by Antonio Gaudi, Keller states:
“One thing . . . history reminds us is that the Catholic Church is capable of adapting to science and social mores more readily than fundamentalist strains of Christianity. The Church is proud of its respect for Reason, reflected in its nurturing over the centuries of universities, libraries and scholarly discourse, its embrace of Augustine and Aquinas. Prodded by science and intellectual dispute, the official teaching on faith and morals changes—at a glacial pace, and up to a point.
“Take slavery, for one example. At the Alhambra, both the magnificent Moorish palace and the later additions by Catholic kings were built with slave labor. Jesus himself never uttered a disapproving word on the subject of slavery, and several popes justified it, at least the enslaving of non-Christians. But at last, in the 19th century—following legal abolition rather than leading it—the Vatican formally condemned the selling of human beings.
“Or take evolution. Around the time Gaudi was grappling with the architectural challenge of his soaring nave in Barcelona, the Church was grappling with the works of Charles Darwin. Catholicism, which had long before eschewed the literal Creationist view of Genesis in deference to geological science, never formally condemned the theory of evolution, but found it hard to swallow. After much ecclesiastical hand-wringing, the Church settled on a version of Intelligent Design—allowing for the possibility that God created us indirectly, through a process of natural selection, rather than in six literal days of divine magic.
“So it is not unthinkable that the Church could someday sanction the ordination of women, or drop its comparatively recent decrees against contraception, or let priests marry, or welcome homosexuals into the family.”
He also quoted University of Notre Dame Professor Lawrence Cunningham, who told Keller:
” ‘A rule of thumb in the history of Catholic Christianity is that all great change happens from below, not from above.’ “
National Catholic Reporter columnist Jamie Manson responded to Keller’s suggestion for disaffected Catholics to leave the church by noting that
” . . .the ability to leave the church is a luxury afforded only to Catholics in the West.
“Catholics in the United States and Europe can leave the church. Few have to worry about bringing shame on their families or being ostracized from their communities. They don’t believe the decision will affect the fate of their souls or God’s disposition toward them. They are free to shop in the vast spiritual marketplace, offering everything from zen meditation to the prosperity gospel, vying for their attention, devotion and money.
“In the United States and Europe, the doctrines of the Vatican have little influence over legislation, culture or individual moral decision-making. According to a recent study, as few as 8 percent of Catholics in the U.S. think the bishops’ advice is very important when deciding how to vote.”
But Manson goes on to enumerate the many social problems in developing nations are exacerbated by official Catholic church policies because of the great influence the ecclesial institution wields. They to can’t “leave” the church, if they wanted to. Manson urges Catholics in the West to remain in solidarity with these brothers and sisters in other countries:
“The magisterium teaches that, because of a woman’s genitalia, God is unable to call a woman to the priesthood. It also insists that any woman who “simulates” the consecration of the Eucharist commits a “grave sin” against the sacrament (equal to pedophilia). How can women ever achieve true empowerment and equality in a country where its religious leaders declare that even God views a woman’s body as inadequate and invalid?
“Those in the U.S. and Europe can roll their eyes, shake their heads and throw up their hands at the hierarchy’s arcane teachings on sexuality, but in many parts of our world, these doctrines have life-or-death consequences.
“For these reasons alone, regardless of how we personally feel about the Roman Catholic hierarchy, it is important to remain in solidarity with Catholics worldwide and to continue to dedicate our activism to reforming the church’s teachings.”
Manson is not naive; she knows that staying in the church can be difficult and oftentimes feel futile. She suggests an alternative to just staying or even staying and fighting. Her conclusion is to take responsibility for the ministry we would like to see:
“If the leaders of the Roman Catholic Church were realizing their prophetic potential, they would muster the courage to be a living witness to the equality of women and the dignity of LGBT persons in our world. They would use their intellectual power and pastoral sensitivity to apply sophisticated, ethical discernment in matters related to the life-saving use of contraceptives.
“We know that the hierarchy isn’t doing this, but that doesn’t mean that Catholics with the resources and privilege shouldn’t be. Ministering on the margins, questioning religious authority and speaking truth to religious power do not equal “leaving the church.” In fact, as our own faith history has taught us time and again, these are most important steps to becoming the church that the world most deeply needs.”
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry