It used to be that the Catholic Church was actually a force for good in the world. Sure, there were some embarrassing doctrinal issues, and the whole male, unmarried clergy thing was kind of, well, weird, but at the same time the Church was earnest, devout, and genuinely concerned about not only its parishioners but also the spiritual and material well-being of all people. Being raised as a Catholic was for me always a source of pride, which was helpful, because growing up Catholic in the south is fairly much like growing up there as a Jew. It’s not a huge conceptual leap for me to regard American secularism as just another version of American Protestantism as it might be for northerners: I’m used to a cultural milieu which assumes Protestantism to be as universal and transparent as the air we breath, and one that silently but pointedly excludes my kind.
That was then. In the twenty-odd years since I renounced the Church, that whole male, unmarried clergy thing was revealed to be what it has been for hundreds of years – if not longer, simply part of a massive conspiracy for socially inept and sexually confused men to fuck unwilling young boys. The Church never anticipated the social and sexual revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s that finally permitted the victims of abuse to speak out due to the growing understanding that they wouldn’t entirely become social pariahs for admitting publicly what they’d been forced to endure. That finally if somewhat surprisingly slowly undid the whole silence about it, though I dare say the abuse still continues now even if somewhat muted.
I should state that I was devoutly and enthusiastically involved in the Church throughout my youth and adolescence, altar boy and the whole bit, and I was never the object of abuse or unwanted attention. I was repeatedly exposed to a sort of weird hostile contempt on the part of young priests for what they could not partake of, for what we might now term healthy sexuality, generally hetero-normative but certainly gay as well. I mean, how fucked up is it that people have Catholic priests officiate at weddings? Well, to the credit of my family priests and those I knew at college, no one tried to put a hand on my junk. Now, Boy Scouts, that other paragon of institutionalized pederasty, that’s going to have to be another post.
You’d think the Church would be contrite and attempt to make some amends, but the pronounced feature of the Catholic Church since the explosion of the priest abuse scandal has been a steady drift into political irresponsibility and irrelevance, to the point where I have to ask all practicing Catholics, despite my deep reverence for their modes of faith and understanding that have withstood so far persecution, discrimination, and now public contempt, are you fully aware of the distastefulness of the company that you keep?
The number of legitimate reasons for a good Christian or any decent human being to remain in the fold of the Catholic Church is rapidly decreasing to the vanishing point. The time to leave, if you have not already, is now.
So the big news is this, the Vatican’s attempt to appeal to Anglicans and Episcopalians frustrated at their own church’s fitful attempts to address the concerns and expressions of a 21st century spirituality. What’s the Vatican’s offer? Hey, guys, we’re still medieval! If you don’t think women or gays are fully human and therefore cannot officiate for you at the altar, join us! Not that I should be thought too eager to jump for the throat here, are there any rational attempts to appreciate and advocate for the Church’s position here? The only one I’m aware of yet is the New York Times’s new conservative columnist Ross Douthat (someone whose work I find intriguing and in some cases commendable, though in other cases wholly and perversely wrongheaded). His positive spin on the affair is more or less this: the real attraction to conservative Christians in Benedict’s message might be the vision of a unified Anglican/Catholic front in worldwide conflict against a Muslim threat. Did I already say medieval?
In the meantime, in an effort to respond to the spirit of the times and one of the more intriguing messages of the Obama administration asking us to listen for potential contributions to our communities from organizations of the faithful, the Washington Post opened up some editorial space for the Catholic Church to offer its perspective on the role of religiosity in American public life. What did they get? Well, they asked Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, and what they got is this: the vilest steaming pile of hatred, bigotry, and ignorance that I’m sure the paper has ever had the dubious honor to print. Apparently blacks, Jews, and secularists are so consumed with self-loathing at their sexual liberties that they’ve decided to pull an atheist Sampson and tear the nation’s roof down on all the good Christians about. Really. That’s so much worse than the Wall Street Journal editorial board deciding that Jews caused the economic collapse because they don’t buy Christmas presents. Who would write such crazy, hateful crap? Not Catholics, surely.
What about the Church’s role in social justice? Surely there’s some sense left of ministry. Let’s take the largest and most immediate drive for justice in the nation, health care reform. The Conference of Catholic Bishops apparently advocates universal coverage and has lobbied for it for decades, and so they must be getting excited now that it appears that we’ll be able to achieve some measure of reform this year? No. They’re sending out fliers to all parishes throughout the country insisting the Catholics draw the line and refuse to allow reform to pass. Why? Not because federal monies might be allowed to fund a plan that would cover abortions, since the bills as they’re drawn up would explicitly forbid that. But because money for plans that would refuse to cover abortion would come into contact for money for plans that might cover it – they might share a bank account or an appropriations line. Basically, they just don’t trust all the players involved in shaping reform to continue toe the Church’s line on abortion, so they’ve decide their hysterics over abortion mandates that no justice be served ever, or at least not until the Church itself becomes the law of the land.
Now there’s this: the Catholic Church is joining the batshit fringes of Christian hysteria to condemn Hallowe’en. We’re accustomed to the crazy hillbilly Jesus enthusiasts coming out of the woods this time each year to condemn the celebration, as much as we are the dunderheaded TV news rehashing of urban legends of acid and razorblades, but that’s fringe paranoia. It may be widely distributed, but it’s thin stuff and easily disregarded. For the Eternal City to weigh in on venerable folk customs – customs that actually follow, despite their origins, the feast day calendar set by the Church itself – is too much.
For me that’s the tipping point. There can be no spiritual legitimacy to the Catholic Church from this point forward. They’ve moved entirely into the realm of the ridiculous, repugnant, and irrelevant. I admit there’s been a certain ironic distance, a certain tongue-in-cheekedness, in my review of these events in this post, but I’m quite serious in what follows: I have been willing to abide by and even exceed a high degree of tolerance and reverence for the faithful, and will continue to do so where I can, but as I have felt that Scientologists and Mormons no longer deserving of that consideration, I now include Catholics. Be prepared for me to ask you why you still belong knowing as you must what you do. And if you don’t, I’ll tell you it.