Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Exodus from the Church and the Abandonment of Pastoral Leadership

A posting of Colleen Kochivar-Baker at the Enlightened Catholicism blog two days ago (here) provides important information about the latest statistics of the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches (here).

This highly regarded annual survey shows two of the largest denominations in the U.S., which have "grown dependably over the years" (to use the Yearbook's phrase) posting losses in 2007. The Catholic church lost some 398,000 members in that year, Southern Baptists nearly 40,000.

Colleen raises important questions about what this drop in membership numbers means for the future of the Catholic church in the United States. As she notes, the strategy of John Paul II and Benedict's restorationism has been to focus almost exclusively on the handful of Catholic youth here and elsewhere who have bought into the notion of the smaller, purer church.

The Yearbook data and other studies indicate the much larger numbers of younger Catholics who reject the restorationist agenda quietly leaving the church. The trajectory predicted by these Yearbook statistics is a trajectory of decline in coming years, in which the only church-going Catholics left in many parts of the world are likely to be of the restorationist variety.

As Hans Küng notes in a recent interview with the French paper Le Monde, the church Benedict is working to create is sectarian (here). If Benedict is successful in his ecclesiological strategy, the Catholic church will become a sect, largely irrelevant to the cultures in which it lives, carrying on its peculiar religious business apart from a society on which it has turned its back, refusing engagement with culture except to condemn the views of the mainstream while jealousy guarding its irrelevant "truths."

And as I read the Yearbook report, I continue to ask, as I have asked often on this blog in the past, how the pastoral leaders of the church can justify their shoulder shrugs while millions of Catholics are walking away (here and here). The calling of a shepherd (and that's what the Latin root of the word "pastor" means) is to seek the sheep who are lost, to assure that the whole flock is fed, to lay down his or her life for the sheep.

The response of Gerhard Maria Wagner, the right-wing priest to whom Benedict sought to give an episcopal appointment recently in Linz, Austria: as the postings to which I have just linked note, when asked about the sharp decline in Catholic church membership in Austria and Germany in recent years, Wagner stated that the leaders of the church cannot permit themselves to be blackmailed.

This is a shockingly unpastoral response. It deliberately overlooks the reasons many Catholics are leaving, reasons that are entirely in the control of those pastoral leaders who refuse to be "blackmailed." For many of us, the church's intransigent approach to sexual ethics, which overlooks the graced experience of the lay members of the body of Christ, cannot compel assent. Many of us are dismayed by the church's refusal to ordain women, and are repulsed by the new "theology of the body" offered by the Catholic right as a solution to questions of gender.

For many of us, the theology of the body is nothing more than a reactionary attempt to continue the subordination of women to men in a new high-flown, quasi-mystical theological language that refuses to recognize the findings of the social and psychological sciences about issues of sexuality and gender throughout the 20th century. Many of us have been further alienated, and deeply so, by the revelations from 2002 forward that a third of our American bishops have sheltered and promoted priests sexually abusing minors, and that the hierarchy both at a diocesan level and in the Vatican itself knew about the serious problems of clerical abuse of minors, and covered it up, often lying about what was going on.

To tell us that we are blackmailing the pastoral leaders of the church by asking questions about these issues and calling for open dialogue about them insults our intelligence and demeans our conscience. I am scandalized by many bishops' abdication of pastoral leadership at this point in the history of the church, as I am by the apologies for this behavior by my brothers and sisters of the center, who continue to ignore the serious questions posed by the absence of so many of their co-religionists from their dialogues as if that absence is not an ecclesiological fact that demands serious consideration (here and here).

As long as the church in the United States continues to produce a culture in which its pastoral leaders and the apologists of the center who support the pastoral behavior of those leaders turns a blind eye to the millions of Catholics who have walked away for reasons of conscience, how can it possibly hope to convince the culture at large that it is serious when it speaks of the sanctity of human life (here)? The church's own life is a counterwitness to the gospel of life it tries to proclaim, and it will never succeed in proclaiming that gospel while its pastoral leaders and centrist apologists ignore the human lives and human faces of millions of disaffected brothers and sisters--many of whom are, yes, it must be said, gay and lesbian.