Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Thomas Reese on "Huge" Exodus of American Catholics, and My Conclusion: Catholic Church as Mean Machine

Another follow-up:

I blogged on the weekend about the record number of German Catholics who officially resigned from the Catholic church in 2010.  As I've noted in many previous postings, there's a parallel development in American Catholicism, where a Pew report in the spring of 2008 found that one in three adults in the U.S. who were raised Catholic have now left the Catholic church, and one in ten American adults is a former Catholic.

Jesuit Thomas Reese has just published an analysis of this "hidden exodus" of American Catholics in National Catholic Reporter.  And here's what Reese means in calling the exodus "hidden":

Any other institution that lost one-third of its members would want to know why. But the U.S. bishops have never devoted any time at their national meetings to discussing the exodus. Nor have they spent a dime trying to find out why it is happening.

The U.S. Catholic bishops have been eerily silent about the mass exodus of Catholics that is occurring on their watch, under their pastoral leadership--though the image of the good shepherd to which their pastoral office points is one intent on seeking every sheep who strays, to bring every straying sheep back to the fold. 

Reese notes that the data the bishops refuse to collect in order to understand why people are leaving have to be supplied by secular groups like Pew, who are finding that those who have walked away can be grouped, roughly speaking, into two large camps: those who are now unchurched, unaffiliated with any church; and those who have become Protestant.  Quite a bit of evidence suggests that a majority of those in the latter group have joined evangelical Protestant churches.

I'll leave it to readers who are interested in this topic to follow Reese's analysis and to read his recommendations about how the bishops might address the massive hemorrhaging of American Catholics--if they chose to care at all about what's taking place, that is.  I'm drawn, in particular, to his observation that what people are seeking from the church is authentic spirituality, liturgy that touches the heart, and viable Catholic exegesis of the scriptures in a culture inundated with simplistic soundbyte biblical interpretation of a fundamentalist bent.

Spirituality, heart, the Word of God: instead, the Catholic church in the U.S. (and globally) now strikes me, as an alienated Catholic shoved far to the margins, as increasingly a mean machine intent on doing harm to people, and, in many cases, to some of the most vulnerable among us.  When I read Joseph Palacios today about the disgusting defense the Vatican representative at the U.N. recently gave for the Vatican's refusal to endorse a U.N. statement deploring violence against LGBT persons; when I wade through Cardinal Wuerl's pre-Vatican II rationale for the U.S. bishops' condemnation of Elizabeth Johnson's work; when I read that, right on the heels of the grand jury report in Philadelphia that found 37 priests credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors still in ministry, Pope Benedict honors Cardinal Rigali: I see a mean machine in operation, which has little connection to anything I recognize as authentically spiritual, as capable of moving my heart towards God, or as skilled at breaking open the Word of God for me.

As the Vatican tinkers with new, theologically regressive translations of the liturgy regarding which the laity and even liturgical experts have had no say; as bishops reassert their right to control theological discourse and demand that theologians seek an imprimatur for any word they utter, and as they quench the Spirit by acting this way; as the Vatican depicts the Catholic hierarchy as the real victims in the struggle for human rights for LGBT persons while ignoring the actual violence to which LGBT persons are subject around the world; as a cardinal who has sheltered priests abusing minors is given an honor in the weeks before the beatification of John Paul II, who protected Marcial Maciel: I don't see spirituality at work.  I don't find my heart warmed.  I don't feel impelled to open the Word of God and read it.

Instead, I want in every way possible to distance myself from the mean machine the Catholic church has become at this point in history.  And I suspect a considerable proportion of those who have walked away and will continue to do so until these and the other significant ways in which the Catholic church now functions as a counter-sign to the gospels is addressed also share this perspective.

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