Saturday, October 12, 2013

Francis's Reforms: Making the Circle Wider or Driving Traditional Catholics Away?

Where right-wing Catholics who adored Benedict, but Francis not so much, imagine that Francis's attempt to turn the Catholic church back to the center will result in attrition of traditionalist Catholics to the Orthodox churches, New York Times commentator Timothy Egan sees the opposite happening: 

"In terms of people in the pews, the Catholic Church lost roughly one-fourth of its strength over the last 35 years," wrote the political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell in their book "American Grace." They argue that when the religious right politicized faith, they put a "not welcome" sign on the door for millions of people of faith. This was compounded by the hypocrisy of these same moral authorities protecting pedophile priests while ignoring the lifelong anguish of the victims. For much of the 20th century, the Catholic Church in places was essentially organized crime in clerical garb.

Egan mentions that "[w]hen bishops started telling parishioners that their gay and lesbian siblings were sinners, and that family planning was a grievous wrong, people stopped listening to them — for good reason." In American Grace, Putnam and Campbell note that "[t]he association between religion and politics (and especially religion’s intolerance of homosexuality) was the single strongest factor" their research uncovered to explain why younger Americans are leaving the churches in droves right now.

The churches have paid a high price for putting that "not welcome" sign on their doors. The Catholic church has done so, in particular, as its bishops in the U.S. have increasingly taken a high-profile role in informing gay folks that they're simply unwelcome in Catholic churches. They've done so by spending huge amounts of money to combat gay rights in state after state, by threatening to use social services to immigrants and people in need as political bargaining chips in battles against gay rights, by comparing gay pride parades to Klan marches, by identifying gay folks with the devil (and here), by leaning on Catholic institutions to fire gay employees who come out of the closet or employees who support gay rights, etc.

It seems to me that Pope Francis has his work cut out for him, if his intent is to put the welcome sign out once again in front of Catholic churches. That work is particularly acute when it comes to gay Catholics and those who stand in solidarity with gay Catholics. For a long time now, both the leaders of the Catholic church in the U.S. and the "traditionalists" to whom they've catered have used Catholic "truth" very precisely as a weapon to attack those who are gay, and have done everything in their power to assure that gay folks feel quite specifically unwelcome in Catholic churches.

It's going to take more than words to change that perception on the part of gay Catholics and those who love us, it seems to me. The changing of perception is going to take a perceptible change in attitude on the part of the bishops and their culture-war allies in the pews. And that change in attitude is going to have to issue in a change of actions.

The graphic is from Crystal Watson at the Perspective blog, and is (I think) a photograph of a mural in St. Mary's (Scottish Episcopal) cathedral in Glasgow.

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