American Catholics

Serious words at funny Al Smith dinner

Political insiders know that the Alfred E. Smith Dinner strives to honor decades of civic and religious traditions. In election years, it's a tradition that the presidential candidates appear -- wearing formal, white-tie attire -- and satirize their own public images, while also aiming a few gentle shots at their opponent and the ranks of elite journalists in attendance.

Thus, Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney, with a nod to his Mormon fuddy-duddy reputation, reminded the audience of wine-sipping socialites that, "Usually when I get invited to gatherings like this, it's just to be the designated driver."

Noting that this campaign has not, journalistically speaking, unfolded on a level playing field, he added: "I've already seen early reports from tonight's dinner, headline -- 'Obama Embraced by Catholics. Romney Dines with Rich People.' "

In response, the president poked fun at his own complex and, for some, controversial religious and family background by noting that, like Romney, he has a rather unusual name. "Actually, Mitt is his middle name. I wish I could use my middle name," said Barack Hussein Obama.

But, yes, there is the issue of the Romney family's wealth. "Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in Midtown," quipped Obama. "I understand Governor Romney went shopping FOR some stores in Midtown."

It is a tradition, of course, that the jokes grab the headlines after this unique, YouTube-friendly scene at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue.

But it is also a tradition that this dinner has, throughout its 67-year history, been a crucial fundraiser for charities linked to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, netting about $5 million this year. Thus, the Catholic shepherd of New York City speaks last and, literally, offers his benediction on this salute to lighthearted, generous public discourse in the tense battlefield that is national politics.

The stakes were especially high this year since Cardinal Timothy Dolan faced withering criticism from Catholic conservatives for extending the traditional invitation to the president -- because Obama has repeatedly clashed with the church over issues related to abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom.

The cardinal joined in the humorous repartee -- at one point noting that he couldn't read the greeting sent by Pope Benedict XVI because it was written in Latin -- but turned serious in his final prayer. He reminded the audience that the dinner honored Smith as the first Catholic selected as the presidential nominee of a major party, but also as the "happy warrior" who tirelessly fought to help the poor, the powerless and other forgotten Americans.

"Here we are, in an atmosphere of civility and humor … loving a country which considers religious liberty our first and most cherished freedom, convinced that faith is not just limited to an hour of Sabbath worship, but affects everything we do and dream," said Dolan, who also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The purpose of the event, he added, was to "reverently" recall a "man of deep Catholic faith and ringing patriotism, who had a tear in his Irish eyes for what we would call, the 'uns' -- the un-employed, the un-insured, the un-wanted, the un-wed mother and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb, the un-documented, the un-housed, the un-healthy, the un-fed, the under-educated.

"Government, Al Smith believed, should be on the side of these 'uns,' but a government partnering with family, church, parish, neighborhood, organizations and community, never intruding or opposing, since, when all is said and done, it's in God we trust, not, ultimately, in government or politics."

While Dolan is known for his boisterous wit, this final litany was clearly the big idea he wanted to communicate to both candidates and to all who were present, said Father James Martin, author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life."

"It was very moving, and very Catholic, because he refused to narrow the Gospel down to one or two issues," said Martin, who attended the dinner. "He reminded everyone of the sacred dignity of all human life, not just in the womb, but also not just in the slums. …

"There are Catholics these days, on the left and on the right, who don't want to be reminded of both sides of that equation. What the cardinal did was honor our Catholic tradition -- all of it."

Behind the Catholic flight from pews

Early in Father William Byron's research into why millions of Americans are leaving Catholic pews, he heard about one woman's tense encounter with a parish receptionist and he's been sharing the horror story ever since. The woman wanted to tell a priest about her feelings that she had lost "the Catholic church I grew up with." However, she wasn't sure she wanted to share the details with the woman who answered the parish telephone -- who kept pushing for specifics.

The petitioner finally said, "I'd rather not discuss that."

The receptionist responded: "Well look, when you figure out what your problem is, call us back and we'll give you an appointment."

The audience groaned during a recent Catholic University of America forum to discuss findings from the "Empty Pews" study conducted in the Diocese of Trenton, N.J.

"I'm not making this stuff up," stressed Byron, a Jesuit who teaches business at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.

The Trenton study, he explained, grew out of his contacts with a corporate leader who, as a Catholic layman, thought it would be constructive for priests and bishops to start doing "exit interviews" with former Catholics. Someone, Byron said, needed to ask why Catholics drop out or take their spiritual business elsewhere.

The numbers are hard to avoid. A 2009 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-in-10 American adults are former Catholics, with four exiting for every one that converts into the church. Meanwhile, weekly Mass attendance has fallen from 75 percent or higher in the 1950s to about 25 percent today.

Researchers know that roughly 70 percent of Catholics who leave simply drift away, while others follow their convictions into liberal mainline Protestantism or into various evangelical flocks. The goal in the Trenton study was to find -- through advertisements in secular and church media -- former Catholics who would volunteer to answer a detailed "exit interview" survey.

"These folks didn't drift away. They gave us reasons why they left," said researcher Charles Zech of Villanova University's Center for the Study of Church Management, which conducted the study.

The result was what Zech and Byron called a non-random "convenience survey" built on 298 usable surveys collected from Catholics who said they had left their local parishes, the Catholic faith or both. The typical respondent was a 53-year-old woman.

"This is a very critical demography for the church," said Zech. "If we are losing 53-year-old women, we are at risk of losing their children and their grandchildren. I think that it makes a lot of sense to listen to what they have to say."

No one was surprised, said Byron, that many of ex-Catholics -- when asked to cite church doctrines that troubled them -- complained about issues such as birth control, celibacy for priests, "conservative haranguing" about homosexuality and the ban on female priests. Several respondents said they had separated themselves from "the hierarchy," but not the church.

Some complaints were harder to label, said Byron. Many complained that the church had hidden clergy who were guilty of sexually abusing young children and teen-agers. Some wanted to see local bishops make public apologies. Others said they wished they had a chance to personally tell their bishop to "go to hell."

Others simply complained about lousy music, inadequate youth programs, shallow Christian education classes, rude receptionists and frequent pulpit appeals for money. Some respondents said they wanted to find churches with better preaching and more enthusiastic worship services.

The researchers were surprised that just as many participants praised their priests as complained about them. Nevertheless, any bishop would flinch when reading the words of an ex-Catholic who was convinced that the local priest had "crowned himself king and looks down on all." Another simply requested that the diocese "give us an outwardly loving, kind, Christian Catholic pastor."

The research team hopes, in the near future, to be invited to so similar "exit interview" work in other dioceses. Two bishops have already submitted requests.

It will be tempting for priests and bishops to glance at these results and simply said, "There's nothing new here," said Byron.

"There is a lot that's new here and there's a lot that should be paid attention to. You can't let what is an internal denial crop up and say, 'We've already heard it.' You've got to listen. You've got to respect it."

Rise of the "secular Catholics"

As a rule, opinion polls are not as important to bishops as they are to politicians. Nevertheless, CNN anchor Kyra Phillips recently asked Bishop Joseph Malone of Maine if he realized just how out of step he is with current doctrinal trends in his own flock.

"So, bishop, times are changing," she said. "Views are changing. ... So, why not get on board with the 43 percent of Catholics?"

The puzzled bishop replied: "The 43 percent who?"

"Who have no problem with gay marriage," said Phillips.

"Well, their thinking is outside the realm of Catholic teaching for 2,000 years," the bishop responded.

The bishop, of course, was talking about how traditional Catholics wrestle with moral issues, while the CNN anchor was describing views now common with a completely different kind of Catholic.

But in the polls, these days, a Catholic is a Catholic.

"I don't know of anyone who thinks religious identity should be based on polling," said theologian Tom Beaudoin, who teaches at the Jesuit-run Fordham University in New York City.

Nevertheless, he said, it's time for to note what researchers are learning about the lives and beliefs of what he called "secular Catholics." For starters, bishops need to admit that they exist and that some of them want to stay in the church -- while practicing their own personalized approaches to faith.

"Secular Catholics are people who were baptized as Catholics, but they find it impossible to make Catholicism the center of lives, by which I mean Catholicism as defined by the official teachings of the church," said Beaudoin. For these believers, there are "things that they learned about faith from Catholicism. Then there are things they learned from their jobs, from school experiences, from their music and from their favorite movies.

"They are hybrid believers and their faith comes from all over the place."

This is precisely the audience of "liberal" and "nominal" Catholics who were targeted recently with a blunt New York Times advertisement that urged them to quit the Catholic church altogether.

"If you imagine you can change the church from within -- get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cell research -- you're deluding yourself," argued leaders of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. "By remaining a 'good Catholic,' you are doing 'bad' to women's rights. ... Apparently, you're like the battered women who, after being beaten down every Sunday, feels she has no place else to go."

This advertisement probably says more about critics of Catholicism than it does about Catholic life, noted Beaudoin. Still, it could inspire constructive conversations about how "deconversions" are affecting church life. After all, a 2009 survey from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-in-10 American adults have left the Catholic faith. Four Americans exit Catholicism for every one that converts into the faith.

These numbers matter, said Beaudoin, but it's more important to see the larger picture, which is the growing number of Catholics who are living their spiritual lives in a kind of tense Catholic limbo. Some never go to Mass, while others do so occasionally. The vast majority of them have no idea what they would confess, if they ever went to confession, because they disagree with church authorities on what constitutes sin in the modern world.

In the end, it's impossible to ignore this mass of "secular Catholics" because it's such a large chunk of today's church, he said. In some parts of America, various kinds of "secular Catholics" now constitute a clear majority, while those who affirm traditional dogmas and doctrines are a minority.

Some of these "secular Catholics" eventually leave the church. Others choose to remain on membership rolls, on their own terms, because they find it hard to walk away, said Beaudoin. After all, there are parts of Catholicism that they affirm and they know they can ignore the parts that they reject. They have changed the church for themselves.

From his perspective, Beaudoin said it's important to believe that this trend is "not the result of lethargy, laziness, relativism, heresy or apostasy. ... There will be Catholics who insist on saying that these secular Catholics are falling away from traditional Catholic norms. But I think it would be more helpful to talk about them not as having fallen away from the Catholic faith, but as having created new, evolving spiritual lives for themselves."

Bishops change course on religious liberty

When it comes to changing course, ecclesiastical bureaucracies are like giant oceangoing vessels that struggle to turn quickly when obstacles appear in their paths. It took time, but the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has made a sea change in how it works on religious freedom issues.

Faced with what they see as dangerous trends in the Obama administration, the bishops recently announced the creation of their own Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty. The goal is to address church-state trends that in recent decades have primarily been attacked by Protestant conservatives.

Anyone seeking the source of this development in American religion -- including recent blasts at the White House by the archbishops of New York and Los Angeles -- needs to study a 2009 Georgetown University speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. It received relatively little attention at that time.

"Our human rights agenda for the 21st century is to make human rights a human reality and the first step is to see human rights in a broad context," she said, speaking on a campus known for its leadership on the Catholic left. "To fulfill their potential, people must be free to choose laws and leaders; to share and access information, to speak, criticize and debate. They must be free to worship, associate and to love in the way that they choose."

Conservatives cried foul, noting that the secretary of state had raised gay rights -- the right for all to "love in the way that they choose" -- to the same level as freedoms explicitly articulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They also noticed that she mentioned a narrow right "to worship" instead of using more expansive terms such as religious "freedom" or "liberty."

"Religious freedom, rightly understood, cannot be reduced to freedom of worship," argued George Weigel, a Catholic conservative best known for his authorized biography of the late Pope John Paul II.

"Religious freedom includes the right to preach and evangelize, to make religiously informed moral arguments in the public square and to conduct the affairs of one's religious community without undue interference from the state. If religious freedom only involves the freedom to worship, then ... there is 'religious freedom' in Saudi Arabia, where Bibles and evangelism are forbidden but expatriate Filipino laborers can attend Mass in the U.S. embassy compound in Riyadh."

Nearly two years later, this list of concerns looms over a blunt letter (.pdf) from New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan to President Barack Obama, one inspired by Obama administration attempts to overturn the national Defense of Marriage Act.

America's bishops "cannot be silent ... when federal steps harmful to marriage, the laws defending it, and religious freedom continue apace," claimed Dolan, who now leads the USCCB. It is especially unfair, he added, to "equate opposition to redefining marriage with either intentional or willfully ignorant racial discrimination, as your Administration insists on doing."

Dolan was even more frank in a letter (.pdf) to the U.S. bishops, claiming that the Justice Department is undercutting "our ancient Catholic belief, rooted in the teachings of Jesus and also the Jewish Scriptures." If this doctrine continues to be "labeled as a form of bigotry," he argued, this will surely "lead to new challenges to our liberties."

In addition to clashes on same-sex marriage, Dolan listed other concerns, including Health and Human Services regulations requiring all private health insurance to cover birth control and so-called "morning-after pills." Critics claim that the religious exception would protect few religious institutions, including colleges, and would leave insurers or individuals with moral objections completely vulnerable. The Justice Department, in recent Supreme Court proceedings, also questioned the need for the "ministerial exception" that allows religious groups to hire, and fire, ministers and staff members without government interference.

According to Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez, "We are slowly losing our sense of religious liberty" in modern America.

"There is much evidence to suggest that our society no longer values the public role of religion or recognizes the importance of religious freedom as a basic right," he argued, in an essay for the journal First Things. Instead, "our courts and government agencies increasingly treat the right to hold and express religious beliefs as only one of many private lifestyle options. And, they observe, this right is often 'trumped' in the face of challenges from competing rights or interests deemed to be more important."

Catholic dad's fight against abuse

It wasn't hard to connect the dots when, after decades of lurid news about the sexual abuse of the young, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a Good Friday sermon bemoaning "how much filth" was in the church, including "the priesthood." Weeks after that signal in 2005, the cardinal became pope. Then at World Youth Day 2008, he said, "I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured. ... These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation."

The pope's recent letter to Irish Catholics also made headlines, of course. After new cries for repentance, Benedict XVI told the victims: "I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. ... It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church."

All of these words were spoken in public and, thus, led to debates and discussions around the world. However, in recent months tuned-in Catholics have been reading about a private, strategic statement -- by a Catholic layman -- that may have had the greatest practical impact in American sanctuaries. The St. Louis Beacon, an independent online newspaper, recently published the document.

The 10-page memo (.pdf here) was written by David Spotanski, vice chancellor of the Diocese of Belleville in Southern Illinois, and given to his bishop on Feb. 22, 2002.

It's crucial that Bishop Wilton D. Gregory had recently become president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- just as another wave of abuse reports hit the news. When the bishop began scanning the document, Spotanski took it back and read it aloud, behind closed doors.

"The truth is that our bishops are not doing all they CAN to stop sexual abuse of minors by their brother priests; they're doing all they CARE TO," wrote Spotanski. "Like most Catholics I'm stunned and horrified that there's a distinction. ... For a Church that can be so outspoken and uncompromising about the splinters in the eyes of our culture, She has apparently for decades hypocritically concealed a plank in Her own eye from which one could hew an ark."

In addition to handing the bishop the memo, Spotanski provided a photo of his daughter and two sons, who were 14, 11 and 9 when it was taken. He then placed a copy of the photo in Gregory's briefcase before every major meeting the bishop attended that year -- including a face-to-face meeting between Pope John Paul II and the president of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Gregory also met with Cardinal Ratzinger and other top Vatican officials.

This led to a crucial Vatican summit on the abuse crisis and, eventually, much tougher policies to protect children in American churches.

While that charter didn't take every action advised by Spotanski, noted commentator Ross Douthat, it's safe to say that "while the princes of the American church were immobilized by denial ... the rough draft of the policy that righted the ship was being written by a middle-aged layman in the Midwest, in consultation with the Catholic dads on his local softball team."

The New York Times columnist, who is an active Catholic, called Spotanski, the "man who saved American Catholicism."

If so, the key to the memo was its blunt, personal tone and its emphasis on the damage done to the lives and faith of ordinary Catholic children and their parents. For example, Spotanski asked, what Jesus would say to a cardinal who has "shown himself to be dishonest about his knowledge of the forcible anal rape of children?" He then quoted a bishop as observing, "I don't think I'd like hell very much."

Most of all, he argued, Catholic bishops needed to start thinking about their own vows and the church's future and, thus, stop treating victims like "lepers, sinners, nuisances or threats." At some point, faithful Catholics would close their hearts and their checkbooks.

When that happened, warned Spotanski, bishops in "tainted dioceses" would have to "choose between their missions and their mansions, their food buses and their limousines, the 'least of their brothers' and Brooks Brothers. ... The depleted bottom line is that you simply can't run a major American archdiocese for very long on 30 silver coins."