US Catholic Bishops

A Pentecost season rant channels the anger swirling out in Catholic pews

A Pentecost season rant channels the anger swirling out in Catholic pews

Elizabeth Scalia woke up furious, thinking about scandals in the Church of Rome, Pentecost and a famous courtroom rant in the movie "… And Justice for All."

"It was like Al Pacino was inside my head screaming, 'You're out of order! You're all out of order! The whole church is out of order!' … I knew I had to write something," said Scalia, long known for online epistles using the pen name "The Anchoress."

At Pentecost, she noted, the Holy Spirit descended like fire on the apostles. "I thought: Dear God, why can't some fire fall on our bishops? What's it going to take to wake up some of these guys?"

Pentecost fell on June 9 this year, following months of news about clergy sexual abuse and the drumbeat of scandals tied to the fall of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of the most powerful church princes in American history.

 Then The Washington Post published a June 5 report about a lurid litany of accusations against retired West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, whose career was linked to that of McCarrick. Investigators found that Bransfield -- in a poverty-wracked region -- spent millions of dollars on his own comforts, while handing financial gifts to various American members of the College of Cardinals and strategic church leaders. While there were no specific accusations of abuse, the church report cited a "consistent pattern of sexual innuendo, and overt suggestions and actions toward those over whom the former bishop exercised authority."

This was McCarrick 2.0, a sucker-punch that inspired Scalia to pound out a personal letter to Jesus that was published by America, a Jesuit publication. Scalia currently serves as editor at large for Word on Fire, a Catholic evangelism organization.

"Well, Lord, here we are again. This crap just never stops coming, and God, I'm getting so disgusted with it all, and if I could not find you in the Holy Eucharist, I wonder if I would find you anywhere else within this church," she wrote, in her fiery overture.

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."

A social media Reformation?

As every avid Twitter user knows, there are only 140 characters in a "tweet" and that includes the empty spaces. The bishops gathered at the ancient Council of Nicea didn't face that kind of communications challenge and, thus, produced an old-fashioned creed that in English is at least 1,161 characters long.

No wonder so many of the gray-haired administrators in black suits in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops struggle with life online. It's hard to take seriously the frivolous-sounding words -- "blog" and "tweet" leap to mind -- that define reality among the natives on what Pope Benedict XVI calls the "Digital Continent."

"In the past, the church would often build new parish structures, knowing that people would recognize the church architecture and start showing up. On the Digital Continent, 'If you build it, they will come' does not hold true," said Bishop Ronald Herzog of Alexandria, La., in a report from the body's communications committee.

"We digital immigrants need lessons on the digital culture, just as we expect missionaries to learn the cultures of the people they are evangelizing. We have to be enculturated. It's more than just learning how to create a Facebook account."

This is important news in an era in which recent research from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that the Catholic Church was retaining 68 percent of its members who, as children, were raised in the fold. While the church is making converts, those who have left Catholicism in recent years outnumber those who have joined by nearly a 4-to-1 ratio.

Almost half of those who left Catholicism and did not join another church exited before the age of 18, as did one-third of those who chose to join another church. Another 30 percent of young Catholics left the church by the age of 24. At that point, the departure rate slowed down.

Truth is, it is almost impossible to talk about the lives of teens and young adults without discussion the growing power of their social-media networks. For young people worldwide, social media and their mobile devices have become the "first point of reference" in daily life, warned Herzog.

"The implications of that for a church which is struggling to get those same young people to enter our churches on Sunday are staggering. If the church is not on their mobile device, it doesn't exist."

As recently as a similar report in 2007, it was clear the bishops were hesitant to discuss the digital world because they feared its power when used by the church's critics, said Rocco Palmo, who produces the influential "Whispers in the Loggia" weblog about Catholic news and trends.

The Herzog report was a step forward, primarily because the bishops seem to realize this is a subject that they cannot ignore. That's significant in an era in which many Vatican officials still cling to their fax machines and struggle to keep up with their email. During the recent Baltimore meetings, said Palmo, there were more iPads in the hands of younger bishops "than you would find at your local Apple store."

"In the old days, that stone church on the corner was a sign of the presence of God in your community. Well, that's what a church website is today," he said. If bishops and priests cannot grasp "that one-dimensional reality in our culture, how are they supposed to grasp the two-dimensional, interactive world of social media?"

The theoretical stakes are high, noted Herzog, but it has also become impossible to ignore the raw numbers. For example, if the 500 million active Facebook users became their own nation, it would be the world's third largest -- behind China and India.

The bottom line: Catholicism may be "facing as great a challenge as that of the Protestant Reformation," said the bishop.

"Anyone can create a blog. Everyone's opinion is valid. And if a question or contradiction is posted, the digital natives expect a response and something resembling a conversation," said Herzog. "We can choose not to enter into that cultural mindset, but we do so at great peril to the Church's credibility and approachability in the minds of the natives. ...

"This is a new form of pastoral ministry. It may not be the platform we were seeking, but it is an opportunity of such magnitude that we should consider carefully the consequences of disregarding it."

Hemlock, health care and Catholic choices

The "Your Life, Your Choices" booklet didn't cause trouble at the Department of Veterans Affairs until late in President George W. Bush's second term. That's when critics spotted an odd detail in this guide for end-of-life medical decisions. It urged aging veterans to seek expert advice from one group -- Compassion & Choices. It helps to know that this organization was created in 2005 through the merger of two groups, Compassion in Dying and End-of-Life Choices and that, until 2003, End-of-Life Choices was known as the Hemlock Society.

The Bush White House pulled that edition of "Your Life, Your Choices," but a revised version -- minus the plug for Compassion & Choices -- has been restored to the website. Conservative critics remain worried.

"Obviously, the Catholic church and our bishops have been strong advocates of health-care reform, especially when it comes to making the system more accessible for the poor and needy. That's a no-brainer," said John Haas, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and a member of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops task force on health care.

"But this VA issue shows why we just don't trust the government when it comes to helping people make all the moral and religious decisions that come at the end of life. ... The Hemlock Society? Catholics would rather do our own counseling, thank you very much."

It's easy for outsiders to get lost in the details of the sprawling packages of legislation now being debated on Capitol Hill. However, Haas stressed that critical questions remain unanswered about how efforts to reform America's health-care system will affect hot-button issues such as abortion, stem-cell research and health-care rationing for the elderly and chronically ill.

Thus, a letter from the U.S. bishops to Congress and the White House pledged support for accessible, affordable, universal health-care reform that truly "protects and respects the life and dignity of all people from conception until natural death."

In the headlines, it is easy for these concerns to be crunched into shouted questions in health-care forums about taxpayer-funded abortions and fears that government "death panels" will micromanage critical decisions in nursing homes.

But calmer, quieter voices inside the Washington Beltway still want to know more about the proposed Center for Health Outcomes Research and Evaluation, which legislation sponsored by the late Sen. Edward Kennedy claims would "collect, conduct, support and synthesize research comparing health outcomes, effectiveness and appropriateness of health care services and procedures."

While striving to avoid risky specifics, President Barack Obama has said it will be impossible to expand health-care services without tough-minded reforms that cut costs. This is especially true when discussing care for the elderly.

"That's where I think you just get into some very difficult moral issues. But that's also a huge driver of cost, right? I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here," said Obama, in a much-quoted New York Times interview.

"I think that there is going to have to be a conversation that is guided by doctors, scientists, ethicists. And then there is going to have to be a very difficult democratic conversation that takes place. ... That's part of why you have to have some independent group that can give you guidance."

The president recently went further, according to Twitter postings from a conference call with 1,000 rabbis. Obama reached out to these religious leaders, stressing, "We are God's partners in matters of life and death."

No one doubts that millions of Americans want help while making decisions about end-of-life medical issues, stressed Haas. The question is whether most would prefer to face these ultimate issues with help from government experts or from their own pastors, rabbis, priests, hospice workers and other religious counselors.

"The Catholic Church has a highly developed body of teachings and traditions to help guide people through these kinds of decisions," said Haas. "We believe that hospice care is normal and good. We believe that it's right to die a good death, with an emphasis on the relief of pain and suffering. ...

"But let's be clear. We think the government has an agenda on these kinds of issues and it's not the church's agenda. When it comes to dying, controlling costs is not our primary goal."

Catholic pain in health-care fight

In Catholic debates, it always helps to be able to quote the official Catechism of the Catholic Church. Consider, for example, this reference to health care in its chapter on the biblical instruction, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

"Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God," notes the catechism. "Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment and social assistance."

The implication is that governments -- as a matter of social justice -- should help citizens obtain basic health care, according to a letter sent to Congress and the White House by the Domestic Justice and Human Development Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Health care is a human right, not a privilege, argued Bishop William F. Murphy.

"All people need and should have access to comprehensive, quality health care that they can afford, and it should not depend on their stage of life, where or whether they or their parents work, how much they earn, where they live, or where they were born," wrote Murphy.

But there's a problem. The letter stresses that the church will support accessible, affordable, universal health-care reform if it "protects and respects the life and dignity of all people from conception until natural death."

Try telling that to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sibelius, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, surgeon general nominee Regina Benjamin, Vice President Joe Biden and other Catholics who play strategic roles in Washington, D.C., right now -- while rejecting Catholic teachings on many critical health-care issues.

That's the political reality that the bishops are facing, said Leonard J. Nelson III, a health-care law specialist at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University.

For the bishops, Catholic teachings on the sanctity of human life are crystal clear, from birth to death, from abortion to euthanasia. Yet the bishops also support health-care for all -- rich and poor. It's getting harder and harder to keep these issues woven together.

"The bishops have been talking about social justice and health care for years and years and now the political climate has changed around them," said Nelson, author of the new book, "Diagnosis Critical: The Urgent Threats Confronting Catholic Health Care."

"The politicians who are in command are ready to pass some kind of health-care reform and they have all kinds of reasons to include abortion in that package. ... That's the fix that the bishops are in."

Meanwhile, he said, leaders of Catholic hospitals and health-care systems will almost certainly face challenges in the near future.

For starters, they could be pressured to join networks and cooperatives that have no reason to follow the bioethical guidelines detailed in the "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services" adopted by the U.S. Catholic bishops. It will be hard for Catholic leaders to cooperate with government approved health-care programs and receive government funds while declining to offer services such as contraception, sterilizations and referrals for abortions.

Catholic leaders also know that another life-and-death issue looms in the background. As President Barack Obama noted in a recent New York Times interview, it's impossible to cut or control costs without government efforts to shape health care in the final years of life.

"That's where I think you just get into some very difficult moral issues," said Obama. "But that's also a huge driver of cost, right? I mean, the chronically ill and those toward the end of their lives are accounting for potentially 80 percent of the total health care bill out here."

The Catholic bishops, noted Nelson, have not addressed these end-of-life scenarios -- yet. Will government agencies or advisory boards be given the power to decide whether patients facing Alzheimer's or Parkinson's disease receive expensive medications? Who will decide whether elderly patients have a high enough "quality of life" to continue receiving medical care?

"Productive people in the middle years of life are always going to get the health care they need," said Nelson. "The big threats to the sanctity of life come at the very beginning and at the end. If you're going to defend the church's teachings on health care, you have to focus on those threats. The bishops have to find a way to do that."

That other speech at Notre Dame

It was hard to ignore the papal bull condemning the slave trade, which was read to American Catholic leaders gathered in Baltimore in 1839. Pope Gregory XVI proclaimed that "no one in the future dare to vex anyone, despoil him of his possessions, reduce to servitude, or lend aid and favor to those who give themselves up to these practices, or exercise that inhuman traffic by which the Blacks, as if they were not men but rather animals, having been brought into servitude, in no matter what way, are, without any distinction, in contempt of the rights of justice and humanity, bought, sold and devoted sometimes to the hardest labor."

Nevertheless, the first bishop of Charleston, S.C., attempted to soften the blow. Quoting scripture and Catholic doctrine, Bishop John England wrote a series of letters arguing that the pope didn't mean to attack those -- including Catholics -- who already owned slaves.

"Bishop England was not a bad man. He was not personally in favor of slavery, nor was he a racist," noted Father John Raphael of New Orleans, at a rally organized as an alternative to the University of Notre Dame's graduation rites.

"In fact, Bishop England exercised a cherished and personal ministry to black Catholics," he added. "But in the face of strong, anti-Catholic sentiment and prejudice, he simply wanted to show his fellow antebellum Southerners that Catholics could be just as American as everybody else and that tolerance of their cherished institution -- slavery -- was not in any way opposed by the Catholic church."

It was wrong for Catholics of that era to seek any compromise on slavery, stressed Raphael, who serves as principal of St. Augustine High School, one of Louisiana's most prominent African-American institutions. It is just as wrong, today, for Catholic leaders to compromise on abortion. At least the slaves were allowed to live, to be baptized and to receive the sacraments, he said.

The symbolism was obvious, since the priest is a prominent African-American graduate of Notre Dame.

The symbolism was more than obvious, since he was speaking at a rally protesting Notre Dame's decision to grant President Barack Obama an honorary doctor of laws degree, clashing with a U.S. Catholic bishops policy that states: "Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles. They should not be given awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions."

The Mass and rally on Notre Dame's south quad followed hours of prayers in the university's Alumni Hall and famous Marian grotto. These solemn, peaceful events received little media attention, even though they drew several hundred or several thousand participants, depending on who did the counting, as well as 25 Notre Dame faculty members, 26 graduating seniors and Bishop John D’Arcy of the Catholic Diocese of Ft. Wayne-South Bend. A louder standoff between police and 100 off-campus activists -- led by anti-abortion leader Randall Terry -- received most of the news coverage.

During the actual commencement address, a few protesters yelled, "Stop killing our children." Most of the graduates booed the protesters, then chanted, "Yes we can," Obama's campaign slogan, and "We are ND" as they were removed.

Notre Dame President John Jenkins stressed that Obama accepted Notre Dame's invitation knowing that "we are fully supportive of church teaching on the sanctity of human life and we oppose his policies on abortion and embryonic stem cell research."

"President Obama is not someone who stops talking to those who differ with him," stressed Father Jenkins. Then he added, "Mr. President, this is a principle we share."

Meanwhile, many of the speakers at the "Notre Dame Rally for Life" openly criticized Obama's policies, but consistently focused their harshest words on the actions of the current Notre Dame administration.

"Faith without works is dead, words without actions are meaningless," said Father Raphael. "If, as we have been told, a dialogue is actually taking place … between the presidents of Notre Dame and the United States, between the university and the nation, then, for the university at least, that dialogue must be shaped by truth and charity, and protecting the sanctity of all human life, as the church understands life, must be its goal. …

"Actively building a culture of life at Notre Dame must become central to the university's witness and mission to the nation and to the world."

B16 challenges his bishops

The headlines and dramatic photos rush by during a papal visit, framing the sound bites that journalists uncover in stacks of Vatican speech texts.

So Pope Benedict XVI visited the White House and proclaimed "God bless America!" Then he noted that, in this culture of radical individualism, "Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility."

The former theology professor, speaking to Catholic college leaders, enthusiastically embraced academic freedom. Then he stressed that traditional doctrine -- as "upheld by the Church's Magisterium" -- should shape all aspects of a truly Catholic "institution's life, both inside and outside the classroom."

The former prisoner of war, speaking at the United Nations, hailed the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Then he dared to claim that the document's defense of universal truths is built on "the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations."

The pope spoke to a wide variety of audiences during this visit and he emphasized words of praise and encouragement, not judgment. After all, Benedict could speak to gatherings of U.S. politicians and global diplomats, but he knew that he had no real authority over them. Also, as strange as it sounds, the pope's control over what happens on Catholic campuses is limited, at best.

Thus, the message that mattered the most came when Benedict faced the 350 American bishops in the crypt under the soaring Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. In theory, the bishops answer directly to the pope when it comes time to explain what happens at their altars and in the pews.

The sound bite that dominated the news afterwards focused on the sexual abuse of children and teens by Catholic clergy, with the pope agreeing with Chicago Cardinal Francis George's verdict that the scandal was "sometimes very badly handled" by the church hierarchy.

"Many of you have spoken to me of the enormous pain that your communities have suffered when clerics have betrayed their priestly obligations and duties by such gravely immoral behavior," said Benedict. "Rightly, you attach priority to showing compassion and care to the victims. It is your God-given responsibility as pastors to bind up the wounds caused by every breach of trust, to foster healing, to promote reconciliation and to reach out with loving concern to those so seriously wronged. ...

"Now that the scale and gravity of the problem is more clearly understood, you have been able to adopt more focused remedial and disciplinary measures and to promote a safe environment that gives greater protection to young people. While it must be remembered that the overwhelming majority of clergy and religious in America do outstanding work ... it is vitally important that the vulnerable always be shielded from those who would cause harm."

A leader of a support group for victims pressed on. The pope's statement that the scandal was "somewhat mishandled" is inaccurate, because "this is a current crisis, not a past one," said Barbara Doris of St. Louis, speaking for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "The phrase obscures the unassailable fact that hundreds of bishops willfully and repeatedly deceive parishioners, stonewall police and leave children at risk."

But there was more to this speech than one big quotation. While the pope's address challenged the bishops to keep wrestling with the sexual-abuse scandal, he also put these evil acts in a wider framework -- an era of revolt against the church's moral teachings. And who is in charge of defending these doctrines, while finding ways to strengthen marriages and families?

That would be the church's bishops, said Benedict. Thus, he urged them to address the sin of abuse within the "wider context of sexual mores," thus setting an example for society as a whole. This crisis, he said, calls "for a determined, collective response," a response led by the bishops.

"Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships," he said. "They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today. ... What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?

"We need to reassess urgently the values underpinning society, so that a sound moral formation can be offered to young people and adults alike."