I can count on one hand the number of my close friends who attend church regularly, even using the most generously Protestant definition of “regularly.” The de-churching of my friends includes those from all chapters of my life—childhood, college, and now as a working professional in Washington. And though grace works in mysterious ways, it appears many will not return anytime soon.
I greeted the realization that many of those closest to me were forsaking their church, which in most cases was the Catholic Church, with a shrug. I attributed their diminished participation to laziness, indifference, or a lack of intellectual depth that caused them to stray from the rigors of a robust spiritual life.
I think I was wrong to dismiss their concerns so easily.
Over the past couple of months—it is difficult to pinpoint a date—I have struggled immensely with my own identification as a Catholic. Sure, there are still the usual squabbles about Latin versus English, altar girls versus altar boys, whether bishops x or y are too political or out of touch. But something else is going on; this is deeper. There was that short flash of time several weeks ago when Catholics across the various spectrums seemed united: we did not want our religiously affiliated institutions compelled to break their consciences by providing coverage for contraception. But that wholeness went away nearly as quickly as it arrived, and in its wake we are left with a sort of bitter smugness from the Catholic right whose taste I haven’t been able to wash away.
Some on the Catholic right make it clear that any viewpoints that diverge from their own are not welcome in their church. Speaking or writing about ideas that may challenge church teaching, however gently, removes one from their faith. There is seemingly no mercy on the right. The Catholic left is ailing and will surely continue to diminish as my generation grows into adulthood; the environment is so toxic that progressives find other ways to live their faith, away from the institutional church. Some wish, rightly, that there be no divide between right and left, conservative and liberal, but this is not the church in which we find ourselves today. And often, those who clamor for an end to the divide too often toe the line that often animates Catholic ecumenism: adjust your beliefs, join our tribe, and all will be well.
To those whose lives fit snugly within the constructs the church accepts, this ultimatum might be easy enough to embrace. But in a society where those constructs echo back to a quaint time that never actually existed, where individuals have more choices, where decisions have become mind-bogglingly complex, where women and men can live full lives without the strictures of religious faith, it’s not that simple.
I’m no longer surprised when a close female friend, successful and well educated, looks askew at a male-dominated church and cringes before she walks away. When those charged with teaching the faith tell their flock to believe or act a certain way because their authority gives them the right to do so, it becomes easier to see why many chuckle as they interpret this as a parent scolding a toddler: do this because I said so. Gay men and women rightly refuse to succumb to bullying in their professional and familial lives, so it’s not a surprise when they leave a church that calls them disordered. And though we are over a decade removed from the revelation of clergy sex abuse of minors, many in my generation will never again give the benefit of the doubt to the Catholic hierarchy on matters of faith, morals, or much else.
Various versions of this post have circulated through my mind for the past couple weeks. I feel it’s a bit too personal and a bit too dismal. I love the institutional church. I've chosen it, spiritually, educationally, and now professionally, for much of my life. That is why writing this is so difficult. I’ve written a few times that we are an Easter people and that through all the pain and hurt we are still whole. But we find ourselves in Lent, the time of darkness before the light.
The Archdiocese of Washington, where I live, is sponsoring an ad campaign throughout the city that exhorts Catholics to go to confession during Lent. The ads, mostly on city busses, feature a bright star and proclaim, “The Light is ON for You.” For me, that light is flickering. For the many in my life who have left the church, the flame is extinguished. Perhaps, though, we are an Easter people, and maybe the paschal candle will once again burn brightly for us.