Prickly Pear, at Far From Rome, has written about a personal decision to remove himself from the sacramental life of the Church. He says that this was “precipitated” by moving house, but has been a long time coming – and was preceded by substantial time for reflection, during a time without easy internet access. It’s important to note here, that this time was accompanied by an increase in meditation practice. I was alerted to Pear’s post by a report on it by Jayden Cameron at Gay Mystic, who writes on his own experience outside the formal life of the Church for over 25 years. Anyone who is familiar with Jayden’s writing will recognize that he too may have left the institutional church, but retains a very strong spiritual, even sacramental life, with a strong devotion to the Eucharist. He simply chooses to practice his spirituality independently. Pear quotes from a Commonweal article by Cathleen Kaveny (sadly, hidden behind a paywall I cannot access), on many others who are doing the same thing:
From the perspective of these Catholics, doctrine and practice are not developing but withering. But why not stay and fight? First, because they think remaining appears to involve complicity in evil; second, because fighting appears to be futile; and, third, because they don’t like what fighting is doing to them. The fight is diminishing their ability to hear the gospel and proclaim that good news. The fight is depriving them of the peace of Christ.
Bill Lindsey at Bilgrimage is another important Catholic blogger who writes specifically as a Catholic theologian, at his own site and at Open Tabernacle, and has frequently made clear his objections to participating formally in the sacramental life of the Catholic church. He has a useful summary of Kaveny’s piece, and includes this extract:
From the perspective of these Catholics, doctrine and practice are not developing but withering. But why not stay and fight? First, because they think remaining appears to involve complicity in evil; second, because fighting appears to be futile; and, third, because they don’t like what fighting is doing to them. The fight is depriving them of the peace of Christ.
Prickly Pear, Jayden and Bill are far from alone. It has been widely reported that ex-Catholics, those who have either transferred to another denomination or simply ceased to identify as Catholic, are now the second largest religious denomination in the US. Similar patterns of disengagement are seen in many other parts of the world. (Research has shown that the most important reasons people give for leaving concern Vatican teaching on gender and sexual ethics, compulsory clerical celibacy, and the child abuse disgrace). I am more interested though, in another phenomenon: the abundant evidence that Catholics who choose to stay are simply ignoring official doctrine, on matters ranging from sexual ethics to church discipline.
A couple of months ago, an Irish paper asked, with reference to the call for a boycott of Mass, “Is this the start of a revolution in the Catholic Church?” My response is no, the start of a revolution is no longer possible. The revolution has already begun, and is well under way, in Ireland, in the US, and elsewhere.
It is now commonplace to observe that almost nobody any longer pays any attention to official doctrine on contraception – obedience to other matters of sexual ethics is not much stronger. There is abundant research evidence that demonstrates that “What the church teaches”, in the sense of Vatican doctrine, and “What Catholics believe” (i.e. in real life) diverge dramatically, on all other matters of sexual ethics. On premarital sex, on divorce, on masturbation, and even on abortion, most Catholics disagree with the formal Vatican doctrines.
Not only are the laity disregarding the rules: even among the clergy, estimates are that a substantial number of priests are disregarding their vows of celibacy, and so also ignoring the Church’s insistence that genital sexual expression outside of marriage and procreation is to be avoided at all costs. Some conduct faithful relationships with regular partners, sometimes even with the knowledge of supportive parishioners, others have covert one-night stands, or pay for prostitutes.
How many Catholics still wrestle with their conscience if they miss a Sunday Mass? There was a time when it was axiomatic that loyal Catholics would be in Church for Mass every Sunday morning (or possibly on Saturday evenings for the vigil Mass). This was more than simply an occasion to demonstrate the numbers, and provide an opportunity for the priest once more to pound away at his message of obedience to Church authority – it was also an opportunity to rake in the money from the Offertory collections. Today, even those who continue to see themselves as faithful Catholics may attend Mass less frequently – and often deliberately withhold contributions to the Offertory collections, especially where there is a sense that the monies are to be used in an inappropriate, socially divisive way, as with the use of Church funds in Maine to support the campaign against gay marriage.
The practice of regular private confession to a priest has almost disappeared. When I was at school, I was taught that as Catholics we should be grateful for the gift of the confessional, which for many Catholics reduced or eliminated the need for psychotherapy. When it works correctly, with a wise and sensitive confessor, I am sure that the observation is sound. But far too often, over many centuries the confessional has instead been abused as a site of terror. For as long Catholics believed that without formal absolution for their sins they were doomed to hellfire for all eternity, and that absolution could be obtained only from a priest in the confessional, many will have felt compelled to knuckle under to every command of the Catechism, no matter how ludicrous, or to submit to the scrutiny of a priest in the confessional. The confessional was thus a source of power for the clergy, even in areas of sexuality where they had demonstrably less real-life expertise than the people they commanded. Fortunately, the whole concept of the confessional has been transformed, to one of reconciliation rather than simple confession of guilt, and ever since the publication of “humane vitae”, there has been a much stronger awareness of the role of individual conscience. The confessional has lost its power of intimidation, and many people now simply refuse to go, or go much less frequently.
The emergence of the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement is for me the most striking example of outright defiance within the Church. At America Magazine, MICHAEL O’LOUGHLIN reflects on the image he saw in his local cathedral during a recent All Souls’ Mass. Of 20 people in the sanctuary, 18 were men. He asks,
What does an image like that say to girls and women sitting in the pews? That is, what do women and young girls feel while looking up at a sanctuary filled overwhelmingly with men?
The question has been asked before, and must be asked again, repeatedly. In the comments thread, one reader points to an appropriate response, to this and other examples of the inappropriate and outdated rules coming from the Vatican:
I wonder what qualities of ministry attach to a penis over a vagina, to put it graphically. My conclusion is that hierarchs feel threatened, and prefer to keep the status quo – not really out of any theological consideration, but as markers of their psychological dysfunction. The fear of the feminine is a powerful one. It poses too many centering questions.
I have since attended services where Episcopal women priests preside, and always welcome our female pastoral associate filling in at Eucharist services or whatever. A sign of the alarm women ignite is a recent chancery communique warning anyone to stay away from a woman priest in our area, and promising excommunication to those who attend her celebrations.
No matter, change is coming from the bottom up, and someday all this will seem like foolishness. Maybe that priest shortage is for an inspired reason, though married men come first, and when all other options are spent, women become acceptable. I don’t sweat it too much because the time is coming, and eventually, it will be, ‘What was all that fuss about?’
It is indeed remarkable, given the strong Vatican insistence on automatic excommunication for anyone assisting in the “attempted” ordination of women, that this movement continues to grow and attract support. As the number of male candidates for the priesthood continues to stagnate, how long will it be before the number of female ordinations exceeds that of men – at least in Europe and North America?
Obedience and dissent
Growing up in South Africa, I was taught that when faced with a choice between the demands of unjust laws and the prompting of conscience, the Catholic obligation is to follow conscience every time. When people have done so in sufficiently large numbers, they have frequently been able to overcome unjust laws: “the best way to destroy an unjust law is to ignore it”.
“From the bottom up” is an important part of how change came to South Africa, and to Eastern Europe, and before that how Mahatma Gandhi, with his campaign of Satryagraha forced change on the British in the Indian sub-continent – and hence on the rest of the British colonial empire. These examples, and many others, overcame forces with substantial military and political power. In the Church, the power of the episcopal oligarchy rests entirely on their control of our minds – and it is now obvious that that power is eroding rapidly. The manifest wrongheadedness of Humanae Vitae taught many Catholics the validity of following conscience before Vatican doctrine – and that lesson is now being applied elsewhere.
“That was a watershed. Up to that time, I think, practically all Catholics accepted that, whether they disobeyed Catholic teaching or not, the teaching was right. It was there that the questioning began.”
-Bishop Willie Walsh, quoted at Irish Times
Yet this doesn’t mean that people are turning away from God and religion – interest in spirituality and personal prayer remains high.
The Kairos moment
Jayden Cameron at Gay Mystic, reflecting on the decline in allegiance to the institutional church offers his own explanation in theological terms – he sees this as a sign of the Holy Spirit at work:
There is a movement underway here and I’m convinced it’s a movement of the Holy Spirit – showing us in such lives that the ‘sacramental life of the church’ (and I would include the Eucharist) can continue, flourish and survive outside the present formal obediential structures of the Roman institution (though this was not exactly Prickly Pear’s intent in his statement, I’m enlarging here). Many of us are being called to witness to the life of the Spirit independent of the institution. When it is healthy, it can be an enormous help, but it is not an Absolute entity that is essential to the spiritual journey. When it becomes unhealthy, it becomes a danger – to young gay persons especially. The great Catholic tradition, however, is another matter, and here as well I feel many of us are being given the calling to maintain the living flame of this tradition in the wilderness of a very dark time
The Spirit is ahead of us on this one, way ahead. The bottom line for myself: peace and joy and the living face of the Beloved are found outside the door, not within the formal chamber of the church. And since so many of us are feeling this, what then is the Spirit saying by this powerful witnessing movement? We cannot claim credit for it ourselves, something very significant and powerful is being messaged here about the very nature of institutional religion. Peace, joy and love in the Spirit flourish on the margins of belief.
Change indeed is coming from the bottom up. The old slogan “pray, pay, obey” has given way to “pray, don’t pay, disobey.”
And I thank God for that.
- Cathleen Kaveny on the Long Goodbye of Some American Catholics, and the Continuing Need for Honest Conversation (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)
- Celibacy and a Wounded Church: Readers’ Observations (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- Bishops “Protecting Marriage” and the ‘had it’ Catholics (queeringthechurch.wordpress.com)
- Heeding the Call of the Spirit: Women Priests in Santa Barbara (gaymystic.blogspot.com)
- Talking Treason in Church (gaymystic.blogspot.com)
- An Old Catholic Perspective on the Roman Hierarchy’s “Dumbing Down” of the Catholic Church (thewildreed.blogspot.com)
- Ongoing Catholic Conversation about Sexual Morality: Two Recent National Catholic Reporter Pieces (bilgrimage.blogspot.com)
- The Lost Catholic Church In America, Ctd (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com)
- Robert Blair Kaiser Urges Irish to Fix Their “Broken Church” (opentabernacle.wordpress.com)