I’m not quitting the church
By E.J. Dionne Jr., Published: May 13
Recently, agroup called the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post castas an “open letter to ‘liberal’ and ‘nominal’ Catholics.” Its headlinecommanded: “It’s Time to Quit the Catholic Church.”
The adincluded the usual criticism of Catholicism, but I was most struck by thisparagraph: “If you think you can change the church from within — get it tolighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem-cellresearch — you’re deluding yourself. By remaining a ‘good Catholic,’ you aredoing ‘bad’ to women’s rights. You are an enabler. And it’s got to stop.”
My, my.Putting aside the group’s love for unnecessary quotation marks, it was shockingto learn that I’m an “enabler” doing “bad” to women’s rights. But Catholicliberals get used to these kinds of things. Secularists, who never likedCatholicism in the first place, want us to leave the church, but so do Catholicconservatives who want the church all to themselves.
I’m sorry toinform the FFRF that I am declining its invitation to quit. It may not see theGospel as a liberating document, but I do, and I can’t ignore the good done inthe name of Christ by the sisters, priests, brothers and lay people who havedevoted their lives to the poor and the marginalized.
And on women’srights, I take as my guide that early feminist Pope John XXIII. In Pacemin Terris,his encyclical issued in 1963, the same year Betty Friedan published “TheFeminine Mystique,” Pope John spoke of women’s “natural dignity.”
“Far frombeing content with a purely passive role or allowing themselves to be regardedas a kind of instrument,” he wrote, “they are demanding both in domestic and inpublic life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.”
I’d like the FFRFto learn more about the good Pope John, but I wish our current bishops wouldthink more about him, too. I wonder if the bishops realize how some in theirranks have strengthened the hands of the church’s adversaries (and disheartenedmany of the faithful) with public statements — including that odious comparisonof President Obama to Hitler by aPeoria prelate last month — that threaten to shrink the church into a narrow,conservative sect.
Do the bishopsnotice how often those of us who regularly defend the church turn to the workof nuns on behalf of charity and justice to prove Catholicism’s detractorswrong? Why in the world would the Vatican, apparently pushed by right-wingAmerican bishops, think it was a good idea to condemn the Leadership Conferenceof Women Religious, the main organization of nuns in the United States?
The Vatican’sstatement, issued last month, seemed to be the revenge of conservative bishopsagainst the many nuns who broke with the hierarchy and supported health-carereform in 2010. The nuns insisted, correctly, that the health-care law did notfund abortion. This didn’t sit well with men unaccustomed to beingcontradicted, and the Vaticantook the LCWR to task for statements that “disagree with or challenge positionstaken by the bishops.”
Oh yes, andthe nuns are also scolded for talking a great deal about social justice and notenough about abortion (as if the church doesn’t talk enough about abortionalready). But has it occurred to the bishops that less stridency mightchange more hearts and minds on this very difficult question?
A thoughtfulfriend recently noted that carrying a child to term is an act of overwhelminggenerosity. For nine months, a woman gives her body to another life, not tomention the rest of her years. Might the bishops consider that their preachingon abortion would have more credibility if they treated women in the church,including nuns, with the kind of generosity they are asking of potentialmothers? They might usefully embrace a similar attitude toward gay men andlesbians.
Too manybishops seem in the grip of dark suspicions that our culture is moving atbreakneck speed toward a demonic end. Pope John XXIII, by contrast, was moreoptimistic about the signs of the times.
“Distrustfulsouls see only darkness burdening the face of the earth,” he once said. “Weprefer instead to reaffirm all our confidence in our Savior who has notabandoned the world which he redeemed.” The church best answers its criticswhen it remembers that its mission is to preach hope, not fear.