Can We Please Have Our Own Church?

When I was in junior high school, I went to watch Whitey Ford’s artistry on the mound at Yankee Stadium with a Jewish friend and his father. His mother made us some sandwiches to take along. A couple innings in, we pulled them out – quite lovely roast beef. But it was Friday. I was Catholic. As Jews with their own dietary disciplines, they immediately understood. Back then, people took it for granted that different faiths have particular ways of following God.

My friend’s family was largely assimilated and not especially observant. He went on to become one of Oliver North’s lawyers during the Iran/Contra trial. But I often think back to those days, when America not only honored religious tolerance with its lips. It – meaning we, and the institutions supposed to be by, of, and for the people – honored various faiths in simple practice as well – and mostly in silence, without theatrical gestures in front of TV cameras.

When you make arguments like this today, inevitably someone stands up and says, yes, but you’re forgetting the racism, inequality of women, and other prejudices of those times. I haven’t forgotten them at all. But whenever someone tries to change the subject, without dealing with the specific issue at hand, I also don’t forget that evasion has its reason.

It’s good that we overcame some of those earlier injustices; not so good that we lost the civic friendship and basic fairness towards religion that once surprised visitors to America.

It’s unbelievable to some people, but we’ve also arrived at a narrower sense of what religion is. After all, haven’t we all been to college now and come into contact with a “diverse” group of people, and maybe even studied other cultures with their religious traditions? And done semesters abroad?

Perhaps so, but much of this is what Camus once called “the usual mouthwash.” People may now have a superficial sense of different world religions, but just as many – believers and non-believers alike, to judge from appearances – have no experience with a rich, concrete, lived faith.

That’s the only possible explanation to some of the rude reactions this past week to the Vatican statement calling for the reform of American orders of women. If you read through it, you’ll see that Rome commends our nuns for the many and obvious contributions they have made to our religious and secular life.

But it’s less than delighted by the many and obvious departures from Catholic teaching by some members of the Leadership Conference of Women’s Religious (LCWR), an unfortunate remnant of an unfortunate time, namely the two decades following the Second Vatican Council.

In other words, it’s the religiosity and Catholicity of a segment of those women’s religious leaders that Rome has carefully identified and called on to reform. Those of us who owe much to the old dames and many of the nuns nominally “represented” by LCWR themselves know exactly what Rome means.

In one way, it’s unnecessary. The orders that most vigorously embraced the old sixties agenda are rapidly aging, without new vocations, and soon destined for the history books. By contrast, new and already reformed communities are generally begging for help – to support the significant numbers of young women they attract.

The defenders of the LCWR, however, have no eye for the disputed religiosity or the nonviability of an ill conceived and highly secularized model of consecrated life. Instead, they change the subject to the things no one is disputing, like the work of nuns in hospitals, schools, and relief agencies, which for anti-Rome purposes count as religious activities – though not when it comes to HHS regulations.

And like the more radical elements in LCWR – they judge, and I mean these “non-judgmental” types judge, Rome on the basis of flimsily crafted feminism, secular criteria, the bishops’ manifest failure in handling sexual abuse, and a conception of Church organization that is not and never has been Catholic.  

It’s often asked about dissenters: why do they stay? If you think Rome has no special authority to determine the full truth of Christianity, why stay connected with it? Talk of going “beyond Jesus” and “the evolution of consciousness,” two recent LCWR featured items, has a decidedly sixties odor – and non-Catholic feel.

By the 1970s, seeing the post-conciliar chaos, even the maverick theologian Karl Rahner warned, “The Church cannot be a debating society: it must be able to make decisions binding on all within it. Such a demand cannot be a priori contrary to man’s dignity if. . .he is indeed a social being.”

That’s the big picture. But it has humbler application. In most places, there’s probably a church building near the local Catholic church that has everything you may believe in: women priests, gay clergy and homosexual “marriages,” higher or lower forms of liturgy, structures that allow you to pick and choose among doctrines and practices. It’s called Protestantism, and a widely available option for whoever thinks it’s the right choice.

Protestants are generally quite decent human beings, often enough more devout than the average Catholic. Their churches are not what I think Jesus intended His Church to be. But as Vatican II stated, they still retain many authentic elements of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Insofar as that’s so, it’s an honorable choice for people who remain unpersuaded, for whatever reason, by Catholicism.

But it’s disrespectful, disingenuous, and offensive for non-Catholics to criticize the Church for being Catholic. Tell us we’re wrong, but don’t tell us – even our bishops – that we don’t understand Catholicism.

And Catholics who seem inclined towards traditionally Protestant modes ought frankly to acknowledge it. If you can’t accept Catholic teachings, perhaps it’s time go where your head and heart already are. God be with you. And may He have mercy on us all.

But for God’s sake, leave the Catholic Church alone, if only out of simple respect for those of us who believe in Her.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.