During a discussion about spiritual matters, a good friend, a devout Jew who had read most of what I have written about psychology and spirituality, asked me, “Why are you still Catholic?” She noted that my writings suggest not only that I have a lot of questions, but also that I struggle mightily with the failings of the Catholic Church as an organization.
In light of the clerical sex-abuse scandal, that question of why I remain Catholic is again before me. The Pennsylvania grand jury report released in August 2018 raised the question in a new, more personal manner.
I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, one of the dioceses examined in the grand jury report. In my business, the rule of thumb is: “Don’t ask a question if you’re not prepared to deal with the answer.” I thought of that as I prepared to examine the list of priests for whom there was credible evidence of abusive behavior toward children. I expected two names to be on the list since my Catholic high school had already approached alumni about these men. But then I saw one name I hadn’t expected.
When I was in seventh and eighth grade, a priest in our parish, Father G, took me under his wing. He appointed me as instructor for the new altar boys (a great honor!) and helped me find a summer job. He was one of the inspirations for my desire to become a priest. Father G’s name is on that list.
This man never laid a hand on me, but he was later found to be a pedophile who had abused numerous boys. When I saw his name and the things he had done, all his kindness to me became suspect. Pedophiles are known for “grooming,” in which they build a relationship with a child based on kindness and nurturance that they then use as the foundation for sexualizing the relationship. Was Father G grooming me? I don’t know, but seeing his name on that list undermined what had been a positive experience for me. It gave me a different level of insight into the betrayal felt by victims of clergy abuse.
This, in turn, stirred up an experience I’d had while visiting a seminary in my teens. I was to room with a seminarian. During the night, I woke up to him trying to molest me. My aggressive response put a quick end to that, and I dismissed the experience. The Pennsylvania report brought it back to me.
These events have not been the only source of my struggles as to why I am still Catholic. I have at times been outspoken, challenging the Church to be more transparent and responsive in dealing with survivors of clergy abuse. This was not always received well. Once I was labeled an enemy of the Church. Another time I learned from a client that a well-placed priest whom I had never met “really dislikes you,” apparently in part because of an article I had written for America magazine and a later television interview in which I stated my fear that the Church is dying.
What I have been confronted with is the utter humanness of the Church. Flawed leaders who manage out of fear. Church officials caught up in power. Manipulative individuals interested in using others. Overworked priests making bad decisions in the face of stress and depression.
How Leaving Brought Me Back
As I wrestle with the question, I must ask myself: Are you still Catholic merely out of habit? Are you afraid to pursue another path? Thankfully, I was able to lay this issue to rest some years ago when I took a sabbatical from Catholicism. I stopped attending Sunday Mass and participating in Catholicism in any way. I hoped to get some perspective.
I read the works of great Christians not afraid to question: C.S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and writers of other faiths such as Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
Over the course of those months, I came to see that there was much about Catholicism that I missed. I found that I missed Mass. Granted, there is much that I don’t understand (e.g., transubstantiation), but I found myself yearning for the mysticism of Mass as well as the comfort I found in the Eucharist. I missed connecting with the saints, especially the down-to-earth saints like Damien of Molokai and Dismas, who struggled yet were able to rise above their own humanness. And so I went back.
I continued to treat victims of clergy abuse and came to see that the real tragedy was the damage that had been done to their spirits. Some rejected Catholicism in favor of another path. Others rejected formal religion altogether. Still others rejected God.
When the movie Spotlight came out, I was overwhelmed with emotion when I saw my two homes—Scranton, Pennsylvania, and El Paso, Texas—listed at the end as cities with confirmed incidents of clergy abuse. I thought of survivors I had evaluated and counseled, especially one young man who had been molested by a priest mentioned in the movie. After that film, I again struggled with why I remain Catholic as I saw just how massive that crisis had been both in the United States and internationally.
After the Pennsylvania report, I had some hope for a new, more honest response from the Church. But I also have a fear based on something a victim had told me. Although as a boy he had been abused by a priest, this man served the Church in many meaningful ways. One evening he sat in a committee meeting in his parish. When the topic of the clergy abuse crisis came up, one woman said: “This crisis is only a small blip in the Church’s history. The Church will survive.”
My fear is that many in the Catholic Church will proceed under the assumption—the evil assumption—that the crisis will pass and nothing really major needs to change.
And yet I am still Catholic. Why?
I am still Catholic because I still believe in Jesus’ message. His way is a path to live out the message that love can overcome all and that we are here to take care of one another. But I also agree with Wendell Berry when he writes, in Blessed Are the Peacemakers, that Christianity has become fashionable in the United States but in fact “seems to have remarkably little to do with things that Jesus Christ actually taught.”
Do you remember the fad of wearing WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) bracelets? As I try to live out Jesus’ message, it helps to consider that question. What would Jesus do? I am fairly certain he would be at the migrant youth camp in nearby Tornillo, Texas, handing out clothes and plates of food. I am sure he would be stroking the forehead of someone dying of AIDS. I’m sure he would be sitting with the teenager afraid to tell his/her parents that he/she is gay. Jesus might very well be in a protest at the local abortion clinic, but he would also sit listening to the teenage mother who leaves that clinic after her abortion. Those are some reasons why I’m still Catholic. My Catholicism informs WWJD.
A Path to Redemption
I am still Catholic because I believe in redemption as most recovering addicts do. A redemptive experience heals us and sets a new direction for us. In many ways, the Church has lost its way. Leaders have lost credibility. The demand from survivors of clergy abuse that bishops also be held accountable has received a mixed response. Yes, many dioceses (including El Paso) have reached out to survivors of clergy abuse, offering help. Yet the system of governance that gave rise to secrecy and deception remains unchanged.
Who knows what a redemptive experience within the Catholic Church will look like? Perhaps trust will be rebuilt. Perhaps the relationship between laity and clergy will be reshaped into something more coequal, with laity sharing in the responsibility of governance. Perhaps the roles and responsibilities of deacons will be expanded. Perhaps the role of women will expand in meaningful ways. All I know is that grace and redemption are real and can redirect our lives in dramatic ways. I pray for grace and redemption for the Church.
I am still Catholic because I believe persons in authority can face the dark side of power and grow from it. It is this dark side of power—not lust—that has almost destroyed the Church. Yet I know many, many priests and nuns who are aware of this dark side and work hard to use their power in life-affirming ways.
I am still Catholic because I am inspired by the example of several who got it right, embraced Christ’s message, and lived it in ways that expressed their gifts. I find hope and inspiration during these dark times from the likes of Dorothy Day, Teilhard de Chardin, Daniel Berrigan, and St. John XXIII. All faced criticism, even from other Catholics. All suffered from their efforts to live a Christlike life. Dorothy Day and Daniel Berrigan were incarcerated. Teilhard was silenced for his efforts to unite science and theology. St. John XXIII was dismissed as temporary when first elected pope and to this day is criticized in some Catholic circles for his efforts to help his Church find a fresh path in the 20th century.
These heroes remind me that the call as a Catholic to live out Jesus’ message can be met, but it often exacts a price.
A New Question and a New Challenge
As I try to answer the question, though, I must also hold myself accountable. What kind of Catholic am I today? In what way do I need to challenge myself to be a better Catholic?
To share that answer with you, I need to share a story. Some years ago I was having a conversation with a wonderful man who had served many years as a missionary in South America. He had been on a retreat and was preparing to walk in the desert for prayer and meditation. As part of this walk, he asked God to provide him with something that would focus his meditation. He then looked to one side and there in the desert sand was a cross!
This inspired me to take my own meditative walk. On Good Friday I decided to walk home from my office—a distance of some 12 miles. I also prayed for a sign to guide my meditation. As I walked along I saw all kinds of things that could be the sign—a piece of paper blowing by, a telephone pole, etc. I then began to panic that I would miss seeing it.
Finally, I gave up. At that very moment, I looked across the street and saw a friend, a woman whom I greatly admire for her service to the displaced. I stopped to greet her and went on my way. Then it hit me. “Delia was the sign!” I was called to reflect on how introverted my spiritual world is and how I needed to be more open to extroverted spirituality.
Extroverted Catholicism remains a challenge. I am not drawn to community of any sort. I am not drawn to spiritual practices that involve interaction with others. So I have work to do as far as Catholic community is concerned, especially during these challenging times.
There are many other themes that I must address as part of my answer—humility, anger, healing old hurts, forgiveness. All these themes affect my attitude toward the Church, and my Catholicism calls me to address them.
We laity are the Church. Yes, its survival depends upon the hierarchy making wise, humble decisions. But more so it depends on my exploring and pursuing how I as a layman can help the Church find redemption.
Why are you still Catholic?