NY Times columnist: “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Bill Donohue is right”

That’s how former editor Bill Keller starts his column this morning:

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but Bill Donohue is right. Donohue, the chronically peeved president of the Catholic League, and I rarely see eye to eye, but he is right about one very big thing: how to resolve the crisis in Catholicism. My endorsement may horrify him as much as it surprises me.

Lest anyone think Keller has undergone a conversion experience — or reversion, since he’s a lapsed Catholic — he makes his case a little later, suggesting the best thing for a sizable number of Catholics to do would be just to leave:

What you learn if you listen to the Catholic Church in the plain language of Bill Donohue is that it is not about to change direction. Not in this century. The parishioners who hope for a kinder, more inclusive church, the nuns who are now being rebuked by the Vatican because they have doubts on subjects like gay marriage and the ordination of women — the church’s message to them is: Shut up or go.

Face it, even at the high-water mark of contemporary church reform, the Vatican II council, issues like the stained-glass ceiling and intolerance of gays were not really on the table. And that tide was been receding for nearly 50 years. Indeed, the church’s 1960s effort to engage the modern world is now regarded in the current Curia as part of an era of degenerate individualism — Woodstock, Stonewall, Vatican II — that is blamed for all kinds of deviant outcomes, including the scandal of priests who can’t keep it in their cassocks.

Donohue notes that roughly a quarter of Americans identify themselves as Catholic. He reckons maybe half of those, the more conservative half, attend church regularly and contribute. “They’re the ones who pay the bills,” he said. “Can we afford to ignore the other half? I think we can.” And as for the unsettled religious orders, the nuns and priests who vowed allegiance and now preach dissent, why should the church put up with insubordination?

“Do we have more than a handful of nuns who have totally lost their moorings?” Donohue mused. “Oh, yeah.”

His point: “Quite frankly I believe, as Pope Benedict the XVIth said just before he became pope, that maybe a smaller church would be a better church.”

Much as I wish I could encourage the discontented, the Catholics of open minds and open hearts, to stay put and fight the good fight, this is a lost cause. Donohue is right. Summon your fortitude, and just go. If you are not getting the spiritual sustenance you need, if you are uneasy being part of an institution out of step with your conscience — then go. The restive nuns who are planning a field trip to Rome for a bit of dialogue? Be assured, unless you plan to grovel, no one will be listening. Sisters, just go. Bill Donohue will hold the door for you.

Go where? Well, the history of Christianity is filled with schisms and offshoots. Last spring I attended Sunday Mass at a breakaway church called Spiritus Christi in Rochester, a congregation that describes itself as “Catholic, not Roman Catholic.” Spiritus Christi has a female pastor and began performing gay marriages long before the State of New York legalized them. Mass was packed with as joyous a crowd of worshipers as I have ever seen. I could imagine hundreds of Spiritus Christis — and leave it to the theologians to debate whether the Vatican or these defectors have the stronger claim to being the authentic heirs of St. Peter.

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