“I Wish I Could Quit You”

Last week, National Catholic Reporter published an essay by Joe Orso titled “The Power of the Dying Hierarchy Is An Illusion.” With lines comparing the Church leadership to a dying dragon and an impotent old man, it’s a challenging read, and easy to mistake for a rant. But Orso’s main point, that the Vatican and the bishops have only a limited impact on the views and practices of the faithful, is hard to refute.

Orso’s own faith journey is a case in point. Though he no longer attends weekly Mass, he still considers himself Catholic. “My experience of Catholicism,” he writes, “is relational.” His most profound and faith-sustaining relationships have been with the type of religious sisters lately censured by the Vatican. He has every confidence that, despite any meddling on the hierarchy’s part, the sisters’ “live-giving” charismata will “persist, transform, perhaps die and resurrect but certainly continue far into the future, as long as humans exist.”

Anyone could make the case that, lacking any institutional support, life-giving sisters could become pretty tough to find. (Or maybe not — this is the digital age, after all, where community is only a few clicks away.) Still, Orso’s not the first person I’ve seen settle more or less happily into a kind of niche spirituality. One of the my first regular readers belonged to a schismatic traditionalist sect. Because it’s small and relatively underfunded, the sect has no ad extra ministries and no higher-learning institutions for laypeople. What it does have, however, is the Latin Mass, which it offers on a daily basis. That’s what this reader wanted, and that’s what she got. Know thyself and thy priorities, the rule seems to go, and thou wilt find a way to be happy.

But few Catholics are truly anarchists at heart. Even many who currently feel driven to a state of rebellion approve strong Church leadership provided the leaders lead in a direction they approve. Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle, who once compared a U.S. Navy nuclear-weapons facility to Auschwitz — a bit of grandstanding by any reasonable standard — remains a hero to those who found Bishop Jenky’s Obama-bashing speech overbearing and alarmist.

When the European theater of the child sex abuse scandal first opened, pundit and former Paulist Father James Carroll was quick to denounce the culture of a celibate clergy for the way it strives to control the inner lives of the faithful. But for Bl. Pope John XXIII, a product of that culture, Carroll admits to a kind of hero-worship. Being embraced by the pope in a private audience brought the young Carroll “to a sure trust in God’s love,” and inspired him to enter the seminary. Though part of the draw for Carroll was Papa Roncalli’s “magnanimous” personality, he must recognize, at a certain level, that summoning all the world’s bishops to an ecumenical council required the same nerve and force of character that Ike showed in invading Normandy.

Watching authoritatianism creep out of the closet can be a hoot. Or it can make the skin crawl. An author once suggested, apparently more than half in earnest, that bishops confine priests convicted through canonical proceedings of child abuse to locked-down “healing and treatment” centers for the duration of their lives. More shocking than the woman’s Orwellian verbiage– would she treat really hard cases to a turn in the hempen spinal re-aligner? — was her inconsistency. Normally, she agreed with those who thought the bishops too autocratic. But where her priorities were at issue, she’d give them the power to banish priests to an ecclesial Château d’If.

My point is that Orso’s decision to go it alone on a matter of principle makes him more of an anomaly than a prototype. In a study conducted by Fr. William Byron, S.J., many lapsed Catholics from the Diocese of Trenton, NJ. cited an unresponsive hierarchy, or one too generous to pedophile priests, among their reasons for leaving. But when asked whether any changes in Church or parish might get their business back, their answers tended to reflect annoyances and deficiencies on the most local and micro levels. One respondent did report wishing that the Church would be “more accepting of divorced and remarried congregants,” but others wished for homilies more in line with their own politics, better childcare, and “more spiritual guidance.”

Many subjects expressed disagreement with Church teachings on homosexuality, or divorce and remarriage, but they did so in response to a direct question from the researchers. It doesn’t appear these disagreements formed their chief basis for alienation. Though it’s possible to see the oft-mentioned “aloof” and conspicuously consuming priests as products of decisions made higher up — for example, changes in seminary curricula — it still seems Catholics will give administration a free hand until their noses get rubbed directly in the handiwork.

Here’s another difference between the Trentonians and Orso: whereas an “overwhelming number” of Byron’s respondents report having left both parish and Church, Orso continues, doggedly, to call himself Catholic. The very fact that he cared enough to write his essay in the first place makes me suspect he has much less in common with the defectors in the study than he has with the semi-gruntled Catholics who populate comboxes all over Christendom. When feeling sorely pressed by official decisions, we react in a way that Orso considers a waste of time, namely, by “venting our frustration to each other about the Vatican’s actions or the ultraconservative pastor who has hijacked our parish.” I do wish he wouldn’t knock venting. Careers have been made there.

Anyway, implicit in the venting is always a hope — that the suits, guided by the power of the Holy Spirit, will come around to our version of common sense. Jews petition “Next year in Jerusalem”; sports fans tell each other “Wait till next year.” Aggrieved Catholics who care enough to follow Church news closely say, “Veni, Sancte Spiritu.” Our hopes may not be totally off the wall — barring infallible statements, there’s not much one pope can do that his successor can’t slide away from — but they do respresent a long shot. The fact that we insist on clinging to them (sometimes bitterly, as President Obama might have it) testifies to the fatal attraction ecclesial life can exert. Orso agrees with Native American essayist Vine Deloria that doctrine-happy religions are doomed to “collapse under their own silliness.” But there are plenty more out there who, like the cowboy in Brokeback Mountain, tell the Church, “I wish I could quit you.”

  • Robster

    What it really comes down to is what is or ought to be the core of faith. If it is based on an ideal of the institutional church in whatever aspect you will experience it (e.g., parish, bible study, homily, bishop’s statement, personal interaction with laity or clergy, architecture, etc.) it will always fall short. Just look at the condemnation of the prophets (e.g., Isaiah 1, Malachi 2) and the corruption of institutional Judaisim of the time. Yet, it was not the faith itself that was at fault but people’s insincere, hypocritical practice of it.

    I could put out a laundry list of faults to justify leaving the church. Bad music, albeit well played, boring homilies (in either content or presentation), the Indian (or Sri Lankan) priest at noon mass with the high pitched squeaky voice that sounds like a mosquito before it enters your ear, Bill Donahue on one of his really off days, the National Catholic Reporter, etc., etc.,

    But what am I there for? I don’t know always, but the alternative stinks. “Where else shall we go?” The disciples who remained did not understand the teaching of the Eucharist any better than those who marched. Neither do I. Somehow I stay.

    I trust somehow the Holy Spirit guides the church through all too fallible human beings.

    Re the nuns, like many defiant apostate/heretic Catholics, they havent got the integrity to say, “I don’t believe in this stuff anymore,” and leave. No, they like many others stay on sowing confusion.

    And by the way, have you noticed the disconnect between what the Vatican is complaining re the nun’s group, i.e., lack of adherence to established Catholic teaching, and how the nun’s group presents the conflict, i.e., you just dont appreciate the social good we do.

    Same old distortion that happened in the Susan Koman Foundation episode, and the HHS contraceptive mandate episode: Change the whole question of the conflict and drown out the opposition.

    I shan’t go on; I’m so riled up now I want it hold an inquisition! ;-)

  • http://breadhere.wordpress.com Fran Rossi Szpylczyn

    Where do I begin? I guess I will start by saying that you have really offered us a rich dish here, thanks Max.

    OK, now I guess I have to say something…

    For starters, thanks for pointing out how hypocritical we all are. I have to laugh when people get riled up and say things to me like, “I could never be a Catholic. (corners of lips turn downward here) I can’t be a hypocrite!” Well honey, I want to say – we all are at some level. That doesn’t make it OK, but getting it out in the open is a good start IMO.

    So when you mention Hunthausen (who I want to love and usually do) and the Auschwitz remark, and then follow with the James Carroll (who I do not have a lot of warm and fuzzy for) and his own contradictions. You lay bare the human condition in those sentences, and powerfully so.

    This brings me to my own odd space that I occupy. Too liberal for the conservatives and far too conservative for the liberals. I like to think that I am just an equal-opportunity annoyer! (Does that kind of statement make my butt look liberal?)

    In all seriousness, that is part of the problem. Who really wants to be Catholic? It means coming into a whole lot of discomfort, no matter what your standard might be. That kind of stinks on the surface, but if you promise not to tell a single soul, I will let you in on something. It is the gift of the faith if you ask me.

    That’s the point, it is not my church or yours, not Hunthausen’s or Bill Donohue’s or the National Catholic Reporter’s or the National Catholic Registers… I could go on and on. This is the point in the conversation when I am accused of relativism, creeping and otherwise, with a dose of liberal post Vatican II thrown in for good measure. Not true. It is just that we all want what we want. The doctrinal types will blame the less dogmatically inclined, saying, that is the teaching, the Magisterium. The pastoral types will blame the doctrinals, saying that is what Jesus was all about. Tsk, tsk – both/and baby, both/and, not either/or!

    Holy Mother Church will make all of us unhappy and wanting to throw someone else out at times. But the great news is that in and through Christ, we are called to be one. And that includes with the people who are most annoying.

    I’m not sure if this novel length comment will get me the boot or some booing, but either way, it is what came to my mind and heart. It may not make any sense to anyone but me – and hey, I’m muddled! So who knows, maybe next year, maybe next year – that is our hope, to be one in Christ. Whether we say for all or for many, just count on it annoying you at some point, and not being able to quit it for the most part. Amen to that.

  • John

    There is a generational divide too. Boomers who grew up and came of age in the late 60′s and 70′s are a very different group of people than us of “gen x” who came of age in the 80s and 90s.

    While you were kids during Vietnam and the upheavals of the 60s, we mostly were kids during the late 70s and didn’t know anything about Vietnam, civil rights, riots, assassinations, etc. Our Presidents were Carter and Reagan not LBJ and Nixon. Our Pope was JP2 not J23 or P6.

    Our faith – if we kept it at all – was informed by World Youth Days, marian devotions taught to us by grandmothers, the pro-life movement (not nuclear freeze).

    We didn’t have a huge crush on the USSR as some supposed “wave of the future”. Indeed our childhood boogey man was “the coming Ice age that scientists claim is a sure thing and will demand massive socialism (controlled by them of course) to prevent. After the Ice-age scare it was Nuclear war (which we were also told repeatedly could only be averted by unilateral US disarmament as anything else would provoke the innocent USSR into the end of humanity or something.

    We saw the older generation get into trouble, drugs, sex, etc. all while being told (and taught by them) that they were brilliant and super-cool….while that same generation of grandparents who loved us and taught us things about God and Mary no one else cared to share (what with watered down Sadlier “religion” books) were maligned as helplessly uncool.

    But then funny things began to happen. We noticed that the boomer theologians weren’t as cool as JP2. That Reagan’s SDI and arms build up bankrupted and collapsed the USSR without war… that all the hip and cool and “officially smart” theologians or priests or bishops didn’t seem to persevere in their vocations – indeed neither did the cool elders of the boomers either on their 3nd marriages.

    We went to grad school with vietnamese kids who were refugees, whose parents fled communism, whose siblings were lost at sea or by pirates during their flight from bondage – and how all the hip/cool “anti-vietnam war peaceniks” didn’t seem to care about the blood on their hands.

    We spent 20+ years in the shadow of the boomers politically and theologically, silently watching them berate and castigate the WW2 generation of our parents and grandparents…all while revealing incredible feet of clay and blindness to their own faults…. and we’ve bit our tongues.

    Until now.

    Folks, you of the tie-dye hippy “cool” to be boomer past who are now in your 50′s and 60′s and feeling like the Church is lurching “right-wing” are right. It is. Those of us who stayed Catholic despite the best efforts of your generation are finding our voices (and moving up the food chain in the Church and politics too).

    We went to school with refugees who personally suffered on account of their Catholicism, under atheistic or foreign cultures who like secularist Western poohbahs not only hate Jesus but hate his Church…. so we’re not naive when we consider the real potential of suffering for the ‘crime’ of being Catholic in the USA. Our friends and spouses and extended family suffered persecution at the hands of those powers of PC and bluff too.

    So bottom line: what sorts of things “worked” for your generation to get its way isn’t going to fly with ours. LCWR tactics of “just sayin” and “oh no I didn’t mean to contradict Church teaching, no, I was just raising the question to promote dialogue”….might have worked for your entire lives but it won’t fly for us because we’ve grown up under “zero-tolerance” regimes put in place by….you.

    And warmongering/racism is not our problem – we’re by and large mix racially or married to other ethicities… so using that as a club won’t work.

    And pointing to “saving the planet” in order to guilt trip us into socialism won’t work; we’ve watched baffoons bark about socialism-is-the-wave-of-the-future for 30 years and it’s always ended poorly….and the worst polluters have always been revealed to be statist regimes and their controlled “most favored” cronies not capitalist companies accountable to the market.

    Claiming that we’re a bunch of patriarchical luddites won’t cut it – we’re not the ones promoting zero population growth or decrying nuclear energy. We’re not the ones asking that if women want something they ought be given special dispensations – indeed, all our struggles have been in the teeth of unfair “affirmative action” which is racism and sexism by another name.

    Change is coming because the generational divide is coming to a head: enough Boomers are giving way to enough Gen Xers to make theological and political change stick.

    [John: You could probably take over this blog without a word of protest from any of my readers. But I have to ask who you mean by "You." I was born in '72. In his essay, Joe Orso identifies himself as a whippersnapper of 31.]

  • John

    Oops! :-) Well, another fault of Gen Xers is…. we’re prone to foot in mouth disease!

  • Robster

    Mind yer elders or I’ll tan yer hide! I’m 48! But I never fit in to the generational pigeonholes so beloved of wannabe pundits.

  • nitnot

    Interesting summary from John … to which I feel great affinity, despite usually being pigeonholed as a so-called boomer, though culturally I feel more X-er … the individuals who frustrate me in the “boomer ways” in John’s post are all a bit older than typical boomers, they were young adults during V II and I guess they caught a whiff of something then because they’ve been doing the bongos and whatnot ever since … despite being not the Greatest Generation, but whatever the Eisenhower era generation would be called before the Boomers began to gallivant at college and in California. And look at those who are stirring all these various pots — LCWR, Boomers, not — so I don’t really think it’s so much a Boomer thing as it is something slightly different, but I wouldn’t know what to call it … hmmm?

  • David J. White

    the individuals who frustrate me in the “boomer ways” in John’s post are all a bit older than typical boomers, they were young adults during V II and I guess they caught a whiff of something then because they’ve been doing the bongos and whatnot ever since … despite being not the Greatest Generation, but whatever the Eisenhower era generation would be called before the Boomers began to gallivant at college and in California

    nitnot, I think you’re referring to the “Silent Generation”, the Depression-born who were too young for WWII and too old for Vietnam; the Korean War, Eisenhower Generation. That is my parents’ generation, and I have to say, I don’t recognize your description of them at all. My parents, though politically New Deal Democrats, as most ethnic Catholics once were (my mother’s ideal of a president is JFK, and my father’s ideal of a president is Adlai Stevenson), they are both pretty conservastive and traditional. I owe many things to them, but most of all my faith, esp. since I was an impressionable Catholic parochial elementary school student during the ghastly felt-banner, guitar-playing, tie-dyed, early-70s nadir of the post-Vatican II era. I was born in 1962, so I fall into the intergenerational cusp as well, identifying neither with the Boomers nor with GenX.

  • Tim

    Segregation was wrong
    Vietnam was wrong
    Nuclear weapons might still destroy us
    Boomers lack the “wisdom of Benedictine stability”
    Religious vocations seem headed for extinction in the USA
    Upcoming generations always have 20/20 vision of the sins of the previous generation
    And the love of Christ brings true peace
    Reconciliation happens
    The Body unites us
    The only neighbor we get to love is a sinner

  • fats

    kinda wondering where I fit in with the labels, born in 44, was athiest until I became Catholic in 75, and started taking my Faith more seriously about 10 years ago? lived in S.F. in 64-65 and 68-69, but was in military from 64-76 . I’m soooo confused now, but that could be the alzheimers. When i was….. oh, wait, that’s another post.. ok, here goes….

    I dont think generatoional lables are of any real iuse, Faith is something that grows interiorly, and most certainly through the whole life of the Church, for 2000 years, there have been dissenters and sinners and Saints within it. We are living in a time of great inner turmoil, because , i suspect, we cannot reconcile society’s secular demands with our Spiritual calling. I remember growing up and , being an avid reader, i read things like Playboy ( for the articles, of course) and other things such as writings about Kinsey and even NAMBLA. I accepted much of it as the truth, after all, its what the writers said, and if they are writing in national publications, they MUST be valid in their viewpoints.
    Nowadays, it seems to be much the same, we still look for the things that agree with our views, and finding them , validate our opinions ( hence the popularity of the NCReporter).
    At least that was how i did things…. So, how to extract myself from the situation of relative morality? I started looking to the Church Teachings, and the Church Fathers … lo and behold, i see what the Church has taught from the beginning… and although i may not like some of the things the Church teaches ( mostly because it interferes with my personal freedom) , I recognize that what they teach is founded on Truth, Justice, and Love. That is a rarity these days, hold fast to it. There is a lot to be said for humility that comes from obedience to the Church and Our Lord ( He IS a King after all). far more than is given credit for in this current society, where individualism is worshipped. just my opinion, i could be wrong.. and frequently am.

  • sjay

    I was born in ’56; for the moment, I have to note that nobody in any generation near mine had a “huge crush on the USSR as some supposed ‘wave of the future.’” If any generation did, that would have been my grandparents’ one, born between 1890 and 1911. China and Cuba, however, would be another story. The best of the baby boom generation went off in a search for truth and justice; however, like the king in Luke 14, they discovered that the force with which they planned to contend had a bigger army, and sued for peace.

  • bones

    Orso says that Catholics like him don’t listen to the hierarchy. Fair enough – I would eye with suspicion anyone who suggested non-practicing cultural Catholics are eager to listen to the sermons of their local priest, let alone a dusty old bishop. But he forgets that those same Catholics aren’t listening to the good sisters he cherishes either. In fact, I would be deeply surprised if the fading-away-Catholic has ever heard of LCWR or knows that septogenerian nuns have published books extolling the virtues of masturbation. The decay of ‘doctrinal Catholicism’ hasn’t lead to a flourishing of a new Church like he suggests it will, but civilization of unhappy and apathetic people overwhelmed by consumerism and excess. For a guy who repeatedly talks about the echo-chamber of the Vatican, he conspiculously lacks any trace of self-overhearing.


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