The Catholic Church, Social Justice, and Disillusionment

When I became Catholic some years ago, one of the things I admired about the Catholic Church was its commitment to social justice. I liked the emphasis on fighting poverty, increasing health care access, and helping those in need. Growing up as an evangelical in the Christian Right, our focus had always been more on banning abortion and keeping gay marriage illegal than on any of these social justice issues. And, when social justice issues did come up, we were all for shrinking the government and ending programs designed to help the poor. In comparison, the position of the Catholic Church seemed like a breath of fresh air.

While I left the Catholic Church for theological reasons (I couldn’t simply submit my brain to papal infallibility and basic Christian doctrine was ceasing to make sense anyway), I continued to see their emphasis on social justice as highly superior to the evangelicalism in which I had been raised. But I’m afraid I’m losing what little admiration I used to have for the Catholic Church.

First, the sexual abuse scandals. Sexual abuse happens all over, especially within groups or organizations where children are taught to look up, trust, and obey those in authority over them, so I wasn’t surprised that there would be some in the Catholic Church. What has surprised me is the extent to which the church has acted to cover up such abuse and to block state investigation. Anyone who sexually abuses children should immediately be reported and turned over to the authorities, but in many cases across many countries the Catholic Church can’t seem to realize that. And really, this shouldn’t be all that complicated!

Second, the whole bruhaha over employers covering birth control. Seriously. I get that the Catholic Church doesn’t believe in birth control, but Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in blood transfusions and they can’t refuse to let their employees have insurance that covers this medical proceedure. How is this any different? It isn’t! When it comes to health care, employers should not be allowed to decide what is or is not covered for their employees. If they were, what a mess that would be! All basic services should be covered, and birth control just happens to be one of those.

But the thing is, the Catholic Bishops took the issue and ran with it. Suddenly they were talking crazy about how this was the end of religious freedom, and this was the government stealing their Catholic hospitals and schools from them, and next thing they’d be going to jail or something. Oh, and Hitler. It was like the bishops couldn’t see straight, or had suddenly gone mental. I had thought the Catholic Bishops cared about people, or were supposed to, at least. But that isn’t what I’ve been seeing.

When I first became Catholic, I had never needed birth control, and I had never had a close LGBTQ friend. In the years since, I’ve come to understand the importance of birth control to women’s equality and women’s ability to live fulfilling lives. I’ve come to see how important it is to be able to time when to have children, to be able to choose when and if to have children. I’ve also come to a different view of abortion than I used to hold, and I’ve come to be good friends with a number of LGBTQ individuals. When I first became Catholic, I was able to overlook the church’s position on birth control, abortion, and LGBTQ rights. And even as those issues changed for me, I had still thought that the church’s first commitment was social justice. This whole birth control “religious tyranny” bruhaha shook me and made me realize I had been wrong.

Why didn’t the Catholic Bishops work this hard to try to get universal health care passed? Or to block recent budget proposals that would end a great deal if aid to the poor? Why did they seem so silent on the very social justice issues that had helped attract me to Catholicism in the first place? Why was it that they only seemed to be able to get up in arms when it involved things like women having access to birth control, or sending condoms to Africa to stop the spread of AIDS, or the legalization of gay marriage? And I began to feel very, very disillusioned.

And then, this: Vatican Busts Nuns for Not Targeting Gay Marriage and Abortion.

A group of Catholic nuns has been reprimanded by the Vatican for focusing too much on poverty and not enough on fighting gay marriage and abortion.

A male bishop has been appointed to bring to heel the US’ most influential group of Catholic Nuns, The Leadership Conference of Women religious, after the Vatican announced it would be completely overhauling the group, reported The New York Times.

The Vatican has been secretly investigating the group since 2008 because of its support for health care reform and after it questioned the Church’s position on homosexuality.

The report also zeroed in on a social justice sub-group started by the sisters called NETWORK, finding that it and the Leadership group focused too much on poverty and economic injustice while keeping silent on abortion and same sex marriage.

That’s it. The last fragment of my respect for the Catholic Church’s commitment to social justice, completely shattered. It seems what I was beginning to suspect is right: The Catholic Church cares more about controlling what women do and do not do with their bodies and what people do and do not do in their love lifes than it does about poverty and economic injustice.

I wonder how I was so deceived, to think that the Catholic Church so highly valued social justice. The answer, I think, lies in the priest at the parish I attended. If all priests and bishops and nuns were like him, I wouldn’t feel disillusioned today. This priest honestly cared more about social justice than about ending abortion or banning gay marriage, he honestly cared more about loving others than about dictating their personal lives. This priest was the sort of priest who would tell even someone with grave doubts about God’s existence, or someone who had given up on God’s existence, that God would accept him. I loved this priest. He oversaw my religious development and confirmation. He presided at my marriage and baptized my first child. If the rest of the church were like him, I would still admire the Catholic Church.

But it’s not. Not long ago this priest was replaced with a new priest, a priest who cared more about rules than about flexibility. I don’t attend any longer, of course, but I’ve heard of the changes through the grapevine. I’ve come to suspect that this new, younger priest is part of a new generation of Catholic leadership, a generation that cares more about banning abortion and gay marriage than about working to correct economic inequality. A generation ready to tell people how to vote from the pulpit (Republican, of course). A generation ready to twist efforts to bring equality and improve health care into something evil, dangerous, and insidious, and to preach that from the pulpet.

I thought I’d escaped that when I left evangelicalism. I thought I’d found something different in Catholicism. But now I know that I was wrong. Today, I am proud to have left behind dogma of any kind and to embrace Humanism in its stead. And I’m more and more sure that there is no way I could ever go back.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Liberated Liberal

    Very well said! This is exactly the argument I’ve been having with my mother. She stays with the Church mostly because she believes they hold the monopoly on charitable behavior, but their actions do not align – at all – with that ideology any more. There are individuals and small groups that are still loving, however, that is not what the overarching philosophy of the church is.

    Unlike you, every priest I ever had spit in the face of decency; I’m honestly not sure how anybody could continue to go to church after being “led” by men like the ones I encountered.

  • from two to one

    As a cradle Catholic, I completely empathize with your frustrations as I was incredibly upset and disillusioned, as well, when I read about the crackdown on nuns. Almost every lay Catholic knows that women religious (nuns, sisters, etc.) do the best work in the Church — feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, meeting people right where they are regardless of race, gender, social class, sexual orientation, you name it.

    Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is still very hierarchical and patriarchal. That’s not the Church I know and love on the ground, but in the higher echelons of the bureaucratic arms of the Church, it is certainly male-dominated and male-centric. It breaks my heart to see the nuns get reprimanded for focusing on poverty over issues like abortion and homosexuality. If it’s any consolation, THIS is one of the reasons women are leaving the church (not just Catholic churches) in hordes — because they are understanding and seeing that those in power are wielding it for their own good, not for the good of humanity (as were the nuns when caring for the poor). And as a recent book says, what will happen to the church if the rib of Adam not longer will be the backbone of the church?

  • Gina

    You’re spot-on Libby. In 2010 I almost converted to Catholicism after studying for 3 years. What stopped me was when the first rumblings against the HSS mandate were happening. I repeatedly tried to contact bishops to talk about the issue of women who need birth control for other health conditions besides preventing conception, only to be repeatedly told that women could find other treatments (never mind that hormonal contraception is sometimes the best, least invasive treatment for a variety of issues; oh, and the fact that bishops aren’t my doctor, so it’s not up to them to tell me what the best treatment is!). I was so disturbed by this reaction that I walked away before my confirmation. I’ve since changed my position on women’s ordination and homosexuality, and found a place in the Episcopal church. It’s broken my heart because there is so much I love about Catholic theology, particularly their sacramental theology. But I can take that with me into the more progressive Episcopal setting without anyone blinking an eye, whereas if I tried to shoehorn my progressiveness into a right wing setting I’d be ostracized and excommunicated.

  • Gina

    Furthermore, after I left I was at least comforted by the notion that the Catholic Church was just like this in the US; after all, it wasn’t the Vatican saying all this stuff, just the USCCB. Then the Vatican issued this statement against this conference of nuns; and now any respect I had has been obliterated.

  • Lys

    First time commenter. And this may not be the right place to put this question but it pops into my head whenever this issue of health care and contraception comes up… My health insurance, which is very good, has never covered bc pills or diaphrams or abortions etc. The insurance is top notch for now-a-days in that we have no deductable, lowish copays and basically our insurance covers everything100% (except contraception). The insurance is through my husband’s work which is a government, union job in the most liberal county in Michigan. I guess b/c of my experience I just assumed pretty much no private insurance covers contraception due to trying to “cut costs”. So what is up? Why doesn’t our insurance have to cover contraception if the catholic church employers do? Though, it doesn’t cost us a ton it would be great if our insurance covered our birth control. Am I missing something? I know this isn’t really along the spirit of your post but I’m trying to understand this whole government mandated coverage of birth control and who exactly it applies to.

    • Libby Anne

      The law goes into affect January 1st, 2013, so your insurance provider is not required to cover your birth control until then. At that point, though, it will be required to do so. Unless – I’m unclear on whether any of the lawsuits over Obamacare would affect this regulation, or whether they would delay it going into affect. Anyway, the Catholic Church just freaked out as soon as the new rule was announced even though they had a year before it would go into affect. And I think it currently varies from insurance provider to insurance provider whether birth control is covered. Many do cover it because it actually decreases their costs, but some don’t. I don’t think many if any plans cover abortion, though I think with some insurances you can get a “rider” on your plan that would cover abortion, but is a separate fee from the main plan. Maybe someone here knows more, though?

      • Rebecca M

        Military insurance covers it with the exception of a very low copay.

    • Cathy W

      Right now some states have a requirement for insurance to cover BC, and some don’t. The mandate in question is part of the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), which required all insurers to provide certain preventive care and testing free of charge to the patient, and the Department of Health and Human Services concluded that all birth control methods requiring a prescription fell into that category. So when that mandate takes effect (I’m not sure when that will be, and it may be “never” if the Supreme Court throws the Affordable Care Act out) everyone’s insurance will cover birth control pills, IUDs, and a few other birth control methods.

    • Flora

      In Canada, prescription contraceptives are covered by pretty much every private drug insurance plan – my birth control pills used to cost me $12-$14 for three months, and I only paid $40 out of pocket for my IUD. It makes good financial sense, since pregnancy complications, miscarriages, and childbirth are all incredibly expensive medically, and if you take into account the cost of covering a whole new human being, how expensive is it to cover the pill, really?

    • Tex

      Many insurance providers actually DO provide BC coverage because a woman who uses birth control for a year is significantly cheaper to cover than a woman who gives birth every year or so.

      • MadGastronomer

        But that’s relatively recent, and there are still many that don’t.

  • Lys

    Thanks, that clears things up a bit.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I was talking to an old professor of mine the other day and we both agreed that the Catholic Church seems hell-bent these days on destroying everything about itself that we ever respected. I am fed up. As for their “ooga booga Hitler!” crap over “religious freedom,” I almost destroyed my TV when I saw that. They’ve got a damn nerve howling about Hitler when their organization has never even apologized for its complete spinelessness when Hitler was actually around. How about before you start wailing about how the modern-day Hitler is coming for your Church*, you acknowledge the fact that your same Church didn’t lift a freaking finger when the ACTUAL Hitler was killing my family. Deal?

    One thing though–I don’t think your good priest was unique. In my own experience and observation (which includes working for a Catholic refugee shelter), it’s many of the priests and nuns, the people who are actually on the ground dealing with real human life in all its complexity (unlike the higher-ups) that are actually committed to social justice. (Which I guess is why the powers-that-be from On High have concluded that they must be stopped!)

    *which is blatantly offensive hyperbole as it is

  • ScottInOH

    This hits closer to home than you may ever know. (That may sound more ominous than I meant it–I’m not a direct victim of anything the Church has done, just a very disillusioned soul.) Thanks, as always.

  • Miriam

    The Catholic Church is supposed to bring us into the life of Christ, not people, because people fail, including priests, and this is the gift of the Holy Spirit to look beyond human fraility to encounter the new life in Christ.
    Problem is that Holy Orders is a sacrament, the priests are living sacraments, and in Psalm 101, ‘Dare not touch My anointed ones!’ refers to those consecrated to God. Those who were sexual predators should not have been ordained in the first place, and so much discernment of the Holy Spirit was replaced by man’s thinking reflected in the greater use of psychology. The bishops were told these priests could be healed and rehabilitated, but they were not. The problem was how to deal with consecrated souls on the Church’s part. In times past, there were church prisons for criminal priests that could match any civil one. But we are having the encroachment of civil authority into the church and the boundaries are not clear.
    Same issue of the Protestant Reformation….how Christianity started, developed, became legitimate by the State, the population grew where the countries were practically all universal Christian, that subsequently gave rise to emperors and church men back and forth choosing who would administrate the is all about context.
    Christ is the One Who sustains the Church, not men. In Baltimore, the epicenter of the scandals….several years ago when the Media attacked the Church during Holy Week, 1,000 converts entered the Church, and now vocations are rising.
    Many priests did know about the pedophiles and suffered just as much as everyone else. Not only that, there is no mention of the thousand priests who were falsely accused, but the Church paid millions to their claims.
    Christ is the One Who sustains, He prunes away that which bears bad fruit, and plants seed in good soil.
    It is not about male administrators…it is about how the Holy Spirit works in administrating the Church and should not be seen as down on women.
    Contraception has been condemned by Christianity all the way up to modern times; it was the Anglican Church that allowed contraception in the 1930′s. Read Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, ‘Humanae Vitae’, and see what the free sex cultural has done to our country today: women worse off than ever, no-fault divorce, men not wanting to commit to marriage, so many children without a father, our children’s innocence destroyed by permeating pornography and secular educators, and the destruction of the family as the base of society, as well as human trafficking, and abortion as a means of birth control. I was in high school in the late 60′s, and virginity was still valued in my school. Our country has the highest teen pregnancy in the world. Our country is the greatest producer of pornography in the world. We live in an sex obsessed culture.
    When a culture becomes obsessed with sex, it has lost its faith in God….be it a pedophile priest or society as a whole. This area of need is where the American sisters are so needed, and this is what the Holy Father is addressing.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      “It is not about male administrators…it is about how the Holy Spirit works in administrating the Church and should not be seen as down on women.”

      If it’s all about “The Holy Spirit” anyway, then why not allow women’s ordination? What difference does it make?

      As for the absurd assertions of “Humanae Vitae,” they are just that, absurd. You seriously think human trafficking and pornography are post sexual-revolution phenomena? Learn some history, my friend. Men who don’t want to commit to marriage shouldn’t get married anyway and what’s so awful about divorce? It actually allows people, especially women, to get out of bad, possibly abusive, situations. As for “secular educators” destroying children’s innocence, I have friends from Ireland who attended Church-run schools in the 70s and 80s and if they ONLY got physically abused by their teachers, they were lucky. You’d have to try pretty hard to destroy children’s innocence as thoroughly as those nice Catholic schools did.

      • Steve

        There is lots of human trafficking and sexual slavery right there in the damn Bible

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      What I get from your message it’s that you’d be okay with the cover ups of the abuse if these the abusers went to private church prisons so as not to stain the reputation of the church and that you think that these abusers aren’t real priest (true scotsman anyone) and probably not true catholic either because the holy spirit wouldn’t permit that behaviour… I’m not even going to comment about your opinions on abortion, divorce and the like because it would make this post too long.

      That’s not how reality works, everyone here knows that sexual or otherwise abuse occurs is present everywhere, but it’s not only that churches are covering it (which it’s soemthing despicable) but that they are permitting these priests to keep their positions (not even demoting them or excomulgating them) and are letting them stay in contact with kids. You said you are okay with church prisons and it’s because goverment has intruded that therer’ so much problem so why the catholic church (or the Pope or “god” through him) who has a great control about their priests decided to maintain the ones they know are guilty away from kids at the very least and why aren’t you asking for this instead of less important stuff. I’m just playing by your logic, I think they deserve to go to jail and also the people that cover form them including the current Pope.

      About the stuff that these aren’t true priests… here in Spain, my parents and their parents all have tales (anecdotical evidence I know) about the incredible grade of rampant sexual abuse in catholic schools (usually more in boarding schools) and churches from priests and nuns that inappropriately touched kid or worse (way less frequent with nuns of course) so it’s not like it’s something new or restricted to the US but before people didn’t dare to go against the powerful catholic church. It seems like you’d prefer we returned to those times in which people couldn’t lift a finger against the church and this stuff didn’t appear in the papers /snark .

  • Miriam

    We can’t decide how or who Christ chooses, but it is history that in Jewish/Catholic/Orthodox tradition, the Holy Spirit Who guides the Church is male.
    Don’t project this persona of inferiority to women.
    I am Irish Catholic and taught by Irish nuns and know the hang ups. But they also gave me my faith in Christ that transcended any mistreatment I received by them.
    What you are truly seeking is an extension of yourself…man.
    I come to the Church not to seek opinion or thinking of men…or women…but to find Christ. I speak to many converts and they do not look at those who fail….but to Christ.
    Abusive marriages are not sacramental…so again, don’t blame the Church for bad choices.
    Just tonight I was remembering the death of Samantha Runnion in California, who was sexually molested and murdered. Her mother later found out how many children are sexually assaulted in their lives.

    That is not the Church. That is evil. So put the blame where it is…in the human heart.

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      Huh? There is no male “holy spirit” in Judaism. There’s no concept of “the holy spirit” at all.
      The Catholic Church teaches that men are the heads of their wives and refuses to allow women into any positions of authority within the church. Women have no say in the policy that affects their very lives. They just have to wait for instruction from a bunch of celibate old men, like good little girls. I don’t think I’m projecting a damn thing.

      And what my friends experienced in Church-run Irish schools was not so much “hang-ups” as routine and institutionalized physical and sexual violence against children perpetuated by “men of the cloth”–and some women too.

    • MadGastronomer

      The Holy Spirit is male? Really? Then why is it called Hagia Sophia, a feminine name? Your history is as poor as your understanding of ethics and the nature of humanity.

      • Molly


  • Miriam

    The Holy Spirit is Spirit.
    When I mentioned prisons….those existed hundreds of years ago, not now.
    What I also am seeing is projection on the Church as if we didn’t care, as well as the mass stereotyping of priests and religious as abusers.
    95% of American clergy are not abusers. And our Church is growing again.
    The Church is divinely inspired but nevertheless made up of human beings.
    Furthermore, the laity are called to pray and do penance for priests, as they are the ones whom Satan attacks.
    Christ said when He returns, will there be any faith left.
    You focus on man, not faith in Christ. That is the test. If you look to people with your own bias, all you will see is scandal and failure.
    Likewise, you are also ignorant of all the good the Church has done, and Spain has likewise its share of good and holy priests.

    • Rosa

      It’s not the existence of abusers that is wrong with the church, any more than the existence of men who think God calls them to subject women. It’s the institutional and congregational response to their actions. How is the good that the Church does/has done make it any less shameful for them to tell the women’s orders not to focus on helping the poor?

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      You aren¡t adressing any of the points I made neither the points Libby Anne’s post made so I don’t know why you continue to argue. Also, of course I don’t focus on Christ or in any god because I don’t believe in god and I don’t think religious organisations deserve any special treatment and that it’s disgusting that they cover child abuse and that treating with children they don’t take apropiate measures to prevent it. I think there’re good people that want to help the poor, … but only look at what this article is about to end up completely dissillusioned.

      And btw, my boyfriend’s uncle is a pretty important priest in the North of Spain and I think he would laugh at the idea Satan is attacking him and trying to make him sinful things. Next time I see him, I will ask XP

    • James Sweet

      95% of American clergy are not abusers.

      “Only” 1 in 20 priests is a child rapist? Sorry, you don’t get a cookie for that.

    • MadGastronomer

      The Holy Spirit is Spirit.
      Does that mean that the Holy Spirit is not male, as you have previously insisted?
      I think I’ve decided to continue to poke at this one point because others handling the more significant ones nicely.

  • ScottInOH


    Your three posts are based on a slew of factual inaccuracies (human trafficking is a result of a more sexually open American culture; the Holy Spirit is male; …) and a host of spiritual platitudes (the Catholic Church is supposed to bring us into the life of Christ; Christ is the One Who sustains; the Church is divinely inspired; …). Your argument, therefore, amounts to the no true Scotsman fallacy, as Paula @ 4:35 am pointed out. Anything bad related to the Church is either not true (it’s the media attacking the Church) or not the Church’s fault (because the people who committed the crimes weren’t really Catholic (probably because bad, post-1960s American culture corrupted them)).

  • John

    I have often wondered whether or not people had a full understanding of the papal infallibility concept. Quite honestly, it has a very narrow definition. That means that the pope is infallible under very narrow circumstances only.
    First, he can only be infallible in matters of doctrine. Thus encyclicals are not infallible. Letters from the pope are not infallible. The rules and interpretation of the rules by the pope are not infallible. These are not matters of doctrine.
    Second, he can only speak infallibly on doctrinal beliefs that are generally considered to be true. In the early 1800′s when the pope declared his infallibility, it was surrounding the belief that Mary, the mother of God, did not die, but rather was taken into heaven by angels. This was a belief that was felt to be true for over 400 years prior to the declaration.
    Third: the pope must follow a very strict set of procedures, which includes much prayer, before he can speak infallibly. This is called “Ex Cathedra”. If the pope is not speaking “Ex Cathedra”, then he is not speaking infallibly.

    • Libby Anne

      Yes, I know. I was Catholic for a time and I studied all that before converting. However, knowing that the pope was only infallible when speaking “ex cathedra” did not stop it from eventually bothering me. As a Protestant before, it was each man interpret the Bible and concluded what it said for himself. Five different Protestants in a room could have five different views of what communion is. This is one reason I was originally attracted to the Catholic church – it wasn’t fractured, and it had set doctrine that it claimed was infallible. No more just deciding what made sense to you as you read the Bible for yourself. So again, that was originally attractive to me, but eventually it became stifling because if there is just one truth and it is laid down by the church then you must conform to that and not ask questions. And I am by nature a skeptic. When things don’t make sense to me…they don’t make sense to me. It doesn’t matter if the church says they’re true or not. That’s what I meant by saying I couldn’t submit my mind to papal infallibility – perhaps I should have just said to the church’s infallibility in general.

  • Molly

    Girl, your views are jacked up. They are ALL over the place. No, abortion is NOT the same as a BLOOD TRANSFUSION, and furthermore, if you went and got pregnant when you shouldn’t have, # that’s on you. Abstinence is the only birth control that works %100 of the time. Also, we don’t need to spend OUR tax money on some teenage girl who couldn’t keep her clothes on around her boyfriend. But I won’t linger on that because I have more. How about universal healthcare. Please, PLEASE tell me where it says in the Bible that everyone has to have healthcare. What if someone doesn’t want to pay for it? Then what? If people thought health care was expensive now, just WAIT until it’s free!! Moving on. Gay marrige. Listen, the Catholic Church has nothing on homosexuals, until they act upon it. The Catholic Church doesn’t care if a guy likes a guy or a girl likes a girl. They get all up and arms about it when the start having sexual activity. Hoestly, if your going to put your comments about the Church out there like that, you should really know what you’re talking about because you obviously don’t. Marrige is for reproduction and last time I checked, two guys can’t PRODUCE A CHILD BY NATURAL MEANS. So thank you, you twisted liberal, for giving us your equally as twisted views about the Catholic Church which you apparently know nothing about.