The Catholic Church, Social Justice, and Disillusionment

The Catholic Church, Social Justice, and Disillusionment April 24, 2012

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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