By Sister Mary Ann Walsh
Catholics have staying power, a point made a few months ago when a CBS News/NYTimes poll reported that Catholic giving and Mass attendance has not plummeted despite the recent clergy sex abuse scandal.
Reports from the National Retirement fund for Religious, the U.S. Church's most popular annual collection, also testify to Catholic fidelity. In 2009, it drew more than $28 million dollars in donations to support elderly members of religious orders of men and women. Before the stock market fell, the collection brought in more than $30 million, but the $28 million-plus last year is right on target for the yearly average for the 22 years of the collection.
The impressive numbers speak to a deep-seated love for the church that Catholics have. It continues even when they complain about the church's getting socked in the media (or sometimes setting itself up to get socked.) The steadfastness in giving is incredible given that only about 22 percent of Catholics go to church at least weekly, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
One senses that a deep love of their Church also makes Catholics hope that their public representatives will lead them both in church and in the public square.
Some years ago, I was on the phone making a purchase I needed sent to me right away. I told the supplier, "I'll put the check in the mail."
"OK," he responded. And with a sigh added, "If I can't believe you, I can't believe anyone."
Off the phone I felt an extra burden to do the right thing right away because more than paying a bill was on the line. I was helping this man to maintain his faith in others, especially in the Church. I thought of the U.S. Army ad which offered young people a future where, it said, you can "be all that you can be." That had to be my commission too.
Catholic laity and others look to church leaders to do the right thing publicly. Some worry that the church leans left when it advocates for the poor and against the death penalty. Others fret that it's going right when it speaks out on the life issues and upholding marriage as between one man and one woman. Yet Catholics know to expect positions all across the political spectrum when they are rooted in the Gospel and Catholic tradition. What discourages laity, however, is when they hear no position at all and worry that perhaps under pressure, church leaders have given up speaking out.
Today the challenge for church leaders is twofold: to speak out and to make their voices heard. The former takes courage, but the latter is no easy task because it demands that leaders take to the Web and other forms of social media to spread the Gospel. With only 22 percent of Catholics sitting in pews, the bishops need to go after the other 78 percent, who are ensconced in another seat, before their computers, where they can be found morning, noon and night.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh is Director of Media Relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. She is a member of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and an award-winning writer who has edited books on Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI and has been published in numerous publications, including America, USA Today, Washington Post, and Editor & Publisher. Her latest book, Benedict XVI; Essays and Reflections on His Papacy, will be published by Sheed & Ward in September.