Confessions of a failing Catholic

At a time when we have never been more isolated and in need of a real community, the Church has failed to provide it

 (Istock/Getty Images)

(Istock/Getty Images)

I’ve had bad luck with my priests.

The first one was Father Albert, a warm, charismatic and eloquent man who figures prominently in my childhood memories. He was almost a member of our family. But then one day he disappeared without explanation.

Father Albert was replaced by a young, bearded, barrel-chested priest who played bass guitar. I once saw him throw a football 60 yards. Then he also departed in a hurry. We heard later he’d been sleeping with a woman in his band.

In my twenties, my priest was earnest and awkward, with an off-kilter wit. I didn’t get to know him very well before he, too, fell in love with a woman in the parish, someone who he had been counseling. The Church sent him away quickly.

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Father Joe, my last priest, was a friendly man who disarmed everyone with his maritime accent and humorous sermons. As far as I know, he never started a romantic relationship with anyone. Instead, he went to jail for stealing several hundred thousand dollars from the parishioners.

You would think with spiritual mentors like that I would walk away. I did, for a few years after college. It wasn’t a conscious decision of humanist rebellion. I was simply busy. Sundays came and went, and there were far too many things to distract me.

In my thirties I moved to a new city and found a tall stone church down the street. The nave was cool in the summer heat, and colourfully lit by soaring stained-glass windows. The oak pews were dark with age and worn smooth by generations of use. I felt at home, and began to attend mass again, albeit irregularly.

But I’m not a natural joiner and always sat at the very back. I was raised a Catholic, attended Catholic schools, and even have priests in the extended family. But I am only comfortable attending mass if I am near the door, to reassure myself I am merely stopping in, and can leave at any time. And I have. Not long ago a guest priest began to explain how families were being torn apart by the professional aspirations of women. I gathered up my two daughters and we went for ice cream.

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But my problems with Catholicism go well beyond the occasional fatuous sermon. The Church’s treatment of women remains medieval. Its discrimination against gays and lesbians would be considered criminal were it any type of secular organization. And even though 39 million have died from HIV/AIDS, Rome still fights to restrict access to condoms. If the Pope had given each of those people Last Rites, one after the other day and night, it would have taken him over 30 years.

I also have struggled hard with my faith itself. As a child I listened to the Book of Genesis with a skeptical ear. Growing older, I struggled with the idea that even the most virtuous non-believers (like my father) would go to hell. Later I tried and failed to reconcile the concept of free will with God’s will. I have never understood why the Supreme Being, ruling over the entire universe, would smite me unless I flattered him with rote prayers. And the few times I have found myself in extremis, it wasn’t Christ who came to mind; it was thoughts of my parents, or in later years my children.

I am technically a heretic but I still call myself a Catholic. My ethical compass, wavering though it may be, is clearly Augustinian. I still go to mass. I still sit in the back. I close my eyes and listen to the hymns and feel the sun on my face as it filters through the great windows. My church, though, is steadily emptying. Obviously, Father Joe’s arrest cleared out many of the pews. But across the country, attendance has declined while atheism has risen. Only one of my friends attends a weekly service with any regularity. I go less and less, myself. But I still go.

For me, church is not about my faith; it is about my community. I never linger for the bake sales and I can’t tell you the name of the new priest (my history suggests he won’t be around very long anyways). I don’t even know any of the other parishioners by name. But I recognize most of their faces, and from my vantage point in the last pew all of their backs. And that is a profound comfort.

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My life is lived by email and phone call. My friends are dispersed, my family spread far and wide. My relationships are mostly virtual, kept alive by text messages and Christmas cards. Like most of us, I am connected to thousands, but honestly know only a few. Even though we never speak, the sight of the familiar strangers in church gives me a physical sense of community, of tangible belonging.

For millennia, humans were born, lived and died within the same few miles. They did not know very many people, but they knew them well. Their sense of identity was less about who they were than where they belonged. Then, in the span of a few generations, this all changed. We began to travel, to disburse, to bond with TV characters, to create online networks, to disappear into our inboxes. At the moment when we have never been more isolated and more in need of a real community, the Church has failed to provide it. It is perhaps one of the great ironies of our age. Archaic doctrine. Repressive rules. Institutionalized bigotry. Abuse scandals. Unapologetic bishops. It was almost as though Rome was trying to alienate us.

After drafting this column, I decided to find out what happened to Father Albert, the smiling man who gave me my first communion and then vanished. A couple of calls informed me that he’s gravely ill, apparently, in an old age home. And, while it took 20 years, he is now facing charges for sexual assault and gross indecency. They are not sure if he will live to see his trial date later this year.


Confessions of a failing Catholic

  1. Scott, you mention church buildings, and priests, and doctrine, but there is so little comment on God. Through all the churches and priests and changes, God has had you. You know, it’s a funny thing with priests. I have been blessed to be in relationship with some priests who were spiritual giants, and others, I think, who were still trying to figure things out. During Mass, I believe that priests are transformed because they are explicitly instruments of God, but once Mass is over, there are some that you really wouldn’t want to spend time with. The point is, they are not at the center of my faith life, God is. If you need community, ask God for it. Why wouldn’t he direct you to the place where you need to be? Don’t get lost in buildings and priests and congregations, seek God out. Get lost in God. He’ll never disappoint.

  2. While it is true that church populations are in decline, it isn’t just scandals or disillusionment with the priest or his homily that is driving the decline, but a self-centered society that is largely looking for an institution that feels good and reinforces that whatever you’re doing or not doing is alright… even if it isn’t. Many of these people shop for new buildings, pastors or congregations like they do shoes… enjoying them if they feel comfortable, returning or exchanging them when they pinch even a little.

    If you want a sense of community, try introducing yourself (to the priest and neighboring parishioners) and contributing to the life of the parish… in charitable work or simple participation in the mass/service. Sitting discreetly in the back so as to be able to beat a hasty exit doesn’t exactly scream “I’m invested”.

    If you feel the message is antiquated, perhaps you’re taking the scripture (or homily) too literally. The problems of today are not that different from those of previous centuries. Human frailties and failings will always exist (inside and outside of the church); simply standing in church will not make you a “Good Christian” anymore than standing in a garage makes you a car.

    True Faith isn’t about the institution, but about the ideal… and applying it to one’s every day life… and trying to be THE light that inspires and lifts others.

    • Or, people are moving away from religion simply because having access to the Internet, and a host of ideas, challenges their viewpoint and they adopt another.

  3. Thanks for sharing Scott. I’m with you all of the way. After 53 years of regular (United, Lutheran, Baptist, Anglican) church attendance I’m parting ways with organized religion.

    In response to getting involved, I have always been involved, and (forgive the phrase) gone through hell trying to fit into most of them. The church in my experience is an expert on shunning the first time you offer a perspective foreign to its (occasional) thinking. The church is failing God in that it is not reaching God’s younger generations whom God loves. It is so busy looking into the rear view mirror that it can’t see out the windshield to look forward and see the answers are out there. Arrogance? As Emerson said “What you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you are saying.”

    God isn’t done with the institution; it has one large learning curve coming its way. However, God isn’t done with me yet either, and I’m sure, so do I.

    This quote from the first comment on your post is a solid reminder–it’s all about our relationship with God. “The point is, they are not at the center of my faith life, God is. If you need community, ask God for it. Why wouldn’t he direct you to the place where you need to be? Don’t get lost in buildings and priests and congregations, seek God out. Get lost in God. He’ll never disappoint.”

    Keep sharing God’s love Scott–that’s what it’s all about. And you did in your post.

  4. Thanks for the honest article Scott. The shortage of ministers seems to have made them all run off their feet. They depend on lay people to build community. There are an almost unlimited number of charitable activities that a person can join or organize, such as twinning a parish with a Third World parish to share resources. We’re all so busy we tend to avoid making such commitments, but that’s really the way to go. The ministers tend to just be the authority-of-last-resort when squabbles arise, since they don’t have the time and energy left to organize much beyond the worship services, religious education and budget. Sometimes they tend to squelch new ideas because they’re already over-stressed with so much. It really is up to the lay people if they want to make creating a community a priority. The disappearance of most fraternal organizations and private clubs indicates it’s not worthwhile to try to build a community just for socializing. It has to have a definite purpose to do something badly needed, which is probably going to be challenging. I know one parish that people travel up to two hours beyond their nearest parish to get to, for the warm community, inspiring music and soulful ministers. It’s worth it, if you can’t fix your present parish.

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