You know the term “cradle Catholic?” I’ve never understood whether that was meant as praise or insult. Perhaps it’s neutral. But I am a cradle Catholic. Born into a Catholic family, I was baptized in the Catholic church, attended CCD and a Catholic college, served in the youth group in the Catholic church as an adult. I’ve embraced, loved, hated, mocked, deserted, praised, given up on, returned to the Catholic church. A mercurial relationship with the Church has nonetheless fostered for me a strong relationship with Christ, so the cradle Catholic label is one I largely accept, if not embrace.
It’s weird being a young adult in the Catholic Church because we’re such an underrepresented demographic. Young adults of all faiths tend to distance from their respective faiths once freed from the household tyranny that mandates uniformed weekly Sunday service. For some reason, the mass migration seems particularly prominent in the Catholic church. This reflection is not an exposé on the disenfranchised demographic, but rather of my own struggle with Catholicism and why, in the wake of recent events, I find myself more strongly considering joining my colleagues in renegotiating my contract as a Catholic.
Although I love Jesus, and realize His perfection is central to the Catholic church, I also see a threshold of institutional failures which make me inevitably begin to question the institution. And while the Church has fostered a great place to worship, coupled with community and charity, it is not without blemish. Catholics, like supporters of Boy Scouts of America, USA Olympics, the NFL, politicians, and myriad other broken institutions, have had to deal with the fallout of scandal. Time and again we, whether congregants, supporters, members, or fans, must weigh the organizational failures with the goodness they provide.
I guess where the questions started for me, or at least where they gained momentum, was at the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, which outlined decades of sexual abuse of children by clergy members, and reassignment and cover-up by Bishops and other Catholic authorities. These atrocities shattered my trust in the institution. Many leaders failed children – the most vulnerable in the church community and a group whom we know Jesus loved dearly. It wasn’t all leaders, or even most, but it’s undeniable that there is a systemic level of failure, of choosing public image over children, finances over lives. Beyond that, many clergy members muddied the response, offering excuses and deflections rather than apologies and prayer, and just further testing my faith in the Church.
One of the reasons I stayed was because I felt that the people around me were, largely, good. Additionally, as young leadership dissipated, my involvement in youth group enabled me to influence Catholic teens in positive ways and gave me a great platform to push for progress. And I keep coming back to the people, the Church body – my fellow youth leaders, the teens we served, the congregants at the church, mission trip attendees, the choir. The list goes on. If church leadership was rotten but the people which make up the church body are upstanding there was reason to stay. But what happens when you lose trust in the people?
New events threaten my belief in the goodness of the people, highlighted by opaque and apathetic behavior from our parish. Imploring church leaders to post a statement speaking out against racism in the light of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor’s heinous murders, I thought I’d gained ground when our Pastor released a brief statement which weakly condemned racism and regurgitated some words of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Was it anti-racist? Far from it. But it was a step in the right direction from a church that seemed mum on racial injustice. It recognized racism and affirmed that the protests that followed were the result of centuries of oppression. Progress is progress.
To my surprise, a day after the statement went up on the church’s Facebook page, it came down. Furor erupted among a select group of my church friends, and we sought answers via mass emails to the Pastor and messages to the Facebook page. Why was this taken down? After receiving very little response, we saw one day a replacement message – one which ignored racism altogether, called for love, and, most despicably, described George Floyd’s murder as “…a man [who] appeared to be treated unfairly.” It was pathetic, it was hollow, it was meaningless. And it intentionally sidestepped any buzzwords like racism, instead advocating for “love.”
As our questions were dodged, I began to wonder: what are the odds that the original statement wasn’t received well from our predominantly white congregation? When ignored, one cannot help but to speculate. When one speculates, one would consider the backdrop of the church demographic and its reaction to the appeal that racism is wrong, or that the church calls for justice for George Floyd, who had a criminal record, or Ahmaud Arbery, who may have trespassed on a construction site. One may be inclined to think that these Black men, whose reputation had been smeared by right-wing analysts may have less importance in the church’s eyes because they were not unborn fetuses. One might surmise that human dignity becomes subjective when white church donors express anger in that sentiment. Would one be wrong to speculate these things, when one receives no closure, no response, no transparency from their church? As much as I feel let down, I realize the church, having hurt vulnerable children, also leaves the marginalized Black community behind.
Is this the final straw? Of that I am not sure. I’ve complained and griped but also need to consider the options that exist for advocating awareness and change. A friend introduced me to Catholic Charities, a group which aims to serve the marginalized communities like the poor, immigrants, and our Black and Brown neighbors. I’m also still trying, however futilely, to engage church leadership in dialogue. At my core, my faith remains steadfast; I intend to keep Christ at the center of my life. But the walls of the Catholic Church seem to be caving in from many angles – leadership, congregants, the community. At some point I’ll need to ask myself: is this the best capacity in which I can serve the Lord, serve children, serve marginalized communities, and feel full support in doing so? Time will tell.