William Lindsey over at Bilgrimage has recently been examining in some depth the lack of change in the Catholic Church following the inauguration of Francis as pope. Though I am now a decade outside the church (longer than I was ever actually in it, if we’re just counting the Catholic years of my life), I do still understand the pull many people feel toward the institution, that sense of shared culture, a shared “tree of talking” (to use Tor Nørretraders’s term, which, you’ll notice, is also the title of this blog). And so I also understand the pain many people feel in being outside the church against their own wishes. Like it or not, Catholicism infuses quite a bit of our culture, from the symbols employed in vampire movies to the widely-traded wit of G. K. Chesterton. Thus can the Catholic separated from his church feel a bit like Frank Drebbin in The Naked Gun, driving down the road and saying of his ex-wife, “Everywhere I go, I see something that reminds me of her.”
I have written before about some of my reasons for leaving Rome, but the one that comes to mind now is that day when I took a lesbian friend of mine to mass only for us to have to sit through an entire sermon on the evils of homosexuality–seeing her sink further and further into the pew, and then trying to apologize later only to have her quietly say, “It’s okay, I’m used to it,” outraged me. I still went through certain motions, though, including wrapping up a theology degree I was pursuing through the diocese’s extension program with St. Gregory University, but I knew that I was done for. (I did eventually return my diploma to St. Gregory’s for other reasons.) I moved to the Little Rock area in 2005 and occasionally found my way to mass, but the following year, I finally had the experience that just broke me completely out of the shallow habit that remained. It was a sermon on how the most important issue before the nation for that congressional election year was the sanctity of life, especially preventing the spread of the “culture of death” that was family planning. I had gone into that church having just gotten news that my brother was shipping off for his first tour of duty in Iraq, a war that the pope had ostensibly opposed, though you would never hear that opposition reflected in the pulpit. Suddenly, I realized that the Catholic Church, as an institution, wasn’t a normal organization with a few eccentric ideas–its priorities were fundamentally opposed to objective rationality. Condoms ranked as a greater threat than did the destabilization of the globe and the slaughterhouse that so many countries were becoming under our “Christian” leadership.
Moreover, I realized that there was no fundamental way to change this Church. In a democracy, a small movement can exert significant political change, so that, even if it doesn’t succeed in taking power itself, its aims might end up adopted by other parties as a political tactic (FDR’s New Deal helping to undermine socialist activism, for example). But there is no mechanism for the laity to manifest power in the Church. In a democracy, one can run for election, but in the Church, if one wants to exert change from within the system, one would have to become a priest. Theological education would no doubt weed out some of those who have a desire to change things, and even if a reformer did make it through to priesthood, his advancement in the system would depend not upon the laity but the very people who run the system he desires to reform. It’s a self-selecting system.