When the System Cannot Change

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.

In fact, I think it is incumbent upon people who disagree with church doctrine to leave the church. This makes me sound like another Bill Donahue, I know, but Catholics who are progressive, gay, feminist, etc. serve much the same function for the church as do black or gay Republicans–they allow the church to project an image of being more inclusive than they actually are. And the church uses that kinder, gentler image and the far-off hope of change to keep people in the system and, more importantly, keep them tithing. But all that money goes to support a machine that will never manifest a more humanist vision under the current regime. So yes, I would say to all Catholics disturbed by the direction of the church–leave. Get the hell out of there. It might break your heart, but if you are truly invested in the existence of the church, you have to acknowledge that it won’t change until it is hit so hard that it won’t be able to recover without undergoing some radical shifts in doctrine and practice.

You might say that I have no dog in this fight. After all, I have left the church completely and have no intention to return–I now enjoy my lazy Sunday mornings, and I have invested my time in working to develop a much more scientific understanding of this reality of ours. But though I have a serious argument with Catholicism, which is accorded far too much respect, Catholics of good will are among my fellow travelers in this world and thus part of the universe of shared concern. Moreover, as Stefan Arvidsson illustrates in his recent book Morgonrodnad (which I reviewed here), religious symbols and stories need not be inherently repressive but, in fact, were regularly appropriated by such groups at the Knights of Labor, a late nineteenth-century labor union, as a part of their own rhetoric against the ruling class. Indeed, Arvidsson argues that the abandonment of the tropes and motifs of the culture at large by many socialist groups in the early twentieth century allowed fascists to claim a monopoly upon the symbols of culture and thus portray themselves as the “true” nation.

Thus can I wish the best for folks who want a church to return home to. But the only way to begin to change it in the slightest is to walk out of those doors and not return. Like Lot’s family fleeing Sodom, you have to leave without looking behind you. Maybe the church, in response, will allow itself to be changed. Maybe you will find you enjoy the world outside and never want to return. But even if you find yourself just as lonely and isolated as you were in the church, at the very least you will no longer be contributing to your own oppression–and the oppression of countless others.

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