Who Says the Church Can't Change?

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Is my church dying? I cannot be the only catholic in america asking this question. It's unthinkable, in a way. For those of us who grew up in the techno-accelerated modern world, the church has long been a source of stability, permanence, transcendence. I remember the feelings of my childhood, when my local Catholic church was the only place I felt connected to something truly profound. I recall the first time I went, as an altar boy, into the sacristy where the priest vested himself. I felt as if I were entering the most sacred place on Earth. The smell of incense, the touch of candle wax, the overly starched cotton of my surplice as I knelt before the sacred mystery of the Eucharist: in the words of the poet Philip Larkin, "a serious house on serious earth" this was, a refuge and a beacon, a rebuke to the chatter and trivia and destabilizing noise of the world outside and beyond. And the knowledge that these rituals, these words, these miracles, had been going on for centuries and centuries, reaching back to small groups of confused followers in the aftermath of the Resurrection, only intensified the awe I felt and still feel. Where else do we experience simple injunctions to reverence any more? To obedience? To simple silence in the face of an ineffable God?

And yet, as a post-Vatican II Catholic, I also lived in a wide, diverse world. In this modernity of discussion and skepticism, of irreverence and sensuality, of technology and pop culture, I felt equally at home. Like many Catholics of my generation (I'm in my late 30s), I grew up not in a tightly knit urban Catholic enclave — most of my family emigrated to Britain from Ireland at the beginning of the last century — but in the booming suburbs of the 1960s and 1970s. My Irish grandmother was barely literate. Her grandson has an Ivy League Ph.D. But while my peers left the church or scorned its structures, I stayed. Even as I discovered that I was homosexual, I couldn't leave. I knew somewhere deep in my soul that God was real, that his church was essential, that the Gospels were true, that the sacraments were indispensable. I couldn't address a priest except as Father, leaving all my usual orneriness aside, when I saw the collar. Although the gulf grew between my life and the institutional church I still attended, it never occurred to me that I was no longer a Catholic. I was a sinner — that much I knew. But the church, I was taught, was for sinners, not saints. And for all its many faults, I still trusted the church, revered it. Even when it inflicted real pain, when it callously treated women as second-class Catholics, when it wounded good people in bad marriages, when it penetrated into the souls of young gay kids and made them hate themselves, I knew that it was a human institution on a divine mission. Human institutions fail. But, I reminded myself, they can also change.

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Now I wonder. For the first time in my life, I look at this institution and ask myself how it can have done what it has done. How can it have ever have been blithe about the sexual abuse of children and minors? How could it have covered it up? How could it then have compounded the hurt by scapegoating good gay priests for the crimes of others? These questions have not gone away. And they resonate far more widely than on the question of sexual abuse. I think it's fair to say that very few people in my generation of 40-year-olds and younger can take the church's sexual teachings very seriously again. When so many church leaders could not treat even the raping of children as a serious offense, how can we trust them to tell us what to believe about the more esoteric questions of contraception, or homosexuality, or divorce? What shred of credibility do these men have when they look out at the pews and see those of us living in a world where our failings cannot be easily covered up by ecclesiastical power, or bought off with other people's money, or simply ignored? This gulf between us and them cannot now be concealed. We kneel and pray; we donate our time and money; we have attempted to explain the moral lessons we have learned in the real world of family and sex and work and conflict. But so many church leaders — from the Pope on down — do not seem to hear or even care. And why should they? They are not answerable to us.

And so it is no surprise that we are hardly flocking to them. Annual vocations to the priesthood in America have halved in the last few decades from around 1,000 in 1965 to around 500 today. As the priesthood has become older, it has also become sparser: there were just under 59,000 priests in 1965, and there are only 45,000 today. In 1972, 49% of Catholics reported attending church weekly; in 2000, a mere 26% did. The number of men and women entering religious orders, primarily as nuns or monks, has also collapsed — by well over half since 1965. The number of parishes without a resident priest has increased from around 550 in 1965 to well over 3,000 today. Some have argued that the current sex-abuse scandal in the church is the crisis. They're wrong. It is a symptom of a real and deeper one — the collapse of the moral credibility of the church hierarchy among its own laity.

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