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Like most Catholics, Patricia is not angry, just indifferent to bishops


Jean and I shared a pew with “Patricia,” a lovely, sipping straw-shaped woman who looked like an elongated sculpture taken from a Christmas card. She held her liturgy program reverently and sang into it with the intensity of a seraphim. She was the same during the eucharistic portion of the special Mass. This was a woman of faith. It was as if she were a bride at her wedding.

In fact, I learned, she was going to be married. Together with her intended, she would soon gather at the side of a lake and recite something from Yu-Lan Fung -- or the Girl Scout Oath -- that would define their relationship.

That sounds so skeptical, and I don’t mean it that way. I’m not at all certain how Patricia’s wedding liturgy will come out. But one thing was certain: It would be on her terms. Pat wasn’t mad at anyone, but the Catholic church wasn’t even going to pick the hymns.

Patricia -- and the bulk of her contemporaries -- would protest politely that she is as Catholic as a holy water bucket; but the church is her companion on the journey, not her group leader. Patricia could be classed as a liberal and, like me, she is liberal because she is Catholic.

Conservatives make up only a small percentage of the true church, perhaps as little as 7 percent. I simply don’t know why we try to dress each other in borrowed cassocks.

Together with most NCR readers, I was raised in the “shudup-and-eat-your-peas” church. I can recall stories of pastors refusing to witness marriages because the groom was not clean-shaven or the bride had a dress that was somewhere between a venial and a mortal.

It all began to unravel not long after Vatican II, which closed its brass doors in 1965. But it was Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) that, by forbidding all forms of contraception, virtually dismantled the fragile moral pyramid. The birth control pill not only limited the number of Catholic children that would come into this world; it would also restore the church’s basic teaching about the primacy of the individual conscience.

Today, most forms of contraception are classed with feminine hygiene and rarely mentioned. (In my parish when one of the priests announced that he would not even talk about the pelvic issues for the next six months, the congregation broke out in grateful applause.)

Since 1968, however, the issues that define state-of-grace membership in the church have become terribly complicated. In just over two decades, the world has gone from the pill to petri dishes and to frozen embryos. Now, the hot issue has shifted slightly from abortion to stem cell research. The church has much that is worthwhile to say about stem cell research. The thought of human embryos being strip-mined and then destroyed can give one pause. But, unfortunately, the church left its credibility behind. As a result, some of its strongest supporters -- conservative Catholics such as former Sen. Connie Mack of Florida and the former governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson (now a member of the Bush cabinet) -- have both supported stem cell research even as some bishops have hinted that it is virtually a reserved sin.

Recently, The New York Times reported that some 200 members of the House of Representatives would support stem cell research -- and a lot of them are likely to be Catholics. For the rest, it’s likely that most Catholics aren’t entirely sure what stem cell research really is. However, we can be morally certain that most Catholics don’t even know who their bishop is.

Of late, the hierarchy has distinguished itself by speaking out against the death penalty and for a living wage. It has urged compassion for undocumented workers, welfare reform and the dangers of global climate change. And, with the exception of the federal government itself, no other organization has done more for the poor and the disenfranchised. Yet, with each new appointment of a bishop, it paints itself into a corner. It insists that converts from Mormonism be re-baptized but joins kerchiefs with the Mormons in excluding gay Boys Scouts, even in parishes where the pastor is gay. Recently, the bishops of South Africa condemned the use of condoms to reduce the spread of AIDS in a country where AIDS is as widespread as the common cold. It’s likely that the U.S. bishops would rule the same way.

Now, largely because I write about things Catholic, friends ask my opinion on the latest Vatican salvos. However, just as often, they will close the discussion with: “Tim, why do you bother?” They aren’t angry, just indifferent. The teaching church impacts on their life about as much as an Ann Landers column. With a “It doesn’t matter,” they close the conversation. In my hometown of Chicago, only 25 percent are at Mass on Sunday -- and these are the ones I’m writing about.

Now the bishops tend to respond to new challenges by issuing condemnations, generally packaged for them by others. The result is statements with barely a dash of pastoral sentiment. The poor bishops must now stand back and watch the Vatican make appointments without even clearing them with the local don.

I don’t know the answers. Only that Patricia isn’t concerned. She doesn’t feel the need to be protected by the church, although there must be times when she needs protection from the church.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he has been rejected by three faith-based religions. Write him at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, November 9, 2001