Yesterday I attended mass at the parish I grew up in for the first time in a long time.
This church is where I learned how to be a Catholic. I attended mass here at least twice a week as a kid–once with my classmates during the week and once on Sundays with my family. I spent almost all of first grade singing the words “sun up in the highest” at the top of my little lungs. Eventually, I would realize that the words were in fact “Hosanna in the highest,” although I had no clue what that meant. I served mass here as a very nervous and forgetful fifth grader. I received my First Communion and was Confirmed here. My parents and grandparents were married here. Both of my grandparents’ funerals were held here.
But I don’t know if I can ever go back.
At least not for a while.
Yesterday, rather than preaching on this week’s readings, the priest announced he would explain “why you should be Catholic.” Trading the truth of the gospel for cheap shots, half truths, and outright lies, he launched into uncharitable, untrue, and propagandistic attacks on our Protestant brothers and sisters. I won’t dignify them by repeating them–you can probably imagine what they were. Arrogant and mocking, his message can be summed up as follows: be Catholic because Protestants are disobedient, unserious, and silly. Not just impostors, he reasoned, Protestants represent everything that’s wrong with Christianity today.
In the second part of his homily, he stridently insisted on Catholic innocence throughout history. Claims to the contrary, he continued, result from a stunningly effective and terrifyingly widespread smear campaign. The church stands both innocent and victimized. Strangely, he cited the “media’s” claim that the Catholic church was responsible for the Holocaust as his only evidence for this claim.
In addition to being somewhat of a straw man, (while I have heard debates over Pope Pius XII’s relationship with Hitler, I have honestly never heard any credible authority “blame” the Catholic church for the Holocaust) such a framing distracts from the real fact of Catholic anti-semitism, which carries a very old and very ugly history. While the Catholic church does not bear direct responsibility for the Holocaust, the Catholic church, like other Christian churches, does bear very real responsibility for the anti-semitism which made such evil even thinkable. Could anti-semiitism have acquired the credibility it did with the German people if it weren’t for Christian anti-semitism, both Protestant and Catholic? I doubt it. Such a framing also dodges the hard question of why so many German Catholics were also “good Germans,” complicit with Nazi nationalism.
Even worse, he established Catholic innocence by pointing to the Catholic priests and nuns who died in the Holocaust. If the Catholic church were to blame for the Holocaust, he reasoned, then why did Catholic priests and nuns die in it? In so doing, he made Catholics seem less like perpetrators of anti-semitism and more like victims of the ultimate anti-semite.
All it takes to know the truth about the Catholic church, he kept saying, is a little research. ”Seriously,” he would say, “google it.”
Oh, the irony.
Hearing someone standing in persona christi speak in such an uncharitable and untrue fashion would always disturb me. Hearing someone speak these untruths in order to deflect blame and protect our church’s institutional ego hurts even worse. So many of our church leaders seem to want to blame everyone but ourselves for our problems. Protestants, the media, uninformed Catholics, fill in the blank. We are always innocent; someone else is always at fault.
Studies have shown that rather than the media or Protestants, we are the reason so many Catholics are leaving the church. A CNN study Megan referenced in an early post identifies the top seven reasons Catholics leave the church:
1. The Sex Abuse Crisis
2. The Church’s stance on homosexuality
3. Dissatisfaction with the Priest
4. Uninspiring Homilies on Sundays
5. Perception that the Church is tied too closely to conservative politics
6. Church’s stance towards divorced and remarried Catholics
7. The status of women.
Notice: nowhere does it say that Catholics leave the church because they are attracted to other faith traditions. Nowhere does it say that Catholics don’t know or understand what the church teaches: Catholics know that the church forbids women priests as well as divorce and remarriage. As do they know that the church opposes both lesbian and gay ecclesial inclusion as well as lesbian and gay civil rights. There is nothing to google here.
If church leaders want Catholics to “come home,” then perhaps they should consider why the church stopped feeling like home in the first place. “Catholics come home” ought to serve not just as an invitation to “lapsed” Catholics, but also a promise to make the church more like home. Homecoming requires return as well as accommodation.
Until that day, I, along with many other Catholics, will pray for the day that we can truly come home again.