Dissatisfied Catholics. Why Do We Stay?

When so many of us disagree with policies that hurt our neighbors.

Photo by Olia Gozha on Unsplash

This article is the second in a series focusing on the Roman Catholic Church and what it would take to change three key policies which have impacts that stretch beyond the church itself and around the globe. Specifically, policies such as their anti-LGBTQ agenda, their restrictions on who can be clergy and in leadership, and their extreme view on family planning (which forbids birth control that acts prior to conception except scheduled abstinence). An outline of the key points in each path is listed below.

1.Convince the Vatican to change their policies
a. Origin of the policies
b. Key decision makers and influences
c. Mechanism for Change

2. Reduce Support So as to Negate the Vatican’s Negative Influence
a. Vast Resources
b. Member Support
c. Monetary Support

This article will focus on the people in the pews — the members of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). What would it take — using only methods Jesus would approve of — to convince enough of them (or the right subset of them) to leave the church or withhold enough support to effect change.

Let’s start with the members of the RCC. In 2017, the RCC had approximately 70 million members in the United States, and almost 1.3 billion worldwide [1]. According to Pew research, 20% of American adults are Catholic [2]. When surveyed, they had a lot to say about these three issues.

46% think the church should recognize same sex marriage, as compared to the 46% who said it should not.

62% said it should allow priests to get married, and 59% said the Church should allow women to be priests.

76% said the Catholic Church should allow Catholics to use birth control. Only 19% said it should not.

This research tells us that in all three cases, the current policy is not supported by a majority of the membership. In the case of birth control, three quarters of the members disagree with the policy.

The research also showed that 41% of Catholic adults under 30, 26% of those 30 to 64 years old, and 14% of those older than 64 could imagine leaving the church in the future.

Fourteen percent of 70 million is almost 10 million Catholics who could see themselves leaving the church. Statistics can be tricky, but no matter how you look at it, it’s still a lot of people.

So why don’t they leave? At least in the United States, there’s no one stopping them. For most, it would not even cost them money or time to leave. So why stay?

I think the answer includes a combination of our ties to the familiar, our motivation to find something new, and our ability to surmount obstacles to that change. The relative strength of each determines whether we stay or we go. In my case, I left after more than 40 years in the Roman Catholic Church. Why not sooner? Ties to my old church held me back, obstacles kept me from moving forward, and a lack of sufficient motivation prevented my overcoming the other two.

I didn’t support the anti LGBTQ policies and didn’t know many Catholics that did. And having always attended Catholic schools followed by the military, I never got to know anyone personally who I knew was part of the LGBTQ community. Before this past year, I’d never even heard a Catholic priest in church speak negatively about homosexuality. So I thought: what difference does it make? If the Vatican doesn’t like the LGBTQ community and they put that in a document (Catechism) that only they fully respect, who cares? Not me. But while I and others I know were safe from the hate, the Vatican was using that document to support the terrorizing of our neighbors across the world and the subtle torture of our neighbors at home.

I honestly believed that sooner or later the haters in the Vatican would just give up (or maybe we could kick them out?). Why should I give up the church of my childhood to a bunch of unkind old men in Rome. Let them leave!

Sure, I know there are other Christian churches in the US. There are Episcopalian churches in most places and plenty of non denominational ones that claim to be inclusive and not hateful.

Honestly, I didn’t want to change. I was comfortable with one type of service and I was resistant to something different. I often felt a shared experience or kinship with other Catholics I’ve met, especially those who went to Catholic school. I think many, myself included, saw our denomination as a kind of slightly dysfunctional family that we all shared. Mass was short, the “fire and brimstone” was pretty light, and we tended to ignore (en masse) all the rules that didn’t make sense, like the restrictions on birth control. In return, we promised to always feel guilty for everything (again en masse) and we continued to do our “Catholic Calisthenics” on Sunday (stand, sit, kneel, sit, kneel, etc). I thought that was enough.

Now I realize that we were recklessly enabling an agenda of hate that we did not agree with.

This is the not so funny reason and the one I am very ashamed of. I may have grown up in houses where half of the conversations were in Spanish, but to the world, I’m just another white guy. A white heterosexual male married to a white heterosexual woman with two kids, a few dogs and a white picket fence that separates my yard from the street. The only thing we are missing is money, but no one’s perfect. The definition of privilege in America. I recognized that if I stood up for my LGBTQ neighbors — people I didn’t even know — that privileged position would be threatened.

So why did I finally choose to leave (and then post an article on Medium under my own name about it)?

First, I found out that my support, or more accurately, the support of millions of little people like me, enabled the RCC to support policies that physically harm others across the world. Policies that increase the risk of suicide for kids in my own country and policies that hurt real people I’d never even heard of before I got on Medium, people I now greatly admire, like James Finn and Emily Swan.

The second reason involved my belief that the ‘haters’ should leave. I thought *we* — the members of the RCC — could wait them out. That we could kick out the bad apples and keep the church we love. Time and Pope Francis’ inability to change things got me doubting that. Then an exchange on Medium finally convinced me that leaving was the right thing to do. No one convinced me, I did. I think the other person just witnessed it.

The third reason: when I looked, there was an good alternative for me. (I know this isn’t always true). But in this case it was. I found a place. Catholic Mass, but not under the Vatican. Full inclusion for LGBTQ. No hate. They do LGBTQ weddings. Women can be priests (and are priests in another parish, although no rules prevent it here). Openly LGBTQ members can be priests. And family planning is between you and God. And oh yeah, all those unnecessary changes to the Mass the Vatican made instead of dealing with real problems…. those are gone too. Mass is back to the way it was when we grew up. Except they changed “us men” to “us” and “His” to “God”. Those changes are subtle, but meaningful. Respectful. They make sense to me.

The last one was the hardest, and the also easiest.

It was all about fear.

As I said, I was afraid if I switched churches, others would make fun of me. I realize that makes me a really shitty person and I wouldn’t blame you for hating me for saying it. But that’s the truth.

Then I went through a crisis in my life. The kind that turns your world upside down. My mental health overflowed. I hit the bottom, over and over and over again. I didn’t really see worth in myself except maybe as an organ donor. Finally, I got help. It took a while, but things improved. And now? I don’t really give a damn what people think. What people think sent me over the edge.

If I can help someone else by switching churches, especially a kid somewhere who is getting treated poorly and maybe suicidal because the RCC told everyone homosexuality is bad, then it’s worth it. So that’s why I stayed so long. And that’s why I chose to leave. I suspect most Roman Catholics don’t need an event of that magnitude to switch churches, but maybe this article can help convince them that:

1. It does matter.

2. It’s time to leave because our support is being misused to facilitate the spread of hate.

3. It’s easier than you think.

4. You’ll be in good company. Much better people than ourselves.

I recognize the near impossibility of this happening. But, what if it is possible? I was a kid in the 1980’s. Back then it seemed like the Soviet Union would go on forever. I was 13 years old when I watched the Berlin Wall fall.

Anything is possible.

This article focused mainly on the Roman Catholic Church’s anti-LGBTQ agenda. This is not a commentary on the relative importance of the three issues I mentioned, just an acknowledgment that for me, it was the issue that made me upset enough to leave. Future articles will focus on the impacts of the RCC’s other policies.

[1] Center For Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA). Georgetown University. http://cara.georgetown.edu/frequently-requested-church-statistics/

[2] “US Catholics Open To Non-Traditional Families” Sept 2, 2015. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewforum.org/2015/09/02/u-s-catholics-open-to-non-traditional-families/

Husband. Dad to two kids and four dogs. Trying to become more authentic and less afraid.

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