by Susan Matthews
I read a letter to the editor yesterday in The Philadelphia Inquirer that urged Catholics to speak out. Later in the day, I overheard two older women talking about an accused priest with whom they were friendly. Their blind acceptance of his innocence despite overwhelming evidence was baffling and enraging. A Web site is born and begins with an essay I wrote. Please share your thoughts.
My son told me how much he enjoys Mass. I knew my little guy liked Bakugan, Star Wars and loud music, but Mass? Instead of being happy that Catholic school tuition isn’t wasted on him, I had a sinking feeling. It was then I realized how much I’ve lost in the wake of the continuing Catholic Church pedophile scandals. I had, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “lost my saints.”
When I was his age, the Catholic saints were my action heroes. Their brave lives and gory deaths fascinated and inspired me. They stood up for their beliefs against all odds. I’d even played Mass. My little brother and stuffed animals lined my makeshift pew as I read from the Bible. It didn’t occur to me that I’d never seen a woman priest.
After college, I took a job as an editor with The Catholic Standard and Times, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. This was during the 90s when so much of the abuse was being covered up. I had no idea at the time, but I had plenty of other concerns.
My boss, a priest with a doctorate in theology from the Vatican, explained the distinction between doctrine and tradition. Tradition with a capital T, he said. Also, celibacy for archdiocesan priests was a promise rather than a vow. While I respected his honesty and devout belief, the information tugged at me. For years, I wondered about confession, birth control, the role of women in the Church and the indictment of gays. Now I understood much of our practice of religion had nothing to do with actual doctrine or vows. Throughout history evil, greed, sexism and bigotry shaped much of what now constitutes Catholic “T”radition. I still needed to believe the Church was holy and good. Who was I to question?
Then came the sickening discovery that a priest, who had taken my husband, his brothers and other boys on childhood camping trips, had been a pedophile, known as such to the archdiocesan administration for decades. While my husband and his brothers were unharmed, so many others were not so lucky.
The Church hierarchy, and now possibly even the Pope, have allowed a legacy of depression, suicide and depravity. I find that to be as evil, if not more so, than the priest pedophiles.
It is our God-given right and responsibility to question. In politics, I’ve always thought one shouldn’t complain unless participating in change. But this isn’t government. This is my soul. With whom do I register my complaint? Where do I vote? What do I do here and now if I want to actively take part in reforming my religion? Where are my saints?
It seems contradictory, but I will continue to send my children to Catholic schools. I have no doubt God is present in what they and Catholic Charities accomplish. I’m friendly with several priests and two of my great aunts are Sisters of St. Joseph. I have tried to separate my faith from my religion, as my mother suggests. My father argues that Catholicism has endured centuries just fine.
But I find that lack of spiritual evolution unacceptable and I can’t sit in Church as if nothing is wrong. I’m by no means suggesting that other religions have it over Catholics. Having written for The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Living Religion section, I covered many faiths. Some people believe any organized religion becomes corrupt. Where does that leave society?
There’s a desperate need for faith and organized religion. Yet, church pews are emptier and fewer people are entering religious orders. Apathy, rather than reform, has taken hold. So much competes for our attention and, yes, sometimes we are lazy.
Instead of walking away from organized religion, we need to fix it. I just don’t know how. It’s not the sins of the past and present Church that concern me — it’s the Church of the future, or the lack there of. I want my children to experience the peace that comes with belief. I don’t want to rob them of their faith. The Church may do that soon enough.
My son deserves more. He deserves his saints — the ones I’ve lost.