Why I left the Catholic Church
And why I fully expect quite a few people to join me very soon
Three months ago, I announced I was leaving the Catholic Church. My reason was that the latest revelations in the church's interminable sex abuse scandal had revealed "a repulsive institution — or at least one permeated by repulsive human beings who reward one another for repulsive acts, all the while deigning to lecture the world about its sin."
Let's just say subsequent events haven't led me to regret the decision.
That would include Wednesday's news that the offices of the cardinal-archbishop of Galveston-Houston, who also happens to serve as president of the United States Catholic bishops' conference, were raided by "dozens of local and federal law enforcement officers … looking for evidence in a clergy sexual abuse case." A couple of weeks ago, the story was the Vatican's decision to nix plans by the American bishops to devise some kind of response to the scandal — on the grounds that it's mostly just a conspiracy drummed up by troublemaking right-wing clerics and laypeople. A week or a month from now, the story is bound to be something arising from the dozen or so investigations underway by the Justice Department and attorneys general around the country.
It's hardly surprising that writers deeply devoted to the Catholic Church would reject the reasons for my decision to leave the church. The former editor of Commonweal Paul Baumann responded by suggesting that my reaction is too extreme and driven by the error of expecting too much of the church. Matthew Schmitz, a senior editor of First Things, made a related point in the Catholic Herald, implying that I and others have chosen to bolt the church precisely because it (rightly) sets its moral standards very high — and that this decision is ultimately a betrayal of our duty as Catholics to "cling" to Christ while "tending" to his wounds, and those of his church.
While putting off his full argument for a future occasion, The New York Times' Ross Douthat pronounced my choice to leave the church "a terrible mistake." Going further, Austin Ruse took to the pages of the conservative Catholic magazine Crisis to say, in effect, good riddance: better for apostates to leave the church than to doubt its divinity and rot it out from the inside.
As I say, the response was unsurprising, even perfectly understandable. Though I do wonder whether any of these apologists for the church quite grasps why I left the church — and why so many others are likely to make the same move over the coming months and years.
The Catholic Church does make extraordinarily high claims for itself — not that its priests and bishops and cardinals and popes are angels but that the church as an institution is, of all the churches that follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, the one most fully and rightly ordered through time.
Readers conversant with the Christian intellectual tradition will recognize that I'm talking about ecclesiology — the branch of theological speculation devoted to reflecting on the workings of divine revelation in and through the church (ecclesia). In the broadest sense, ecclesiology concerns the invisible church of all those who have followed Christ from the time of his ministry on down to the present. But it can also focus on a particular visible church within that wider communion of Christians. For Catholics, ecclesiology is often invoked in this latter sense — as a way of explaining how and why the Catholic Church should be considered the One True Church among the many Christian churches in the world.
If I may be permitted some speculation of my own — this time of a psychological variety — I'd like to suggest that those objecting to the departure of fellow Catholics from the church may be moved to express those objections because they recognize how weak and frankly unpersuasive such ecclesiological claims really are. They are really arguing with themselves, in other words, trying to muster reasons to continue affirming something that, at a certain level, they fully recognize to be just a few millimeters away from outright absurdity.
What's absurd? The claim that, of all the Christian churches, the Roman church is the very best, the truest of all, the one most fully and rightly ordered through time. That would be not only the church of the great diabolical popes of the past (like John XII and Alexander VI and Boniface VIII and Leo X), but also the church that in recent decades has seen literally thousands of priests in countries across the globe accused of sexually abusing children — 271 of them in the archdiocese of Boston alone — with untold numbers of bishops covering it up year after year after year. The number is untold, by the way, because we are still nowhere near knowing just how many members of the Catholic hierarchy around the world — all the way up to popes themselves — knew exactly what was happening and responded like self-protective bureaucrats and PR flacks out to protect a corporate brand from bad press.
But that's not all. The institution of the church also responded a little ... oddly — a little too ... unfazed. I first encountered this unsettling reaction while working for a priest back in the early 2000s, in the wake of the scandals that still roil the church to this day. After several months of writing columns expressing pastoral sympathy for victims of sexual abuse, Richard John Neuhaus began to grow weary of the church's critics. Might it be worth questioning the "universal and extreme harmfulness of childhood sexual abuse"? Such questioning, he suggested, might help to "counter widespread, and sometimes self-serving, hysteria with a modicum of calm deliberation and simple honesty."
It's become commonplace for Catholic laypeople to ask themselves why the clergy has responded in the way it has to the scandal — how Pope John Paul II (along with Neuhaus) could have turned a blind eye to the myriad abuses committed by Marcial Maciel Degollado; how Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Francis Law could have been rewarded with a cushy sinecure at the Vatican as his "punishment" for basically overseeing a decades-long child-rape gang in Boston; and how Theodore McCarrick could have been promoted to one of the most powerful and prestigious positions in the Catholic Church in the United States after decades of alleged sexual predation with the full knowledge of (once again) untold numbers of priests, bishops, and possibly popes.
The behavior is only mysterious if you assume that anyone in their place would respond the way you and I would: with revulsion. But it isn't mysterious at all if you assume what should be obvious by now to everyone: They just didn't think it was such a big deal. Judging by the current stance of the Vatican to the pope's pesky American critics, the character of that response hasn't changed one bit down through the years.
Let's be adults, shall we? If you believe that Jesus Christ was resurrected, that he is the Son of God and the second person of the trinitarian Godhead, that his teaching tells us how the creator of the universe wants us to live, then by all means be a Christian. But to believe that this particular church, of all the Christian churches in the world, is the one most fully and rightly ordered through time, over and above all of the others? You can't possibly be serious.
To react with anger and incredulity to this suggestion isn't to display unrealistically high hopes or expectations about the church. It's to respond reasonably to a claim that the church makes about itself — a claim that is flatly implausible on its face.
And that, my former fellow Catholic communicants, is why I have left the church — and why I fully expect quite a lot of the rest of you to be joining me in my unregretted exodus very soon.