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How the Catholic Church Survives Social Progress

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I was just starting out as a student at a small-town Catholic elementary school in the mid-1960s when the Second Vatican Council (also known as Vatican II) brought the Catholic Church into the 20th century. The Council's most notable changes for me at the time were that the use of vernacular language was now permitted in the Mass and that the laity became more involved in the Church's ministry. At around the same time, the nuns who taught in my school were given new, more modern habits to wear, which exposed their ankles and their hairlines -- much more progressive than the burka-like garb that they had to wear previously.

All of this was very exciting and appealing to us young folks. But, unfortunately, that is where the progress stopped.

In the 40-plus years since Vatican II, society has evolved, and most Catholics I know have changed with the times. A result is the large number of "cafeteria Catholics", who pick and choose which doctrines they will follow and which they will ignore. A cafeteria Catholic, for example, might faithfully attend Mass every Sunday, but also use birth control or regularly engage in premarital sex. Indeed, a recent Gallup poll found that U.S. Catholics are more liberal than the general population on social issues like divorce and homosexuality.

The Church, however, refuses to evolve. It's still stuck at Vatican II, and is unlikely to progress any further under the very conservative man who currently occupies the papal throne.

The consequences? Surprisingly, the percentage of Americans who identify as Catholic hasn't changed much in recent years. But it has become tougher and tougher to recruit new priests.

And the priests they do recruit are kept on a short and bizarre kind of leash. Celibacy is required, but child molestation is tolerated and covered up.

And so they lose the good priests.

In Miami, former Catholic priest Rev. Alberto Cutie (who certainly is, by the way) last week defected to the Episcopal Church amidst a scandal involving his love affair with a woman. And, per the more reasonable Episcopalian standards of priestly conduct, Rev. Cutie will now marry the woman he loves. After all, Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees that "[m]en and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family," although the Catholic Church apparently disagrees.

And, late last year, Father Roy Bourgeois, a beloved human rights advocate, was excommunicated for participating in the ordination of a woman into the priesthood. The Catholic Church, even with all its Virgin Mary worship, still apparently believes that women are somehow inferior.

Defections and transgressions like we've seen in recent months by Fathers Cutie and Bourgeois are guaranteed to continue if the Church remains stubborn on progress.

And now, with millions of followers but so few priests to lead them, can the Church survive over the long term?

Certainly not in its current form, I would think.

But then again, one little trip to the confessional can wipe away a lifetime of progressive conduct by a straying member of the flock.

And that keeps the so-called Catholics comfortably ensconced in an identity, and keeps the Catholic Church comfortably funded.
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Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views (more...)
 

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