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The Church: Why She Left, Why Others Stay.

Scandal drives veteran Catholic journalist out


Melinda Henneberger (Kansas City Star screengrab)

Catholic journalist Melinda Henneberger has left the Church. She writes today of her anger at watching the US Catholic bishops gather in Baltimore this week to talk about the scandal, only to have the rug pulled out from under them by Pope Francis. Excerpts:

Let’s not be hasty, right? It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic. Yet apparently, these men need a code of conduct to know not to shield rapists. And they need time to reach universal consensus on a proposal that would simply ask bishops to promise not to lead a “double life.”

No one can accuse me of being hasty. But after a lifetime of stubborn adherence on my part and criminal behavior on yours, your excellencies, you seem to have finally succeeded in driving me away. I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as a former Catholic, but I’m about to find out.

My hopes for this Baltimore confab weren’t ever high, because fool me 6,000 times, shame on you. But that 6,001st time, well, I’m just all out of willingness to be conned into believing you who’ve so long seen the devastation of innocents principally as a PR problem are ever going to change.

Like others who’ve had more than enough of your betrayals and arrogance and perpetual surprise about having coddled child rapists, I haven’t been back to Mass since June. That’s when a man I thought I knew pretty well, a man who unlike other church leaders amid the abuse scandals of 2002 seemed to understand the depth of the damage done, was himself disgraced.

She’s talking about Cardinal McCarrick. She goes on to write with incredulity of Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s response:

It’s inexplicable,” O’Malley said of the transgressions of so many bishops even in recent years. “I mean, anybody at this point in history who would not understand the consequences of not embracing zero tolerance and transparency — I cannot understand that.’’ The men who run the church continue to think so well of one another that I sometimes wonder if they have met.

Yep. It’s that “affective relationship” that corrupt Cardinal Mahony said yesterday at the meeting was so valuable, and needed to be strengthened.


I am a true-believing, rosary- and novena-praying graduate of St. Mary’s Elementary School, the University of Notre Dame and  l’Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium. I covered the Vatican for the New York Times and was a fellow at the Catholic University of America’s Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies. I never thought it would come to this.

Read the whole thing. 

Well, I feel her pain — at least I felt it in 2006, when I left under similar circumstances. Catholic intellectuals can’t figure out how one can do this, if you’ve got the arguments straight in your head. What jumps out at me in Henneberger’s column is that she does not offer an argument for leaving. She just leaves. Can’t take it anymore. Doesn’t even feel obliged to give an argument. She’s worn out.

I get this. It’s like being married to a chronic alcoholic who is succumbing to drink. You may love your drunk spouse, but you can no longer live with them, and be party to their destructive and abusive behavior. The marriage eventually ceases to exist as a real thing. You may remarry someone else (e.g., find a spiritual home in another church, as I have done, and have been very happy there), but if you’re like me, you will never fully trust your new spouse, or yourself, given how much you trusted your first love.

Or, you might think of it as being the child of a raging alcoholic. A reader on another thread put it like this:

The church right now is like a family Christmas Party where Dad is drunk, barfing everywhere, insulting everyone, using profanity – and everyone at the party feels obligated to behave as if nothing is the matter. Everything is normal. If dad tells me to stick my bare butt out the window at the neighbors who am I to question? Who am I to judge?

We can’t criticize Dad or the uncles we never see when we have to move but show up for every party and are urging Dad to get even more wasted.

The Catholic clergy is calling out for an intervention. But no one besides Cousin Vigano, who has to hide in the garage, is willing to say anything. And until someone is willing to state what is obvious to everyone the situation can not get any better.

And the party will keep getting more raucous until the neighbors call the cops and have everyone thrown in jail.

You may cut your ties with your dysfunctional family, and move away from them, but you don’t forget them. You can’t forget them. You mourn for them, maybe, and you want to see Dad get treatment and everything to work out. But you know you have to get out of that maelstrom before it sucks you under.

Readers, I don’t want to have a thread on whether or not someone should leave the Catholic Church. What I would like to hear are stories from Catholics who did leave, and Catholics who thought seriously about leaving, but who chose to stay. 

No arguments, just stories. Got it? No arguments, no hostile judgments on those who left or those who stayed. Just tell your story. I won’t publish argumentative statements.

UPDATE: Guys, I’m serious about not publishing comments on other people’s narratives. I’m not trying to be mean here; I just want to do the best I can to keep the comments thread from devolving into debate and argumentation. Please don’t post those kinds of comments.

There are a lot of good accounts below, but this one, from this morning, really got to me. The Catholic Church expects this layman to carry a heavy cross — and it is right to do so — but the faithless, sexually corrupt priests and bishops made a mockery of him. It’s infuriating:

I’m currently thinking about leaving.

I’m a gay Catholic who has tried to remain faithful to Catholic teaching on sexuality and am appalled by the widespread homosexual scandals in the Church.

I spent most of my 20s (the time of life most other people are settling down, finding a life partner) living celibately because I believed the Church’s teaching. Whatever happens in the future, I can never get that part of my life back. And now I find out that the priests and bishops who were egging me on were involved in one huge decades-long gay orgy the whole time! Or, if they weren’t involved themselves, they were covering up for their friends who were! I feel like the victim of a cheap con trick.

I’m not sure if I still believe the Church’s teaching on sexuality. I pray to be faithful to God’s will, whatever sacrifice that requires of me. But, either way, I find it difficult to see how I can remain a Roman Catholic.

If I enter a same-sex relationship, then I will effectively be treated as excommunicated by the Church (unless I go to some awful liberal pro-gay Jesuit parish, which I couldn’t handle).

If God is indeed calling me to celibate, how on earth is staying in the Catholic Church as a gay man going to help me do that? When the “shepherds” to whom I would have to submit myself — the men whose preaching I would be hearing, who would be hearing my confessions and advising me on growing in holiness, giving me spiritual direction — many of them are leading gay double-lives?

I sin, too. I’m not claiming to be holier-than-thou. I have sympathy for the bad priests. But its precisely because I’m a sinner that it would be complete madness to continue to hand over the rudder of my spiritual life to such men. Sure, my faith was never in priests and bishops to begin with, but the hierarchy is an essential enough part of the Catholicism that its basically impossible to function as a Catholic when you have no trust in it.

So I’m looking into Anglicanism and (more tentatively) Eastern Orthodoxy.

There are other issues I have with the Church but this is the one that really sticks in the craw for me.

UPDATE.2: A reader e-mails me her amazing story:

I’m a recent convert. It hasn’t even been a year since I was received into the Church. That means I converted after 2002. After the films Spotlight and Doubt. After Tim Minchin’s foul, NSFW The Pope Song pretty much summed up what non-Christians thought about the Catholic sex-abuse scandal. (I listened again before writing this, and still by and large agree with the song’s sentiment, if not the language.) So the bulk of the scandal was something I was familiar with before it even occurred to me to convert.

So why walk willingly into this corrupt and perverted human institution for the sake of the faith it is supposed to protect? Why stay? I think it is because I spent years in liberal communities in which sex abuse and harassment was tolerated to an alarming degree. Where it doesn’t matter how many youth come forward with stories or sexual abuse and harassment, because we aren’t going to discriminate against someone based on prudishness. Where explaining that a man kissing you on the lips without your consent made you feel uncomfortable gets you a lecture about how people have too many hangups about sex, and after all, people today are absolutely starving for human touch and connection. I mean, he’s a nice guy, let it go. Hug a tree.

I’ve had gay men grab my body in a sexual way without my consent. I’ve had gay men expose their genitalia to me and ask me to touch it. What can you say in response to that kind of harassment without being labeled a bigot? When someone behaves in a predatory way, labeling themselves as polyamorous is a sure way to keep anyone from calling them out over it. There are types of abuse that aren’t even viewed as abuse because it is ideologically inconvenient, and communities will move heaven and earth to protect progressive predators.

Spending time in other religious communities, witnessing, experiencing, and hearing countless stories of sexual abuse, has numbed me a bit. Before I even considered joining the Catholic Church I was very aware that the reason that other religious and spiritual communities aren’t experiencing the same level of public scandal has to do with how they are structured.

The rate of predators in the Catholic Church is on par with the rate of predators in the general population. That statistic is often used to downplay the scandal. In truth, it should heighten it, because it should make us very aware how prevalent the problem is in our country. The Catholic scandal is stunning simply because the Church as an entity is so well organized and the data so accessible. If you were to take a geographic area, say New York City,and shift the religious lens, would you be able to paint as clear a picture of sex abuse?

Statistics tell us that the Hassidic Jewish community has the same rate of abuse, but that story is harder to tell due to organizational and cultural differences. Shift the lens to progressive activism. Remember the rape problem during the Occupy Wall Street protests? There are no clear organizations or leaders in this case to point the finger at, or sue. Shift the lens to pagan/New Age/occult/burner communities. Again, no large organizations or clear community leadership structures to point to, but this actually means predators are more likely to go unnoticed, or, because of cultural attitudes towards sex, be protected by the community they are harming. Shift the lens to the Amish. There have been plenty of reports of the abuse coverup in Amish communities, but when the communities are themselves small the story tends to stay small. Shift to Hollywood, the military, cable news, the Olympics…  and you keep finding the same story in different settings.

I’m not saying this to diminish what is happening in the Catholic Church. Rather, I think what is happening in the Catholic Church is a mirror of our culture. A big hypocritical, monolithic mirror that genuinely believes it can outwait the “PR problem” of sex abuse. Quite literally a good ol’ boys club primarily concerned with protecting its own, headed by a sullen, snarky oldboy who really wishes the media would focus on him pretending to be gay-friendly rather than expecting him to actually do his job.

I am beyond furious with Pope Francis. When it comes to the bishops I sincerely believe we should throw the bums out and start over. It’s time to flip over the money-changer tables in the temple. It’s time for a revolution from within. I think the laity should tell their parishes that they refuse to financially support their diocese until they see real reform. I think every parish in the United States should vote with their checkbook. The bishops don’t want a PR problem? 69 million Catholics remaining in their parishes but redirecting parish funds away from their bishops is a bigger PR problem. 24,000 parishes in the US announcing that the funds they would normally submit to the diocese are going to homeless shelters this Advent because of the scandal is a much bigger PR problem.

So if I’m angry enough to advocate mutiny, why do I stay? Because the Catholic faith is true, and beautiful, and good, and real. It is a wholly separate thing from the human institution. I also stay because there are really wonderful, sincere, genuine, trustworthy priests trying to do God’s work. There are so many good, brilliant, compassionate individual Catholics who inspire me every day. So many vibrant parishes full of mercy and faith where I have felt God’s actual presence among the flawed but striving faithful.

The scandal is big. The problems affecting Catholic institutions are huge. The culture of Catholic exceptionalism is pervasive. The bishops and cardinals have totally lost touch with reality, and there is no reforming the majority of them.

But as overwhelming as the problems are, the Body of Christ is bigger. We forget that, I think. Good Catholics outnumber the bad, every single day. Good Catholics have to get loud, have to get angry, have to put their foot down. This is not a time for councils, reports, suggestions, asking for permission. This is a time to demand resignations from Church leadership. They have proven themselves incapable and unwilling to do their job. Because their boss is incapable and unwilling to do his.

If the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is a mirror of the sex abuse problems in our country, then it is the Catholic Church’s obligation to demonstrate the moral, just, and Christian response to these problems.  Which means we need a Pope willing to take an unapologetic moral stance and hold every single bishop to the same standard.

If you can’t be celibate, then you don’t get to wear a collar. Plenty of laity go without sex every day. Go without sex for years, often not of their own choice. It’s not impossible. Homosexuals don’t get a pass on this. They are human beings capable of self-control, just like the rest of us. Have you noticed the tendency in the media to paint them as being unable to control their sexuality? The French drama The Churchmen is a good example of this incredibly demeaning tendency. Pedophilia or preying on vulnerable adolescents or adults should be an automatic expulsion from holy orders. Zero tolerance.

We need a Pope willing to be ruthless in defense of the faith. Willing to demand resignations, to endure bad press, to even shrink the institution of the Church in order to reform it. We need a surgeon Pope, who doesn’t worry about hurting the cancer’s feelings but cuts it quickly out. And we need a laity who will loudly support this Pope in holding their own bishops accountable. Allowing the problem to fester is not merciful or compassionate or Christ-like. There is a constant thread throughout Christian gospel, tradition, and theology that is utterly ruthless when it comes to the truth. In our current situation, I don’t think it is un-Christian to pray for a ruthless Pope.

I am in love with the Catholic faith and the truth it illuminates. I pray for a Pope like this. I’m ready to be a lay person who supports him. This is why I stay.