The Catholic church is on track to become a shrinking cult

Eastside Catholic High School students rally in support of former Vice Principal Mark Zmuda at the Seattle archdiocese chancery building Dec. 20, 2013. Zmuda was asked to resign because he married his same-sex partner. (Reuters/David Ryder)

Taking a break from his crusade against civil gay marriage, San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone is establishing an Oratory of St. Philip Neri at Star of the Sea Parish in the city.

The Oratory of St. Philip Neri dates back to 1575 in Rome and includes a rich history of priestly fraternity, community, prayer and the Eucharist. The intent here, according to Catholic San Francisco, is to "create a stable community with at least two full-time priests." There will be outreach to young adults and "a focus on offering Mass, hearing confessions and creating a welcoming community."

New pastor Fr. Joseph Illo, the former chaplain at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., says he really wants to concentrate on young adults, offering air hockey and pingpong, among other activities. There will be Sunday and daily Mass in Latin, although it's not clear how in 2014 Mass in a language no one understands will attract young adults. Perhaps the air hockey and the pingpong will.

But the Holy Spirit works in all sorts of strange and wonderful ways, and any effort to attract young adults -- to keep them from leaving the church, should be praised, especially given the wholesale exodus of young Catholics over recent years. The Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project reports that four out of five Catholics who have left the church and haven't joined another church did so before the age of 24.

One can point to an increasingly secular, materialistic culture as a factor in this exodus. But a closer look suggests that young Catholics are increasingly turned off by the attitudes and actions of some American bishops -- the failure to address the child abuse scandal, the harsh opposition to civil gay marriage, the cluelessness of church teaching on contraception, and the refusal to consider women priests.

More recently, Catholic high school students, who can spot dishonesty and hypocrisy a mile away, are reacting with disillusion and disgust at how the church is treating some teachers in Catholic schools.

Bishop Michael Barber of Oakland, Calif., is attempting to coerce Catholic identity with a mandated morality pledge. In trying to clarify his position, Barber wrote, "I am not interested in examining a teacher's private life." He just doesn't want any "public manifestation" of opposition to church teaching. Most thoughtful students will see that for what it is: a clumsy, inept Catholic version of "don't ask, don't tell."

Cincinnati Archbishop Dennis Schnurr upheld the firing of an assistant principal who expressed support for civil gay marriage on his blog. The chancery spokesman stated that such actions "would undermine what students are being taught in the classroom." It would appear that Cincinnati Catholic high school students are not being taught Jesus' message of love and inclusiveness or Pope Francis' words, "Who am I to judge?"

The Cincinnati contract prohibits teachers from "public support of the homosexual lifestyle." That contract language forced a Catholic teacher who is the mother of a gay son to choose between her son and her job. She chose her son.

Schnurr's spokesman described the resulting protests as "a tempest in a teapot." But the real tempest, the real storm may be over the horizon. The real question is how many thoughtful Catholic high school students will be turned off by a church that can treat people this harshly, and how many will walk away before they are 24.

Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon fired a teacher at a Catholic high school from her job when the diocese read the obituary of her mother's death and discovered the teacher was a lesbian. How many thoughtful Catholic high school students will stick around in a church that is capable of that kind of behavior?

St. Paul-Minneapolis Archbishop John Nienstedt sent one of his priests to speak at a mandatory high school assembly just before Minnesota was to vote on an anti-gay-marriage constitutional amendment. The priest, in attempting to influence soon-to-be voting age seniors, told the students that single parents and adopted children are not normal. A married Catholic couple presenting with the priest compared same-sex marriage to bestiality. The students didn't buy it and the voters of Minnesota rejected the constitutional amendment.

A Catholic high school fired a gay vice principal after he married his partner. The assistant principal was told that if he divorced his partner he could be reinstated. He moved on to another job. Hundreds of students and parents protested the firing.

So to the priests of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in San Francisco and to other efforts at young adult evangelization: God bless you. You're going to have to work overtime and the Holy Spirit is going to have to work overtime to offset the hypocrisy, insensitivity, dishonesty and stupidity of some of your leaders, to offset their capacity, whether they intend it or not, to fan the flames of discrimination and homophobia and cause many young people struggling with their sexuality to continue to feel inferior, rejected and sometimes suicidal.

If our church is left in the hands of these bishops, we are on track to become a shrinking, increasingly irrelevant cult -- not a source of appeal for thoughtful Catholic high school students.

[Brian Cahill is the former executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities.]

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