Why let bishops drive us from church we love?

Brian Cahill, former executive director San Francisco Catholic Charities. (Photo taken from the SFSU Web site)


Well-informed U.S. Catholics are acutely aware of the arrogance, paternalism, flawed logic, inflammatory rhetoric, failure of personal accountability, and lack of pastoral sensitivity of many of our church leaders.

The U.S. bishops have set the tone with their continued denial of the wholesale rejection of church teaching on contraception; their clumsy, heavy-handed, ineffective attempt to influence national health care legislation; their opposition to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development regulations prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians; and their condemnation of the work of theologian St. Joseph Sr. Elizabeth Johnson without even meeting with her.

Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia is the latest U.S. poster boy for our church’s continued failure to confront the molestation scandal.

Cardinal Raymond Burke and other shortsighted bishops continue to use the Eucharist as a sanction against public officials, and Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver tried to tell us not to vote for presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington referred to a Vatican pronouncement that equated child molestation and women’s ordination as a "welcome statement."

Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix excommunicated a dedicated Mercy nun for making an impossible decision in a tragic, ambiguous medical crisis.

Bishop Robert Vasa, newly arrived in Santa Rosa, Calif., had forced a loyalty oath on all church employees in his former diocese.

Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland, Calif., trashed President Obama and Gov. Jerry Brown for not defending heterosexual marriage and for ignoring the will of the people. However, in the same statement he blissfully ignored the likelihood of voter approval of same-sex marriage within the next few years.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York explained church teaching on same-sex marriage by saying that he wanted to play shortstop for the Yankees, but did not have the "right stuff." He wasn't suggesting that gays with the range and arm of Derek Jeter could marry, but instead subtly using the lack of "right stuff" as code for "objectively disordered" -- the Roman church’s favorite label for gays and lesbians.

Who are these guys?

What part of the Vatican II documents Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes, which placed the concerns of the church into the modern world, don’t they get? When did they decide that harsh political partisanship was part of their calling?

Why even stay in a church with these kind of leaders? Why not join the millions of American Catholics who have left?

Well, let me tell you.

I stay because I need the Eucharist. I need to hear the word of God. I need to pray with the worshiping people of God. I stay because of the great works of charity, social service, health care and education that have always come from my church. I stay because of the great priests, brothers, nuns, bishops and other fellow Catholics that I have been blessed to know who are models of faithful witness and compassionate ministry.

I stay because of our new San Francisco auxiliary, Bishop Robert McElroy -- a nurturing pastor who has written eloquently of the unintended consequences of the denial of Communion: the perception of coerciveness, the identification of abortion as a sectarian Catholic effort, and the diminishment of the full range and impact of the church’s social teaching.

I stay because of retired Archbishop John R. Quinn, who continues his advocacy for the reform of the papacy and with humility and wisdom urges his fellow bishops to consider how their voices can be most credible. I stay because of Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City, a priest of deep compassion who has led the U.S. bishops in their advocacy for the needs of immigrants. I stay because of San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer, whose first response to an issue is always pastoral.

In spite of my church’s obsession with power and sex -- its insular superiority, its tone-deafness -- I am not going anywhere. I want to say to those who have left for these reasons: Come on back! It’s our church!

Why let these guys drive us away from a church founded on love, compassion, forgiveness and inclusivity where the message of Jesus Christ, while at times obscured by the failures of the institution, is still alive and still relevant?

The history of the official church has been one of conflict, corruption, violence and scandal, but if we are believers, we know that as much as we would like to, we cannot separate the institution from the community of the faithful.

But we can pray, and we can trust in the Holy Spirit that our church leaders will come to realize they have lost their teaching voice and will come to discern, consulting with the community of the faithful, how their legitimate authority can be exercised far more effectively and pastorally.

As we pray, we might appreciate that those of us who resist the “hard-liners” are as imperfect and broken as they appear to be. Their words and actions may have greater impact than ours, but why should we expect them to be different from us, and why should we allow their imperfections and brokenness deprive us from something so life-giving, so grace-filled, so sanctifying?

And we can speak out. All the silent bishops who do not agree with the approach of these church leaders can speak out. All the bishops and priests and religious who do not accept church teaching on contraception can speak out. All who believe that women should be priests can speak out. All who believe celibacy is a gift, not a mandate, can speak out. All who understand and accept the reality of homosexual orientation can speak out.

We are the people of God. We are called to be prophetic voices.

Perhaps with enough prayers offered, with enough voices raised, with enough trust placed in the Holy Spirit, perhaps they will listen.

However, whether they listen or not, I’m not leaving.

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

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