If you’re a Catholic in these difficult times, it’s a good bet that your non-Catholic friends are asking you: “Why do you stay?”
And it’s probably not the first time they’ve wondered about your sticking with your church. There was Boston. Ireland. Los Angeles. Chile. Washington, D.C. Now Pennsylvania. Next up: at least seven more states poised to investigate the church’s files on sex abuse allegations and outcomes. The steady drip of shame and sin is enough to drive the faithful mad.
So it’s a fair question: Why on earth do we stay?
Perhaps the most obvious answer is one that friends may not understand. We Catholics don’t get to go church-shopping. You can choose to go to a different parish, but Catholic is Catholic. The one, holy, catholic, apostolic church is a thing with us. We believe in it. Several years ago, I tried to be an Episcopalian. The people were lovely and inclusive and welcoming. Their faith was real. Their commitment to social justice was strong. It all made perfect sense.
But I couldn’t do it. What felt like a wise leap to others, to me felt like jumping ship. I realized I was Catholic or nothing. I know Catholicism is not genetic, but in my case, it feels that way.
Another thing these scandals have taught me about myself is that, in the gut-level choice of "fight or flight," I pick "fight." This stubbornness may be due to my mother’s Irish blood in my veins, but that is my reaction. I am not surrendering my faith to the misdeeds and misjudgments of the misguided male hierarchy. I will stay and fight.
I have known so many good and grace-filled priests. It must be horrible for them to be painted with the same vile brush as the sexual predators who hid among them for so many years. I also remember a smooth-talking, personable former priest, but I met him while volunteering in a state prison. His record of molestation was a symptom of the old clericalism that did not question the power or holiness of the parish priest, much less the bishop. Because we’d been taught to treat every ordained man as though he were superhuman, or at least much more saintly than us lowly laypeople, we trusted our children and young people to an institution that failed them on every level, time and again.
We don’t do that anymore. We parents are now as careful of our precious children around priests as we are around any other adult who interacts with them: teachers, coaches, mentors, family friends, volunteers of every kind. Because sexual predators don’t only wear Roman collars. They can be anyone, anywhere. We educate our children to protect themselves, to speak up about inappropriate interactions, in order to shield them from the harm that many of us may have suffered at the hands of adults we trusted when we were kids.
So the lay church gets it. Now it’s time for the bishops to come clean about the past. Many of us laypeople support requiring every diocese to open their files to the law, and end the slow, destructive trickle of scandalous news about abuse claims and cover-ups and settlements. The flood will be hugely damaging, but in the long run it will be healthier than the continually trickling threat of more-to-come. We Catholics must demand transparency and accountability from the clergymen who serve the church. We women need to demand a voice in the power structure of the church. We can also speak up for what we know is true: that women are the sacramental equals of men. Clearly, we should no longer be denied the sacrament of ordination. It is time for change. New wine, as the saying goes, in new wineskins.
So this is why we stay: We still hear the call. We draw strength from the words of Simon Peter, when Jesus asked if his disciples would desert him like so many others: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)
We stay because we belong to Jesus. We stay because we too believe there is nowhere else but here for this holy Eucharistic life. We stay because the Holy Spirit is still breathing on us, and urging us to heal our house, and anointing us to bring God’s love to a world that feels abandoned. We’re here, and we’re Catholic. Get used to it.