Stafford Betty has written an article "Why U.S. Catholics are Heading for the Exits" in the October 17, 2008 edition of the National Catholic Reporter. It’s well written and insightful. He begins by saying that some 20 million American adults describe themselves as "ex Catholics" and says that anywhere from one third to one half of fundamentalist church members once belonged to the Catholic Church. Betty maintains there are three primary reasons for the exodus.
One, he says, is: "Fundamentalist Protestantism powerfully appeals to people looking for an easy and certain ride to eternal life." He suggests that in Protestantism, by accepting the infallibility of scripture and the basics of belief in Jesus "there is no more worries because the "true Christian" will go directly to heaven. On the other hand, Betty says, Catholicism doesn’t offer this assurance and instead says faith is not enough, because there are "mortal" sins to worry about, purgatory to face and many ways to wander off the road to heaven. Communion is denied for un-absolved sins and the risk of hell is always there.
Readers of this blog know that I am a cradle Catholic who is an active member of the Church, but one who has a great deal of problems with the Church authority structure. This starts with the Bishops and ending with the pope at the Vatican in so far as a substantial amount of church activities as well as "recent" teachings are concerned. I tend to offend traditional Catholics with my views. So, with that bias acknowledged, here are my thoughts.
My view is that the Catholic church of the last 200 years has departed from basic Scripture and added unnecesary ritual as well as assumed unjustified powers which protestant religions, beginning with Luther, correctly reject. I don't believe salvation is as complicated as the modern Catholic church makes it. Paul makes it very clear that for a Christians, belief in Jesus, his resurrection and following His teaching results in our justification because through Christ’s death we were given a new life. Jesus himself taught the most important commandment was love of God and the second was love of neighbor. The simplicity of belief in Jesus, love of God and love of neighbor has been buried, by the Church, under rules, regulations and ritual that would make the Pharisee’s of Jesus day blush.
Power assumptions, not justified by Scripture, are another item of importance. For example, papal infallibility is a very recent assumption of power by Popes unclaimed and unknown for well over 1500 previous years. That claim is the source for pronouncements that have caused controversy, pain and objection by theologians. Good examples are papal assertions about divorce and birth control.
A second reason Betty gives is the loss of "romance of religion" which he describes as the missing sense of awe in the liturgy, in the sermon and in the music. He claims that Vatican II is a partial reason for people leaving because "they weren’t getting anything out of their religion" and adopted new age or Eastern religions.
I totally agree that today’s liturgy is boring and uninspiring. I also agree that most sermons are unprepared, uninformative and unworthy of being called sermons. My continued participation in the Catholic church is my belief in the sacramental life of the church, not the liturgy or sermons. There is a crying need for reform and revision in liturgy as well as in training priests or others about giving sermons. As to Vatican II, my view is that it was largely Catholics whose faith was shallow and was dependent upon following simplistic rules who left. These Catholics had an imperfect understanding of religion and needed ritual and simplistic rules instead of a Vatican II re emphasizing individual obligations of love of God and neighbor in a real and practical manner. Vatican II isn't the problem. The problem is badly informed Catholics. I reject the attempts by conservative Bishops and the present pope to distance themselves and Church from the teachings of Vatican II. They dislike the individual responsibility of conscience in favor of ritualistic requirements and rules and regulations of past years. We see today a movement by the Pope and church leaders back to pre Vatican II traditionalist teachings including the Mass in Latin. That’s not progress. That’s regression to an easy way to feel you are fulfilling your religious obligation.
The third reason given by Betty is "poor leadership." The child sex scandal that surfaced in Boston in 2002 was, he says, the last straw for many Catholics already upset over the Church’s stand on divorce and birth control. He says: "The church seemed to them like an out of touch bully quick to exclude and punish – the very opposite of a Christ presence urging forgiveness seven times 70." The priest shortage, Betty says, contributes to this problem because the "supply clergy" to replace the absence "…are foreign born, speak poor English and have almost no understanding of the culture they have been thrown into."
I fully agree about the Church seeming to be an out of touch bully quick to exclude and punish. That’s what it has become and how many American Bishops in fact act. As to priests leaving and the priest shortage, I think a cleansing of men who should not be priests is a positive thing. I think the priest shortage may force the hand of the Vatican on the issue of married priests and women priests. I see the priest shortage as way of dragging the Vatican into reality on these issues. Let’s remember the Catholic church is run by old bachelors who live in Europe with an old world view that is incompatible with modern societies. They need a reality check in my opinion and priests are so fundamental to the Church that they may be forced to revise their thinking.
My hope is that like any organization that has lost track of it’s mission and has become less like what it was intended to be, the pain of involuntary change works to restore it to what it should be. I see the hand of God in what’s happening to the Church, rather then deterioration for its harm.