Let's be honest. I'm a 40-year-old single heterosexual. Yes, I've had sex outside of marriage. Yes, I've used birth control. Yes, I have gay friends and I think--no, I know--that homosexuality is not a choice but something one is when he or she is born. Yes, I'm a feminist who thinks women should be priests if they so desire. Yes, I think priests should be able to marry. Yes, I'm pro-choice.
Somehow I managed to stay Catholic through all of the above. Most Catholics understand that because they, too, are disconnected from the Church hierarchy but are steeped in the ritual. Most non-Catholics are baffled, however, wondering why so many of us choose to stay in a religion whose doctrine we clearly aren't 100 percent aligned with. Among more staunch practicing Catholics, my kind are labeled "cafeteria" Catholics because we fill our "tray" with only those aspects of the religion that appeal to us. In fact, I was once called just that by a newspaper editor I worked for in the 1990s.
My best explanation for sticking around so long is that the tradition was ingrained in me from childhood. Catholicism is a way of being, often practiced by rote. I went to a Catholic grammar school through eighth grade and credit the strict nuns and teachers there for my strong spelling and grammar skills. (I am, after all, a writer and editor by trade.) Going to church was intertwined with my early education, whether we were having a crowning ceremony for Mary in May or visiting the stations of the cross during lunch recess.
Back then, no one told us about the big issues. Sister Benita wasn't sitting us down to have "the talk" about how sex was best saved for marriage. Abortion was never mentioned. Nor, heaven forbid, homosexuality. We knew priests couldn't marry, but we never questioned it. That may have been partly a product of our upbringing, the kind in which authority was never challenged.
After some introspection, I see now that my journey in Catholicism as an adult has been rife with disappointment. Yes, there have been proud and stirring moments such as helping with clothing drives, acting as godmother to two children, tears running down my cheeks during the "Ave Maria." But then there are these: frequently having to defend my choice to be a part of "the Church" because it is at such odds with my politics; out-of-touch priests; outdated, unenthusiastic homilies. After the catastrophe of September 11, I went to Mass with high hopes. What I got was a preachy priest who talked at the congregation instead of to us. I was seeking spiritual answers but left with more questions.
And yet I stayed.
Then came the recent scandal of scandals. Gone are the questions, the indecision, the attachment to ritual, the worry about what the family will think. All insignificant. Men who have supposedly devoted their lives to teaching God's word have been forcing themselves on children. Lots of them. One bad situation in one city has produced a domino effect that has rocked parishes all over the nation. As if numerous cases of molestation weren't enough, each day we learn more about the extent of the institutional coverups.
When the pope finally decided to acknowledge there was a problem, his response was anticlimactic and insufficient. Was that God-directed guidance? Denial? Indifference?
Through all of this the last few months, many of my fellow Catholics have started to look robotic to me. While I respect their right to stick with what they know and believe, especially in cases where they're raising children, I'm simultaneously disappointed in their lack of outrage. Where is the outcry from the laity? I've heard a mere murmur.
As a resident of New Jersey who grew up in the suburban town where little Megan Kanka was molested and murdered, I know people are capable of banding together for a good cause. Sex offenders are required to register in more and more states because of Megan's Law (a knee-jerk response to a larger problem, but still an impressive example of what advocacy can accomplish). And yet, how many of those same fired-up folks have expressed anger at the Catholic Church? Is it less horrific to picture your child being molested by a man in vestments? Isn't it actually moreso?