April 07, 2010

As a columnist who isn’t Catholic, I used to feel that whatever happened in the Church was a whole lot of none of my business.

It was as if I lacked standing and my status as a Protestant would call my motives into question. As Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan so aptly put it last week, non-Catholic journalists like me have tended to avoid covering the Church because we don’t want to appear to be anti-Catholic.

My reticence evaporated during the debate over health care reform, when the all-male U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops felt free to impose its beliefs—and its restrictions—on all the women of America. The bishops lobbied to ban abortion funding from the bill, even though no such provision ever existed. Then the bishops brayed over how successful they were at nearly derailing health care reform.

When the leaders of dozens of religious orders of nuns bravely stepped up to show their support for the health care bill, anti-choice Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak fired off this dismissive shot:

“When I’m drafting right-to-life language,” he said, “I don’t call up the nuns.”

So, the Catholic Church was fighting against women’s reproductive rights, and one of its elected darlings was bashing nuns—all of whom are women. Suddenly, what was happening in the Catholic Church was very much my business.

I can’t help but wonder whether the Church’s machinations around women’s rights—lobbying Congress, denying Holy Communion to elected officials who are pro-choice, “investigating” the conduct of America’s nuns—amount to a less-than-masterful attempt to distract us from the darkness within. The Catholic Church is in a lot of trouble, which is casting an undeserved pall on its faithful followers and righteous leaders.

“I don’t question why they stay with the Church. What I do question is how a church with so many faithful could continue to betray them with its silence.”

The Church’s sex abuse scandal, which was first ripped open in America, is now bleeding across Europe. Noonan accurately notes that it took American newspapers a long time to investigate allegations of abuse, but she also claims that some of us never went after this story because we didn’t much like the Catholic Church.

“Because of this bias, they didn’t see the story,” she wrote. “They thought this was how the church always operated. It didn’t register with them that it was a scandal.”

What an offensive suggestion, that we could be willfully blind to the abuse of some children—that their Catholicism could render them unworthy of our attention, our concern. Call us cowards for wanting to avoid charges of being anti-Catholic from colleagues and from readers. Criticize all our news organizations for waiting too long to invest the human resources and hours it took to pursue the allegations.

But please, let’s rein in the stereotypes of non-Catholics. Like millions of others who never have prayed at the Stations of the Cross, I am outraged over this betrayal of God’s children.

As coverage of scandals expands, we can almost hear hearts constrict. In recent weeks, conversations with friends who are practicing Catholics have left me drained from the effort to understand.

I don’t question why they stay with the Church. As they always tell me, Catholicism is as much a way of life as it is a religion. I’m not the first Protestant to envy this universal community born of ritual and faith, and I am not the only Protestant mother to benefit from its wide embrace. Next month, our youngest daughter will graduate from a Catholic university, where one of her closest friends is a priest whose faith in God—and in her—changed the trajectory of her life.

I also don’t question my Catholic friends’ anger at the media coverage about the growing scandal. No one likes bad headlines over the faces of family. And so many are still reeling over the closings of Catholic churches in Cleveland, where I live, and across the country. How much bad news can any one person take?

What I do question is how a church with so many faithful could continue to betray them with its silence. How long before the Church acknowledges just how badly, how routinely, it has failed to protect its most vulnerable from predators in priest frocks?

My Catholic friends are grieving.

Their pain is very much my business.


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