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It’s a tough time to be a Catholic.

I speak from experience. Having been a practicing Catholic all my life—with a brief “lapsed” period in the 80s and 90s—I have been trying with all my might to reconcile the basic tenet of the Catholic Church (love thy neighbor) with the horrific abuses that we have all read about over the last decade or so. I have found that many of my fellow parishioners and friends have been questioning why we stay in a church that is filled with abuse of power, a disconnect from its faithful, and an unwavering commitment to antiquated thoughts and practices that only succeed in keeping good people from serving in a meaningful way.

I was speaking with a friend last night and we lamented that after identifying yourself as a Catholic to someone who doesn’t know you, you have to do a lot of backpedaling and assert that you believe in the power of the laity, the value of women, and probably in the idea that a priest can and should marry if he (and hopefully, SHE, at some point) so chooses. We are assumed to be monolithic in our identity and beliefs, and that is just not the case.

I remember being a little girl and my mother showing me pictures of a friend of hers from high school, Sister Leonore, nee Noreen. Sister Leonore worked for years in Africa trying to bring education and hope to an impoverished people. Her work was endless, and for all I know, she’s still there. She entered the convent out of a desire, I assume, to make the world a better place for people who had little and lacked the basic necessities of life. Yes, she probably wanted also to convert them to the faith, as missionaries are charged to do while working with the poor. But every once in a while I think of a young woman who devoted herself to the poor while still a teenager and wonder if it was hard for her to do so, knowing that the leaders of our church have always lived in opulence and grandeur while sending their minions to the ends of the earth, all in the name of God.

Then I think about a family from our church who took their three children and went to South America to be missionaries. They stayed for several years before returning to our lovely Village, having done what they considered ‘the Lord’s work.” When I see them at church, I look at them with awe. They are ordinary people, just like the rest of us in the pews, but answered to a higher calling.

And recently, a group of high schoolers from our local high school went to Nicaragua and built houses in a small village. This was the third year they went on this trip. Many come back saying they feel “changed,” but unable to express what that really means.

I have never really identified with the church hierarchy because I have never felt that they inform my faith. I’m sure that that statement alone is probably considered heresy. As a friend last night pointed out, they are almost like Goldman Sachs in terms of bureaucracy, and now, abuse of power. Interestingly, while I am aghast at what they are purported to have done, I don’t see them as part of my “church.” I see them as ordinary people who have ascended to power and who are completely disconnected from the everyday Catholic, those of us in the pews. Sister Leonore, the family from church, and the high schoolers, however? They are the “church.” They are the people living their faith. And they are the people I want to follow and emulate.

But don’t take my word for it. Read Nicholas Kristof’s essay from this past Sunday’s New York Times entitled “A Church Mary Can Love,” in which he discusses the people doing the hard work, the work that, as Catholics, we are implored to do. Because we are a faith built on a foundation of social justice and many of the people executing the work of a man who lived many centuries ago are…wait for it…women. The same women who are not allowed to celebrate Mass, become deacons, and who have been relegated for hundreds of year to a supporting role—at best—in the Church doings. Along with the people mentioned above, these women are transforming the world, one act of kindness at a time.

So, to my fellow Catholics out there whose heads droop lower and lower by the day with each passing news report on new abuses and new scandals, I say: deal with your anger. Channel your anger into doing good and changing people’s perceptions as to what Catholics are and what Catholics do. Do what we were implored to do all those centuries ago: Love thy neighbor. If you do nothing else, it’s still more than enough.

Maggie Barbieri

5 replies
  1. Zita
    Zita says:

    Those are very powerful statements, and I agree with you completely. I also think that the church hierarchy needs to be told by their constituents that their behaviour is unacceptable and if they can't correct it and make amends, then they need to step aside for someone who can and is willing to affect positive change. As you said, the church is not those few men at the top, or even the entire bureaucracy at the Vatican. Those men can be replaced, and should be, if they hide or condone, and allow to continue, the abuses that have come to light.

    Well said, Maggie!

  2. Misa
    Misa says:

    wow, maggie, you have really brought up some powerful subject matter! My husband and I left the Catholic Church many years ago because we couldn't reconcile the Church's role in defending/enabling what was going on with the abuse of children, and the funds being funneled into the defense of the abusers. The Church's protection of the abusers, rather than allowing them to be accountable to the criminal system was another issue.

    Like you, I've always struggled with the position and oppression of women in the church, and the hierarchy that has very little contemporary meaning. For a long time, we had a priest who was so liberal that he was eventually removed from our parish, and when that happened, we sort of lost faith that the Church spoke to us or that we could seek the spiritual meaning and growth within a political system that we didn't believe in. It was a HUGE thing for my husband's family that we left.

    I see both sides, separating the faith and beliefs in many of the tenants of the Church with the political issues engulfing it now. We've sort of floundered ever since we left, and ultimately have sought our own path of spiritualism which, for now, is fine.

    My heart goes out the kids and families trying to fight against or who are seeking justice from such a power force (the Church).

    Such a great topic of discussion and I applaud your commitment and honesty!

  3. Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith
    Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith says:

    From a Southern Baptist perspective, I think we should go to church to worship God and be with like-minded people. Having said that, so often I hear "That church is full of hypocrites."

    My answer? "That's why they need to go to church."

    To quote the Bible, "All have fallen short of the glory of God."

    Not only are we to love our neighbors–we're to love them like we love ourselves–and to love the Lord God with all our hearts and souls.

    Okay, enough of my preaching for the day.

    Certainly understood your heartfelt post, Maggie.


  4. Dea, Kia, Jake
    Dea, Kia, Jake says:

    Thank you Zita, Misa, and Marilyn. I have been troubled the last few years about what's been happening in our church ranks and I find I work a lot of things out by writing about them. Thank you for all of your kind words and support. Maggie

  5. Unknown
    Unknown says:

    It all seems too little, too late to me. But that said, the only way there will be change is if it is forced from within.

    And no amount of money will undo the trauma that these kids have experienced. I would love to see the church reach out and offer support and treatment to all the abuse survivors.

    And I cannot and will not accept any church that does not equally honor women. Church's are created by men and therefore often biased by men's beliefs that they pin on God. Almost everyone I know who does a lot of volunteer church work are women.

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