What I believe

One in 10 Catholics nationwide has left the church, and the number of adherents in Massachusetts is slipping. One follower explains why, despite grave doubts about the institution’s leadership, he refuses to give up the faith.

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By Charles P. Pierce
July 11, 2010

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I like my faith in purple – the purple neither of mourning nor of majesty, but the purple of twilight and of the morning, the purple of thoughtful, pensive times. When I think about my faith, I think about it in those kinds of purples. They suffuse it and they color its edges, too, because that is where my faith is nowadays. It is a place in me, not a structure outside of myself. Gold and white are too triumphant, and black is too stark and final, and I don’t feel stark and final about it yet. It is a place of purple, where days end and begin again.

I entered the Roman Catholic Church on a winter’s day in 1953 in Shrewsbury. My uncle the Rev. Thomas Pierce poured the water and another uncle, the Rev. Michael Pierce, stood beside me and my parents. I had no idea what was going on, so I had to have the whole thing explained to me over the next 22 years or so, by my parents, by the Sisters of St. Joseph, by the Xaverian Brothers, and, finally, by the Jesuit fathers of Marquette University, who went a long way toward demonstrating how wrong were so many of the people who’d explained it all to me previously.

So, my spiritual biography is a bit serendipitous. The engine behind it was curiosity born in skeptical wonder. As I moved through the years, I questioned my faith more, not less. Almost all of that questioning concerned whether or not my Catholic faith was particularly suited to the institution of the Catholic Church. This was unsettling in the best of times, and these are not the best of times.

The institutional church is in disarray. The sexual-abuse scandal that had its ground zero here in Boston has now exploded internationally, most notably in Ireland, where the Roman Catholic Church was as close to an established state religion as it was anywhere in the world since the Reformation. The current pope, Benedict XVI, behaved as dubiously in these matters when he was the archbishop of Munich as Cardinal Bernard Law behaved here. Once, the scandal was treated as an American problem – the Vatican having had issues with the American experiment going back at least to Pope Pius IX, who included many of the American concepts vital to a secular democracy in his Syllabus of Errors in 1864, when American democracy was in enough trouble at home – so it was roundly dismissed by various Vatican functionaries as the creation of liberal freethinkers and scandal-happy US newspapers, including this one. Not any longer. Cases have detonated in Australia, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and several other countries. Church attendance in the United States is down.

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, released in April 2009, found that one in 10 US adults has left the Catholic Church after having been raised Catholic – with Catholicism having had the largest net loss in members of all the major religious groups in the United States. About half of those who departed and now identify themselves as “unaffiliated” left the church because of its views on abortion, homosexuality, and birth control. (In 2009, the American Religious Identification Survey by Hartford’s Trinity College found that, between 1990 and 2008, the percentage of people in Massachusetts who identified themselves as Catholic dropped to 39 percent from 54 percent.) The sexual-abuse scandal, then, erupted within a church that already was struggling with serious demographic pressures. The scandal placed the doubts of much of the laity into sharp relief. Many Catholics are out of patience with intramural church solutions that seem to do little more than push the cases down the road and keep in place the sclerotic institutional structure and the paranoid mania for secrecy that allowed the corruption to flourish in the first place.

And that structure existed not only in the opulence of the Vatican itself, but also in the minds of millions of Catholics, like myself. It still exists in the former. It has no influence in the latter, not for me, nor for many others like me. The institutional Catholic Church, for me, has no concrete form, no physical structure, no hierarchy except that of ideas. Even my attendance at Mass is largely contemplative, the priest presiding in a supervisory capacity, his authority dependent wholly on the primacy of my individual conscience. For it’s not really about celibacy, or female priests. It’s about the source of the authority exercised by a hierarchical priesthood based in Rome.

None of this is really new. As Illinois-based historian and author Garry Wills has pointed out, relentlessly, Catholics fought to define the church’s authority within themselves even back in the earliest days of the church, before it attached itself to imperial Rome and, subsequently, to thousands of years worth of European power politics. And the spiritual authority – and authoritarianism – of the hierarchy, up to and including the papacy, was diminishing in the minds of millions of Catholics long before the sexual-abuse crisis brought that issue to a conspicuous boil. “The hierarchy,” says Richard McBrien, a professor at the University of Notre Dame and an outspoken critic of the institutional church, “is largely irrelevant to any intelligent, educated Catholic.”

In the church of my youth, with the priests reciting incomprehensible Latin, their backs to the people, walled off by an altar rail and two millenniums’ worth of imperial design, the purple always came out at Advent and at Lent. It was the color of penance, we were told. And so it is, and penitence begins within, in one mind and one soul and in what the nuns used to call an informed conscience. That’s where my Catholicism is now. It is a penitential faith. That’s where you can look for it. It is possible, I have come to realize, that I’ve grown up to become an anti-Catholic Catholic.

“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

– James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance

Against Religious Assessments, 1785

* * * * * * * *

My friend the Rev. Walter Cuenin is a good priest who voiced his disapproval of the handling of the sexual-abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese and later was forced to leave my home parish in Newton in 2005 because the archdiocese didn’t approve of the way finances were being handled. It was a display of ward heeling that would have embarrassed Mayor Curley. Cuenin always used to tell a story during one of his homilies about a man recently arrived in heaven. His guide takes him down a street on which there are several houses of worship. This is where the Buddhists pray, he is told, and over here is the Lutheran Church. At the end of the street is one last church. The guide tells the newly arrived person to be very, very quiet.

“That’s the Catholic Church,” says the guide. “They think they’re the only ones here.”

I have been asked, a lot, given everything that’s gone on over the past few years, why I remain a Catholic. The simplest answer is found somewhere between the two curious extremes of public religiosity in the country today. On the left we have the new atheists – best exemplified by people like journalist Christopher Hitchens and writer Sam Harris, and worst exemplified by comedian Bill Maher, whose atheism seems to be little more than Ivy League snobbery – and all the way over on the right we have the fundamentalist Christianity of the suburban mega-church and the Left Behind novels.

As to the latter, I think I can say without equivocation that I simply don’t want what they call a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. At the moment, I have a personal doctor, a personal trainer, and a personal fencing coach, none of whom I see as much as I should. One thing I always liked about being Catholic is that, while we could be insufferably vaunting about being the One True Church – which was the basis for Walter’s joke, after all – we by and large didn’t proselytize that way, and once you learned anything about church history, you could dispose of the One True part pretty easily. (The Episcopal Church doesn’t count? The Book of Common Prayer doesn’t count? Really?) I do not need a personal Lord and Savior. Not in that sense, anyway. I’m happy sharing him with the rest of what the fathers at the Second Vatican Council called the “people of God.”

As far as atheism goes, well, unfortunately, that ship sailed for me a while ago. We all have different ways of getting in touch with the transcendent. For me, these include sunrises over Lake Michigan, the way the rain falls in the part of Ireland where my grandparents were born, John Coltrane’s “Alabama,” the last paragraph of James Joyce’s story The Dead, the way Madison writes about government and religion, Robert Johnson’s music, and the Catholic ceremony of the Mass. All of these lead me to contemplate, in one way or the other, the existence of something beyond myself. You can call it God or not call it God. I do, but that’s all shorthand. I don’t think that this ever has limited my intellectual development or my ability to think for myself. (Sorry, Bill.) As for the great mass of other churches, I don’t get that same experience from their rituals. That’s not their fault, nor is it mine. It doesn’t make my church the One True one and theirs not. My experience is my own.

“I think everybody does that, even if they know it or not,” says Ron DuBois, a former instructor at the Maryknoll Seminary and currently a trustee for the lay organization Voice of the Faithful, who lives in Braintree. “I have my own theology. I do have a doctorate in philosophy and I’ve done a lot of my own reading. I think it’s an ongoing process by anyone who really thinks, especially in our country, with our emphasis on political democracy and a tradition of questioning authority.”

Asking me why I am still a Catholic is rather like asking me why I’m still an American. After all, it can be argued that, over the past decade or so, with acts like waterboarding, the country has abandoned a lot of what made it unique in history and suffered a profound loss of faith in its founding ideals. (I’ve argued that myself.) I am still an American because, as Herman Melville put it, the Declaration of Independence makes a difference. I remain a Catholic because the Gospels make a difference. In both cases, ideals are set out, pathways delineated, and through them, our shortcomings can be measured as precisely as possible. In the former case, the torturers and their bureaucratic masters cannot contradict the verdict of that measuring, and in the latter, the crimes against conscience perpetrated by the institutional hierarchy of the Church cannot stop the slow, painful evolution from moving forward. I can stay a Catholic because of what I’ve learned about being an American. I am, in my own way, a Madisonian Catholic. To borrow a line from Thomas Jefferson, my church neither picks anyone’s pocket nor breaks anyone’s leg. Most important of all, it is mine – a personal church, if not a personal Savior.

“And what have kings that privates have not too, save ceremony?”

– Shakespeare, Henry V, Act 4, Scene 1

* * * * * * * *

In June, two stories ran on parallel tracks concerning the crisis in the Irish church. On the one hand, the Vatican appointed Boston’s Cardinal Sean O’Malley to go to Ireland and sift through the moral wreckage that is the Catholic Church in that country at the moment. This was widely bruited about in establishment Catholic circles as a demonstration of the Vatican’s desire to heal the wounds its clergy had inflicted. Not long after O’Malley’s appointment, however, the newspaper The Irish Independent reported that the Vatican also had dispatched investigators to Ireland. Their mission, the newspaper said, was to reimpose discipline and respect for the hierarchy. This was to laugh.

The whole thing is preposterous to any Catholic with an informed conscience. The Vatican no longer has the moral authority to impose any such thing. It can no more enforce from above a respect for its sullied chain of command than it can get back the papal armies of the Renaissance. As far as I’m concerned, it no longer has the moral authority to do it, because that moral authority no longer comes from ancient ceremony or historic tradition, but from the individual conscience of each individual Catholic. The Vatican can beg. It can plead. But it can no longer demand.

Which brings me to the most fundamental rule of my Catholicism – nobody gets to tell me that I’m not a Catholic.

Those of my fellow Catholics who remain loyal to the institutional structure of the Church don’t get to do so. People who talk glibly of “cafeteria Catholicism” don’t get to do so. People who seek to coin Catholic doctrine into political advantage – be they left or right – don’t get to do so. No priest gets to do so, and no bishop, either, and that especially means the bishop of Rome himself. No pope can tell me I’m not a Catholic.

Things went awfully bad when, in the fourth century, the Emperor Constantine backed the right horse, adopted Christianity as the religion of the Roman empire, and set the institutional church on a course wherein it became a royal European court with the pope as its king. This shrewd political move by an emperor came to be seen as a very bad thing for both religion and the state. In developing a system to disentangle religion and government here in the United States, Madison cited the example of Constantine and Christianity as something to be avoided. In fits and starts, both institutionally and, more important, one conscience at a time, the Church has progressed only on those occasions when it operates contrary to this bad ancient bargain.

Garry Wills regularly points out how Vatican II – the mid-’60s council that put the church on the path of liberalism and ecumenism – defined the church as the entire “people of God.” That being the case, one can find a way to remain a Catholic while not only distancing oneself from the hierarchy of the institutional church but also subverting it, in a kind of internal Reformation. After all, as Wills pointed out in a recent issue of The New Republic, “The pope is a freak of history – specifically, of medieval history. . . . Peter was not a pope, or a bishop, or a priest – offices that did not exist in his lifetime. There are no priests in the New Testament.” Wills further explains that “the democracy that would be denounced by Pius IX had been practiced in the early church, where priests and bishops were elected by the people.” For some time, at some instinctive level, in the depths of their informed consciences, Catholics knew this. And it was 45 years ago when they first put those feelings into action.

In 1869, desperate to cling to the spiritual power of his office as a secular revolution in Italy eroded his temporal power, Pope Pius IX called the First Vatican Council and rammed through the doctrine of papal infallibility, by which the pope is incapable of error while speaking on matters of faith and morals ex cathedra, from the Chair of Peter. Bureaucratic thinking being what it is, the Vatican became shrewd at draping almost every pronouncement with the trappings of infallibility, and the doctrine became a millstone on the consciences of millions of Catholics. It slipped loose in 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, his encyclical condemning artificial birth control. The encyclical seemed so shabbily derived from Scripture, and so giddily divorced from the realities of daily life, that the informal infallibility with which it was sold seemed an unconvincing burlesque. Catholics discovered that they could ignore the pope in good conscience and remain Catholics, no matter how many people told them they couldn’t.

“That was the last straw,” Richard McBrien says. “Paul VI, by comparison, was a pretty good pope. He was frightened into reaffirming that teaching. That was the turning point. It wasn’t Vatican II that made Catholics freethinking people. It was that birth-control encyclical, when they realized that the pope didn’t know what he was talking about.”

When the sex-abuse scandal exploded, the church hierarchy discovered itself with a laity that was already armed with a towering skepticism as to the ability of the hierarchy to confront honestly the depths of the crimes that had been committed. There was no credibility left in the tactics of deflecting blame; for a long time, the Vatican seemed to be arguing that this had been a uniquely American problem. To borrow a phrase from the Watergate scandal, that argument has been rendered inoperative by the events of this year. People determined that they would defeat the sullied authority of the hierarchy by ignoring it. The latest Reformation is taking place in people’s minds. The papacy, as an institution, can recognize that, or it can wither away over time, and its authority with it, until there’s nothing left but one more museum piece, a pointless man on an empty throne, all lost save ceremony.

* * * * * * * *

An awful lot of my early theology was largely architectural. While I spent my life attending a suburban church in Shrewsbury, my parents both had grown up in Worcester and, while it was (reluctantly) conceded that a lot of people in Worcester were our fellow Catholics, I was reminded often that there were Irish churches and French churches, Polish churches and Italian churches, all defined by the immigrant communities that worshiped there. There was even a Swedish church, which was such an anomaly that it was occasionally hinted that they were really undercover Lutherans. In fact, about a decade ago, in my mother’s old neighborhood, the French church was closed by the diocese, and its parishioners occupied it in protest, despite the fact that the Irish church was open for business about 15 yards down the road in Grafton Square.

Friends who grew up in Boston often told me that the Catholic community here was even further atomized. You were identified not by the part of the city in which you lived, but by the parish in which you worshiped. This was not an accident. “When I was first ordained,” Richard McBrien recalls, “the pastor used to get up and read out the boundaries of the parish and threaten people. If they had a funeral in another parish, they would have a problem. Now they’re lucky if Catholics go to church.

“It was not only ethnic parishes. It was ‘What parish are you from?’ You’d greet each other that way. Nowadays, we’re a much more mobile society, and very few people are living where they grew up.”

At the time, I thought the stubbornness of those French parishioners was misguided. I feel differently about it now, given the events of the past decade and the ongoing scandal within the institutional Church. I think they were ahead of their time in crafting their own personal churches of the mind into which they could withdraw as the policies of the apparently heedless, tottering giant that is the institutional church became harder and harder to defend. One rainy night in May, I drove out to St. James the Great in Wellesley. Ever since 2004, when the Archdiocese of Boston, its finances strained in part by damages it owed to the past victims of its priests, announced that the parish would close, its parishioners have kept a constant vigil in the church itself. The church sits right on Route 9. This is a hard building to ignore.

On this night, a woman who identified herself only as Bette was keeping watch with her tiny dog in what once was the room where the altar boys prepared for Mass. Overnight, Bette would sleep on a couch in the middle of the room. In one corner, a television was showing Entertainment Tonight, but at a respectful volume. The church itself was dark, and it had that musty, stale smell that you find in cabins when you open them up for the season. “It’s a beautiful church, isn’t it?” Bette said. A month earlier, the Apostolic Signatura, the Vatican’s highest court, had rejected the appeal from 10 Boston-area parishes – including St. James the Great – that their churches be reopened. The Signatura issued its ruling in Latin, as is its wont, so that people will know that it is very serious. Nobody out on Route 9 was paying attention to the Vatican’s highest court. Bette went on with her vigil, Entertainment Tonight winding down in the corner and the rain falling harder outside.

* * * * * * * *

At evening time in the summer, the hills around Spencer, in central Massachusetts, grow cooler as the breezes rise. You can see the tops of the maples stirring first, and then the breezes riffle through the branches and down through the grasses in the fields surrounding St. Joseph’s Abbey, home since 1951 to a community of Trappist monks. It is not long before vespers, and the place is quiet except for the freshening wind.

The Right Rev. Damian Carr joined the Trappists in 1974, after studying pharmacy at Northeastern University. He was elected by the community to be its abbot in 1996, and he is currently serving his third six-year term. “The funny thing is,” he says, “is that it’s not really a political process.” But it is a kind of democracy, one that predates James Madison’s considerably, and one that was passing rare in a church structure that came to be focused in the old imperial city.

“Each monastery is autonomous in the sense that our authority resides in the general chapter [in Rome],” Carr explains. “We are to some extent independent of the authority of the diocese. We are traditionally referred to as an ‘exempt’ order.”

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, there were often as many as 150 monks living at St. Joseph’s. Today, the number is down to less than half of that. Many of the people who join the order are older men. “The days when they came here right out of high school are over,” says Carr. “We wouldn’t want that now.”

The independence of this place has given Carr a long view of the changes that have come over the church and the people over whom it presumes to preside. The contemplative nature of Trappist life has given him an insight about how Catholics come to make independent churches within themselves. “I don’t think that it’s the crisis itself that’s brought it out,” he muses. “It started before that, 30 or 40 years ago, a growing awareness, particularly in recent times, the contacts with other religions – Buddhism coming to the West – helped Catholics look at their own traditions. What is our contemplative tradition? Do we even have one? The movement was underway. How can they share that prayer tradition? People have always come to monasteries for something.”

Walking to vespers, the bell ringing flatly over the hills, it occurred to me that to be an anti-Catholic Catholic was to find your way back through history and not forward – to those little seeds of democracy in the early church that appeal to the American sense of how people should relate to one another and govern themselves, to the anti-hierarchical days summoned up by Garry Wills, to the church of the mind that was always there, waiting for someone to come in and set up vigil. In the chapel, it is dark. The monks begin to sing, the Gregorian chant something timeless and generous and inclusive. The anti-Catholic Catholic begins to pray, and, outside, the sky goes purple, all the way to the hills.

Charles P. Pierce is a Globe Magazine staff writer. E-mail him at

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28%: Number of Catholics who, in April 2010, thought the pope had done a poor job addressing the sexual abuse scandal

14%: Number who, in April 2008, had thought the same

68%: Number of Americans with no religious affiliation who, in April 2010, thought the pope had done a poor job addressing the scandal

26%: Number who, in April 2008, had thought the same

Source: poll by The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life