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Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

Now Catholics face new questions of faith


THREE SHARDS of drying palm stand in a glass vase on the kitchen windowsill. Why?

As the revelations grow uglier each day, it is no idle inquiry. ''Why?'' is now the operative interrogative.

Why, for so long, did the church protect the alleged child predators instead of the children?

Why, now, do church leaders, so clearly stripped of their power to lead, cling to their posts?

Why do Catholics still go to Mass on Palm Sunday or any other Sunday?

The last question is the only one we can answer, Catholic by Catholic, for ourselves. Those who conclude they do it for love of church and faith - and can separate both from the church hierarchy - are the lucky ones. The rest may be forced to conclude they are governed by inertia and fear of change, the same elements that keep men and women in grossly unsatisfying or abusive relationships with each other.

A few months ago, an ordinary Baltimore Catechism-raised Catholic might consider such a thought sacrilegious. No more. Nothing can be more sacrilegious than the paper trail of lies and deception about alleged child molesters that are now on record about the American Catholic Church.

As a result, American Catholics, particularly parents, have an obligation, not just a right, to question their continued participation in the church in which they were raised.

Why? Because, at this moment, it seems the best that can be said is that there are some good priests in a critically flawed institution - not the other way around. One cardinal's departure will not change that.

How does a Catholic rationalize away the flaws? How does a parent? We wouldn't allow our sons and daughters to cross the threshold of a school or any other institution with such an overarching policy of disregard for our children's well-being and such a criminally dismal record of failing to protect them.

Many Catholics maintain a practicing or semi-practicing status despite fundamental disagreement with various church teachings. The church refused to bend, so we did. It left all of us, church and parishioners, not just bent, but terribly contorted.

Yet no matter how awkward or even dishonest the intellectual straddling might be, we still went fairly regularly to Sunday Mass and committed ourselves to raising our children in the Catholic faith. And the church let us, establishing an unofficial policy now officially adopted by the US military when it comes to gays: Don't ask, don't tell.

Looking back at it, it is obvious why the church went along with the charade. It needed people in the pews. But why did the people?

Forced to come up with my own reasons, I would offer these: Comfort in the familiar. Respect for parents. Longing for a spiritual island of retreat but not enough bravery or energy to seek a new one. And fear, the catechism-bred fear of 30 or 40 years ago that still makes a grown woman say an Act of Contrition when the plane takes off:

''Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee. And I detest all my sins because I dread the loss of heaven and the pain of hell; but most of all, because I offend thee, my God, who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to confess my sins, to do penance and to amend my life. Amen.''

The Catholic Church taught us such fear for our sins. That is why the sins of its own fathers are so hard to comprehend. Why weren't they as fearful as the rest of us? Why should the all-powerful church hierarchy be less worried than the powerless flock about its own salvation?

It is now being said that the people must take back their church. First they may have to leave it. The leaders are too used to the people's compliance. They are too used to buying them off with easy symbols, such as the folk masses and handshakes of peace that are the remnants of the '60s revolution. They are too used to cracking the religious whip and having the people follow. They may grumble as they do, but still, they pack the churches on Easter and Palm Sunday, and respectable numbers fill them up over the rest of the year.

Catholic by Catholic, each will make his or her choice and for their own reasons. For some, habit and respect for tradition will no longer suffice. But, first, for many, the old fear of abandoning the church of their upbringing must shrivel and dry, like the palm. Then, maybe they can start a new one.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 4/11/2002.
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