For decades now, friends have asked me why I, a confrontational skeptic, a pro-choice, marching in the streets feminist, could still call myself a Catholic. For the same reason I don't move to Canada, I'd explain. Because if you have any privilege in the world, your moral imperative when you see injustice and corruption is not to flee, but to stay and fight all the harder to make things better. There is an Episcopalian church a few blocks down the street from my Catholic parish. This Sunday, I guess you could say I'm moving to Canada.
It was the recent revelations out of Pennsylvania, of course, that finished me. Revelations involving a thousand children, and likely so many more. So I am leaving the Catholic Church, because my heart tells me that is the Christian thing to do.
This article originally appeared in Salon.
My whole life, the Church has been my simultaneously loving and unwelcoming home. I grew up as part the first post Vatican II generation, in an era of guitar masses and a strong emphasis on social justice. I also went to Catholic schools where divorced women like my mother, whose husband walked out when she was pregnant with me, were condemned as sinners.
By adolescence, I had formed my own ideas about reproductive rights, LGBT rights, and the role of women in church hierarchy. I argued with my teachers and clerics, and kept right on worshipping. Eight years of Catholic school had armed me with a solid education in the bible and catechism, and I saw clearly the distinctions between the two. By the time I became an adult, I knew I wanted to devote my life to Christ's mission of mercy and justice, in the world at large but also in the Church itself. As a journalist, I believed I was in a stronger position to hold the institution's feet to the fire as a practicing Catholic myself. I also, truly, did and still love my faith, even as I've regularly challenged its interpretations.
It's been hard. It's been extraordinarily difficult to remain in an institution that hasn't just been exclusionary to so many (although that too) but whose members have been revealed as the perpetrators of unimaginably horrific crimes. I have long struggled in that gulf between a belief system I cherish and an organization that often shocks me. I have seen the pain inflicted up close, most deeply though a family friend whose courage in coming forward about his sexual abuse led to the Boston Globe's groundbreaking Spotlight investigation.
Yet I always tried to distinguish between the individuals and the faith, between institutional corruption and spiritual value. I imagine that if you like democracy, you can have a sense of what it's like to watch something you care about become overrun with people who disgust you. So over the years, I wrote dozens of stories on clergy sexual abuse around the world, on Catholic hospitals that refused necessary services to patients, on hypocrisy and long hidden misdeeds like the mistreatment and deaths of orphan children from Bon Secours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, Ireland. And then I went to church on Sunday mornings, in the same way that I write about social injustice and go to the voting booth in November. It always seemed clear to me. You push back. You push back when the most extreme members of your community tell you you're not welcome. You give 'em hell, in the hope of helping make the path easier for those coming up behind you.
But my faith has been shaken. Not in God, but in the Church. A few weeks ago, I quietly walked out of mass when a new priest delivered a politicized sermon on how abortion is a choice of "convenience." I have for decades managed my disagreement with the Catholic stance on the issue, trying to allow for respectful common ground. I won't, however, listen to a celibate man flippantly talk about convenience when every single woman I know who's had an abortion gave it more thought, attention, and serious medical consideration than he ever could give them credit for.
And then came this month. Unquestionably, the appalling details of the two year-long Pennsylvania grand jury investigation alone are grounds for profound revulsion. But if I could believe that the revelations of those despicable crimes were going to lead us now to true consequences and reform, I would be rolling up my sleeves as I always have in the past. I'd be asking, what can we, the members of the community, do now?
On Monday, Pope Francis issued a letter in response to church sexual abuse, saying, "No effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated…. I am conscious of the effort and work being carried out in various parts of the world to come up with the necessary means to ensure the safety and protection of the integrity of children and of vulnerable adults, as well as implementing zero tolerance and ways of making all those who perpetrate or cover up these crimes accountable."
Meanwhile, last week Washington, D.C. archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who in his two decades as a Pittsburgh bishop heard (and reportedly failed to act on) allegations of abuse against a number of priests in his jurisdiction, issued a statement congratulating himself, and saying that the report "confirms that I acted with diligence, with concern for the victims and to prevent future acts of abuse."
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference continues to fight, right now, against the current statute of limitations for sexual abuse to be waived so that survivors of the most horrendous abuses, of the deepest violations of their trust, can move to seek justice. Harrisburg Bishop Ronald Gainer, whose diocese was cited in the Pennsylvania investigation, says that doing so would "force the people who make up an organization like the Catholic Church today defend themselves against a crime that was committed in their parish, school or charitable program years ago." The Catholic Conference in my own state of New York has a similar position. This is how Catholic church leadership is behaving right now. This is not atonement. The is not accountability. This is selfishness. This is being a source of human suffering, at the highest levels. And this is where I leave.
In the course of my career, I've had the honor of interviewing dynamic, compassionate Catholic leaders like Fr. James Martin and Sister Helen Prejean. I have strived imperfectly to uphold the values of love, forgiveness, and acceptance that I learned in my church. I have also, secondarily, enjoyed the cultural identification of being part of a body that has produced some of the most stirring, opulent art and music western civilization ever gave us. I was baptized into the Catholic church. I married in it. I raised my daughters in it, sending them to Sunday school and making sure they received their sacraments. My Catholicism is a significant part of my core identity. It breaks my heart to walk away from all of that. But nobody ever said faith didn't take courage.
But when I look at the present, I see the current and former clergy members who filed legal objections to the report's release. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said in a news conference last week that "These petitioners and for a time some of the diocese sought to prevent the entire report from ever seeing the light of day. In effect they wanted to cover up the cover up. They sought to do the same thing that senior church leaders in the diocese we investigated have done for decades — bury the sexual abuse by priests upon children and cover it up forever."
My older teen became a holidays-only Catholic several years ago, but until recently, my 14-year-old and I still made a Sunday ritual of mass, and the meditative walk to and from church. My daughter doesn't quite know yet how she wants to proceed, only that her lifelong parish is no longer a place she wishes to be a member of. She says she needs time to figure the rest out. As for me, I've always considered myself the making a scene, turning over tables in the temple kind of follower of Christ. And now, I'm following him right out the door of the Catholic church