There is a growing crisis within the leadership of the American Catholic church, and the Catholic faithful are desperate for change. Today, our church is less known for bringing good news to the poor and more for its forays into electoral politics and doctrinal inquisitions. The new pope has an opportunity to right the course of the American bishops and re-inspire a generation of American Catholics.
Take for example some recent Catholic controversies that highlight the crisis of leadership in Catholicism:
A Catholic hospital in Ireland allowed a patient in its care to die rather than terminate her non-viable fetus.
A Catholic high school administrator in Cincinnati was fired this week for expressing a personal opinion about marriage equality on his private blog.
A Catholic teenager was denied the Rite of Confirmation in Minnesota for publicly supporting marriage equality on his Facebook profile.
A Catholic hospital in Phoenix was condemned for terminating a pregnancy to save the life of a mother.
A grieving daughter in Maryland was denied communion at her mother’s funeral Mass because the priest thought she was a lesbian.
The Vatican initiated an inquisition of American nuns for focusing too much on the needs of the poor and not fighting enough against abortion and the rights of gays.
Employees and volunteers in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., are forced to sign a “loyalty oath” to the bishop or face termination.
These examples demonstrate a form of religious leadership that is far removed from the Gospel message of Christ. The Gospel’s call to love one another is the basis for the rich Catholic social teaching that sparked and nourished my love of God and church. It is this love that is absent from too many actions of our leadership. No wonder Catholics like me are despairing. We can’t find Christ in our church.
When I graduated college, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and dedicated myself to serving the church through service to others. I did so because of a profound inspiration I found within the actions and teachings of our church leaders. I was inspired by Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago who articulated a seamless respect for all life, from the unborn child, to the victim of a drone strike. I was inspired by Bishop Dingman of Des Moines who sold his mansion as a way to live in greater solidarity with the poor. And I was inspired by Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle who embraced the reforms of the Second Vatican Council by fully empowering lay leaders in the ministry of the church. When I look for it, I can still find that inspiration in the humble servants of the church, but more and more, today’s bishops leave me wanting.
And it’s not just me. If you look at the recent data from the Pew Center, younger Catholics are abandoning the faith in record numbers. Many of these fallen-away Catholics leave because they don’t want to be associated with a church that is more known for its opposition to homosexuality than for the work of peace and justice. The proof is in the numbers. Catholics are still the largest set of religious adherents in the United States. The third largest? Former Catholics.
It is for this reason that I hope and pray our new pope has a more inclusive mind and a stronger commitment to the teachings of Jesus. I hope the next pope embraces the truth and necessity of social justice not only because it is inspirational, but also because it is vital if our church is to be relevant in the lives of younger Catholics for generations to come.
Salt is the executive director of Catholics United, a non-profit, non-partisan national lay Catholic advocacy organization. He lives in Washington, D.C.