A cardinal puts on his mitre during the Mass 'Pro Eligendo Romano Pontifice' at Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, 12 March 2013 in advance of a secret conclave to elect the next pope, who will take over a church beset by infighting, scandal and dwindling support, particularly in the West. (MICHAEL KAPPELER/EPA)

I wondered why I was still Catholic while reporting on the late-January release of clergy sex abuse documents in L.A.

At the first of four Masses I covered that weekend, I understood why the scandal had pushed so many away from the church. Hearing a letter about the abuse read during the homily, right before the celebration of the Eucharist, sickened me.

The Mass and the Eucharist bring peace and sustenance to Catholics, keeping them coming back to the church. I usually feel that sense of centeredness, but not that day.

A few weeks later, Pope Benedict XVI announced he was retiring. The thought crept in: “Why don’t I retire from the church too? I don’t need the fancy send off, but I could take on the title ‘Catholic emeritus.’”

But that’s the thing. Even if I were to “retire” from the church, I’d still identify as Catholic—lapsed, former or emeritus—just like Benedict is still a pope. And many who “leave” the church by never attending services or rejecting teachings on sexuality, still see themselves as Catholic.

With the election of Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina as the 266th pope, the cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church have broken Europe's long stranglehold on the papacy.

I know “Catholics” who never attend service, I know Catholics who Episcopalian churches. I know others who attend Mass faithfully while rejecting church teaching on sexuality. Certainly there are plenty of Catholics who remain faithful without question, but many of us struggle with the church while ultimately and somewhat defiantly remaining Catholic.

Still, one-third of those raised Catholic have left. They see a church plagued by scandal and hypocrisy, rancor and hubris. Catholics have become a divided lot, with each side arguing that God favors one faction or the other. As I experienced, even at the Mass, our sanctuary, we cannot escape our profound problems.

So why do we stay?


In his homily about the sex abuse documents, the young priest talked about how he wanted to be a priest to serve the church in a time of darkness.

The desire to heal the church is a sentiment I’ve heard from other young priests, and it’s a sentiment they share with liberal church reformers, too, even if the two groups’ visions of the church are radically different.

Most of us are somewhere between, but we believe in redemption for the church and ourselves.

“I still hold onto a flicker of hope within; that love, justice, and action will prevail – that our church can and will heal,” Porsia Tunzi, an intern at National Catholic Reporter, told me.

Family and community

My grandmother was my confirmation sponsor. By eighth grade, I had developed my own rudimentary spiritual ideas, but I went through confirmation because of her and my family.

With time, I realized that church expanded my family. My high school youth group and Amate House, a post-college volunteer program, helped me experience the love of God through others.

Many contend that the exodus of Catholics is a pastoral issue. If parishes were more welcoming, we’d keep more Catholics in the pews.

I have experienced the lack of hospitality in parishes (this U.S. Catholic essay describes the problem well ). Indeed, a fellow Amate alum told me this is a big part of why she no longer practices Catholicism.

Frankly, I hold on to my memories of my Amate family more than I experience community now, but the 24-year-old son of a U.S. Catholic editor put his finger on why such experiences last. “Catholicism creates a community mentality among its followers, a culture which permeates to the very core of our being,”said James Cahill. “It becomes a part of our identity.”

Catholic Social Teaching

Catholic social teaching keeps many young people Catholic. Young people are inspired by the vision of a church that stands with the poor and speaks prophetically to the powerful.

Jesus not only is our savior, preparing us for the afterlife, but he calls us to create a more just, loving world in this life. And our communion of saints include those who followed in this path, canonized or not--Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and anonymous nuns who live in solidarity the poor.

“A mission of upholding human dignity, of showing mercy, embracing charity, engaging differences is a mission which I feel is of utmost importance and cannot be lost,” said Mark Piper, a fellow alum of Amate House.

It is true that the Catholic Church provides a significant portion of health care and education throughout the world. Though Caritas Internationalis, the church is one of the world’s largest humanitarian organizations. Indeed, I was able to witness the charity of the church in action in Kenya.

But the church’s affirmation of the human dignity also leads Catholics to question its treatment of women and LGBT individuals.

Universality of the church

Some believe that those who question the church on such issues like homosexuality aren’t Catholic. They want a smaller, purer church.

But many of us see the church as a “big tent.” A few people told me that they “have a sense of defiance” against the purists. Leaving would allow others to define the church.

On my Facebook profile, my religion says that “catholic means universal.” I’m drawn to the fact that over the course of history, the church contains it all: mysticism and dogmatism, violence and peace, richness and poverty, saints and sinners.

In my travels around the world, I’ve been struck by the diversity and unity of Catholics. If the sense of family is community on a local scale, the sense of universality is community on the global scale.

This is what’s so amazing about World Youth Day, says Paul Jarzembowski, executive director of National Catholic Young Adult Ministry Association. “Seeing a faith community beyond my parish or my diocese truly humbles me. It’s a glimpse of the universal church (including the pope himself), and I am reminded I am part of something huge,” he said.

World Youth Day 2013 in Rio de Janeiro will be one of the next pope’s first big events. I hope that the College of Cardinals keeps this in mind.

If they want to keep Catholics like me from retiring, too, they’ll elect a pope who can pastor to all.

Megan Sweas is a journalist and former associate editor for U.S. Catholic magazine.