My hands shake as I type this, less than an hour since I walked out of the Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception during Father So-and-so's homily.
I attend Mass once or twice a month, with the likelihood of attendance rising during the holy seasons of Lent and Advent. This morning I humped it down to the seat of the Archdiocese of Denver, a beautiful cathedral that was graced by Pope John Paul II's presence in 1993 (there's a statue of him outside). As would be expected of a 6:30 AM Mass, I was one of about one hundred people there.
Lenten Masses lack music, and the services at this Cathedral lack any sort of flair, so the overall atmosphere was ungood to begin with. Things proceeded smoothly until Father So-and-so started his homily, which today consisted only of a letter from the newly-Cardinaled Timothy Cardinal Dolan. In the letter, Cardinal Dolan calls upon his "brother bishops" and the faithful (as an afterthought, in my mind) to resist any sort of compromise with the White House on the issue of reproductive care for women. This has been the news du jour in the Church for the past month. The issues of freedom of conscience and government overreach are very real for faith communities, and I readily admit that. The priest could have read the letter and been done with it - one more missive to ignore from the ossified patriarchate of white male Catholics. But no, Father So-and-so wanted his own commentary, which started after Cardinal Dolan's first bullet point.
Priests don't often shout, but this fellow shouted, long and hard, to some approximation of this: "We are talking here about killing! This is murder of people. Murder of humans. If we, as the faithful, protect the animals, and the trees, and the earth, but actively kill our own people, then we are the worst pests on earth! If we provide for our pets but destroy our children, we deserve to be destroyed."
Yeah, he said "worst pests on earth" and called for our righteous destruction. Then this: "A President who actively legislates to murder his own citizens and to force churches to provide abortion-causing drugs is no Christian at all."
I stood up, moved to the end of the pew, genuflected, and rose. Father So-and-so interrupted his fire and brimstone, turned to me, and said, "Thank you for coming today, sir."
I held my hand up, open-palmed, as if to reply, "Thanks, Father, you too!" What I really meant was...well, I don't know what I meant.
It is one thing to voice dissent during a political lecture or to walk out of a classroom where the learning environment has turned hostile, but it is an entirely different bucket of fish to walk out of Mass. I've only ever come close once before, when a priest informed us that our "Jewish and Muslim friends had better listen up, because they're going to end up in Hell." That was bad, but this episode really irked me.
And people stared. Oh boy, did they stare. I thought that it would be a real "Who's with me?" moment and I'd Moses my way out of the stone walls with a small Exodus. No one followed me. I walked home in a bit of a daze. I probably would have cried but it was damn cold this morning and I think my eyes were frozen. I'm still dazed.
When non-Catholics think of "Catholic social teaching," they likely fixate on abortion and homosexuality and ignore the massive corpus of Matthew 25:40-focused good works. They ignore the soup kitchens and home visits and transitional housing shelters for the homeless. They ignore Thomas Merton's quiet pacifism during the Vietnam War, and Daniel Berrigan's radical work (google him). They ignore the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Conservation Center and other Catholic environmental organizations. They forget that our Church stands for the uplifting of all people. Unfortunately, many Catholics often forget these things, too.
I walked out of Mass this morning not because the homily turned into anti-Obama political speech (shouting), but because in that moment, in-between the Gospel and Communion, the Church ceased to be relevant. I could have waited for the bloviating to stop. I could have kneeled and prayed instead of listen to the misguided speech. Maybe I'm weak because I didn't stay, but why would I sit through something like that?
I'll be back next Sunday, of course. I "left" the Church, but I didn't "Leave" the Church. I'm a heretic, but it's still Lent. Hopefully the homily, and any declarations from the Conference of Bishops, will be more focused on the necessity of nuclear disarmament, or the great need to keep government budget cuts away from critical social services. That will keep my Church relevant. That will keep me in the pews. That will ensure that people my age, i.e. young, will stay instead of go. The Church is shrinking, and social conservatism will not slow the pace of contraction.
Cardinal Dolan wrote us all a letter, and if I had my druthers, I'd write him one back:
Dear Cardinal Dolan: I appreciate your thoughts, but disagree with them fervently. Now, more than ever, the Church ought to be at the forefront of providing care and services to all people, especially women, and putting our faith into action. Letter-writing campaigns to legislators about health care provisions is wildly unimportant in a time when the 99% are aching and broken. What happened to the Church that dedicated itself, body and soul, to lifting up the downtrodden? Where is Matthew 25:40 in all of this? Why this myopia and hypocrisy? Every year, there are a few less Catholics in the pews. We are losing them to old age and overall irrelevance to modern times. Recognize this, and do something to change it. Someday, there will be no one left to listen to you shout.
Photo by Flickr user Tim Brauhn
Tim received his MA in International Studies from the University of Denver in 2009. He is an (inaugural) alumnus of the Faiths Act Fellowship, a program of the Interfaith Youth Core and Tony Blair Faith Foundation. Tim is a consultant in the interfaith and social media spheres, and currently serves as Director of Operations for The 1010 Project, a Denver humanitarian agency.