By Ken Trainor
After the Vatican announced their recent crackdown on the organization representing 80 percent of the 57,000 nuns in this country, I received an email from a Catholic friend in Los Angeles, saying she's fed up and plans to start attending the Episcopal Church down the street.
"It's embarrassing that I have freely given money to this Church my entire life!" she wrote.
This is no fly-by-night, fair-weather Catholic. She is the dedicated, loyal kind. She and her husband put their kids through Catholic schools and have attended church every Sunday for as long as I've known them. She has also been very active in her parish. The Church hierarchy doesn't realize it, of course, but if they lose this Catholic, they're in serious trouble because that means a lot of other loyal Catholics are also reaching the "fed-up" stage.
As a longtime observer of the slow-motion Catholic hierarchy's implosion, I've been wondering when the "tipping point" would finally arrive. Sooner or later, ordinary Catholics will rise up against a corrupt, incompetent hierarchy. It's inevitable.
Not an uprising against the faith, mind you, which remains just as true and healthy as ever. Dissenting Catholics make a strong, clear distinction between their Catholic faith and the institution that exists, theoretically, to protect that faith (though it frequently fails to do so).
Maybe messing with the nuns will be the spark. Catholics are devoted to the good sisters since many of us were educated by them. As far as I can tell, the nuns — and the priests to a lesser extent — are the only ones keeping the institutional Catholic Church connected to authentic Christianity. They provide an inspiring example of living out the Gospel.
The Catholic lowerarchy, as I call the rest of us, also practices Christianity (as opposed to the hierarchy's lip service), so regular Catholics have much more in common with the nuns than the bishops. "Women religious," in fact, have emerged as the institution's unheralded heroes, ministering to the poor, working for the common good.
So picking on the nuns is a big gamble for the Vatican, but these clueless bureaucrats are so insulated, they've lost touch entirely with the church of the people. All they understand is control, which they seem to think can be maintained entirely through intimidation, threats, condemnation, and punishment. Instead of dialogue with the nuns, they resort to repression. It is always thus when you concentrate too much power in the hands of too few.
Cracking down on the nuns is just the latest in a long string of alienating actions by the Catholic hierarchy. The list includes:
Turning their backs on Vatican II and lecturing Catholics that we really don't understand what happened back then and can only comprehend it if we adopt the hierarchy's interpretation, their "hermeneutics."
Reacting to reports of widespread pedophilia with institutional defensiveness (blaming the media), cover-up (shuttling perpetrators around to other parishes) and obstruction of justice (failing to cooperate with civil authorities).
Lifting the excommunication of renegade Bishop Richard Williamson, who happens to be a Holocaust denier, then making overtures to bring the rest of the St. Pius X Society, a group of Vatican II deniers, back into the fold, which seems a much higher priority for this pope than keeping Vatican II Catholics in the fold.
Announcing that ordaining women is a sin equal in gravity to pedophilia and declaring the topic off limits for public discussion.
Opposing health care reform in spite of strict safeguards preventing the funding of abortion services and then pitching a fit over contraception coverage for women — even rejecting a compromise concession from the Obama administration.
Imposing a remarkably tone-deaf, Latin-derived new translation of the Mass on American Catholics without their consent (which sounds better to you: "He was born of the Blessed Virgin" or "He was incarnate of the Blessed Virgin"? Just one of many examples).
Launching an "investigation" of American women religious orders, leading to the recent condemnation of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
It's not hard to see a pattern here. Even loyal Catholics have a boiling point. The hierarchy has screwed the lid on so tight that an explosion of pent-up frustration is inevitable, given the self-destructive path the institutional Church seems intent on pursuing.
What can Catholics do to save their Church? Letter and petition drives are already taking place. One occurred last night, a candlelight march from Holy Name Cathedral to the Cardinal's mansion to show support for the sisters. They're planned for every Tuesday night in May.
Boycotting Mass en masse would draw attention if large enough numbers participate. Call it "Solidarity Sunday." It would be particularly effective if women stayed away to protest the blatant disrespect the hierarchy has shown them (men could attend wearing black armbands). Most parishes couldn't operate without women volunteers and when this most fallible of institutions eventually comes to its senses, you can be sure women will play a crucial role.
But real change is likely to occur only when Catholics stop sending their money to the archdiocese. The bishops, who, if nothing else, know how to count, make sure they get a cut of the Sunday collection from each parish. Since Catholics are generally loyal to their parish, they put up with having a percentage siphoned off because they don't want their parish shortchanged.
Dissenting Catholics, therefore, must figure out how to donate to their parishes in alternative ways — so the archdiocese doesn't get its cut. Until that happens, the hierarchy won't show the laity any real respect.
The lowerarchy is potentially powerful, but until average Catholics get fed up, change cannot occur. When they finally do, it will be a very bad day for the hierarchy.
But it will be a new day for the Catholic Church.