These are difficult days for Catholics in North Carolina – at least for some of us. The Catholic Church has drawn much attention lately through myriad issues that keep erupting in the news, including debates over who can marry and who should have to pay for contraception, as well as investigations of errant Catholic sisters and Girl Scouts and, locally, a multi-million dollar cathedral project. For many of us Catholics, the image of our church projected by these causes is hardly something that makes us proud. Instead, we perceive a mounting obsession with issues of sex, sexuality and image.
The church leadership’s current endeavors mostly come at the expense of the poor and marginalized in our society. Consider Raleigh Bishop Michael Burbidge’s recent crusade against same-sex marriage – it’s hard to imagine Jesus leading the charge for legal restrictions against those considered socially outcast (and having the equivalent of $100,000 to contribute to the cause). Jesus himself hung on the margins with society’s rejects and walked with them as equals. He warned the religious elites that tax collectors and prostitutes (the outcast “sinners” of his day) were entering his kingdom ahead of them.
And the bishop’s newly launched cathedral project will divert millions – possibly as much as $90 million – of dollars away from the needs of the poor in our communities to erect a campus that can only seem extravagant in these times of economic precarity. (Even the poorest parishes are expected to contribute the money for this, with promises that they will receive a small percentage for local building needs.)
We can’t help but notice that our leadership cries “religious freedom” when discussing health care, while at the same time seeming to oppose the religious freedom of churches that believe that same-sex couples should have the same legal rights as heterosexuals.
Yet one of the best kept secrets in the Catholic Church is that, like the general public, we Catholics can choose whether to follow our leadership on these issues. The church’s own teaching, bound in the Catechism, states that we are “obliged to follow faithfully what [we] know to be just and right…. A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his [or her] conscience.” Vatican II, the U.S. bishops, and Pope John Paul II, among others, have echoed this “primacy of conscience.”
Catholics are big on tradition, which is why the hierarchy can justify supporting things like marriage amendments and building very expensive cathedrals, things that I’m sure Jesus himself would have had nothing to do with. But such a tradition deviates from one more fundamentally committed to those topics that Jesus dealt with repeatedly, such as loving our enemies and giving to the poor.
This deeper tradition informs the consciousness of many of us Catholics struggling to live in today’s world (and in today’s church). This tradition includes people like Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, who decades ago began a lasting movement of lay people living in solidarity with the poor, practicing the works of mercy (feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the prisoner, etc.), and challenging injustice (including within the church).
This same tradition embraces the work of tens of thousands Catholic sisters across the country laboring every day alongside disadvantaged people on issues of social justice. And this tradition celebrates Oscar Romero, martyred archbishop of San Salvador, who as Fr. John Dear once noted, opened the seminary in downtown San Salvador to the homeless and halted construction of the cathedral there until, according to Romero, the hungry are fed, war ended and all children educated.
Even as the targeted Catholic sisters consider their next steps, we lay Catholics prayerfully examine our own consciences and thoughtfully ponder our response to the issues arising in the media, drawing on this rich tradition as the foundation of our faith. We are painfully aware that this struggle with leadership is older than the church itself – Jesus was constantly in conflict with the religious hierarchy of his day.
Those of us frustrated by current trends can’t easily communicate through our church bulletins or mass mailings, like our bishop. Nor can we easily elicit the attention of a press that lends credibility to the highly questionable assumption that the “church” is the leadership (or an expensive building) and not we the members.
But the news does not tell the whole story. We who conscientiously dissent from our church hierarchy are another one of the church’s best kept secrets. And we live, worship and work hard for justice in our communities, as much a part of the church as the leadership itself.