Give it up for the Catholics

The Catholic Church seems to wear a permanent black eye these days. Whether it’s disturbing new revelations about the priest sex-abuse scandal, data showing mass defections from the church, or vociferous blow-back against a decision or decree by the U.S. bishops, the church finds itself — time and again — on the damage-control defensive.

Even in the midst of easing its long-criticized opposition to condoms as measures against AIDS, the Vatican seemed to set off as much head-scratching as applause at year’s end. Were Pope Benedict XVI‘s quotes in the new Light of the World book really the best way for him to reveal such a momentous shift? Couldn’t the Vatican have better clarified the portentous implications for health workers, priests and others tasked with implementing Catholic teaching on contraception?

Under the weight of these problems and others, some are probably more convinced than ever that it’s time for the Catholic Church to fade into history. But as a non-Catholic paying attention to the church’s travails, I am struck, too, by the steadfast faith of the Catholics I know, and the principled public witness of the Catholics on the ground — the nuns, community activists, volunteers and everyday parishioners who keep on keeping on in the face of adversity.

Because of them and the principles that inspire them, count me as one rooting not for the church’s decline and death, but for its recovery and renaissance. May Catholicism’s best days lie ahead.

The Church, or church

When I recently asked some Catholic friends of mine about their religious perseverance, they were quick to make a distinction between “The Church” (the Vatican, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the official doctrine and decrees) and the lower-case church (the community of rank-and-file believers). It’s in communion with the latter where they find the experiences and spiritual replenishment that keep them coming back, where their lives are continually changed for the better.

If my Catholic friends had their way, women would be ordained as priests, contraception would no longer be banned, and the Vatican would operate more in sync with the democratic values it espouses. Like many liberal-leaning Catholics — and, yes, there are plenty of them — these friends of mine cringe when the U.S. bishops do something like fight legislation that would extend health care to many vulnerable Americans.

Conservatives no doubt have their own frustrations. Isn’t the church abetting illegal immigration with its constant support for undocumented immigrants? Isn’t it getting in the way of the free market with its ceaseless insistence that governments play a lead role in helping the poor and weak?

Political arguments aside, here is the plain, unavoidable fact that faces the fathers of the U.S. church: For several decades now, people have been leaving — en masse. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell found in their exhaustive polling for their new book American Grace, roughly 60% of Americans raised as Catholics have either left the church entirely, or have become only nominally Catholic. That’s a lot of ex-Catholics and Christmas-and-Easter-only Catholics out there.

The good news for the keepers of American Catholicism is that immigrants, largely Latino, are replenishing the ranks, keeping the Catholic portion of the population steady at a robust 25%. There are still millions upon millions like those unwavering Catholic friends of mine, who keep attending Mass, keep volunteering at the Friday night meals for the homeless, keep practicing the ancient Catholic traditions.

When it comes to politics, you can often judge the integrity of people and organizations by their willingness to say or do the inconvenient thing. Give credit to the Catholics on that score — even the conference of bishops that is so often the scourge of progressives. Just when they seem on the verge of finding permanent common cause with political conservatives, the bishops go and say something that sounds positively liberal, like reminding the politicians and public of the moral dimension to the debate over tax cuts. “Too often,” the bishops rightly declared in a letter to members of Congress this past fall, “the weak and vulnerable are not heard in the tax debate.”

Whatever your stance on abortion, give the Catholics credit, too, for treating “pro life” as much more than an anti-abortion rallying cry. By creed and deed, they apply the sanctity-of-life principle all along the chain of human life — from “womb to tomb,” as the saying goes — and to all manner of people, from death-row prisoners to collateral victims of war in enemy countries.

The point is not that the church’s injection of liberal ideas into public debates redeems its other, conservative teachings; in truth, a conservative could just as fairly say that Catholicism’s staunch conservatism on abortion and homosexuality redeems its ridiculous liberalism on economic issues.

The point is that Catholicism’s political presence has, for the most part, remained above the one-party, one-ideology kowtowing that can make religion a tool for politicians, and a fool for status and power. (For a case study on what that looks like and the consequences it can wreak, consider the lock-step allegiance between most evangelicals and the Republican Party over the past 30-some years, and the alienating effect it has had on the young would-be Christians who have drifted in droves toward the burgeoning “spiritual but not religious” category.)

Catholicism’s unique role

Yes, the church could use some changing. But what shouldn’t change about this 2-millennia-old religious movement is its inconvenient refusal to forget the poor and vulnerable in these winner-take-all times. Catholicism is not alone in this; indeed, all religion at its best, and secularists, too, have a role and a say. But Catholicism, with its numbers and history and highly relevant teachings, has something unique to offer.

As Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research at the Catholic University of America, writes, “Our nation’s diverse faith traditions, especially Catholic social teaching, emphasize the common good and the essential role government has in building a just economy that works for all. This … powerful message is not heard enough today and is urgently needed at a time of economic anxiety, growing ideological polarization and voter anger.”

Give it to the Catholics. When it’s more fashionable than ever to take to the public square with torches and pitchforks, could the Catholics — those whose own church has faced so much hostility — lead the way to restoring the common ground and common good? Don’t put it past them.

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland,Ore.-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is the author of the book Onward Christian Athletes