Who could forget the legendary scene in "The Godfather," perhaps one of the greatest in cinematic history, when the christening was interspersed with clips of the mob hits?
Movie perfection aside, there was a significant inaccuracy. Thanks to the Catholic Church, Talia Shire, the mother of the baby being baptized, almost certainly would not have been there, since women were discouraged, if not outright forbidden, to attend their child’s christening. Instead, they had to first be "churched," a ritual in which women were "cleansed" by a priest from the "taint" of childbirth. (Yet, procreation was encouraged by the church. Go figure.)
While that has since been eliminated, it demonstrates just how out of touch the church was. And as a result, many of that era’s faithful, upon realizing that leaving the church would not result in burning at the stake or societal stigma, did just that.
Unfortunately, the church still hasn’t learned, as the exodus of Roman Catholics continues, Pope Francis’ Herculean efforts notwithstanding. If it doesn’t reverse course soon, from Rome to the local parish, there won’t be a church in 50 years, at least in America and Europe. While Francis is a breath of fresh air, cleaning house, taking on the entrenched Catholic establishment and using common sense to deliver his message, one year as pontiff is not enough to halt the slide.
A big problem is that many in the hierarchy, either through insulation, arrogance or both, fail to see the root of the problems. And if you don’t know the problems, you can’t solve them.
Here is a look at the major reasons why over 30 million American Catholics have left the church (enough to constitute the nation’s second largest "denomination") and what can be done to win them back.
1.) For most, going to church can be summed up in one word: Boring. Contrary to popular conception, many Catholics who left the church haven’t done so because of ideological differences, nor are they sleeping in on Sundays. They are attending services elsewhere, particularly in evangelical congregations. Why? Because they are finding a more personal, resonating spiritual message in those churches.
Far too many priests talk above, down to or past people during endless sermons, droning on in abstract platitudes that have no relation to real life. It can’t just be, "God loves us, we love God, go Jesus!" because when it is, the (relatively few) who still attend church are invariably sleeping, reading the church bulletin or looking at their watches, more restless than the 5-year-olds. Priests must realize that, like anyone giving a speech, they have seven minutes, max, to make their point. Anything more and the message, no matter how good, is lost. More is not better; it’s just more. People are looking for inspirational messages about how their faith can be intertwined in a confusing world to make order out of chaos. But that’s not what they’re getting.
Homilies are long-winded because, unlike the boring pol who may lose an election, or a clueless businessman a contract, there is little incentive for priests to become better. But the repercussions are real: They lose their congregations.
Adding insult to injury was the change of decades-old liturgical prayers (some by as little as one letter) for what seems like no reason. Now, many refuse to say the new prayers and are left wondering why, given the mammoth pedophile scandal, the church prioritized changing prayers that Catholics knew by heart, just for the sake of change. Many others believe there was financial motivation, as millions of prayer cards and missalettes had to reprinted, many by the Catholic Press. At a time the church can least afford it, such negative perception has become a harsh reality.
Solution: Watch "Field Of Dreams." If you build it (a church with a powerful, motivating message to which people can relate), they will come.
2.) The scandal and cover-up: Tackling this head-on should have been beyond self-evident, but it wasn’t and still isn’t. It’s horrid enough to have had priests preying instead of praying, but the massive cover-up was inexcusable. Nothing destroyed the church’s credibility more than willfully moving pedophiles to schools where they had contact (literally) with more children. And yet, church ranks remain filled with apologists: some discounting the scandal’s scope; others reprimanding parents to better watch their children (really?) as if to shift focus and responsibility; and others still standing behind their own, disregarding the adage, "Loyalty above all, except honor."
It is not honorable to defend the indefensible, especially when children are involved. And while many priests never engaged in pedophilia, there were quite a few who looked the other way. It was a culture the church bred over decades, and it will take even longer to rip it down. Tellingly, we had to wait years to hear a genuine apology for the scandal, courtesy of Pope Francis. A heartfelt move, but one very late.
Adding fuel to the fire was making Pope John Paul II a saint faster than anyone in church history, despite that pontiff presiding over the worst years of the scandal while scant effort was employed to aggressively root out, and help prosecute, the perpetrators.
Solution: When it comes to nailing offending priests, value criminal law above canon law. No more looking the other way, no more covering up. "Sunshine is the best antiseptic" should become the church’s new proverb.
3.) What really drives the faithful away is when church leaders preach responsibility, yet squander people’s money (there is no such thing as "church" money) by building exquisite additions. Common sense dictates that if your boss is a humble man who eschews grandiose possessions, as Francis is, this is the wrong route to take. The pope has already removed a number of offenders, so the message is clear: Do not build needless expansions. But that’s exactly what some continue to do, such as the archbishop of Newark (building a 7,500-square-foot addition to his summer home), and the archbishop of Atlanta who built a $2.2 million mansion in that city’s ritziest neighborhood.
Solution: Practice what you preach, or watch your faithful, and their wallets, walk out the door.
4.) Old "habits" die hard. The church must reasonably look at how to attract more priests, from allowing them to marry (which they did for hundreds of years, a practice that was stopped to protect the church’s property) to permitting women priests. The latter may be more important, because many women have left the church, tired of being treated as second-class citizens. One example will suffice. There was a time not long ago when nuns were not permitted to drive, go to a cemetery for a family burial or attend weddings of family members.
While some of these practices have been eliminated, many women still feel alienated by the church they so dearly love, reluctantly pulling up stakes, particularly after watching their innocent children abused by those whom they had trusted. For many, the combination of chauvinism and cover-up tragically became the final straw, and as they go, so too do their children (and grandchildren) from Catholic schools, and ultimately, the future of the church.
The church sits at a crossroads. It can listen to reasonable advice from rank-and-file Catholics and implement reforms that will put it on the path to credibility. Or it can go the way of England, a once global power that has been relegated to a sad ghost of its past.
As the knight guarding the Holy Grail in "Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade" so presciently says, "Choose wisely."
Chris Freind is an independent columnist and commentator. His print column runs every Wednesday. He can be reached at [email protected].