Is the Catholic Church destined to become a “shrinking cult”? That is the conjecture of Brian Cahill who wrote a challenging essay this week about just how quickly the church is becoming irrelevant to high school students, largely related to LGBT issues, specifically the firing of church workers.
In the National Catholic Reporter , Cahill, who is the former executive director of San Francisco Catholic Charities, wrote about the recent efforts of that city’s archbishop, Salvatore Cordileone, to appeal to young adults. Amid offerings of ping-pong and daily Latin Mass, Cahill writes:
“But a closer look suggests that young Catholics are increasingly turned off by the attitudes and actions of some American bishops — the failure to address the child abuse scandal, the harsh opposition to civil gay marriage, the cluelessness of church teaching on contraception, and the refusal to consider women priests.
“More recently, Catholic high school students, who can spot dishonesty and hypocrisy a mile away, are reacting with disillusion and disgust at how the church is treating some teachers in Catholic schools.”
Cahill proceeds by listing bishops, like Michael Barber of Oakland, Dennis Schnurr of Cincinnati, and Richard Lennon of Cleveland, who have implemented or support discriminatory employment policies in their dioceses. These have included LGBT-related church worker employment disputes and enhanced morality clauses in teacher contracts that explicitly prohibit support for LGBT people. He adds the embattled Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul-Minneapolis as an example of the bishops’ overly partisan involvement in the political debate about marriage equality.
In this milieu, Cahill wisely asks “How many thoughtful Catholic high school students will stick around in a church that is capable of that kind of behavior?” Indeed, in so many of the employment disputes, hundreds of students have rallied behind gay educators like Carla Hale, Mark Zmuda, and Barbara Webb.
Cahill concludes with a statement addressed to those leading Archbishop Cordileone’s outreach to young adults, but that applies to church leaders everywhere:
“God bless you. You’re going to have to work overtime and the Holy Spirit is going to have to work overtime to offset the hypocrisy, insensitivity, dishonesty and stupidity of some of your leaders, to offset their capacity, whether they intend it or not, to fan the flames of discrimination and homophobia and cause many young people struggling with their sexuality to continue to feel inferior, rejected and sometimes suicidal.
“If our church is left in the hands of these bishops, we are on track to become a shrinking, increasingly irrelevant cult — not a source of appeal for thoughtful Catholic high school students.”
Earlier this month on The Huffington Post. Charles Reid, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas, made a similar point about the universal harm these firings cause. Referencing the recent firings of Webb, Olivia Reichert and Christina Gambaro, Reid writes:
“These annual firings are tragic, pointless, and inflict great harm. The discharged teachers, of course, are the most seriously injured, but so are all the people associated with the schools — students, graduates, parents, and staff. The Catholic school system is diminished in the eyes of the public. And the church as a whole is made to suffer.”
“For clerics, even ones as guilty as sin of sexually abusing minors, every consideration is in order. For lay Catholics who are gay and choose to make public the details of their marital lives, no consideration at all. Instant punishment. Instant firing. Instant exclusion from the Christian community. Instant destruction of careers, of economic lives, of reputations. The disparity is glaring and obvious. And, to increasing numbers of Catholics, as well as to the public in general, it’s scandalous in the extreme.”
Finally, Heidi Schlumpf made a point in the National Catholic Reporter a few months back that bears repeating. She questioned what impact these firings, and the larger LGBT-negative attitude of the bishops, will have when it comes to the next generation of church workers. Already, young adults interested in ministry are not joining up and it is not because of the poor pay. Schlumpf argues:
“Younger Catholics still see the institutional church as an out-of-touch employer run by old men who ‘don’t get it.’ Media reports about employees having to sign “morality agreements” don’t help. Nor do ones about people getting fired for supporting gay marriage or women’s ordination — issues most younger folks believe should be already resolved…
“This is unfortunate, because the millennial generation is idealistic about service — even more so than the previous generation. It’s to bad the church may not be the beneficiary of that idealism and enthusiasm. The ‘Francis effect’ can only do so much. If younger workers want to choose a career based on their values, they are unlikely to compromise those same values to work for the church.”
From high school students to newly-graduated divinity students, it seems Catholic youth and young adults are tiring of a church where LGBT people are routinely fired and where there are still too few public policy goals of the bishops outside of opposing same-sex marriages. Brian Cahill’s diagnosis that the church is becoming a “shrinking cult” may be bleak, and it should be a wake-up call to church leaders concerned about the future.
–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry