US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Forget Anne Rice: It's Sheila O'Brien the church should worry about

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The Internet is burning wih the news that Anne Rice, the matriarch of vampirica, has left organized Christianity, 10 years after returning to active practice of Roman Catholicism. Her departure is grabbing headlines, but the real news can be found in an op-ed in today's Chicago Tribune the byline of which reads: "Sheila O'Brien is a wife, mother, daughter, sister, a product of 22 years of Catholic education and active in her parish. She is a justice of the Illinois Appellate Court, Chicago."

Why should anyone care about Judge Sheila O'Brien? First read her article, "Excommunicate me, please." Then think about who she is: a cradle Irish Catholic, a professional woman, a wife and mother. In other words O'Brien is the "thick middle" of the American Catholic Church. She is no theology wonk, probably doesn't care much about church politics or liturgical translations, and probably doesn't care to quote the Catechism. But she's active in her parish, she has raised her children Catholic, and she probably contributes generously not only to her parish but to Catholic Charities. She's probably on a Catholic board to or two.

And she is fed up. Fed up with bad governance, with sex abuse, with institutional failure. But she still wants to be "excommunicated"--that is, she doesn't want to leave, but at this point would be OK with being thrown out.

Sheila O'Brien and people like her are the ones that matter. When they give up, the church as we know it--the deep, wide, generous, flexible, committed church--starts to fade and become what Anne Rice got fed up with: a "quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious and deservedly infamous group." Ouch.

I don't get worried about the church when Anne Rice leaves, though I enjoy being in a church so baroque that the queen of the undead belongs. But I do worry when Sheila O'Brien and people like her are ready to throw in the towel. I hope someone, whether in the chancery or in Rome, is listening.