US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Will the center hold?

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
The church as we know it won’t last if its broad middle begins to shrink.

Pop culture journalists had the brass ring of celebrity stories dropped on them in August when author Anne Rice, grande dame of the current vampire entertainment empire, announced that, 10 years after her return to the Roman Catholic faith of her childhood, she was leaving once again.

Jesus plus vampires plus Catholicism equals big headline. "I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian' or to being part of Christianity," Rice announced dramatically. "In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. . . . I refuse to be anti-Democrat."

As the author of lurid and sensual guilty pleasures such as Interview with the Vampire (Ballantine), along with more recent imaginative retellings of the life of Jesus, Rice's announcement drew plenty of comment, along with the usual recitation of Catholicism's current failings and retorts from defenders that Rice wasn't all that Catholic to begin with.

But while Rice's exit had bloggers buzzing, a similar if less star-studded statement caught my attention: an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune titled "Excommunicate me, please." It carried the byline, "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 Sheila O'Brien? She isn't Anne Rice, after all. And her complaints about "an institution off the rails" will surprise no regular follower of the Catholic scene: an unresolved sex abuse crisis, Roman authorities who seem deaf to the aspirations of women and even punitive toward some, a lack of financial transparency. "How can we stay in a church whose leaders protect pedophiles?" O'Brien asks. "Yet how can we leave and relinquish our church to those very leaders?"

But I think who she is and the demographic profile she reflects matters as much as what she wrote: a cradle Irish Catholic, the granddaughter of immigrants, a professional woman, a wife and mother. In other words O'Brien represents the "thick middle" of the American Catholic Church. She's active in her parish and still contributes to it (but writes "one-time bequest" on every check, she says, so nothing goes to the diocese). She's a graduate of the University of Notre Dame Law School, and she even has a degree in pastoral theology. In other words, she's Catholic with a capital C.

And that's why she can't bring herself to leave. Instead, she wants to be thrown out so she doesn't have to make the choice to abandon the faith her parents and grandparents gave her in baptism. "If [the hierarchy] would just make the decision for me, give me a piece of paper that says, ‘you're out,' it would free my conscience."

Some may see O'Brien's rant as whining and her indecision self-pitying. I must disagree. Sheila O'Brien and people like her matter. They are the last children of an immigrant generation who can still say, as she does, that Catholicism "is my life, the center of every experience, the filter for reality." When they give up, the church as we know it--the deep, wide, generous, committed church--starts to fade and become what Anne Rice now describes as a "quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group."

The Sheila O'Briens of the church are the women who form the backbone of parish life, the ones most likely to hand on the faith to their children. The church as we know it now won't long survive without their continued commitment. If they begin to leave, you can expect that their husbands and children will follow. But I don't think they will wait to be excommunicated; it's more likely they will just vanish.

I don't get worried about the church when Anne Rice leaves, though I enjoy being in a church so baroque that even the queen and creator of the sexy undead once belonged. But I do worry when Sheila O'Brien is ready to throw in the towel. It indicates to me that, as Notre Dame professor and commentator Cathleen Kaveny has argued regarding the sex abuse crisis, Catholicism has reached a "tipping point"--initiated by the crisis but perpetuated by other unresolved issues-after which thoughtful Catholics, despite their faith and commitment, finally start to give up.

I hope someone is paying attention. 

This article appeared in the October 2010 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 75, No. 10, page 8).

Image: Tom Wright