What’s in a pronoun? Semantics and tone-deaf Catholicism

It’s never been easy to be a Roman Catholic. I’m used to “the look” I get from people when they find out I still go to church, or that I went to Catholic school, or I educated my kids in Catholic schools, or that my grandchildren are being educated in Catholic school. It’s the look that says, “Oh, you buy into organized religion,” or the one that reads, “I had no idea you were so gullible.” The look comes in many forms–a smirk, a chuckle, a hmmph. I know the intent and I consider the source. Their judgment doesn’t change what I do. I believe in God and I try to be a decent person, one who doesn’t judge someone for a different belief system or for not having any belief system at all. 

Allow me to clarify my brand of Catholicism. I do not consider the Church infallible. The Church is its own worst enemy by allowing the rule of men to outweigh the rule of God. As my son says, “The message is a good one, love God and love others. It’s the rest of the crap that sucks.” He’s right. Sadly, men in the Church hierarchy invent the crap that causes the rest of us to scratch our heads, stop going to church, or leave the Church entirely. 

The Church, it seems, is always finding itself on the wrong side of history. In the twelfth century, the church decreed that priests could not be married or have children, not for the reason of chastity but because the Church feared that any sons of the priest would inherit land when the priest died. From the middle ages on, corruption has plagued the Church. Wealthy men purchased indulgences, effectively buying their ways into heaven. Popes and bishops came into power illegitimately. In the present day, the Vatican and its henchmen invent man-made rules that have nothing to do with our personal relationships with God or the essence of our faith. And still, the powers that be, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church, fail to see how ridiculous it looks to the world outside of Catholicism.

In the past twenty years, the Church has made a real spectacle of itself with its most repulsive failing, the priest sex abuse scandal. The Church and a male-dominated ministry in the broader sense offered a potential hideout for pedophiles. These priests were well known to the higher-ups; still, they remained in parishes, where access to children enabled them to sexually abuse the most vulnerable. Cardinals and archbishops reassigned them after a few years to different parishes, increasing access to new vulnerable populations. For many of the parents of these kids, the Church was infallible, as were the priests. Children feared exposing the behavior, knowing their parents would never believe them. Herein lies the greater problem. The Church depends on our trust, even when the crowd in charge is untrustworthy and harmful.

In the past two weeks, a story has emerged from Arizona where a Catholic priest is accused of using improper verbiage in the rite of baptism. The Church dictates the words, “I baptize you…yada yada,” this priest said, “We baptize you…” The story might have ended there–a slap on the wrist for one man and a cautionary tale to stick to the script for all priests in the further administration of sacraments. Instead, the Church (the hierarchy–bishops, archbishops, and cardinals) has condemned this act, resulting in the invalidation of all of these baptisms. The Holy Water continued to trickle downstream when it was announced that everyone impacted by the “we baptize” debacle now had to re-receive any sacraments conferred after the botched baptisms. Invalid baptisms made everything else that followed null and void–penance, communion, confirmation, marriage. If the Catholic Church were an interstate highway, this mess would be a one-hundred car pile-up on an already icy 93 North, and like most accidents, a situation that is truly unnecessary and avoidable.

Now let’s pause for a moment and think about this situation logically. How was the priest’s error in judgment investigated? Did the Church request the videotapes from parents who surreptitiously captured the moment, never realizing the evidence would be their undoing? Catholics know that videoing these important life moments is often verboten. Talk about karma, or in this case, divine retribution. Did they interview the participants in these sacraments, forcing them to attest under oath at a tribunal to hearing “we,” not “I?” In this case, I recommend lying, even though it breaks a commandment because nothing good can come from answering a stupid question with an answer that only contributes to a stupider outcome.

Now we add to the mix similar situations in Oklahoma and Michigan, where priests are being investigated for their loose interpretation of what the Church is. These men also used the forbidden “we,” and “we” must now pay for their glaring error in judgment. I have no problem with the word “we” in the case of baptism. The nuns taught me Christ is the head of the Church and we, the devout, are the body. But now we are told that only the priest is the representative of Christ on earth and worthy to welcome someone into the faith. With this semantic foolishness, the Church is not only cutting off its nose to spite its face but accomplishing a full-on decapitation. And they wonder why numbers are declining?

Last week, my son and I discussed the baptism news story and I took note of his almost giddy reaction to the idea that he might have had a “we” baptism. He is typical of younger Catholics who have lapsed or moved on, never to return to the faith. He welcomed a loophole where all of his ties to the Church were negated. I don’t regret all the money spent on Catholic grammar school, high school, and college; I appreciate the intelligent conversations I have with him over the weaknesses in the Church and the need to question authority always, especially when it comes to the Catholic church. It’s a good reminder that the Church is run by men, tone-deaf ones at that, and not everyone hears the same off-key tune.

I attend Mass most Sundays, pushing the failings of the Church out of my mind for forty-five minutes. I avoid parish churches, preferring the teachings of the Franciscans to the narrowmindedness of mainstream Catholicism. The church I attend proclaims “All are welcome” in a banner over the door. The friars truly support “all:” spirituality groups for the LGBTQ community, a food pantry for the hungry, a homeless women’s health clinic, Latino and Haitian ministries, a youth ministry for young adults in their 20s and 30s, support for those struggling with addiction, homeless outreach, and ministries for senior citizen and veterans. For me, the most powerful is the Lazarus ministry where the homeless and those who have no one are given a proper burial. I have always wanted to attend these special Masses but I know I would be a puddle. Mass at St. Anthony’s Shrine often brings me to tears. It defines what I believe to be our mission as Catholics. I harken back to the words of Jesus as reported in the book of Matthew: Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me. In that place, for almost an hour, I am part of the greater “we,” not the hierarchical “I.” It’s why I remain a Catholic, as difficult as it is sometimes.

My son’s sentiment rings painfully true: The rest of it is crap. The semantic pettiness of the ‘we vs. I’ debacle turns people away from the Church. I hope data will be collected to track how many of these ‘negated Catholics’ choose to take the necessary steps to be ‘officially Catholic.’ Honestly, I wouldn’t bother. And they wonder why people are leaving the Church.

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