As a convert to Catholicism — my family and I were confirmed on Easter in 2015 — one of the questions I am asked most often by other Catholics is how I feel about the clergy sex scandal. My answer is always the same: it did not change my faith then and does not now. When I made the decision to join the Church, I was aware of the findings that had come to light in 2002. But those revelations had not changed what my family and I had experience while worshipping at an incredible parish for three years before we decided to convert. The “scandal” had no impact on the supportive community, the beauty of the Mass, or our interaction with the parish staff and clergy who welcomed us as members.
That is not to say I did not take the history of the Church into consideration. I took more of a long view, acknowledging the bad and the good. The abuse scandal was a part of the history of the Church, but so were the Sisters of St. Francis and Sisters of Charity who had built the first hospital in our community. So were the women religious who had established schools across the United States. So, too, was the enduring work of the Catholic Church in providing care for our poor and vulnerable throughout history.
I have been thinking about all this recently as the U.S. Bishops met in Baltimore to discuss, among other things, their collective response to the most recent revelations about abuse and cover-ups in the Church. As a more tenured Catholic at this point, it does get tiring. It is hard to feel that you must defend or apologize for your faith and Church. Still, my exhaustion is hardly reserved for that institution alone. We are muddling through the era of bad behavior as a society right now, and while the Church is no innocent bystander, it is certainly not the only offender. An exclusive Wall Street Journal investigation this month revealed years of abuse that has been occurring within Indian Health Services, a federal agency charged with providing care for the nation’s indigenous population. It is an all too familiar narrative about people in positions of power and trust abusing, and subsequently covering up, the abuse of young people for decades. Over the past five years, similar revelations have been raised about school teachers, the Boy Scouts and U.S. military academies to name a few.
For its part, the Catholic Church has done as much as any institution to address and rectify these past wrong doings, but that has not stopped a new crisis from arising. According to recent statistics released by the Pew Center, approximately one-fourth of Catholics in the U.S. have reduced both their Mass attendance and their donations due to the abuse issue. An additional study from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate found the percentage of U.S. Catholics attending Mass at least once a month has dropped from 57 percent in 1990 to 45 percent in 2018. This is statistical confirmation of the anecdotal comments one hears in our own community around the dwindling number of Catholics.
There are a host of reasons, from the doctrinal to the financial, that this trend should trouble Catholics. One of my greatest concerns is the impact a shrinking Church has on our poor and vulnerable. The practice of our Catholic faith and the acts of charity and mercy are not independent of each other. Instead, faith is the wellspring from which the good work is informed, energized and maintained; the Mass is like a daily or weekly reboot in a world that tends to distract our attention from those in need.
Here is where I can speak with an authority on Catholicism that some cannot. Like any convert, my journey to this faith was long and complicated; yet, one of the most important intellectual questions that I found an answer to was: “Why do we care about strangers?” That question was impossible to answer until it was framed in the context of the teachings of Christ about love, God and neighbor. Surely that message is consistent with all Christian teaching, as well as other faith traditions, but I have tried a lot of those and none of them resonated as clearly as Catholic teaching, which holds sacred the things that I believe are most fundamental to the care for humanity: the dignity and value of human life, the sacredness of family, preference for the poor, and pursuit of the common good.
Those values, reiterated and recharged in the Mass and in the sacraments, are as important for those of us who are confirmed in the faith as they are vital for our poor and vulnerable with whom we are called to stand in solidarity. I understand how the inexcusable acts of some clergy would rattle one’s trust in the Church, but the good far outweighs the bad. Take it from a convert who has seen both sides.