When you read the The Washington Post daily, as I do, you expect to find full-page ads advocating a wide range of causes. But a full-page ad in today's Post takes the cake. The headline reads, "It's Time to Quit the Catholic Church." Subtitle: "Open letter to 'liberal' and 'nominal' Catholics."
It is sponsored by the Freedom from Religion Foundation, an increasingly active group on the public scene. Before one writes this group off as a fringe, it's well to remember that the fastest-growing "religion" group in the United States is made up of those with no religion at all. They call themselves by various names: atheists, agnostics, humanists, or simply free-thinkers.
But I have to say, the folks who wrote this ad have a sense of humor, especially at the end. They base their case on the Catholic bishops' "war against women's right to contraception." The ad continues: "If you think you can change the church from within -- get it to lighten up on birth control, gay rights, marriage equality, embryonic stem cell research -- you're deluding yourself ... You are an enabler ..."
After reviewing the bishops' complaints about the implementation of the health care reform law, it concludes: "We invite you to free yourself from incense-fogged ritual, from ideas uttered long ago by ignorant men, from blind obedience to an illusory religious authority. Life begins at excommunication." Then, in large print: "Please, exit en mass."
All this provides wonderful entertainment over breakfast, but the ad overlooks one central reality: personal faith. Most Catholics cling to the church because they are believers. They believe in Jesus Christ, in the teachings of the Gospel, and they love the finest traditions of their faith. They value the Eucharist and the traditions of social justice. Sure, many disagree with the bishops on issues like contraception and gay rights, but that won't necessarily lead them to the exit door. Most know the difference between the essentials of faith and the bishops' statements on issues with which they disagree in good conscience.
Still, it's well to note that many Catholics have been leaving. Religious sociologists will tell you that ex-Catholics are the second-largest "denomination" in the United States. But it's not because they are suddenly nonbelievers or want "freedom from religion." They leave because they are sickened by the sex abuse crisis, angry over the hierarchy's unyielding stance on issues like contraception, disillusioned by bishops who rarely have anything to say about social and economic justice, and tired of dealing with priests who refuse to give them any say in their parish.
Many of those who leave go to other churches, especially the Episcopal church, where the liturgy and teachings are very familiar. And, as I've discovered in many public talks I've given, a good number become Unitarians. But many simply leave and go nowhere. That's sad. This ad will probably lead some of them to consider a "freedom from religion" stance.
But, as I look at the church today, I wonder if the bishops care.