I was out to dinner with a group of friends many years ago during the initial wave of news reports about the priest sex abuse scandal. I remember one of my non-Catholic friends asking, “Why do so many of you stay Catholic?” One said it was because she felt it made sense to stick with the original Christian religion. Another friend said she stayed for the excellent Catholic education she wanted for her children. Another said it was purely cultural. Growing up in a home where First Communion parties, church picnics, and midnight Mass were the norm made her want this same sense of community and tradition for her own kids too.
Those reasons are all well and good. But what I struggled to put into words that evening is that the reason I remain Catholic has nothing to do with them. I remain Catholic because of the essential, core tenants of the faith – the incarnation and the resurrection – which shape my understanding of the world. I believe that God is truly present in human life, not only in its most profound expression in the person of Jesus but also in every conceivable life-giving, love-affirming moment of our own lives today. And because of the sacredness of this human experience, I believe that life will always win out in the end. I remain Catholic because of this truly “good news” … even when it’s not easy.
And “not easy” is a gracious, watered-down way of describing what it’s like to be a card-carrying Catholic today as the horrors of the Pennsylvania abuses have come to light. And yet, I remain Catholic. For me, this means remembering that the Church is far more than this issue. Despite all its flaws and failures, the Catholic Church is still the strongest voice for social justice on the planet and has done more to help the world’s most vulnerable people than any other organization. It also means acknowledging that the sins of some are not the sins of all. I have been blessed to know some incredible priests who don’t deserve to be condemned because of the actions of others. It also means heeding Pope Francis’ call in his open letter last week and praying — for the victims, their families, the abusers, and the church as a whole.
But I will do more than just remember and pray. I believe that somehow new life can come from this death experience, so I will speak up. I will say that both civil laws and church practices need to change. I will say that the Vatican needs to engage in an independent, thorough study of the use and abuse of power within the entirety of its hierarchy, offices, and ministries, and the results of those findings, subsequent recommendations, and the Vatican response should be communicated to all. I will say that the entrenched patriarchy of the Church needs careful examination. And I will say all of this and more in the form of a letter to Pope Francis. It may do nothing, but I will send it anyway. And then I’ll write another.
When my group of friends from years back is together for dinner again and someone asks, “Why do you remain Catholic?” I will give a better answer this time. I remain a Catholic because I continue to believe that God is present, even amid the evil of abuse, and I believe that new life is still possible. But I also believe that the incarnation and resurrection are not spectator sports. They are present-day invitations to a deeper, fuller experience of life. They are a call to action.
Mary Ann Steutermann is director of campus ministry at Assumption High School and a St. Michael Church parishioner.