Religion and politics, but no fireworks

Column evokes dismay at course of Catholic Church

May 07, 2012|Susan Reimer

Unless you want a fight to break out at a cocktail party or a family reunion, conventional wisdom has it, don't talk religion or politics.

I did both in this space last Monday, and then I crawled in a bunker and waited for the fireworks to begin.

"Be prepared," my editor warned. "The long knives will come out."

"There's going to be a cross burning in your front yard," a friend warned; another asked if I had hired bodyguards.

In that column, I talked of how difficult it was to be a Catholic woman these days, what with the church fathers taking up the cudgel against American nuns, not to mention the odd teacher struggling to get pregnant or the heartbroken teenage girl dumped by a guy on the eve of her prom.

"What would Jesus do?" I asked. And I was pretty sure the answer was, "None of this stuff."

We have a formula to calculate reader response in the newspaper business, and it goes something like this. For every angry or critical letter you receive, there are 10 happy readers. Happy people rarely put pen to paper; they just go about their business.

Well, that formula was turned on its head last week as the emails came, thick and fast, to me. Overwhelmingly, the writers — almost all woman — said that they, too, were increasingly alarmed at the church's punishing ways. The pulpit had become a political soapbox, the women said.

Only two of perhaps 60 emails were negative, and both were written by men. One invited me to try being a Muslim — a religion that, he said, punishes disobedient women with death. Another said that if he were Jesus, he would drive me from the temple with "a whip of cords."

Aside from a few barbs about "those old, European white men" in the Vatican, the emails I received from women readers were filled with dismay, not anger and not hatred. There was longing for the enlightenment of Pope John XXIII, who convened Vatican II in an attempt to "open the windows" of the church, and for the grandfatherly smile of John Paul II.

The emails contained stories of parish priests who risked their own careers by keeping petition drives against same-sex marriage out of the church vestibule, and of carefully crafted pre-Cana meetings with young couples so that they, and the church, might embrace at the beginning of a new family's life.

"'What would Jesus do' is almost a mantra for me," wrote Kitty Douglass, "I do not see Christ in 'the church' much."

Eileen Holahan wrote, "We are indeed living very clearly in the age of a seriously troubled Catholic Church."

"I am convinced that the Church is not Rome and the so called leaders of the church but the many wonderful people I have met as I journey through this life," wrote Chris Kline from Nottingham, Md. "I am convinced that the Church is the folks I worship with every Sunday, the volunteers that I work with every Saturday ...  the nuns who work in the nursing home where my mother was a patient until she died, the volunteers who work with the immigrants, both documented and undocumented, the volunteers at places like Bread and Beans and Our Daily Bread."

"The hierarchy uses [the size of the congregation] to convince themselves that it's reasonable to demonize homosexuals, women who have sex, and now nuns," wrote Pam Zerba of York, Pa.

We have just come through a primary season in which religion and politics commingled and produced some very toxic moments, from the American Catholic bishops' attack on President Barack Obama's health care reform to Rick Santorum's rejection of John F. Kennedy's speech on the separation of church and state to Rush Limbaugh's filthy castigation of a young woman law student who testified in favor of insurance coverage for birth control.

Mitt Romney's Mormon faith and Mr. Obama's church attendance came under unpleasant scrutiny.

These moments made me fear that, in the long slog to November, things would only get more harsh and more acrimonious in the public square. But maybe things aren't as bad as all that.

Perhaps public discourse has not been coarsened so as to make a sailor blush. There were no pitchforks, no burning torches in the wake of last Monday's column. Just a lot of people trying to find a way forward when the church they have known all their lives no longer demonstrates the social conscience they remember.

No hate speech. Just a lot of sorrow.

Susan Reimer's column appears Mondays. Her email is susan.reimer@baltsun.com.

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