A New Post-Catholic State of Awareness: Has Public Discussion of Catholicism Reached a New Moment?
I am currently reading, and inspired and challenged by, Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea's remarkable psychoanalytic study of the Catholic abuse crisis, Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church (Vanderbilt University Press, 2007). Many America readers will recall that Frawley-O'Dea was selected to give a presentation on abuse to the Catholic bishops at their crucial meeting in Dallas in June 2002, and many as well will remember how important was her presence and presentation at that watershed event.
Among many poignant, subtle, and arresting arguments in Perversion of Power -- a great deal of which has to do with untangling the relationship between sexuality and clerical narcissism in the governance structures of the church -- I was also moved by her declaration at the beginning of the book, in the "Personal Preface", that after a painful search, Frawley-O'Dea has left Catholicism for the Episcopal Church, a move she discusses frankly.
This arc -- she worked with the bishops, she counseled priests and victims/survivors, she faced the corrupt and abusive dimensions of the church's way of proceeding, and then she left Catholicism and joined the Episcopal Church -- this arc seems somehow symbolic for where American Catholicism, or at least one strong dimension of it, seems to be going: an increasingly frank settling of accounts by American Catholics who are going to do what seems best for them to do in face of all that is being learned about Catholicism through the crisis, whether those responses are struggling for reform from within or (more typically) marginal affiliation or disaffiliation.
Indeed, a new courage for telling the truth about the range of affiliations in and out of Catholicism seems to have taken over in the last several years, and I wonder if 2010 was the year in which this dynamism reached a certain irreversibility. The data about people leaving the church or marginally affiliating are now increasingly not only known but being slowly and unevenly integrated into everyday consciousness, if not church planning. Peter Steinfels and Cathleen Kaveny, among many others, have written powerfully of the feeling of this new moment, in which -- more than ever, and with more educated and confident awareness than ever -- those raised Catholic realize that they can redefine, however actively or passively, their relationship to Catholicism in ways that part with official expectations, and the sky will not fall.
On Catholic blogs, the frank discussion can be found in ways that seem remarkable even to me, someone raised after the Council, for whom the fragmentation-restoration tug of war in the church was supposedly old hat. This moment of frankness, though, seems new.
An article by Charles Blow in today's New York Times seems also to capture this mood. Titled "Religion and Representation", Blow mentions casually that he left born-again Christianity and has become religiously "unresolved," and that he supports his son's ongoing spiritual searching, relatively detached from religious institutions. Blow then points to data showing the percentage of Americans who call themselves religiously unaffiliated at 16% (and, I presume, still rising). He wonders whether these Americans are represented in the new Congress.
It could be that I am late in recognizing a consciousness that was already sufficiently generalized many years ago, but Catholicism seems to be crossing over into some genuinely new post-Catholic space of awareness -- within, on the margins of, and outside the Catholic Church. Was 2010 a crucial year in that space of awareness?
Hastings-on-Hudson, New York