Click here if you don’t see subscription options
John F. KavanaughJanuary 16, 2012

There are many minor irritants I face as we launch into another year. At the top of the list are the continual assaults of demeaning advertisements. One genre portrays us as preferring the latest electronic toy to any human relationship: we hush those around us as we try out our new app; others roll their eyes when they see us using last year’s iPhone; if we long for companionship, we can “see if someone is searching for you. Find out on Mylife.com.”

More directly related to the year 2012, we face a billion-dollar campaign for president in which the only comic relief from boring talking points and empty slogans might be the possible candidacy of Donald Trump, a man weirdly unburdened by self-knowledge. By his own testimony, of course, he is “big, huge”—a reference not only to his wealth and properties but to his ego, inflated, like so much of our nation, by self-display.

We face as well a political commentariat, carefully crafted and segmented to fit our prejudices and ideologies, from MSNBC to Fox News. We will be treated to hosts like Joe Scarborough and Chris Matthews, both masters mostly of interviewing themselves.

Looming above all the ephemeral irritants, there remain two inescapable challenges that will outlast the election and the year. They are the failure of middle- to upper management in our country and in our church.

In the wake of two trillion-dollar wars that have ushered in the rejection of the just war theory and the legitimization of assassination and torture, of growing immiseration for the middle class and poor and of refusal to consider banking, election or health care reforms, the U.S. Congress has achieved the lowest approval rating ever recorded. At 9 percent, our senators and representatives are esteemed about as much as pornography and polygamy. Perhaps our legislators have lost touch with the average American family, whose wealth has declined over the last 25 years while the median net worth of a member of the House of Representatives has more than doubled.

The problem of leaders “losing touch” with those they are supposed to lead may be confronting the Catholic Church as well. First, let me be clear: Bishops, Catholics and Christians can no more be caricatured or monolithically lumped together than politicians or any other group. Nonetheless, there are troubling indications that the failures in leadership among politicians are mirrored by those of religious leaders.

The latest data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reveal that one-third of Americans who were raised Catholic no longer consider themselves Catholic. In fact, the top three religious groups in the United States now are Catholics, then Baptists, then former Catholics. Should this prod us, commissioned to pass on our faith, to ask some probing questions of ourselves?

It is true that dioceses have mounted stirring, often beautiful campaigns, calling unchurched Catholics to “come home.” But this raises two questions: Why did they leave? And what are we calling them home to?

As to the first question, there is no simple answer. Reasons may range from being deeply scandalized by the disgrace of sexual abuse to the self-serving rejection of challenging dogma or moral practice. But there does seem to be a growing number of disaffected Catholics who think they are leaving an institution whose primary commitment is resistance to abortion and same-sex marriage. This is unfortunate not only for those who leave the church but for those who stay as well. As important as our pro-life and traditional marriage commitments are, they are not the center of our faith. The mystery of Christ is the center, and it is to this that we should be calling former Catholics back.

Just as leaders of a nation must call its citizens to a common good beyond any particular vested interest, so also leaders of our church must call the disaffected not merely back to the church but to the One without whom the church has no legitimacy or mission.

If we Catholics all return home to our true center, we will indeed have a bounty of “Welcome-homes.” Coming back to a church focused on Christ rather than itself, some who have left us may discover what they were looking for when they left. And all of us might find ourselves newly empowered to challenge a disordered culture, just as courageously as our Lord did.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Bill Collier
11 years 10 months ago
Another welcome and sane dose of commonsense from Fr. Kavanaugh, both secular and religious. There's a reason I always read Fr. Kavanaugh's column first in every issue in which a column appears. I doubt I'm the only one who does so. 
11 years 10 months ago
As an Associate Member of a women's religious order, I attended an open meeting at which one vowed member of the community asked what we were all willing to do to promote the charism of the order.  I responded, "Sister, it's not so much what I'm willing to do, but what you are willing to allow me to do as an ordained presbyter in the "wider" Catholic Church.  Fr. Kavanaugh writes, "Coming back to a church focused on Christ rather than itself, some who have left us may discover what they were looking for when they left."  I've come back many times to the Church of St. Lawrence, St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and countless others, but I can't swim that last lap across the Tiber to an institutional edifice that is intent on denying to the Mary's and Joseph's of its members full acknowledgment of their pastoral call to sacramental service, as well as to turning a deaf ear to the informed conscience of its lay members in regard to the issues of family planning.
Craig McKee
11 years 10 months ago
Perhaps the USCCB and the subordinates they employ would do well to read and reflect upon this recent article at their next national convocation (preferably with a FEMALE facilitator):

"The Seven Habits of Highly Unsuccessful Executives"
Habit # 1:  They see themselves and their companies as dominating their environment
Habit #2:  They identify so completely with the company that there is no clear boundary between their personal interests and their corporation’s interests
Habit #3:  They think they have all the answers
Habit #4:  They ruthlessly eliminate anyone who isn’t completely behind them
Habit #5: They are consummate spokespersons, obsessed with the company image
Habit #6: They underestimate obstacles

Habit #7: They stubbornly rely on what worked for them in the past

C Walter Mattingly
11 years 10 months ago
Bill, I am a fellow reader who turns to the Fr Kavanaugh articles here with special attention. Sober, wise, and balanced, it calls for further consideration, as most articles of substance do.

What makes me wince as a more conservative voice is the accurate assesment of the clumsiness of many in the House in their legitimate opposition to some of the president's actions and proposals. But when we examine the public's disapproval ratings of the two groups of leaders, we find the following: Pelosi, 62%, Reid, 51%, Boehner, 42%, and McConnel, 36%. Clearly, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, who unlike their opposition counterparts are both at majority disapproval ratings, are far closer to those porno star approval ratings Fr Kavanaugh alludes to in his commentary. There are some of what I consider to be inaccuracies here, such as refusal to consider health care reforms-a question of how to reform, not whether or not to reform is the issue; likewise on election reform questions-but for those of us concerned with how such divisiveness came about, in an effort to end it, we need to refer to the recent origins of the dispute.

As a campaigner, candidate Obama critiqued the Clinton health care plan, not so much for its content but for the manner in which it was handled: it was drawn up in secrecy behind closed doors. He assured the electorate that not only would he do no such thing, but he would indeed put such an important subject on CSPAN so it could be debated and the public informed on the issue. I personally was looking forward to learning about this crucial issue. Instead, as we all know, he did precisely what he said he would not do: he locked Pelosi and Reid behind closed doors, who there drew up a 2,000 page document weighted down with legalese that was presented with scarcely time to review, that even Pelosi herself admitted she didn't know what was in it, and passed it, or perhaps rammed it through is more accurate, under reconciliation, against the will of the public. This gross violation of the integrity of his word was not against his opponents, but against his word to the American people. As a result of the hastily crafted plan, we now have 2,000 "exceptions" to it, the entire long-term care portion in the trash can, and a serious question as to whether or not a key portion of the plan is constitutional. All this could have been avoided had the president only been true to his word.

Understandably the opposition of his opponents was visceral. The Hope and Change turned out to be Hype and More of the Same and Worse. Skill at reading speeches from a teleprompter and a slick, polished political image does not change the substance of the person. The president's lack of integrity to his word is the core source of the anomie we find in the houses. The country deserves better.
James Collins
11 years 10 months ago
On balance a good article. He speaks of a billion dollar election campaign. That would be Obama's campaign war chest which he has raised from his fat cat Wall St. friends and union bosses. However his critique of the pro life crowd surprises me. When Catholics do that they are usually trying to find a way to rationalize their votes for liberal Democrats.
11 years 10 months ago
John, you still make sense after all these years! As the irish say, "good on you". Ed
ed gleason
11 years 10 months ago
That ex Catholics are the third largest group in the US is even a hopefull number..the ex group is on it's way to being the largest group IMHO. Take away immigrant Catholics and count the huge number of 18-40 year olds who are non practicing, probably 70%, add in the 60% decline in Catholic weddings and you have a far worse description of the Catholic presence in the commonweal. This downward trend is far worse than portrayed and I suspect a true count of the Catholic meltdown is afraid  to be undertaken. Thousands of parishes have been closed and the pews are still empty. We pre-Vatican II oldsters are sticking because we have Peter's words 'To whom shall we go Lord". We stick but not the white US Catholics under 60..the under 40 don't know what stick means.. CARA needs to suck up and do the real numbers and give us the trend line..    
C Walter Mattingly
11 years 10 months ago
When we begin to address the concerns of loss of Church membership and the question of reforms, it is crucial that we turn to our fellow Christian neighbors who have advocated and effected the changes which many liberal reformers consider desirable changes-promotion of divorce, gay marriage, abortion, denial of Christ's presence in the Eucharist, etc-and what has happened to those more liberal constituencies. The answer has been and is that they have shed members significantly more rapidly than the US Catholic church, an astounding reality considering its horrific sexual scandal issues. One study even suggests that if the Episcopal church continues its loss of membership trend, it will essentially be defunct in a quarter century or so.
A considerable body of objective evidence, the evidential trends of the actual numbers, indicates that such changes would accelerate, not diminish, the stagnation/loss of US Catholic population. 
11 years 10 months ago

I once read somewhere that crucified people could spend many hours, even days, on the cross during which time bowel and bladder functions happened. The thought occurred, just think how messed-up such unfortunate people would get and if like St. Peter crucified head down, what a degrading outcome would happen to the upper parts of the torso by bladder and bowel releases! How God awful that would be, if St. Peter, Supreme Pontiff of the Catholic Church appointed by Christ himself, found himself so miserably dirtied!

But continuing reflectively, perhaps if such degradation did happen to the Holy Father Peter, maybe it  happened  protypical  of things to come within the Church. For  it does seem to me that over time, through political intrigue, inordinate  pride ever maneuvering for “first places” in the Lord’s house and even a kind of subliminal lechery not necessarily biological, simply a lust for earthly power,  the secularized component of the Church sullied   in the dirt of worldliness, has again and again (grossly put) defecated and urinated all over itself!  The Institutional Church is ever in need of public confession, public washing, and public penance! All of this apart from the Mystical Body of Christ, wherein resides the true Church founded by Jesus Christ.  The one that I am ready to die for and gratefully claim as mine!

So, it was disheartening to read  Professor John Kavanaugh’s statistical report that the top three religious groups in the U.S. now are Catholics, Baptists, then Former Catholics! That’s sad, for  despite the corrupting  behavior of the Institutional Church over time, why would anyone ever run away from the Real Presence of the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, our Baptismal birthright? Where can we go to find the real presence of Christ except in the Mystical Body of the Lord, even if we have to put up with the Divine Presence reserved in the tattered ciborium of the Institutional Church? Don’t run! Stay and help restore the “tattered ciborium!

Also, where would one go to find Mary, Mother of the Church, our mother, honored and explained in Maryology  delighting the heart and gloriously elevating  the feminine mystique, the grace of womanhood, spiritual and biological motherhood? Why run away from so good a Mother? Hang in there with the heart of the Church!

Finally, despite all its warts, its ugliness, its messy behaviors, where can one go to find Faith and moral certitude, except in the Catholic Church, the Catholic Church not as a fallible institution but  as the Mystical Body of Christ? Yes, for these good reasons and some others, why run from the faith of our Fathers and Mothers, into which we have been Baptized? Respectfully, I urge  all runaways to come home! Your sisters and brothers in the Lord miss you!

William McGovern
11 years 10 months ago
An excellent article.  A few observations:

1) Agree wholehearedly that the Catholic Church needs to stand FOR something such as its opposition to abortion on demand and same-sex marriage.   It is true that some other religions, such as the Episcopal Church, seem to embrace virtually every secular issue that becomes contemporary, finding some reasonalization to support it.   If the Catholic Church falls into that trap, the decline will only accelerate.

2)  Having said that, it is long overdue that the Church open its clergical doors to mariried men and women.  Such as move would not only be fair especially to women, it would help restore the credibility of the priesthood.  And the Church would help resolve its clegy shortage as well as stop wasting and start using the talents of over 50% of the population, namely women.

3)  Finally, the point about Christ being the center or core of the Church is crucial.   Christ's greatest commandant includes loving the Lord and our neighbors.   We love and serve the Lord by loving and serving others.  The Church needs to adopt the theme of "service above self" to attract and maintain its members.  We live in a largely secular society and the Church can help attract many who atre willing and able to serve a cause larger than themselves. Think how successful the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Çoast Guard have been in attracting those willing to risk their lives for a cause larger than themselves. 

Edward Visel
11 years 10 months ago
Fr. Kavanaugh-

Your comments are apt as ever. The fixations of the church on gay marriage and abortion are indeed what makes it so distasteful to many ex-Catholics.

However, I think there's a more fundamental issue here: the pure inability of the Church to communicate with those outside its frame of reference due to its use of language. "Churchese" is a well-known language (or "vocabulary", in a Rortian sense) within the Church, but to most Americans, it is largely unintelligible, sounding like a lot of irrational moralistic rantings. What makes your column so attractive to readers is your ability to cut through the language, and present the Church you love in a manner accessible to all, bringing into question the issues raised through the failures of language.

Most Catholics, though, do not share your clear use of language, but prefer the ability to use their beliefs to justify their pre-existing political leanings. We need to move on, and engage with American society, rather than critique from afar. The strength of the modern Evangelical movement is its ability to make religion relevant to everyday life, using language accessible to all. Despite my many qualms about the movement, its clarity is admirable, and a big part of what keeps it relevant in the American conversation.

Contrary to the condemnations of "modern culture" I am tired of hearing from the pulpit, it is time for the Church to become a part of it again.
Maureen Farrell
11 years 10 months ago
How lucky I was to have Father Kavanaugh as a teacher at Saint Louis University (as Maureen McGinn) and how delighted I am to have the opportunity as a new subscriber to America to become reacquainted with his voice, which not only rings with the clarity commented upon by previous posters, but with compassion. I am hopeful for the future of the Church because all people long for God and God's response to unceasing. I am now raising three tiny children and their thirst for the divine and tendancy toward clear-eyed faith is inspiring. They hate it when I want to watch Meet the Press or Morning Joe, but today at Mass they tried to sing along to the hymns even though they didn't know the words. We have much reason to be hopeful as a Church, notwithstanding the challenges we face. 
11 years 10 months ago
Excellent article...so easily said...too difficult to do?

For all Christians to be followers of Jesus, I believe, is the ideal for which we yearn.

Imagine a world or even a country or possibly a state or a city or a parish
(sound like someone negotiating with God?) where the Word was lived for
one year...or a month...or a day....

Imagine a church consistently calling for such behavior
11 years 10 months ago
"What We Must Face" by John F. Kavanaugh, S.J. is the best article to appear in America for a very long time.  I was beginning to regret that I'd renewed my subscription...now I'm passing this article along to all my family and friends intent upon renewal in our church.  Keep up this good work and God bless JFKavanaugh.
Lisa Weber
11 years 10 months ago
Has anyone noticed that the institutional church has no feminine side?  No leadership structure exists among the women - how are we to develop a feminine voice within the Church without a leadership structure?  And if we did develop a leadership structure, the Church has no place to receive anything developed by women because there is no dialogue between women and the clergy.

Talk of ordination for women is only a distractor from the fact that women have yet to develop enough sense of self to be able to talk about what we want from the Church, and what we have to offer the Church other than menial labor and money.  When the two feminine models for Catholic women are overworked mothers and nuns, maybe it looks like the Church has nothing to offer women but servitude.
Barbara DeCoursey Roy
11 years 10 months ago
The campaign to reach the third largest relgious group of ex-Catholics appeals to nostalgia rather than address the elephant in the room:  the paternalism, sexism, and homophobia that
undermine the credibility of the leadership of the church.  Church leaders have become managers focused on power and control, rather than modeling the behavior of Christ, who scandalized his culture when he ate with "sinners" and healed on the sabbath.   Many ex-Catholics  know that to be catholic means to be all-embracing, to appreciate all sources of revelation as paths to truth. We have an obligation to form a right conscience as adults, and know that we will be judged not by our sins, but by how our actions witness to the impartial and boundless compassion of God. The church seems to have adopted a fortress mentality where the leadership protects the followers from the corruptions of "secular" culture.  My Jesuit Catholic education taught me to find God in all things.

The latest from america

As the United States marks the 35th World AIDS Day on Dec. 1, domestic politics threaten the future of one of the nation's most successful global health initiatives, which is credited with keeping millions of people alive.
Michael J. O’LoughlinNovember 29, 2023
We can easily be discouraged during these difficult times in our world. Yet, Saint Paul reminds us that in God’s plan, we are compelled to express the joy of the Gospel in our daily lives.
Pope FrancisNovember 29, 2023
A Reflection for Wednesday of the Thirty-Fourth Week in Ordinary Time, by Christine Lenahan
Christine LenahanNovember 29, 2023
In 2012, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith declared that 'Just Love,' by Margaret Farley, R.S.M., could not be used in Catholic classrooms. It was a different era in the church.
James T. KeaneNovember 28, 2023