Choosing the Right to Choose
John J. Dunphy
(Originally published in Secular Humanist Bulletin 24:2 (Summer 2008).
If one had been born a Catholic, one died a Catholic. There was no escaping Holy Mother Church. Even someone who hadn’t attended Sunday Mass for decades was still regarded as a Catholic by his or her relatives and friends. Such a person wasn’t an ex-Catholic, merely a non-practicing Catholic. Even joining a Protestant church, either out of genuine conviction or merely to please one’s Protestant spouse, didn’t sever the bond with Roman Catholicism. Such a person was called a renegade Catholic. The Catholic Church was like some monstrous octopus and there was no escaping its tentacles.
Ellen Goodman got it right in a March 2008 column dealing with Americans exercising freedom of choice in deciding which religion or Christian denomination best suits them. For her grandparents, she wrote, “Religion was part of your identity, if not your DNA. You were born into it, grew up in it and died with its prayers.”
Well, no more!
Earlier this year, a survey conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life revealed that 28 percent of the 35,000 Americans who were interviewed had left the religion of their family of origin. This figure includes people who had abandoned religion entirely or converted to a different religion — for example, a Christian who became a Buddhist. In addition, 16 percent of those queried had left the Christian denomination in which they were raised for another Christian denomination.
The Roman Catholic Church lost more members than any other denomination or faith tradition. While nearly one in three Americans were raised Catholic, fewer than one in four remains in that church. This means that approximately 10 percent of all Americans are now former Catholics.
Before Benedict XVI panics and sends a coterie of missionaries to stem this hemorrhage of the faithful, let us reassure the Panzer Pope that the influx of Latin-American immigrants has served to prevent the Catholic numbers from going into freefall. Almost half of all Roman Catholics in the United States under thirty are Hispanic, according to the survey.
I remember when the Roman Catholic Church should have been called the Irish Catholic Church, since both the lower clergy and hierarchy in much of the United States were dominated by men of Irish descent. One could assume, without risking political incorrectness, that just about anyone with an Irish, Italian, or Polish surname was Catholic. As Goodman would surely agree, such Americans were born into Catholicism, educated in its parochial schools, married in it, raised their many children in it, and duly died in it after receiving the sacrament of Extreme Unction.
One born into that kind of Catholicism was never afforded the right to choose whether to remain Catholic. We were indoctrinated to believe in hell as a horrendously real place of eternal fiery torment and that the Roman Catholic Church was the one true church. The only possible way to avoid the former was to remain obedient to the latter.
You’ll note that I wrote “the only possible way.” Since the Catholic Church was the one, true church, our priests and nuns taught us that it was the only sure path to heaven. Non-Catholics could slip through the Pearly Gates only if they were “invincibly ignorant” of Catholic teaching. In practical terms, this meant that all intelligent non-Catholics earned a one-way ticket to hell, while dumber-than-dirt non-Catholics at least had an outside chance of rubbing shoulders with Catholics in heaven. As a Catholic schoolboy with a B or better average, I sometimes wondered whether I would be able to find enough common ground with these nincompoops to hold an intelligent conversation.
While all of us were denied freedom to choose our religion, a disturbing number of us were denied even the right to choose our careers. The Catholic Church today blames a variety of secular boogeymen for the decline in vocations. I contend that empty seminaries and convents are largely the result of Catholic parents no longer forcibly sending their sons and daughters to those institutions.
Many young Catholics in years past didn’t choose to become priests and nuns. Their devout parents made the decision for them. The Catholic chaplain at the university I attended confided in me and others that he had never wanted to wear a clerical collar. His father “sacrificed him to God,” as he put it, and told him at a young age that he was going to be a priest. Years later, when his parents were safely in the grave, this chaplain left the priesthood and married. His case was by no means unique.
It was even more tragic for girls whose parents condemned them to become nuns. I recently talked with a woman who recalled a relative whose parents sought Brownie points with God and the Catholic Church by sending her to a convent. The order specialized in almost nonstop prayer, at the expense of sufficient sleep needed to maintain health. When the girl suffered a nervous breakdown and was shipped home, her parents shortly sent her off to yet another order of nuns that practiced less grueling physical mortification.
The repugnance of the Catholic Church regarding virtually any degree of freedom of choice was granted legitimacy by the Syllabus of Errors, a document issued by Pope Pius IX in 1864. Among the “errors” condemned in this remarkable edict are: “in the present day, it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion in the state; Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion; the Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church;” and “every man is free to embrace and profess that religion which, guided by reason, he shall consider true.”
Pius IX presided over the First Vatican Council in 1870, which proclaimed the doctrine of papal infallibility. Just a year later, Pius IX referred to Jews as dogs in a speech, an unconscionable slur that even the most devout Catholics should regard as decidedly fallible. Nonetheless, Pope John Paul II declared Pius IX venerable on July 6, 1985, and beatified him on September 3, 2000. Catholic liturgical calendars note that the feast day of Pius IX is February 7.
Liberal Catholics have long found the Syllabus of Errors an embarrassment and either try to minimize its significance or suggest that it was abrogated by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. How they must have cringed when Benedict XVI, on July 10, 2007, approved a document affirming that Jesus Christ “established here on earth only one church.” Other denominations, the document declared, are merely “communities” and should not be regarded as actual churches. The Roman Catholic Church is still the only sure path to salvation. Upon learning of this document, many Protestants were hard-pressed to observe Paul’s injunction to “be ye angry, and sin not, let not the sun go down upon your wrath.”
Benedict XVI possesses a genuine gift for alienating other theists. Just days earlier, he had joyfully revived the old Tridentine Mass that includes the prayer, “Let us pray also for the perfidious Jews: that our God and Lord may remove the veil from their hearts; that they also may acknowledge our Lord Jesus Christ…that they acknowledge the light of Thy truth, which is Christ, they may be delivered from their darkness.” Jews the world over were understandably outraged.
Humanists and liberal theists hope that those Catholics who still buy into this claptrap will someday be delivered from their darkness. If the results of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life survey are accurate, I believe there is good reason to be optimistic. An increasing number of American Catholics are beginning to think for themselves and leave the Church of No Choice.
- John J. Dunphy’s latest book is “Unsung Heroes of the Dachau Trials,” which includes interviews with veterans of the U.S. Army’s 7708 War Crimes Group.