Blame Lazy Catholicism for School Closings

If the Church allowed women to be priests, the pews would be as full as mosques are right now.

The message from headquarters was sent to field agents worldwide: “This is your mission, if you choose to accept it. Take one of the most powerful institutions in the history of mankind and change it so radically—in all the wrong ways—that in the span of 50 years, it will be a shell of its former self, relegated to a backwater shaped only by the sad ghosts of the past.”

Was this a Mission Impossible communiqué sent at the height of the Cold War to implode the Soviet Union? Or a message pertaining to another mammoth entity: the Roman Catholic Church? There is one critical difference. The Soviets fell due to outside forces. The Church, while admittedly having its fair share of outside “attackers,” is falling from within, and most of its decline is entirely of its own making.

The above message could well have come from St. Peter’s Basilica in 1965. The “field agents?” Cardinals, bishops and priests. The objective: Implement Vatican II.

The result? Disaster.

In the tumultuous 1960s, the world was on fire as secularism and moral relativism were in vogue. Rather than standing its ground and fighting those undesirable concepts, the Church went in the opposite direction. In effect, Vatican II allowed Catholics to be “Catholic” in pretty much any way they wanted, playing right into the hands of the Woodstock culture. That carte-blanche decree served as a launching point for the now-dominant “do whatever you want to do and whatever makes you feel good without remorse” mentality.

In an instant, the things that made Roman Catholicism the world’s dominant force vanished. To many, the “rock” upon which St. Peter built the Church no longer seemed solid, but more “flexible.”

Some Church officials, to be sure, disagreed with the new direction, but they were powerless to stop it. Not only were they forced to follow orders, but in a much more practical sense, they were no longer able to hold their flock accountable when the Church abandoned many of the tenets that made it so attractive in the first place.

When a political party strives to become a very large “tent,” trying to be all things to all people rather than affirming its platform—what it stands for—it eventually becomes impotent. It’s one thing for a position to evolve as circumstances change, so long as the basic belief structure isn’t irreparably compromised as to make the original tenets unrecognizable. When that occurs—and both U.S. political parties are guilty of it—no one is pleased, and people abandon the organization.

Has a football team ever won a championship when the coach told his players to practice in “whatever way made them feel good”? Has a team ever been successful after making mandatory team meetings optional? And how long will a team remain a cohesive unit if players simply ignore the coach’s play-calling and do their own thing?

Morale and pride mean everything in building a successful team or institution, but they can only exist when sacrifice and dedication is demanded of the individuals who make up that entity. The only part of JFK’s inaugural address that people remember was when he demanded greatness of Americans by asking “what you can do for your country.”

The Church lost those things when it stopped demanding greatness from its rank and file, instead letting folks off the hook by making things “easier.” Holy Day of Obligation falls on a Saturday or Monday? You don’t have to go to church that day; we’ll just make Sunday mass count for both. Want to wear cut-off shorts, sports jerseys and flip-flops to church? No problem. Fasting from meat on Fridays get in the way of ordering sausage on your pizza? The hell with it. Just do it. We’ll eliminate that rule, too.

The list goes on and on, and the more the Church gave in, the more people stopped going to mass, and yes, the more parents stopped sending their children to Catholic schools. Since the Church took away the essence of Catholic identity—the very point of being a proud Roman Catholic—what was the point of doing either?

And now, several generations later, the carnage is everywhere.

Mosques are full, as are many evangelical churches, and the Catholic churches are empty.

And in those evangelical churches, a significant percentage of the congregation is former Catholics who left the Church not because it was too “hard,” but because it stopped demanding.

Vocations are nonexistent; elderly out-of-touch priests have no replacements; schools are being shuttered at a staggering rate that goes way beyond this latest round of closings; and scandal and corruption are rampant with no end in sight; more billion-dollar settlements loom.

And worst of all, the cover-ups continue, serving for many as the final nail in the coffin. Why go to church to listen to a long-winded uninsprational sermon about “morality” when your Church leaders actively stonewall investigations and protect society’s absolute worst—child predators?

So what does the Church do?

Despite all that baggage, the Church has fast-tracked Pope John Paul II to sainthood—faster than anyone else in history. This was a man who either was asleep at the switch during the height of the sex-abuse sandal, or chose to look the other way. He could have aggressively rooted out the perpetrators with a take-no-prisoners attitude, sending an unmistakable message that the Church won’t tolerate pedophiles filling its ranks, regardless of the dearth of priests. But he didn’t.

And recently, the Church rolled out language changes in the liturgy that are ridiculous and inexplicable. Was it just another example of how out-of-touch the Church has become, or a deliberate distraction, as some theorize?

Either way, it doesn’t matter.

Until the Church implements real reforms that will start the road to recovery, the numbers will continue to dwindle.

What are they?

For starters, demand more of its followers. Don’t cower behind the “if I demand that people dress better for Church, they won’t come at all” mentality. Make them look presentable and act appropriately when entering the House of God—or tell them they aren’t welcome.

Motivate the flock by relating to them, not talking in platitudes with rhetoric that puts the congregation to sleep.

Make it tougher to be a Catholic. Be the religious equivalent of the Marines. Sure, a kid taking the forbidden cookie wants it, but deep down, he is really looking for discipline. And sure, we complain when we have to sacrifice, but we feel good about it.

Market the wonderful aspects of the Church (including the fact that it’s the largest provider of social services in the entire world).

Stop being a paper tiger politically. What’s the point of having so much muscle if you’re too scared to use it? A different approach could have prevented school closings. (See my post for more on this tomorrow.)

Most important, eliminate the correct perception that the Church is close-minded and sexist. Allow priests to marry. And yes, allow women to become priests. Not only would these common-sense changes enable all priest to better relate to their flocks, but they would also attract non-pedophile priests to fill the ranks.

Neither change would violate Church dogma, since priests married for at least four centuries and quite possibly much longer. The practice was stopped not for religious reasons, but because of disputes over property rights.

In 1911, there were 68,000 Catholic school students in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. That number peaked in the 1960s at 250,000. Vatican II took hold, and the number plummeted— back to 68,000 in 2011, despite a U.S. population explosion.

Now, 49 more schools just went on the chopping block. The biggest irony is that the closings are not a solution, but the symptom of a much greater illness. To save the remaining schools—and that’s by no means a sure thing—the Church needs to solve the problem. Check back tomorrow for my post addressing how to save Catholic education in America.