Media-chasing is like ambulance-chasing and today they chased protesters to Notre Dame where Barack Obama is giving the traditional President's send-off to U-ND graduates. The protesters would not protest Newt Gingrich or Rush Limbaugh despite their adulterous life styles being the antithesis of Catholic teaching. Into this fray, the media tossed a popular priest with a girlfriend in Florida. A question was raised by columnist David Gibson, "Who Is a Real Catholic?" in today's Washington Post.
Protestant churches face the same tired old tug-of-war question, too, but unique issues face American Catholics - assimilation, rejection, Vatican authority, faith vs church, converts and religious politics. All of these issues have been playing a role in most Catholic families for over 60 years.
Take an average Catholic family as an example. Since 1935 Catholic parents raised an average of 6 kids, but only 3 would remain practicing Catholics as adults. 5 had 2 children each and 1 had 6 children for an average of 2.67 each. 14 of their 16 children were raised Catholic, but only 2 remained Catholics. Of 22 total potential Catholics, only 5 remain to support the church - all within 2 generations. Assuming each of the 17 ex-Catholics would have given an average of $100 per month, the economic loss to the church is over $20,400 per year - or $204,000 within 10 years. A major drop in Catholic birth rates has the same impact.
The National Council of Churches 2008 statistical report lists the Roman Catholic Church as the largest Christian group in the United States with over 67 million registered members (next largest: Southern Baptist Convention with ~ 16 million members). If a MILLION Catholic families declined by an average of 17 members in 2 generations, the economic loss to the church is $20.4 billion PER YEAR or $204 BILLION in 10 years. If that were true of 10 million Catholic families, the church would lose $204 billion per year, or $2.4 TRILLION WITHIN 10 YEARS.
Now consider that 20 million Catholic families have 17 fewer children within 2 generations. An equal number of converts or increased giving would be needed to make up an economic loss of $4.8 TRILLION. Compare church losses with our federal deficits and understanding begins to dawn as to why the Vatican continues to oppose using contraceptives to prevent pregnancy.
Introduction of the birth control pill in 1964 began unraveling Vatican authority. Mom advised me to use the pill shortly before my 2nd child was born and shocked me since birth control was prohibited by the church. Drawing herself up as tall as her short frame would allow, Mom said, "If men could have babies, the Pope would make it a sacrament at Mass!" She went on about priests and bishops have no idea what it's like to be pregnant, give birth and then feed, clothe and educate children. She was very aware as the oldest of 8 children raised on a farm during the Great Depression, and felt strongly about the heavy burdens large families placed on women. Her final point was simple - my children depended on me not to have any more than I could take care of. Her approval of birth control was more powerful than the Pope!
Bishops control the money & power of the Roman Catholic authoritarian hierarchy, but it is the Catholic women who sustain the faith and future of the church. Since Vatican II, Bishops split over participation of laity - especially by women. Conservative bishops remain opposed to women's involvement other than cleaning, cooking and secretarial functions. Not surprisingly, those same bishops that are rabidly pro-life as it pertains to pre-birth, remain largely unmoved by post-birth life issues such as the lives of 500,000 children in foster care across our nation who are looked after by our government - not the church.
Religious communities have been pushing bishops to look at broader life issues, including sustainability of the earth. These Catholic religious communities have been catalysts for changes in the church historically, along with St. Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine and the Jesuits, but the nuns did the hard work. They opened schools & hospitals to benefit poor and middle class people. As WSJ reporter John Fialco wrote in "Sisters: Catholic Nuns and the Making of America," it was women, nuns in particular, who extended the Catholic faith in America, establishing and operating over 800 hospitals and 10,000 schools plus a multitude of other charities for the poor. Now their numbers are dwindling amid huge issues about their independence from Vatican authority - a traditional tug-of-war for many of the nuns' communities.
To answer the question - the majority of Catholics are good, kind, caring people, who simply want to believe in the teachings of Jesus, help the poor, pray and attend Mass as a matter of faith in a higher power. If the last election is an indication, many came to realize that funding health coverage for low-income children and support for pregnant women is must more effective in reducing the number of abortions - more so than a staged protest.
Most Catholics don't take to the streets in righteous protests even when they agree with the protesters. It's enough for them to face reality that they're paying the claims for abuses, sexual and financial, by some priests and a few bishops, which now total almost $500 million so far... enough for a $1000 scholarship for each child coming out of foster care.
David Gibson is the author of "The Coming Catholic Church: How the Faithful are Shaping a New American Catholicism" and "The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World."