THE BLOG

A Catholic Leader Calls for Church Reform

01/18/2013 10:15 am ET | Updated Mar 20, 2013

For the most devoted Catholics, the recent holiday season was a time to reflect more fervently on spiritual endeavors, a time celebrate their faith in its fullest terms.

For many, however, Christmas marked the first time they attended Mass in months. Some cite a growing personal conflict with Church practices as reason for abandoning a regular Mass-going schedule; remaining Catholic in name, yet disagreeing with the Church on certain principals, such as abortion, birth control or gay rights.

"Cafeteria Catholics," some call us (yes, I count include myself in this group) -- namely, those among the clergy and laity who consider dissent from Church beliefs unforgivable -- referring to the "picking and choosing" aspect of this religious lifestyle. It's not a complement.

But Brother Louis DeThomasis, FSC, author of "Flying in the Face of Tradition" (released in 2012), has decided to turn the term on its head.

"They're the cafeteria Catholics," he says to me, during an interview about his book, of the ultra-conservative individuals not willing to recognize that the Church has changed. "You've got to fight them on their own terms. They're not seeing Vatican II as legitimate. The windows that Vatican II opened are being closed."

This is far from the most radical thing that De Thomasis states in his incredibly frank assessment of the modern-day Catholic Church, which is sure to anger many who view these traditional beliefs as unchangeable.

To others (like me) his book is a crucial -- and refreshing -- step in the right direction.

DeThomasis, even considering his position as a De LaSalle Brother, is willing to speak out against what he describes as an increasingly inflexible hierarchy, unwilling to bend or even discuss such issues as the droves of young people fleeing the Catholic Church, the difficult questions surrounding sex abuse scandals or the question of ordaining women priests.

"I look at the way the church is treating women ... in this day and age, come on," he says. "You just cannot give any credence to the fact that women shouldn't be equal to men in all things, including ordination."

In this concise, easily digestible yet thought-provoking 10-chapter book, DeThomasis explores conflict within the Church and the resulting mass exodus of Catholics frustrated with an increasingly unbending hierarchy. There volatile subjects are usually reserved for private conversations, but discussing these matters out loud is now crucial, he says; discussion is, in fact, the Christian thing to do.

He begins, in Chapter One, by asking a question:

Is the institutional church dying? Yes. And even though it may be politic to add "unfortunately," I offer no such qualification. I believe that the death of the institutional church as we all know it can be the last opportunity for it to transform itself into something that once again is able to carry out its original purpose.

That "original purpose" is getting lost in the shuffle of bureaucracy, says DeThomasis. The hierarchy's recent investigation into the practices of American nuns, for example, not only further disgusted modern Catholics disillusioned by their Church; it was as far from Jesus' original message as you can get.

"I contend they're not doing things in a business sense correctly, they're not doing things in an organizational sense correctly, but most importantly, they're not doing things in a Christian sense," he says in his interview with me. "You looked at Jesus' life -- he bucked the authorities, he called them hypocrites."

While he adds that there are certainly Church leaders who do not fall into this category, and who are doing wonderful deeds, he remarks that the result of a distant, all-powerful and unbending hierarchy is an inevitably disillusioned laity. DeThomasis, who served for 24 years as president and professor at Saint Mary's University of Minnesota, says this attitude is particularly -- although not exclusively -- prevalent among young Catholics.

"I was immersed with Catholic young people," he says. "Each year it just got worse and worse with the young people not understanding what the hierarchy were saying. It was like speaking a foreign language."

Yet in the face of what seem like insurmountable hurdles, DeThomasis sees the impetus for positive change.

A synopsis on his book jacket states that he doesn't write out of "any malice or mean-spiritedness but rather with a sense of urgency and love."

And he tells me that he is optimistic. In talking to DeThomasis -- who is funny, warm and most of all, passionate -- I too feel optimistic about the state of a church that, yes, I still choose to identify with, despite disagreeing with many of its core principals and decisions. It is the first time in a long time I have felt that way.

He says an important part of the solution is for the disaffected to stay with the Catholic faith, but not to stay silent: "My faith tells me that the Holy Spirit does work. I am convinced by us talking like this, and I hope this would give you incentive to talk to others. There is a tipping point, and these changes are going to start to happen more and more. So yes ... I am hopeful."