With depressing regularity, the men who run the Catholic Church do something that reminds me of why I'm part of the fastest growing religion in the country: Raised Catholic.
You know the type. Someone asks us what our religion is, and we act like you've stumped us on a game show. "Well," we explain, "I was raised Catholic, but ..."
The reasons for the "but" are many, and the archbishop of Denver just handed us another: He kicked two little girls out of Catholic school because they are being raised by a lesbian couple.
It's the kind of move that leaves me shaking my head and muttering, "There they go again." That's not because I expect Church leaders to bless homosexual marriages; it's that those leaders don't see the connection between such oafish rulings and their empty pews.
For years, huge numbers of American Catholics have been fleeing to other religions or drifting into the category of "lapsed Catholics," who remain technically on the team but don't show up to practice. A report in 2008 by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that "Catholicism has experienced the greatest net losses as a result of affiliation changes. While nearly one-in-three Americans (31%) were raised in the Catholic faith, today fewer than one-in-four (24%) describe themselves as Catholic."
The fact that a child like me could lapse as an adult illustrates the decline. My Irish-American father was a former seminarian and my mother a convert (from Baptist), meaning that my childhood home on Long Island was the most Catholic on the block: pictures of popes and Kennedys on the walls, religious icons among the beer mugs on the shelves, adherence to fish-on-Friday-like obligations. I was proud to serve as an altar boy, am grateful for my Catholic education (elementary school through college) and have only fond memories of priests and nuns.
But the Church has this way of putting distance between itself and its followers. It seems to always be looking for a reason to push us away.
We all know how it starts, for everyone from comedians to sociologists has riffed on the conflicts that commonly drive young Catholics from the Church: mass and sex. While most religions hold some type of service, the Catholic Church stands out for turning its services into spiritless rituals that we drag ourselves to only to quell our parents' harangues. And while religions are supposed to guide their teen members about sexual behavior, the zero-tolerance, "you'll be condemned to Hell" commands from the celibate priests and nuns eventually come off as ignorant and comical. Sex is the first area where we practice Catholicism a la carte, choosing what rules to follow and ignore while claiming that we are still Catholic.
For most of us, however, these rifts weren't fatal; of course kids balk at the requirements and restrictions of their family's religion. The problem is that even after you become an adult, the Church keeps treating you like a child.
For example: Our oldest daughter's Catholic grade school required that all parents attend church. How did it know if we didn't? It kept tabs by seeing who handed in their weekly donation envelopes at Mass.
We attended sporadically. On days when we didn't, I would drive to church and drop my envelope in an idle collection basket -- and thinking how ridiculous it was that I belong to a church that takes attendance on its adults.
A friend of ours wasn't so lucky. A priest summoned him and his wife to a church office one day to explain why he wasn't attending Mass. Isn't being free from such tsk-tsking one of the benefits of graduating from school?
Speaking of Mass: The nuns taught us that the highlight was receiving holy communion. But my wife and I aren't allowed to, because she's divorced from her first husband -- a description that fits countless Catholics, rendering us less than fully accepted participants in the Catholic rites.
In explaining this rule to a group of parents one day, our priest said we must still attend Mass, to set an example for our children. (Unmentioned to us sinners: Please bring your envelopes.)
Such personal affronts are compounded by the Church slamming its heavy hand on us en masse: condemning movies for offending Christianity, and telling Catholics not to vote for certain candidates because of their stance on issues (most often abortion). In 2008, a priest banned Catholic legal scholar Douglas W. Kmiec from a Mass because Kmiec had endorsed Barack Obama for president. (Obama is pro-choice.)
Great; now the 66 million Americans who elected our president can't go to Mass.
The Denver decision is another offense. In a recent letter, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput declared that the girls -- a preschooler and a kindergartener -- won't be allowed to re-enroll in their Catholic school this fall because "sexual intimacy by anyone outside marriage is wrong," as is same-sex marriage. He argued that the school could not stick to its moral guns, so to speak, when the students include openly gay parents.
I have no problem with the Church not recognizing the gay couple raising these girls and not wanting them to show up at parents' night holding hands. The Church is supposed to define its standards of morality.
But here we have a couple that, despite their sins in the eyes of the Church, want their daughters to be raised in the Catholic faith. Isn't that good for the Church, which is bleeding adherents? The nuns who taught me that Jesus came to save wayward sheep must have missed the footnote about lesbian ewes.
I wish the higher-ups could educate these girls without thinking about what methods the two women back at home use to trigger their orgasms. Their decision to the contrary smells of an obsession with homosexuality.
If that's not what this is about, then the Catholic Church should apply this Denver principle to others who violate its sexual doctrines. Do America's Catholic schools harbor any children whose parents had sex before marriage? Who use birth control? Who encourage their older children to use birth control? Who got divorced and remarried, or who married a divorced person?
Ban all their children. Then the bishops can sell the vacant schools to pay off the judgments in lawsuits by people who were molested by priests.