WALKING AWAY FROM THE CHURCH I LOVED
By Katie Breslin
September 05, 2018
It was with a pit in my stomach that I opened the grand jury findings from the case against 300 priests in Pennsylvania for child abuse. I scrolled to the section that said Dioceses of Scranton and found a list of the names of priests in the grand jury report. My heart sank lower when I saw letterhead from the church where I was baptized. The grand jury investigation identified 59 priests in the Diocese of Scranton alone in this report. While these revelations were painful, they weren’t shocking – just a continued feeling of disappointment in an institution that had been a big part of my childhood.
Like many others in the anthracite coal region, the Catholic Church was the cornerstone of my upbringing. From the beautiful churches located all over the region to the rich history of Catholic diversity that shaped the region. It’s hard to think about regional history without acknowledging the role the Catholic churches in the area had in building community for newcomers journeying there in search of opportunity. Some of my best childhood memories have to do with potato pancakes and homemade pierogis at church bazaars. I’ve seen firsthand how the Catholic Church in the region helped feed and clothe the most vulnerable in our area. This call to be kind and serve others is what led me into a career advocating for public policies in line with my social justice values.
I was 12 years old when the Boston Globe released the story about a massive sex abuse scandal in that city. Though young, I remembering feelings a sense of powerlessness around safety and accountability for what happened. That scandal certainly shaped my view of Church leadership and their priorities. I became determined to help lift the voices of everyday Catholics to influence the direction of the Church.
I started my career working with lay Catholics – in a direct service setting, in grassroots organizing around public policy, and later in church reform work advocating for reproductive freedom and access to ordination for all regardless of their gender. I feel closest to God when I am working with people from a faith perspective. Whether that was preparing an activist to speak about abortion rights from a Catholic standpoint or praying the rosary with a group of Catholics for immigration reform, it is during these moments that I feel like God is calling me to my purpose of serving others and speaking out for justice.
One of the last masses I attended included a sermon about how women’s ordination was like weeds in a garden. The priest lectured that women priests in the church sounded like a good idea because we value equality but in reality it was the devil trying to grow divides in our faith. As I walked out of mass that day I wondered why God would tolerate that type of hatred of women in this place. I questioned why God would allow Catholic Church leadership to fire teachers for being gay. I leaned into the spiritual trauma I had felt for years because I – and others I love – were different. This priest thought that we were weeds but in reality, many of the reformers who I’ve worked with and love are fertilizing the ground so that some who would be turned off by the idea of religion overall could still see themselves in community with God. I began to feel the weight of the Catholic Church’s sins every time I would mention that I identified as a person of faith. I started to second guess my faith in these times – but it wasn’t God that I had lost faith in, it was the leadership of the Catholic Church.
Some of the bravest people I know are still in this struggle for a Catholic Church that reflects their values of equality and justice – and their call for this work is from the divine. There’s a reality settling in about the future of the Catholic Church in the United States: most of us are probably never coming back. Our reasons vary, from lack of accountability for when priests have abused children to the realization that we could live queer lives that still involve God without shame. We know of course that many who leave the Church also leave religion all together. The Catholic Church is losing incredible young leaders because of who they are prioritizing. Church leadership needs to re-center the experiences of lay people and understand how our call to seek justice in this world is part of our responsibility as people of faith. From a young age I felt a calling to work towards making the world a better place. … If they don’t, then we’ll see people continuing to move away from God, never learning the core values the Church seeks to teach, because the church itself failed to live up to what it values. The Catholic Church may have lost this daughter – but as long as God is there, God will find a home for their children.