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Catholics angry, but not about to leave the church

Published Sep. 2, 2005

Bob Dugan, Roman Catholic, says he is no fan of his local diocesan leadership or, for that matter, of Pope John Paul II. He dreams of a Catholic church in which priests can marry and have children, women can be ordained as priests and gays can feel welcome without question. He also is beside himself with anger and sorrow over the recent revelations of sexual abuse that have so rocked the church he loves.

That is right: Dugan might be a dissident, but he loves his church and would never dream of leaving his faith. Doing so, he says, would be like denying that he is of Irish-Slovakian heritage or that he lives in Liverpool, N.Y., just outside Syracuse. His faith, he said, is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and not what he calls the manmade rules of the church's political hierarchy. He will continue to serve as a lector at St. Joseph the Worker parish, he said, while working for change through his involvement in Call to Action, a progressive Catholic organization.

"If a family can't get together and discuss its differences, then it's dysfunctional," Dugan, 68, said as he sat in the office of the brokerage firm in Syracuse he owns. "And that's what this is all about: It's dysfunction."

As Dugan suggests, the crisis within the U.S. Catholic church resembles an anguished argument among troubled relatives, none of whom is ready to disown the family. This shared anger _ distressing, yes, but deal-breaking, no _ surfaced in discussions last week with people from across the country and from different points along the Catholic spectrum: left, center and right; lay, clerical and academic. Those interviews suggest that most U.S. Catholics have no intention of leaving their religion.

Many see the chance for institutional changes, although there is fierce disagreement on what those changes should be. Many also continue to draw distinctions between their faith, and the pronouncements and practices of their church leaders.

"Because it's a family, Catholics around the country won't give up on it very easily," said R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame. "There will be outrage and embarrassment and anger, but the church is often referred to as Holy Mother Church. And you might get angry with your mother, but it's your mother."

That kind of anger was palpable in the basement of St. Ignatius Church in Baltimore last Sunday, where parishioners gathered for coffee after the 10:15 Mass. Upstairs, the cross and statuary had been wrapped in the mournful purple of the Lenten season, the music had been stirring, and the liturgy had focused on the story of Lazarus. Downstairs, the talk was of scandal and faith.

"It's a problem that needs addressing, but in no way is it an issue that separates a believer from God," said Mary Hoff, a pastoral counselor. Dr. Paul McHugh, the retired chairman of Johns Hopkins University's psychiatry department, agreed, dismissing as "ridiculous" any suggestion that the scandal might temper his faith.

"What did surprise me was the response of the world out there: that they somehow thought Catholics wouldn't be infuriated by this and do their best to stop it," McHugh said. "I mean, I grew up in a little Catholic ghetto up in Massachusetts back in the '30s. If there'd been anything like that there, there would've been broken heads amongst the priests."

Of course, it did happen in Massachusetts. A growing number of Catholics in that state are calling for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law after disclosures in the Boston Globe that the archdiocese of Boston had moved a priest, accused of being a child molester, from parish to parish. That priest, since defrocked, is serving a prison sentence for abusing a 10-year-old boy, and Law has apologized and given local prosecutors the names of dozens of priests who at some point have been accused of sexual abuse.

Beyond the laity, the revelations have shaken the priesthood to its core. The Rev. Francis McGauley, an associate pastor at St. Ignatius who spent 31 years as a Jesuit missionary in India, said that he found himself becoming topical during a recent church service while thinking about Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. Given the news of the day, he said, he told his congregation that he felt like "weeping over Boston."

"I feel sad," said McGauley, 79, sitting in a small chapel on a rainy Sunday after all the parishioners had left. "I feel sad for the church. I feel sad for the people."

"Maybe," he said, "God is trying to say something to us."

The Boston scandal and similar revelations in dioceses around the country have renewed the debate about the church's adherence to an all-male, all-celibate priesthood, and have provided a wide-open opportunity for those who advocate a greater role for the laity.

From the progressive wing of the church, there are those like Dugan, who said Law's resignation would "make my heart jump for joy," because it might loosen the hierarchy's grip on the church, allowing for a more vital role for the laity.

"He has an obligation as a priest, as a pastor, to do what is right: resign," Dugan said. "Because he wasn't true to himself as a priest, and he wasn't true as the leader of the archdiocese. Look at what he's done to the image of the priesthood in Boston."

Meanwhile, from the more conservative wing of the church, there seems to be, at best, muted support for Law and the hierarchy. "Normally, after being on television and being quoted in the press, I would get a certain amount of reaction from conservative Catholics blasting me and criticizing me: How dare I criticize the good cardinal?" said the Rev. Richard McBrien, a liberal theologian at Notre Dame University. "And that group is in silence. They're in stunned silence."

Silence does not come naturally to William Donohue, who as president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights often makes the news with his accusations of anti-Catholic bias in movies, television and the news media. Regarding the church hierarchy's handling of sexual abuse in the priesthood, he said: "I am not the church's water boy. I am not here to defend the indefensible."

Donohue said that while progressive Catholics were seizing the moment to push for changes, conservative Catholics were just as angry with the church hierarchy "for dereliction of duty."

"The real question is, "You knew about it, and what did you do about it?' " he said. "I think it takes courage, and that's the problem here."