Breaking the Catholic Silence

Catholics are taught not to question Church authority, but how can a Catholic stay silent when its leadership advocates policy that counters basic human rights?
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There were two fundamental rules driven home on a daily basis throughout my Catholic education from kindergarten to my senior year of high school, and they were taught either explicitly or through the immersion within Catholic culture. The lessons were straightforward: the Catholic Church is not a democracy, and the authority of the Catholic Church should never be questioned. Oddly enough, in a tight balancing act teetering toward paradox, critical thinking skills were also pushed, making my educational upbringing strangely dynamic. Catholics are never to question, yet my classmates and I were simultaneously taught how to question. An education maneuvering through these potential inconsistencies followed me to college where I eventually earned a Master's degree studying the relationship between Catholicism and public policy, though the earliest theme was never lost on me: as a Catholic, you do not question the Catholic Church.

With the announcement of Pope Benedict's resignation, potential frontrunners to become the next pope have been discussed, such as Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana. Cardinal Turkson made news one year ago at a United Nations summit by defending a proposed anti-gay bill in Uganda, a bill that would include a death penalty for homosexuals, which ultimately earned the bill the nickname the "Kill the Gays" bill. Turkson defended the "Kill the Gays" bill because "just as there's a sense of a call for rights, there's also a call to respect culture, of all kinds of people." The Cardinal's remarks match the legislative goal of the bill, which is to "protect the cherished culture of the people of Uganda."

The fact the Cardinal's defense of the bill begins to wander into cultural relativism - which the Vatican has actually cited as one of the core problems facing the Church -- isn't even really the point. What's alarming is that the potential exists for a man to lead a faith of more than 1 billion followers when that same man has actually defended the death penalty for an entire group of people based on their sexual orientation, all under the guise of "culture." Instead of being defrocked for such an outrageous stance, Cardinal Turkson finds himself in position one year later to be a potential successor to Pope Benedict.

What has happened to the Catholic Church? I attended Catholic schools with Jewish, Muslim, atheist and even LGBT students. One of the atheist students added zest to our discussions during our daily religion class, asking thought-provoking questions our teacher would answer. No one interrupted or judged one of our Muslim students when she would get up to say her prayers during our classes. We even were assigned a group project to give a 45-minute presentation on another major world religion in order to learn about their beliefs and practices. One of my oldest and dearest friends is Mormon, and the majority of the friends I made in college were evangelical Christians. The Catholic environment I was raised in preached Catholic religious dogma but also taught kindness and openness to all people, regardless of faith or background. But the Catholic Church I knew is in the midst of a transformation, surrounding itself with as much pre-Enlightenment era policy and policymakers it can find.

As a Catholic, I have struggled. The Catholic Church has continuously refused roles for women, and the ones they allow have strings attached that more closely resemble nooses. For example, while female altar servers are tolerated, whether or not they are utilized is solely the discretion of the patriarchy of the Church. The Catholic Church has said lack of female involvement isn't related to human rights or politics because being a part of a worship service is a privilege, not a right. And this stance is defended by the worst of excuses. As one Catholic website attempts to explain why altar serving is a boys club, "Preteen boys in particular are very attracted to activities that cater especially for them, and they tend to reject sharing activities with girls." Obviously, sharing has no place in a Christian setting like the Catholic Church.

The sexual abuse scandal has also shaken my faith, as it surely has many other Catholics around the world. Which makes it all the more painful that Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York is also discussed as a potential frontrunner for the papacy. Dolan denied an allegation he paid $20,000 to abusive priests to leave the priesthood rather than report them to authorities, though financial documents ultimately proved his denial to be untruthful. So here Catholics sit, waiting to see whether a Cardinal who paid off abusive priests ascends to the highest earthly perch of the Catholic faith, or a Cardinal who defended the death penalty for homosexuals.

Catholics are taught not to question Church authority, but how can a Catholic stay silent when its leadership advocates policy that counters basic human rights? I was taught to stand up for those who lacked the strength and ability to do so themselves, no matter how powerful and influential the offender. It's with a twisted sense of irony I find myself speaking out against my own Church by following the lessons I learned in the hallways of their educational institutions. And it reminds me of a poem I was taught at my Catholic elementary school about fighting for social justice, one that we were taught to repeat should we find ourselves ridiculed for standing up for what is right. It's titled "Stubborn Ounces."

You say the efforts that I make

Will do no good;

They will never prevail

To tip the hovering scale

Where Justice hangs in balance.

I don't think

I ever thought they would,

But I am prejudiced beyond debate

In favor of my right to choose which side

Shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

Scott Janssen is a policy analyst and holds a Master's degree in political science from Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He can be reached at

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