"Dear Father in Heaven: If you're up there and you can hear me, show me the way. I'm at the end of my rope. Show me the way, God."
That was George Bailey's prayer as he sat at Martini's Bar in the holiday movie classic, "It's a Wonderful Life."
I can relate.
Like George Bailey all those years ago, this summer I found myself in the middle of a personal crisis of my own. The Catholic Church -- my church -- had lost its mind.
The Vatican ordered a crackdown on the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the largest organization of nuns in the United States.
Apparently, dedicating their lives to caring for the sick and helping the poor wasn't enough. The Vatican accused them of promoting "radical feminist" ideas and demanded that they crank up the volume on opposing abortion and gay marriage. In short, the Vatican wanted to see less help and more hate.
Then, in a move that seemed to be ripped from the headlines of The Onion, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took aim at the Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. Among other infractions, the bishops had learned that the Girl Scouts had approved projects that would donate money to Doctors without Borders and OxFam.
And because those organizations have stances that are contrary to the Church's on issues like birth control, the bishops did what they do best: They launched an inquisition into the internal goings-on at the 100-year-old organization whose mission is to build "girls of courage, confidence, and character."
The Church's backwards and outdated policies relating to women in particular and equality in general were nothing new; but its singular focus on these issues coupled with its demand that everyone else do the exact same thing was. So much for free will.
The Church had become paranoid and delusional to the point where everyone and everything was a potential threat -- even little girls selling cookies.
It occurred to me that this must be what it's like to be married to a drug addict. Your life is a living hell, and your husband is out of control. He constantly makes an ass of himself. You try to defend him. You explain away or cover up his bizarre behavior. You remember the person he used to be and the good times you had. You hang in there hoping that things will get better, but they only get worse. Then you wonder, what if he never gets better? And what about the kids?
I am used to disagreeing with the Church on issues revolving around the theme of equality. After all, the last time the Church made any progress in this area was in 1992 when it took the baby step of allowing girls to be altar servers. I have waited (not exactly patiently or quietly -- but I have waited, nonetheless) while the Church treads water, clinging to all the good the Church has done in the area of social justice as my personal life preserver.
But the new bumper crop of high profile Catholics like Paul Ryan and Rick Santorum have punched a hole in my life preserver with policy proposals that completely forsake the poor. And the assaults on the nuns and the Girl Scouts prove that the Church isn't dog paddling anymore; it's doing the backstroke so fast that even Michael Phelps would be impressed.
I was foundering. What I considered the heart and soul of my church was gone, and I didn't like what was left. Could I really raise my daughter in a Church that was so firmly committed to being on the wrong side of so many no-brainer issues?
I didn't know what to do. So, like George Bailey, I prayed. And like George Bailey, God sent me an angel, too. Only mine wasn't named Clarence. Mine was named Melinda Gates.
I learned that through her foundation, Gates had launched a program to provide contraceptives to 120 million of the world's poorest women by the year 2020. And because Gates is both a public figure and a practicing Catholic, she immediately began taking heat for her efforts. Catholics questioned how she could support birth control; and supporters of birth control questioned how she could be Catholic.
Gates answered these questions with unwavering commitment to both. "Part of what I do with the [Gates] Foundation comes from that incredible social justice I had growing up and belief that all lives ... are of equal value."
That's my kind of Catholicism.
When questioned about the conflict between her foundation's work and the Church's position on contraception, Gates answered, "We're not going to agree about everything, but that's OK." How refreshingly reasonable.
Regarding the scathing criticism she's received from some Catholic bloggers, Gates responded that she will not shrink from her role as an advocate for poor women. Gates' brand of strong is definitely the new sexy.
I had found a new personal patron saint of Catholicism. Despite all the chatter and the push-back, Gates continues to put one foot in front of the other. If she is willing to lead the way, the least I can do is follow.
But the big question that remains is this: Where are we all going, anyway?
My sister used to say, "I'm a Kennedy Catholic," when people were surprised to find out that she was both a Democrat and a Catholic. The distinction between Democrats' and Republicans' respective brands of Catholicism has only gotten more pronounced in recent years, with social justice liberals filling the pews on the left side of the Church and conservative crusaders occupying the right. These days it's hard to believe we worship the same God, let alone practice the same religion.
For decades I prayed that the Catholic Church would evolve, but not anymore. Now I'm holding out for a schism, instead. We'll be the Social Justice Catholic Church and they can be the Conservative Catholic Church.
We'll take Melinda Gates, Stephen Colbert, all of the Kennedys, Justice Sonia Sotomayor, John Kerry and, yes (because we have a sense of humor), even Joe Biden. Oh, and for edgy vibe, we'll take Jack White. The Conservative Catholics can have Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Paul Ryan and Justice Antonin Scalia.
In the Social Justice Catholic Church, there will be no more of this nonsense over contraception. Once we've put that non-issue to rest, we'll be freed up to tackle other non-issues, too -- like marriage and gender equality.
In the Social Justice Catholic Church, everyone will be treated equally -- men, women, gay or straight. And everyone will be allowed to marry, even priests. And speaking of priests, no one will be disqualified from being one based on gender or sexual orientation. Priest shortage? What priest shortage?
So, what makes the Social Justice Catholic Church different from any other inclusive and reasonable church, like the Unitarian Church, for example? Two thousand years' worth of rituals and a treasure trove of accessories, that's what. We're keeping all of the cool incense burners, water-sprinkler thingies, holy days, saints and sacraments. Oh, and the wine. We're definitely keeping the wine.
Now let's talk facilities. I've been to the Vatican, and it's huge. We can divide that thing straight down the middle and still have plenty of room for both groups. The Conservative Catholics can have Pope Benedict, but I call dibs on John Paul II's crypt. I know JP Deuce made some mistakes (papal infallibility notwithstanding), but I liked him. I guess you could say he had me at (Polish trade union) solidarity.
And as long as we're dividing things up, I guess we're going to need separate quarters in heaven, too. Clarence Thomas doesn't say much and that makes him easy enough to tune out, but there's no way I'm spending eternity listening to Sean Hannity.
I may not live to see the day when everyone is treated with basic human dignity and enjoys access to modern medicine here on earth. But after the schism, at least I can take comfort knowing that's what awaits me in Social Justice Catholic heaven.
And with marriage equality and contraception flowing freely, I'm betting Jesus, his 12 "go-to" guys and his home girl Mary Magdalene will all be there, too. With that guest list, you know the dinner parties in Social Justice Catholic Heaven will be as fabulous as they are endless -- with bottomless glasses of wine and a place at the table for everyone.