Clericalism and the Catholic Refugee


November 16, 2016

Among the many stories buried in the avalanche of political news in the weeks prior to Election Day was a minor brouhaha in Santa Fe, N.M., where a parish priest had the temerity to encourage his flock to vote pro-life.

“We have to insist that any of our representatives (whether Democrat, Republican or Third Party) will be advocates for the unborn child and thus Pro-Life,” the priest wrote in an October 19 letter to parishioners. “I challenge you to take a look at the voting records of your national and local legislators on the issue of Life. Where do they stand?”

The response from the bishop, captured in a statement the following week, is telling: “It is certainly true that no Catholic should ever intend an intrinsic evil. However, assuming that is not one’s intention, there are many considerations that must be weighed in determining which candidate will ultimately do the most to promote the sanctity of human life and the common good. These considerations are complex, nuanced and contextual, demanding serious study in light of sound Catholic principles.”

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One can be allowed to wonder whether some of our bishops understand the frustrations our laity have at times. We want and need leadership from shepherds who speak clearly and act decisively, with strong backbones and firm feet.

It reminds me of a time, a few years back, when a Texas bishop refused to celebrate Mass for a local Catholic home schooling association kicking off its school year. The reason provided? It would “convey a contradictory message equating the importance of Catholic school education with Catholic home schooling.” I am sure similar anecdotes abound.

The fact is, there has been a lot of distrust—not of the Church per-se, but of some of those who help run the Church, especially at the local level. It is a distrust that is often justified and well-documented.

As I write these words, I’m not thinking of those who disagree with Church doctrine, whether on the “left” or the “right.” I’m leaving out of consideration both those progressives who want the Church to alter course and allow women priests and contraception, for example, and those who are traditionalists to the point of schism or, worse, sedevacantism. Rather, I’m talking about the thousands of faithful lay followers of the Church who have grown weary of parishes and schools that abuse the liturgy, teach error and undermine what’s taught in the home.

These families and individuals are Catholic refugees, although they should not be. It’s a refugee status with at least three areas that help define them—three areas the institutional Church can learn from. Correspondingly, there are three ways to win them back.

First, consider where these Catholics are worshipping. They often are not registered parishioners, or might belong to a parish that is not necessarily their territorial parish. They may have chosen to either formally change rites to one of the non-Latin Catholic rites, or seek out parishes or oratories erected for the celebration of the Latin Mass in the extraordinary form. Alternately, they may attend a regular parish outside their neighborhood, where the parish life and liturgy are more welcome.

In the St. Louis Archdiocese, for example, the percentage of Catholics who are registered in their territorial parish has dropped from 92 percent in 1959 to 63 percent in 2015. Some of this has to do with greater flexibility in Canon Law, the 1983 reform of which took a more lenient position.

To a certain extent, the permanency of pastors in a parish—often serving well over a decade in one location—helps create parishes that vary widely in practice, and can stamp the liturgical life of the parish with the imprint of one priest’s personality and preferences. Numerous stories abound of pastors not allowing their associates to do certain things that are liturgically allowed—just as bishops have sometimes been seen placing onerous regulations on the liturgical life of their dioceses.

Next, look at where these Catholics are educating their children. They are choosing private Catholic schools or home school programs, rather than the parish school—and these options are growing. Here’s one example: In 1995, the National Association of Private Catholic and Independent Schools (NAPCIS) was founded with four members. A little over 20 years later, NAPCIS represents 81 schools in 34 states, and was formed, in part, to assist in the guarantee of the right of parents to choose an education for their children in accordance with their religious faith.

A second organization to help schools also has a short history—and a more specific mission. The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education works to recover and adapt the classical liberal arts tradition as the best foundation for a full flowering of Catholic education at all levels. It maintains a list of 86 schools that are committed to classical education or the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Finally, look at where they get their news and information on Church matters. With the Internet and the explosion in social media, there are so many sources of information available. Even before the Internet, there was a powerful media source started by a humble nun that did what the “official Church” could not do—build a national television network.

In his 2005 book on Mother Angelica and the establishment of EWTN, Raymond Arroyo outlines the many roadblocks EWTN faced—roadblocks often erected needlessly by Church officials. One example cited was the attempt to create a national television network, CTNA, in the 1980s, and the way the bishops wanted EWTN to partner with it, even though it was a failing enterprise.

“Many bishops interviewed blamed CTNA’s overly broad programming for its failure and demise,” Arroyo writes. “As early as 1983, Catholics in Rhode island and elsewhere began protesting CTNA’s programming, convinced it presented a mix of ‘modernism and liberal politics’ injurious to the faith.”

A second factor has been the rise of social media, which has given Catholics the ability to get so much more news and information from a Catholic angle, whether orthodox or heterodox—but it comes at a cost: Catholics relying on social media need strong filters to sift truth from falsity.

What can our Church leaders do for these disaffected-yet-faithful families? The answer is simple, but simple is not always easy.

  • Proclaim the truth clearly and thoroughly in media and make it accessible to more people. It’s great to see some independent but orthodox outlets, but it’s often error-ridden media outlets that are promoted in chanceries and parishes.
  • Allow a diversity of educational styles in the dioceses that respects home-schoolers and classical pedagogy, making it affordable through simple stewardship models. A classical magnet school with flexible enrollment to appeal to home-school families would be a good start for every diocese.
  • Finally, ensure that parish life honors the right of all Catholics to a liturgy free from error and focused on the Eucharist. Give parishioners a strong ombudsman in the chancery for issues they may have in their parishes when it comes to the liturgy.

Catholics are called to be one body, and imposing refugee status on faithful individuals and families—those Catholics the Church most needs to survive and thrive—is the wrong approach.

Editor’s note: Pictured above are Jewish refugee children from Germany and Austria arrive at Liverpool Street Station in London at the start of World War II, July 5, 1939. (Photo credit: Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive)


  • K. E. Colombini

    K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and ten grandchildren.

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