Only 5 Million “Real” Catholics in the U.S.?

When, in January, the Obama administration mandated free contraceptive coverage as part of the Affordable Care Act, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) responded ferociously. In his rejection of the administration’s mandate, the president of the USCCB, now-Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, declared, “The Obama Administration has now drawn an unprecedented line in the sand.”

I’ve been thinking lately about a Catholic line in the sand, but it’s not the one announced by Cardinal Dolan. For me, and, I suspect, for a lot of educated Catholics like me, the line in the sand is the “doctrinal assessment” issued in April by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith against the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the umbrella organization for 80% of US Catholic sisters. The assessment accuses the LCWR of grave doctrinal problems, radical feminism, and spending too much time on justice and peace. As a result, for the next five years, a conservative archbishop will control whatever the group does.

In the outpouring of protests that followed the Vatican statement, one message comes through clearly: for the vast majority of us, the sisters embody the Catholic faith. They taught it to us, they model it, they press on when others give up. They were the first and bravest embodiment of the Second Vatican Council, marching in Selma, working in the ghetto, forming activist groups to fight for justice and peace. Mess with them, our sisters, and you mess with us. As Mary Hunt wrote here on RD (and as Times columnist Nicholas Kristof repeated), We Are All Nuns

It’s not as if there haven’t been other events over the years that have constituted a line in the sand for some American Catholics—Pope Paul VI’s 1968 condemnation of artificial contraception despite the recommendations of a papal-appointed commission; the 1976 refusal to ordain women because they lack male equipment; John Paul II’s condemnation of the liberation theology that inspired many to oppose the oppression of the poor.

But lately the behavior of the Vatican and the USCCB seems just plain over the top. First there was the “new translation” of the Roman missal—ugly, wordy, Latinized, inaccurate—a ritual assault on the liturgical renewal at the heart of Vatican II. Then there was the USCCB’s attack on the work of the moderate Catholic feminist theologian, Sister Elizabeth Johnson. Next came the bishops’ “religious freedom” attack on Barack Obama in an election year when the other candidates promise to eviscerate the social safety net. And now the Vatican is going after the sisters. The pollsters had better gear up, because the number of Americans identifying with—and funding—the institutional church is definitely at risk.

My only concern with highlighting this line in the sand is that it may be exactly what the bishops and the Vatican have in mind. There is some disagreement over whether Pope Benedict ever actually called for a “smaller, purer church.” But there can be little doubt that this is exactly what many conservative Catholics are hoping for. At a conference in San Francisco a few years back, a priest-theologian assured me that there are only five million real Catholics in the United States.

Maybe the Vatican’s attack on the LCWR is part of an effort to cut back to a smaller, purer, American church. But as I said to that priest in San Francisco, sixty million seems like a lot of Catholics to dismiss.

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