LOW-INFORMATION CATHOLICS AND THE POTENTIAL REPUBLICANIZATION OF THE CHURCH
Today's New York Times profiles Father Roger J. Landry, a priest in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who unabashedly promotes the Church's anti-contraception message:
This is a priest who believes official Catholic teaching about contraception, and who is not afraid to say so....
He gives his parishioners the stiff, 80-proof doctrine....
Father Landry gets his message across in several ways. First, he talks to engaged couples about their plans for a family. To facilitate that conversation, he gives them a questionnaire.
"The last question," Father Landry said, "is always 'Are you planning to have children? Are you planning to start right away after you're married?' The vast majority of couples answer, 'Yes, we definitely want to have children, but we want to wait two or three years.'"
The priest asks if they are aware of church teaching about contraception. "Shockingly, 50 percent of the couples that I prepare for marriage have never heard that the church teaches about contraception," he said.
We talk about low-information voters, but these people are low-information Catholics -- how do they not know this about their church? Do they also not know how their church feels about stem cells and in vitro fertilization and masturbation and, for that matter, abortion? Do they know their priests molested boys and were protected by a Church cover-up? Have these people been living under rocks?
My first reaction to this is, "Well, when people who don't know this find out, they'll feel really alienated." And maybe that's true -- but Father Landry can apparently claim some success. The Times reporter sees him connecting with his parishioners:
It was last Sunday morning, and the Rev. Roger J. Landry, whose accent is from working-class Lowell, Mass., but whose college degree is from nearby Harvard, had just finished officiating at the 8:30 Mass at St. Anthony of Padua, his church in this old whaling town. After his fiery sermon attacking the Obama administration, several people in the pews applauded -- a sound striking for its echoes in the cavernous, awesome church, and for its rarity. One does not applaud in Mass.
And he says he's getting through on a one-on-one basis, although he's only citing the successes, not the failures:
As a priest, Father Landry has tried, gently, to lead couples away from contraception. "I know from their having told me that many of the couples here have stopped contracepting," Father Landry said. "In terms of the numbers, it's probably between 15 and 20 couples who have explicitly told me that."
The reporter sees a response that's, um, mixed:
After Mass, during the coffee hour in the church basement, parishioners expressed a range of views on the pastor's teachings.
One couple with grown children agreed that if they had benefited from Father Landry's teachings years ago, they would have had more children. "We definitely would not have used contraception," the wife said, "not if we had it to do over again."
An older woman with white hair, sitting near the doughnuts being sold for $1, appeared to disagree. "Don't get me started on him," she said, rolling her eyes when asked about Father Landry’s teachings on contraception.
Oh, I love that woman. I grew up surrounded by Catholics like that -- people who were mostly moderate on values issues, because they were assimilationist.
If priests like Father Landry become the rule rather than the exception, and really do egin to connect, I'm going to miss the moderate old Catholics. The Church seems to want to become like the evangelical Protestant churches, or like the Republican Party: a group that demands a stern, to-the-death commitment to right-wing zealotry, and if you don't like it, the door's that way. That older woman is the Catholic equivalent of a Gerald Ford Republican. And that's all we need, isn't it? Another institution that wants to drive its moderates to extinction? And that works the followers who remain into a group-solidarity lather by puhing extreme views that aren't subject to compromise?