On more than one occasion, my elderly aunt has told me that my grandfather—from the mountain town of Castelmezzano, Italy—held the church in utter contempt. So as to maintain its absolute hegemony in village affairs big and small, he felt church leaders intentionally and aggressively kept the populace blissfully ignorant of so many things. His posture was at odds with my very pious grandmother, who recited the rosary every single day of her life.
I always found it interesting that my aunt—a God-fearing, faithful church-goer—recounted this tale of her father’s independence, and penchant to tell it like it is, with genuine pride. I suspect that my grandfather was really on to something. Okay, times have changed. I don't call home an impoverished enclave in the rocky Dolomiti Lucane during World War I and the depths of the Spanish flu. In the present-day Information Age, it’s rather more difficult to choreograph and enforce such blanket ignorance, but, in the big picture, the church would obviously prefer you didn’t think for yourself in matters of faith. It's the nature of the beast.
Recently, I encountered still another story of the Catholic Church’s hemorrhaging flock, and its miserable track record of connecting with younger people. This is a familiar tune that I’ve been hearing since boyhoood. And, for the record, I attended Catholic institutions from grammar school through college, and have no qualms about the quality of the education I received, nor did I ever feel a heavy hand of religious indoctrination. But church doctrine, standing all by its lonesome, doesn’t exactly pass the smell test.
Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx, which I attended thirty years ago, annually held what were called "Parish Days." On these set-aside afternoons, priests from the various parishes throughout the borough would meet with their teenage parishioners at the school. They were always advertised as freewheeling give-and-takes—a chance for us to pose questions to our parish priests and, hopefully, develop a rapport with them. Let's just say they never lived up to their billings. My Kingsbridge parish's monsignor assumed the job as ringleader one year. And a student posed this question to the young priest who had tagged along with him: “How come you always stop kids from leaving Mass right after Holy Communion, but not the adults?” Visibly rattled, he replied, “I can’t answer that.” The monsignor quickly stepped in to rescue his hapless underling. “I can,” the always-stern and generally unpleasant church elder said. He explained that it was a matter of maturity. We weren’t yet old enough to make such an important decision.
Herein lies the enlightening case in point. If a priest can't handle a softball question, I doubt very much he could tackle a tough one. Some years later in a different setting, another priest from the parish was asked, “Why does God permit so much suffering?” His response was not far removed from this: “He allows other people to suffer so you can appreciate how good you have it.” Come on, fellas, if you want more business, you’ve got to do better than this.