Ask A Catholic: The Church Isn’t Meeting My Needs. Should I Leave?

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What questions do you have about Catholicism? Submit them online, or fill out the form below. 

By Mitch Finley

I was raised and still identify as a Catholic. How do I reconcile the paternalism inherent in the Church? I have issues with the systemic racism as well, but I believe this will be challenged (as it was in Spokane) if the paternalism is honestly addressed. The Church is not meeting my needs now, and it is a loss that saddens me.  Thank you.

Thank you for your question. I certainly understand your sadness, and I’m grateful for your willingness to discuss the issue you raise.

I presume that by “paternalism” you mean the insistence of church leaders that the church cannot ordain women priests. You also may mean the inclination of some clergy to “talk down” to the laity. Your concern is an honest one that many Catholics share. However, “inherent” it is not.  A dictionary definition of inherent: “existing in something as a permanent or essential attribute.” Fact is, paternalism is far from being “permanent” or “essential” to the Catholic Church. It remains only until the church, meaning all Catholics, decides to change it. It’s not going to happen overnight, but change it will if and when it’s God’s will. However, leaving the church rather than sticking around to help it change helps change happen not at all. Fortunately, sociological studies suggest that while many Americans are “inactive Catholics” more choose to remain active in the church than choose to leave the church behind.

Many of today’s adults grew up in a church that presented itself as more-or-less perfect, and countless Catholics accepted this as true. So in later years, when the church’s flaws became perfectly evident, more than a few felt they had no choice but to give up on being Catholic. “How can I stay with a paternalistic church that refuses to ordain women as priests?” “Who can remain Catholic in the face of so many pedophile priests?” “I can’t be Catholic when some bishops allow priests who abuse children to remain active in parishes.”

The late priest-sociologist Father Andrew Greeley once wrote: “If you can find a perfect church go ahead and join it; but as soon as you do it won’t be perfect anymore.” It’s understandable that some people choose to leave the Catholic Church because of faults, failures, weaknesses and sins they see there.  Some, such as victims of clergy sex abuse and their families, are so hurt, bitter and disappointed that I certainly will not judge or condemn them for going elsewhere. At the same time, there are more than a few such folks who find the courage and humility to remain.  

Sometimes it’s easy to overlook that while some aspects of the institutional church are far from perfect it’s also true that I, myself, am far from perfect.  Who am I to condemn and abandon the institutional Catholic Church for not measuring up to my ideals when I’m far from measuring up to the ideals I claim to believe in myself? As long as the church is made up of imperfect human beings it’s going to be an imperfect church—imperfect like I am imperfect, sinful like I am sinful.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to find reasons to give up on the Catholic Church. But it’s easy, too, to find reasons to not give up on it. You might want to make a list of all the reasons you can think of to abandon Catholicism. Then make a list of all the reasons you can think of to remain Catholic. You may find that the reasons to stay carry more weight than the reasons to leave.  

Church leaders and inflexible ways of thinking in the church sometimes disappoint and anger me a good deal. But then I remember that there is nothing that can replace the sacraments, especially the “everyday sacraments” of the Mass and Reconciliation (Confession). Sure, I’d like to see women and married men ordained as priests. And maybe someday they will be.  At the same time, I’m willing to admit that I could be wrong.  Believing, even really, really believing that something is so doesn’t make it so.  And me leaving the church accomplishes nothing. If I do that all it may reveal is how arrogant and self-righteous I am.  

I really, really believe that the Holy Spirit is in charge of the church, not me, and not even me and all the other people who agree with me. Changes will happen when the Holy Spirit wants them to happen, not when I think they should happen. In the meantime, the sacraments remain, the scriptures remain, and the Catholic community of sinful, imperfect believers remains.  This is where I belong, and this is where I will stay until my dying day.

Finally, I wrote a whole book on this topic. The title: “It’s Not the Same Without You: Coming Home To the Catholic Church.”  You can find it here.

About Mitch Finley

Mitch Finley is the author of 30+ books on Roman Catholic theological topics and spirituality, all written to appeal to both non-academic and academic readers. Mitch holds a B.A. in Religious Studies from Santa Clara University and an M.A. in Theology from Marquette University. He and Kathy Finley have been married since 1974 and are the parents of three grown sons. To learn more visit mitchandkathyfinley.com.

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