My wife and I are what most people call conservative Catholics. Both of us were born in 1961 and grew up in Philadelphia during the years after Vatican II. Our parents and teachers were enthusiastic about the changes that began with the Council, especially the new liturgy. But both her folks and mine always followed the Church’s teaching about marriage and the family. They regarded the permissiveness of the 1960s and ’70s as a plague to be resisted and tried to bring up their children as if the sexual revolution had never occurred. In short, we are conservative Catholics in the sense that we think what the pope says is right, but not like those people who seem unhappy even with many of the changes the popes have approved.
After we completed our education, we married and moved to this small city. We have three children: Mary Pat, in third grade; George, ready for kindergarten; and Betty, just two. In general, we have done well here and are very happy, but there is one big problem. Our local parish, the only Catholic church here, has gone downhill since we arrived. When the old pastor died five years ago and the new priest came, he began making changes. Right from the start he has done a number of very strange things.
He often substitutes readings from contemporary sources for the epistles and gospels, and his homilies often include ideas at odds with what we know is the Church’s teaching. He never hears confessions but occasionally has a penance service at which he gives absolution to everyone at the same time. When Mary Pat was preparing for first Communion and the religious education teacher did nothing to prepare her for confession, we did it ourselves and asked Father to hear her confession. He refused, saying children her age cannot commit sins, and confession is not necessary anyway, because God forgives sins as soon as a person feels sorry. Shortly after he came, he set up a liturgy committee. With its support, he began giving us hosts that seem more like cookies, and made various other changes, including a lot of little things, such as saying “The Lord is with us” instead of “The Lord be with you,” but also more important changes. For instance, at the consecration, instead of saying, “this is my body” and “this is the cup of my blood” he sometimes said, “this is the sacrament of my body” and “this is the sacrament of my blood.”
When the new pastor set up a pre-Cana program and asked for volunteers, we volunteered and tried to work with him on it. It was difficult. The first few meetings seemed to both my wife and me to be missing a lot about marriage, since he said nothing about its being indissoluble or being a sacrament. But things really went bad when he got to sex. The material he provided described all sorts of ways of trying to make it more enjoyable and then went on to discuss all the methods of contraception, including sterilization, and the pros and cons of each. “Rhythm” was treated along with the rest, as a way of preventing conception by limiting intercourse to infertile periods, but there was no information about how to identify those periods. The pastor said that, while the Church’s official teaching frowns on all the other methods, most couples need a more reliable method and find the abstinence required by rhythm too frustrating, so they exercise their right to follow their own consciences and choose some other method. After that class, we had a long talk with Father, which ended in a shouting match between him and me, with my wife standing by and crying.
That was all bad enough but then we had the trouble about Mary Pat’s preparation for first Communion, and a number of similar problems with the religious education teacher. Neighbors of ours with children in the higher grades also had problems. Around Easter, the teacher told the children in one class that it did not really matter if Jesus’ remains were still in a grave somewhere in Israel. The same teacher’s sex education classes upset a good many parents, because she clearly told the children that masturbation, premarital sex, and homosexual behavior “generally are no big deal” (that is, usually should not be regarded as seriously wrong).
We and those other parents have tried to discuss these problems with the pastor and the religious education teacher. We tried not once or a few times, but many times over the past five years. We always have been told something like: “I am the pastor, and it is up to me to decide about these things. I am sorry that I cannot please everybody. You are just too conservative.” Or: “I am in charge of religious education, and have a master’s degree in it. The program here follows the latest and best approaches. You should not try to interfere by telling your children something different from what I am teaching them.” The pastor and teacher always support each other.
As a result of these rebuffs, most people, some more or less willingly and others reluctantly, gave up and went along with the pastor, though a few apparently gave up on the Church altogether. We and a few other couples wrote to the bishop and finally had a meeting with him. On the whole, he did not seem surprised by the things we complained of and did not deny they had been going on, though he did say he found it hard to believe Father was changing the words of the consecration. He would not discuss whether any of the other things was a serious abuse, but only said it was not our place to pass judgment. He talked about the shortage of priests and the difficulty he has in trying to care for so many parishes. He said there are too many divisions among Catholics and the most important thing we need to keep in mind is to be charitable and not divisive. When we kept pressing him, he became irritated and told us it was time to go, but as we were leaving he apologized and promised to talk with the pastor. That was well over a year ago, and, apart from the fact that the pastor no longer changes the words of consecration, nothing has changed for the better. Six months after seeing the bishop, we wrote a letter to the Apostolic Nuncio in Washington, telling him everything that had happened. We got an acknowledgment, but that was all.
If there were another, good Catholic parish nearby, we would go there instead. But the nearest place is thirty miles away, and it seems to share some of the same problems, though the priest uses regular hosts for Communion and also will hear confessions when asked. There is a better parish, a little over fifty miles away. Right here in town, though, there is a small Greek Orthodox parish. Out of curiosity, we went there and found that the liturgy, which they also do in English, is very much like ours, except that it is carried out with great devotion. The people chant much of the Mass and the pastor gives excellent homilies. They also have religious education for their children. We looked into the materials, and they seem very sound. In fact, some are published by Catholic publishers. Talking to the priest about the problems at our church, he told us we would be welcome to come to Mass and Communion there.
We know the Greek Orthodox Church is not yet in full union with the pope. But we were told when we were studying Vatican II that Catholics sometimes may participate in its worship. Would it be all right for us to join the Orthodox parish and send our children there for religious education?
The first question is whether Catholics whose parish no longer provides essential services may join a Greek Orthodox parish. The answer is no. To join that parish would be to separate themselves from the Catholic Church. The next question is: What should these Catholics do? They should either move elsewhere or travel as often as possible to a Catholic parish where the sacraments are both available and celebrated properly, and they should obtain or themselves provide sound religious instruction for their children. Still, under specified conditions, Catholics may participate in the liturgy at an Orthodox church, receive holy Communion at such a liturgy, and receive the sacraments of penance and anointing from an Orthodox priest.
The many abuses you describe gravely violate the rights of the faithful. I sympathize with you for all you have suffered and commend you for the way you have tried to deal with the situation. But even though your motives for wishing to join the Greek Orthodox parish are good, you ought not to do it.
While the Orthodox churches are not completely separated from the Catholic Church and in most ways remain united with her in belief and practice, the bishops of the Orthodox churches are not in communion with the pope and they do not agree with certain essential Catholic teachings. To join the Orthodox parish would be to commit yourself to that church’s division from the pope and the bishops in communion with him; it also would be to embrace its distinctive teachings and reject the authority of the ecumenical councils, including Vatican II, in which the Orthodox did not participate. You may not do that. The pope is the principle of union with Jesus and among the members of his body, the Church, because the pope is the successor of Peter, appointed for just this reason. Moreover, as faithful Catholics, you believe what the Catholic Church believes, and not even the least central of her beliefs can be given up without giving up Catholic faith itself (see q. 2, above). When bad conditions in the Church cause problems for faithful Catholics, they must remain faithful, for they cannot abandon communion with the pope or any truth of Catholic faith to solve their problems.
How then should you proceed to fulfill, as best you can, your responsibilities to participate in the life of the Church and to hand on your faith to your children?
Assuming all you have said about your parish is true, I do not think you should participate in it. The sacraments certainly are not being celebrated properly—and perhaps not even validly. Moreover, the so-called religious education is far more likely to hurt your children than help them. As things are, you have no obligation to support the parish. Of course, if a couple wish to marry, they must go to the bishop of the diocese or the pastor of a parish in which one of the parties (or, in a mixed marriage, the Catholic party) lives (see CIC, c. 1108, §1). But apart from marriages and a possible duty to help others deal with the problems your parish presents, you and other faithful Catholics in the parish may proceed in your religious activities and the formation of your children much as you would if the parish were not there, unless and until it is straightened out.
You might consider moving to a place where it would be possible for you to fulfill your religious responsibilities fully and easily. That probably would require considerable sacrifices, but you should be ready to sacrifice for this purpose. At the same time, you should take into account that moving where the situation seems more favorable may not permanently solve your problem, since the pastor there could be replaced and that parish could deteriorate just as your present parish has. Moreover, you should not overlook the service you may be able to perform by helping others cope with the bad situation where you are.
If you judge that you cannot or should not move, receiving the sacraments remains very important. Making a sixty-mile or one-hundred-mile round trip at least on Sundays may be a hardship, but many people regularly travel that far for less important purposes and, considering what is at stake, you should make the trip as often as you can. When you cannot, though you must not join the Orthodox church, you may participate in its eucharistic liturgy on Sundays or holydays of obligation so as not to miss Mass (see LCL, 157). What about holy Communion and the sacrament of penance? Since the Orthodox priest agrees, you may on occasion receive if you otherwise would be deprived of Communion for what you judge too long a time; if truly necessary, you also may receive the sacraments of penance and anointing from the Orthodox priest (see CIC, c. 844, §2). Still, you must be on guard against the temptation to embrace Orthodoxy and be unfaithful to the Catholic Church.
You and others who are aware of the grave problems with your parish should work together to form a Catholic community in your area. Do not organize it in competition with the parish, but simply as a help to the prayer life of the families involved and to the religious formation of their children. Meet regularly to read passages from Scripture and discuss them. Pray together. The rosary and other prayers accessible to children are appropriate for families and groups including young children. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours requires neither a cleric to lead nor the bishop’s permission; you should consider doing this when possible, especially as community prayer for adults and older children (see CMP, 799–800).
If you sent your children to the Orthodox parish for religious education, they would be formed as Orthodox Christians, and you would be cooperating with the defects as well as with the values of that formation. Therefore, you and other Catholic parents should, if possible, obtain sound religious education for your children at one of the parishes you mention. If necessary, you should set up your own religious education program for your children, making sure it is well organized and dividing the work. Doing this with adequate care may require much time and effort, but you should be ready to make considerable sacrifices for the religious formation of your children, since it is both very important and your primary responsibility. You should be careful to use only sound materials; those doing the teaching should use the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a resource for themselves.
When the pastor realizes what you and others are doing, he very likely will accuse the group of being divisive and perhaps even claim it is schismatic. Having taken care to provide no basis for such charges, do not be intimidated by them. You and the others should avoid falling into negativism and bitterness. Do not attack the local pastor or the bishop, and pray for them. Pray, too, for changes for the better in both the parish and the diocese, and be ready to resume normal participation in the parish if that becomes appropriate.
Keep the faith and spread it. Catholic lay people lacking the services of priests have done this before, sometimes over many decades. In 1783, a Korean went to China on business and was baptized a Catholic; he returned home and spread the faith. A Chinese Catholic priest who slipped into Korea in 1794 found four thousand Catholics—and none of them had ever even seen a priest! During its entire first century, the Catholic community in Korea was persecuted severely and had few priests, yet it survived and grew. Though we have not yet experienced the hardships those Catholics suffered, we should pray for the light and strength to imitate them.45
45. See New Catholic Encyclopedia, 8:254–55. Today, in many nations where the Church has been long established, many Catholic families face problems similar to those described in this question, though usually less serious. Not all the advice offered in this response will apply to them. In many cases, however, they will be justified in looking for and joining a sound Catholic parish, especially when doing so is necessary for the religious formation of their children.