Do we expect too much from the church, or too little? Readers debate the legacy of John Paul II.

Published April 6, 2005 7:06PM (EDT)

[Read "Why I Can't Mourn the Pope," by Joan Walsh.]

Thanks for publishing Joan Walsh's essay about her mother's break with the Catholic Church. Here are some stories from my own life:

In the early 1980s, the Boston Archdiocese banned that oh-so-Catholic tradition of bingo. My devout grandmother, upset that her weekly social outing had been canceled, wrote a polite letter of protest to Cardinal Law, protector of child molesters. She received a letter telling her to give up her sinful attachment to gambling. She cried for weeks.

My mother, distraught over my father's alcoholism and womanizing, went to her parish priest for comfort. He told her men drink and philander only when their wives are not satisfying them. He said if she were a better wife, he would stop.

As for me, I'm a 30-year-old woman with a heart condition that would make childbirth deadly. Artificial tubes for the vegetative are surely OK, but apparently artificial birth control to save my life is not. I have no place in the pope's culture of life unless I wish to become a nun. I guess one more person alive to adopt an unwanted baby isn't worth making a tiny birth control exception.

I was done with the Catholic Church long ago, and I truly feel that anyone who believes the church will change is a fool. It is a political organization that is far more about power and dogma than the soul or the spirit. And I certainly can't mourn a hypocrite like John Paul II, who excluded me from his mercy.

-- Melissa Marshall

Thank you for balancing out all the laudatory garbage we're seeing on TV and many newspapers about the life and death of John Paul II. As a lapsed (or, as I prefer it, recovering) Catholic, it leaves me deeply angry that so many reporters have rolled over for the Vatican's well-oiled P.R. machine. Young reporters always are told, "Don't tell it, show it"; yet we've been subjected to a parade of talking heads telling us how the pope single-handedly ended communism, promoted ecumenism, and leaped tall buildings in a single bound. Nobody's said how he's done all these things, but that he's done them is taken as received wisdom.

In the end, those of us who left the church saw that John Paul II was never serious about rectifying the things that most bothered us about the faith. He did the easy things, like apologize for historical injustices perpetrated by the church, but avoided the hard things, like apologizing for molestations by priests that happened under his papacy. That also extended to the rules. Unlike my Catholic ancestors, I could eat a hot dog on Friday, but like them, I wasn't supposed to use birth control. Which is the more fundamental issue? Which is more likely to cause someone to leave the church? For all his vaunted modernity, John Paul II's position on that and similarly important issues (priestly celibacy and the role of women in the church, to name just two) made him one of the great minds of the Middle Ages. He never understood that people no longer take particular moral positions just because Father said so.

And considering that he tended to appoint conservative toadies to the church's most important positions, his influence isn't likely to wane anytime soon. Those who haven't left the church will be living with John Paul II's influence for many years. I'm willing to bet many of those will join people like me, who realized that the price of belonging to the club simply wasn't worth the benefits.

-- Tom Pantera

I am very sorry for Ms. Walsh's loss, but it's absurd for her to blame the entire Catholic Church and the pope for the behavior of one priest at one particular point in her mother's life. (Her mother can perhaps be excused for doing the same thing.)

The church is often placed in the classic dilemma of "damned if you do and damned if you don't." Priests who limit their homilies to soothing bromides about love and peace are criticized for ignoring social problems. Those who focus on how Catholics might actively work for (what they view as) a better society are likewise criticized.

Ms. Walsh's mother could have spoken privately with the priest who so upset her and, in all likelihood, found great comfort in it. Since she didn't, there was no way for that individual priest to know that she wasn't getting what she needed from him. Who knows how the church would have evolved over the past 26 years if all the people who have been deeply offended like Ms. Walsh's mother had stayed and spoken out instead of leaving and crying angrily in the privacy of their homes.

-- Rebecca Hartong

If Ms. Walsh is upset with the church of her parents and feels unwelcome, I have two words -- leave it. You might find a more welcome embrace of the living Christ in another denomination such as Methodism, Unitarianism or elsewhere -- there are many limbs to the body of Christ. As for me, there are many things I too disagree with about Roman Catholicism, and there are points of divergence when I consider my homosexual friends, the girlfriends from college who had abortions, the divorcées who don't feel right taking Holy Communion. We all have, as the cliché might say, a "cross to bear," but leave the One Mighty Apostolic and Catholic Church? Never.

I know Ms. Walsh means well with her article, but the church will change as God directs, not when we so desire. Until then such personal lamentations are little more than a window onto someone's mediocrity.

-- Roberto Jose Burnett

Thank you for Joan Walsh's touching portrait of her dying mother's relationship with the church. I too cannot mourn the passing of this pope, because he made it so clear that he did not want to allow for a Catholic Church that might include me and my faith. The headlines about the mourning of the church, splashed across all the major publications for sale at the local store, do not reveal the way the church betrayed the promise of Vatican II, and the hope so many American Catholics once had in their church.

I do not have a religious and spiritual home, thanks to this pope, and I continue to mourn this loss in my life.

-- Anne Murphy

Had Ms. Walsh herself not left the church so early, she might know that sermons are not meant for spiritual comfort as much as for moral instruction. Spiritual comfort comes from your closeness to God, and sin is the obstacle to that closeness. Abortion -- beyond being a political football -- is, in most cases, a sin. My own mother, who died in 1984 (a real DIY in religion and happily unchurched) knew that. In those days I used to argue politics with her all the time and I took the pro-choice stance, but Mom had the gift of recognizing what was important. Innocent life was important.

My mom was a feminist. She worked outside the home most of her adult life. She was a Republican married to a Democrat, and after the 1963 Kentucky gubernatorial election she made a point of never again telling my father the name of the candidate she had voted for. Still I remember their political discussions as some of the highlights -- not the low points -- of their relationship. What used to impress me most about my mother was her solid sense of right and wrong -- that, and the fact that she could spot a humbug a mile off.

She would have liked Pope John Paul II. That man was no humbug. I think that is what is giving liberals fits. What liberal today has such consistency or rock-hard integrity as this pope had? Where is the secular hero who takes the narrow path, who embraces sacrifice -- the politician who ignores the daily winds that blow this way or that? There is none.

Rest in peace, John Paul II. I hope to meet you in heaven. I hope Joan Walsh's mother sees you there, too -- and I trust she likes you a lot better than her daughter does.

-- Billye Higdon

Joan Walsh, I cannot help but feel sorry for you. I feel sorry for other "Catholics" like you who seem to want the church to change to fit our modern times. The problem with that is truth doesn't change. If the basic doctrine of a church can change because the "faithful" are becoming uncomfortable, then the church is weakened. Catholics are a pro-life people. That is all life, all the time, under all circumstances. That means no abortion, no death penalty, no euthanasia -- ever. If you support them, that is a matter for your individual conscience, but that is not who we are and that is not what our Church can ever change to support.

If your mother felt burdened by the concept that being pro-choice sets you against church teaching, then perhaps instead of wanting the church to change, she should have prayed that her pro-choice family would change.

Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. I am proud to have had a leader who knew that, believed that, and stood firm and said that. I mourn his passing. I pray that you find peace, find the truth, and find your way back to the church. Perhaps if you do, someday you may come to appreciate who Pope John Paul II was and what he did. God bless you.

-- Gay Lynn Montgomery

Finally! Someone summons the courage to pen a true portrait of the late pope! I, too, am a Catholic estranged by the church's harsh, doctrinaire positions on abortion, HIV/AIDS, gay marriage, celibacy and women. I think that for all the "good" John Paul II did for the poor of the world, his shameful refusal to sanction condoms in the Third World condemned many, many more to lives of suffering. Thanks to Joan Walsh for sharing her mother's struggle, hers, and ours.

-- Charles Joyce

Walsh should nitpick someone inept, someone who did nothing about anything. That wasn't this pope. While his beliefs about homosexuality were offensive, he didn't play cute with personal and institutional bigotry. While his views about birth control were infuriating, he never equivocated, or worse, incorporated spin into his papacy.

There was much to admire. In his sermons, John Paul II attacked despotism, economic enslavement through debt in the Third World, and the responsibility of Christians to care for people who have nothing -- that is, the poor. He accurately characterized a "ruthless, savage capitalism" sweeping the globe, and undermined key economic myths with statements like "Wealth produces wealth [while] poverty tends to additional poverty."

John Paul's "culture of life" philosophy extended to environmental stewardship and social justice. In his view, life without a chance at life was no life at all. George W. Bush and others have plagiarized this sentiment for political purposes.

Using a mother's health concerns or isolated experiences to insult the pope is unseemly, at best. John Paul II wasn't perfect, but he deserved more than Walsh was willing or able to give.

-- John Guess

Dear Ms. Walsh,

Even in his so-called rigidity, you must admit that this pope was, above all others, a man of peace and a person of great compassion and faith who reached out to people, from heads of state to the most downtrodden. It is tragic that you hold a grudge. Perhaps you can look to his example as a guide for your healing in forgiving him the way he forgave the man who tried to assassinate him. Perhaps you may consider forgiving the church for its failures to you and to your mother. Isn't that the very challenge the Catholic Church presents, apart from the differences in ideology?

-- Greg Matthews

Brava, Ms. Walsh! That was a touching piece that reflected the attitudes of many a lapsed Catholic.

I sympathize with the many Catholics who wish to go to church to hear the tales of a loving God and not the diatribes of an ordained politician. Like many of us who remember the installation of John Paul II, I had hopes that this nontraditional pope could usher the church through changes of a modern world. My disappointment at the church's stances on matters of choice, the role of women, or the protection of our children was painful.

Thank you for sharing. It helps to see that one is not alone in one's disillusion.

-- Andrew Cortez

With all sympathies to the author for the loss of her mother, there seems to be a belief among many people, including a surprising number of Catholics, that the church is somehow obligated to respect opposing viewpoints from its members and to value a diversity of opinions within its ranks.

I think this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Roman Catholic Church, its teachings and structure. Though the church has strived to present a friendlier, more accepting façade, this is still the Catholic Church that considers itself the ultimate arbiter of all questions of doctrine, and the only true gateway to heaven. It is still the same top-down, authoritarian organization it has always been, whose fundamental tenet is the infallibility of its leader. There is very limited room for argument, which is allowed to take place for short periods within a limited framework until a decision is made. From that point on, there can be no debate. The only question that remains is how harshly to deal with dissent, ranging anywhere from indifference to excommunication (excommunication being tantamount to damnation).

Many Catholics probably realize this on some level but refuse to accept it. This view of the church doesn't jibe with a liberal democratic outlook, so they would rather pretend that there really is room for debate and dissent in the ranks. The pope reminded everyone that this is not so.

-- Andrew Teeple

I once heard it said that there are only two types of Catholics -- devout and fallen. Since I definitely class myself with the latter group, Ms. Walsh's letter echoed my deepest issues with the Catholic Church.

When my father left my mother, she turned to her church for guidance as any good Catholic would. Not to beatify my mother, but my father had been having an affair and was completely at fault, refused counseling, and pretty much abandoned her without a look back. The parish priest told my mother that he could offer her no solace as the Catholic Church regarded divorce as a sin. Less than six months later, this same priest was recalled to the diocese as he was dying of AIDS that he had also passed along to three underage male parishioners.

It was this sort of hypocrisy that had driven me from the Church shortly after my confirmation, but I felt a greater betrayal in my mother's treatment. This didn't happen in the '50s or '60s; it was 1989, and like it or not, divorce was a pretty ingrained cultural institution.

Much as I admired the pope for his works of freedom, I resented him for his oppression of a hefty portion of his faithful. The continued revelations of misconduct don't surprise me in the slightest. The Catholic Church has turned a blind eye to reality for an eternity and will continue to do so into the future.

-- Lisa Smith

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------