Last week, a highly respected columnist for the Washington Post, E.J. Dionne, defended his loyalty to his church against the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s call for all liberal and nominal Catholics to leave it. Foundation supporters should think carefully about Mr. Dionne’s response to them.
It is certainly appropriate to label E.J. Dionne as a liberal Catholic. But “loyal dissenter” is a more apt characterization. Many of his negative words to the FFRF are devastatingly critical of the very church he loves, most especially its bishops. He decries their public statements that “threaten to shrink the church into a narrow, conservative sect.”
These are just the kind of words that a truly loyal Catholic would and should utter. Why? Because they convey belief in change more powerfully than they suggest its impossibility.
The stated mission of the Freedom From Religion Foundation is to protect separation of state and church and to educate the public about alternative views to theism. Its anti-Catholic broadside seems to me neither protective nor educational. The First Amendment is non-establishmentarian with respect to religion, but it also guarantees freedom of religious expression, including the freedom to belong to churches that other people don’t like.
Knowing something about nontheistic outlooks is important both to understanding and appreciating what is involved in adopting a theistic one. But claiming to know already that the world would be better off without theism — and maybe even without theists — is a colossal act of begging the question. The “new atheists” have been doing this for years now.
Most people I know, who have either left a church or are considering leaving one, feel more anguish than certitude about doing the right thing. Things are not as clear for them as they seem to be for Mr. Dionne and for the FFRF.
Is there any way to know for sure if and when it may be time to move out and on? Probably not. But there are at least two clear indicators that the question has not been answered satisfactorily. One is still being mad at the church one has left. The other is staying in a church and not feeling at peace with the stuff still going on it. Dwelling in unsettledness, whether inside or outside a church, usually proves more helpful that opting for decisiveness too soon.