Obama, Catholics, And Why I Walked Out Of Mass On Sunday

I did something this past Sunday that I’ve never done in my life. I walked out of mass in protest. No, fire and brimstone didn’t descend upon me; my leaving wasn’t followed by the gnashing of teeth.  In fact I’m sure that if anyone noticed they probably thought I was going to relieve myself – which I was, in a real sense.

Some pertinent background: I was raised Catholic.    I was born in a Catholic hospital and was educated in Catholic schools. But for many years I’ve nurtured a healthy distrust of all organized religion – my own Catholicism included. For the past several weeks, though, I’ve been going to mass on Sundays again. The priest who celebrates the mass I go to is a long time friend, I consider him a mentor, a spiritual and intellectual leader. So I returned to church because I missed his presence in a Sunday service context.

The mass is a Spanish service, standing room only, I’d say 90% immigrant, awesome choir included. I felt at home, although not entirely in place with the overall organized religious context. Still, my friend the priest hadn’t missed a beat since I last attended one of his services: vibrant, relevant, compassionate… After that first service, he saw me, gave me a bear hug and said “I was so happy to see you here.”

So I went back, twice. Then last Sunday he wasn’t there. Another priest was substituting for that day. I’ll call him father “Spaniard of the condescension.” He reminded me of the reasons I had stopped going to church. It took him all of 90 seconds to turn his homily into a diatribe against President Obama’s directive concerning healthcare insurance in Catholic institutions. He misrepresented the directive saying it forced women to have abortions, and then he said the congregants shouldn’t vote for Obama.

That’s when I blew. I felt my fists tighten, my neck expand. My wife turned to look at me with what I sensed was concern (Not so much for me; I think she was afraid I’d challenge the priest out loud. But I wouldn’t, out of respect, for the same reason I still push my chair in when I leave the dinner table: Catholic school upbringing.) I said, under my voice, “I didn’t come to church to be told who to vote for.” And I walked out.

So what do you do when you walk out of church to a parking lot filled with empty cars? I paced. Over the years I’ve learned to tame what was once an unmanageable temper. I give myself room to be angry, and get over it – it’s my responsibility after all. Ten minutes later, when the froth had gone, I returned to the back of the church and stood through the rest of the service. I didn’t confront the priest. In fact I said nothing to him, at all. I’ve also learned strategic patience and knowing to choose my battles.

This Presidential directive, though, has been taken out of context. It doesn’t force women to have abortions, regardless of what Father Spaniard says. All it does is raise the question of preventive services for women who work in Catholic institutions – excluding churches. All together Catholic hospitals and universities employ hundreds of thousands of women, not all of them Catholic. The directive makes preventive services accessible to them, that’s all. It also includes an 18 month period to look for creative ways to follow the directive. It’s about healthcare, and it’s about the law.

On the political side, it was a calculated move. I’ve said before that everything the President does is calculated. This time he may have gotten the equation wrong. I don’t think he expected the loud and angry fallout.  Just as I didn’t expect politics in my church. I emphasize “my” church, because I don’t belong to one of those evangelical congregations where politics is religion. In fact, the one time I disagreed with my friend the priest was when he allowed then presidential candidate Michael Dukakis (we go back that far) to speak from the pulpit during a Sunday service. I didn’t walk out that time, my conviction-to-action link still needed some simmering. But I felt it was wrong.

Here’s the thing: I wouldn’t have minded if father Spaniard would have asked the congregation to pray for a resolution to the healthcare directive, or to pray for the President to understand the Catholic institution’s position. But he crossed a line when he told the congregation not to vote for Obama.

I understand the long legacy of social and political movements that have had their birth in churches – the U.S. civil rights movement, the Mexican independence of 1810 to name just 2. But those were movements, not political ads. What’s more, 60% of the congregation that morning were women, and 90% of those probably don’t vote because they’re not citizens. You’d think a leader would know his congregation better (you may have noticed that I’m not quite done getting over it).

In the end, this directive will be fodder for punditry and homilies for weeks to come. And I’ll make my way back to church on Sunday, hoping my friend leads the entrance procession. This time, though, I’ve got an earful for him.

[Photo By Dougtone]

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