Breaking up with Catholic leaders
The most significant breakup in my life was with the Catholic Church. There wasn't a defining moment, nothing dramatic or final, just a slow separation. But like most breakups, I was torn. We had shared some good times, had good memories.
I'll never forget the morning of my First Communion, for instance, sitting at the foot of my parent's bed and lifting a flat-faced gold ring from a black jewelry box. My mother and father didn't have a lot of money, but they wanted to give me a "grown-up" gift. I slid the ring on my right index finger, put on my grey suit, and then went to my Communion prepared to be a man.
As I aged into my teens, however, my excitement and pride about being Catholic faded. I realized the people who stood with me in church, praying, smiling, and praising God, were the same people who mocked, criticized, and belittled each other during the days between Mass. I began to feel suffocated by the hypocrisy.
I had caught on at a young age that my Church had a culture with no accountability, and that those seen as the holiest of holies could act as dictators, manipulating, degrading and dominating anyone in the parish who stood in their way.
Thankfully, my story is not one of abuse or sexual exploitation at the hands of church leaders -- though you'd be forgiven for expecting that. Rather, it's about a slow realization that such calculated predators and abhorrent cover-ups are the result of a culture in massive disrepair. The cracks in the foundation I witnessed as a child -- the forced apologies, the smothering of a boy's natural energy, my parents' stories of their own abusive Catholic upbringings -- have now spread through the entire institution and are visible for all to see.
While it would seem that the Catholic Church would hold itself to a higher standard than for-profit corporations, there seem to be fewer checks and balances in place. For various reasons, voices of dissent -- a requirement for any healthy organization - are rare. Like a drug addict trying to score the next hit at any cost, like-minded Church leadership has brilliantly rationalized away any and all negative reports, even the protection of a known pedophile.
These acts are symptomatic of an insular culture in disrepair, and it has lead to a perversion of values that desperately needs to be addressed. Good leaders surround themselves with confident individuals who are not afraid to voice their opinions; good leaders listen to their followers; good leaders communicate through crises; and most importantly, good leaders ensure that the values upon which their organizations are built are always upheld. Religious leaders are no different, and if Catholic leadership can't find the courage to do these things, then followers can either demand new leaders or watch their Church's current decline accelerate.
I slipped away from the Church because I couldn't continue to be preached to by people who judged me by different standards than they judged themselves. Now that I'm a father, I stay away from the Church because I don't want my children to be concerned with what I never understood: why do fellow Catholics demand tolerance but judge differences, revere individualism but expect unquestioned unity, call for honesty but quietly keep secrets? If any good comes of this, it may very well be that the Church takes one step closer to practicing what it asks others to do. If that step is taken, even a dropout like me would be willing to try and rekindle the curiosity I had when I was eight.
Note: Joe Frontiera contributed to this commentary. Joe and Dan wrote previously for On Leadership about a Canadian ice-cream company that brought new meaning to corporate social responsibility and the power of Title IX in building a new generation of women leaders and what a young coach at Northern Iowa tells us about leadership and loyalty.
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