Should Catholic priests and nuns who are “good people” leave the church?

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH | 31 August 2012
Church and State

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This excerpt has been adapted from Chapter 12 of our Chairman Dr. Stephen D. Mumford’s seminal book, The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (1996). The book is available at Kindle here and to read for free here.

Priests and Nuns in a Catch-22 Situation

Frequently I’m attacked for criticizing priests and nuns who are manifestly “good people.” The difficulty is that priests and nuns are caught in a wrenching Catch-22 situation. Just my describing this Catch-22 prompts angry responses. Yet the way in which we, as individuals and as a country, deal with their misfortune will determine, in large measure, how long Vatican self-destruction will be postponed.

The Catch-22 goes like this: Priests and nuns do “good works” and earn public credits. “Good works” include a wide range of activities (i.e., working for very low wages providing social services under difficult circumstances, etc.). These public credits are transferable to the hierarchy. The hierarchy can cash them in when needed to advance the Church’s agenda. This system has been around for hundreds of years and it is used extensively. This system is frequently referred to by Catholic writers.

For example, the Church can define its system of human rights and leave out a few obvious ones. The Church then announces its system on the world stage and brings along a stack of these public credits and cashes them in to purchase silence from potential critics. Otherwise, they would be laughed off the stage by reasonable people for showing up with a glaringly incomplete list. If they did not have all this credit to cash in, the institution would cease to be credible. Sometimes, the Vatican does not have the credits or it is not willing to cash them in for a particular purpose, and it does lose credibility. Tens of millions of people have left the Church because its credits for good works did not weigh favorably against its discredits for bad or sinister activities undertaken in its attempt to survive.

One of the major problems faced by the Church in the United States is that it has far fewer priests and nuns than it once did to commit to earning these public credits—just at a time when its needs for such credits are exploding. This contributes to the declining credibility of the Church in America.

Priests and nuns who identify themselves as liberal and are pro-family planning and pro-abortion are caught in the Catch-22. The harder they work and the greater their good works, the more sinister behavior (like undermining family planning programs around the world) the pope and bishops can exercise without being called to account by the faithful and non-Catholics alike. Thus, the more good the liberal priests and nuns do, the more harm they do indirectly by providing cover for the sinister activities of their hierarchy. The only way the good efforts of liberal priests and nuns can have a net positive effect for humanity is for them to leave the Church and continue their efforts outside of it. We know that there are more than 20,000 ex-priests in the U.S. today. Many of them left the priesthood because they came to this same conclusion on their own. Liberal priests and nuns serve to postpone the inevitable self-destruction.

Do liberal priests and nuns aid the conservative hierarchy and postpone self-destruction of the institution in other significant ways? Yes, they do. They are vital working parts of the “mighty religious machine.” They contribute to keeping the machine intact and aid the power structure in standing firm. Even though they are pro-family planning and pro-abortion, they are vital to the conservative hierarchy.

The liberal priests have no power within the Church. They make no Church policy and there is no reason to hope they ever will. All hierarchy members are obedient conservatives and tend to become more conservative and more obedient with time. The grip of the ultraconservative John Paul II and his highly conservative cardinals grows ever tighter on the reins of the Church. There is little chance this grip will be lost. These conservatives will most surely elect another ultraconservative when John Paul leaves the scene. They must. If they do not, the Papacy will self-destruct quickly.

Liberal priests and nuns who believe that they can “change the Church from within” simply do not understand Papal power and the untenable position in which the pope finds himself as he oversees his self-destructing institution. Liberalization spells death for the Papacy. The only constructive action remaining for a liberal priest or nun is to leave the Church and encourage others to join them, thus allowing the inevitable self-destruction to conclude as quickly as possible. By leaving the Church, they can best serve humanity, a conclusion reached by one-third of those ordained since Humanae Vitae was promulgated in 1968.

Liberal Catholics—Protectors of the Conservative Papacy

Often I’m told that I should not speak out against the Church because “I might offend Catholic liberals and if there is hope for change within the Church, it rests with the liberals.” Since conservatives are in absolute control regarding the direction of the Church, no one’s interests, except the conservatives’, is served by pointing to liberals in the Church and saying “but they are on our side.” They have no influence on Catholic policy making—and they will have none in the foreseeable future.

As used here, the term liberal Catholic is defined as an American Catholic who does not agree with the papal position on abortion and contraception. According to a well designed study published by Catholic Sociologist Father Andrew Greeley in the Jesuit magazine America, liberal Catholics account for 93 percent of all American Catholics! It is stunning and tragic how little influence this overwhelming majority has on the American bishops.

As long as liberal Catholics remain in the Church, they serve the interests of the conservatives by deflecting and confusing forthright criticism of the Papacy—criticism that could further erode institutional credibility and papal authority. The liberals also serve the conservative cause in another important way. A letter sent by the six American Cardinals and the president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to President Clinton in June 1994, regarding the International Conference on Population and Development begins, “We speak, Mr. President…for Catholics throughout the United States…” The implication is that the bishops speak for 59 million Catholics in America, giving the bishops enormous political power. Each American represents one small increment of political power. The bishops have acquired these small increments of power from each American Catholic and these small increments add up to an impressive bloc of power. They just took these increments and American Catholics have not objected. It is extremely important that American Catholics take steps to end this arrangement. As the credibility of the Papacy continues to sink, which is inevitable, American Catholics cannot predict the ways in which the pope will call upon their bishops as he desperately attempts to insure survival of the Papacy. Liberal Catholics can best serve the needs of their countrymen and the rest of humanity by bolting from the Church and encouraging others to do the same. Since Humanae Vitae, millions already have.

Dr. Stephen Mumford is the founder and President of the North Carolina-based Center for Research on Population and Security. He has his doctorate in Public Health. His principal research interest has been the relationship between world population growth and national and global security. He has been called to provide expert testimony before the U.S. Congress on the implications of world population growth.

Dr. Mumford has decades of international experience in fertility research where he is widely published, and has addressed conferences worldwide on new contraceptive technologies and the stresses to the security of families, societies and nations that are created by continued uncontrolled population growth. Using church policy documents and writings of the Vatican elite, he has introduced research showing the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church as the principal power behind efforts to block the availability of contraceptive services worldwide.

In addition to his books on biomedical and social aspects of family planning, as well as scientific articles in more than a score of journals, Dr. Mumford’s major works include American Democracy and the Vatican: Population Growth and National Security (Amherst, New York: Humanist Press, 1984), The Pope and the New Apocalypse: The Holy War Against Family Planning (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Center for Research on Population and Security, 1986), and The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy (Research Triangle Park, North Carolina: Center for Research on Population and Security, 1996).

The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy

By Stephen D. Mumford, DrPH
Paperback Publisher: Center for Research on Population and Security (October 1996)
Kindle Publisher: Church and State Press (February 6, 2015)
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During the formative years of the World Health Organization (WHO), broad consensus existed among United Nations member countries that overpopulation is a grave public health threat and would be a major cause of preventable death not too far in the future. One of the founding fathers of the WHO, the late Milton P. Siegel, speaks to Dr. Mumford in 1992. He explains how the Vatican successfully stymied the incorporation of family planning and birth control into official WHO policy. This video is available for public viewing for the first time. Read the full transcript of the interview here.

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  1. I see your point, but it is easy to say that they should leave the church, but leave to do what? The median age of American priests is 59 years old ( and the average age of nuns is 74 ( These people have given their whole lives to the Church and generally have no personal savings. So maybe the answer is to stay and do what they can.

  2. I would like to see them stay, and work on change, it would have to come from the inside, it’s such a huge organization, with vast hidden archives, that if they were released, could cause the collapse of civilization, which I don’t think would be as bad as it sounds, then we could be truly free, from tyranny. IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE, SHARING ALL THE WORLD


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