Orthodox Catholics in this country have, since Vatican II, faced one insurmountable obstacle to the practice of our faith as it is taught by the catechism: the American Catholic hierarchy. (An excellent take on the subject of the decline of Catholicism in America is a book by Russel Shaw entitled American Church, The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.) If you were around in the 70s or 80s and wanted to live a Catholic life and be an active parishioner, you had to first figure out on your own what the church taught (no easy task, because church teachings were either forgotten, denied, misrepresented or obscured by many priests and most laypeople). Some dioceses were better than others, and some parishes were better than others. I developed my own personal system for determining whether or not a parish would nurture and sustain my faith: a good parish (in my view) would allow (notice I say "allow", not encourage) reverence for the eucharist. That is, the tabernacle would not be (as it was in one parish) next to the side exit or invisible from the pews. Another criterion was statues of saints. A really bad parish would have few or none, and no way to light candles. Most of the time there would be a statue of the Virgin Mary--where it was placed was always revealing. Was she ever mentioned in a homily? Was there a Rosary Society? Did the church have confession available, and on what basis? Was it allotted 30 minutes or 45? These were not a means to cast judgement on the other parishioners, or the pastor. These were very basic things I needed and deserved to see in any Catholic church I attended. The ultimate test, however, was always, is there a pro-life committee in the parish? How is it regarded? Does it hold raffles, do people in that parish attend the March for Life, or do they regard anti-abortionists as a nuisance, a crowd of loud-mouthed malcontents? These were my tests. And they still apply, mutatis mutandis.
Before the election of John Paul II, orthodox practicing Catholics were regarded as the remnants of an outmoded past by most of diocesan pastors--and in many parishes, we still are. But these problems--the problems of the practices and standards of parish churches and their effective divorce, in many cases, from the Roman Catholic Church are only the signs of a deeper and more tragic result of the decline of the church in America.
The church is no longer seen as a source of guidance and consolation for ordinary Catholics. When there is a family crisis people do not ask advice from their parish priest, or if they do, are often directed to seek help elsewhere--usually from doctors or therapists or marriage counselors (most of whom, Catholic or not, are usually willing to recommend a separation or divorce as the ultimate solution to a troubled marriage.) The parish church is the place where people go to get married--but after the ceremony the relationship is only a formal one and the role of the church is relegated to a merely social one. A place to go on Sunday where one attains social respectability by means of baptism,confirmation and marriage, and where vague feelings of unease about death can be assuaged. Alcoholics go to AA, the mentally ill go to a psychiatrist, poor people go to social services, family problems are resolved by means of "professional help". The church is not only missing from the public square. It has been missing from private life for decades.
Orthodox Catholics have had to find their own way, and it has been a rocky one. There is a multiplicity of organizations and movements which provide genuine spiritual food for the starving--and it is not my purpose to discuss them here. The diocesan clergy are either tolerant or welcoming of them, in varying degrees. For the most part, they are allowed because they take the weight off of an already overtaxed clergy who seem to have lost their bearings. This is of course a generalization, and does not apply to the many heroic priests I have known since the dark days of the 70s, the ones who held the fort. But it should be striking--is, in fact, jarring--that many of those priests felt, or seemed to feel, that they were islands of fidelity in a sea of doctrinal anarchy. Rome was very far away.
In this climate, the most liberal abortion laws in the history of the world were publicly applauded in a country where the Catholic Church was the largest christian denomination.
Abortion is evidence that Catholicism as a social force in America has failed. It is not the only evidence, but it is the most glaring. And the failure was in the leadership. When I was active in the political movement we knew that the Bishops issued statements against abortion. It also became abundantly clear that the statements had no effect on anyone--not on public officials, and certainly not on the average catholic. From the point of view of a member of the laity, the Bishops as a whole were just a very large committee who might or might not issue statements in agreement with the Vatican, but who were certainly not going to risk their already tenuous hold on public acceptance by taking action.