The Roman Catholic Church does not make this easy. We're talking about an organization that moves at a glacial pace. The Second Vatican Council of 1963 was put into place to help modernize the Church, but keep in mind that the First Vatican Council was held nearly a century prior. In other words, in a modern world that moves faster than ever, the Church remains the same slow-moving goliath it's always been.
John Paul II (whose tenure was from 1978 to 2005), though one of the most beloved Popes of all time, made it very clear during his tenure that the Church is not a democracy. And in an increasingly democratized world, that may be a bitter pill to swallow.
Maybe that’s why there are so many hopes strung on the newly elected Pope Francis. And yet, I would suggest that we not hold our breath, and not get our hopes up. Instead of waiting for a 2,000-year-old institution to suddenly transform to fit our liking, the onus is on us to make our own peace with it and somehow find our own way to walk that line—whether by conforming to the tenets of the Church, creating our own private definition of faith, or abandoning it altogether.
Look at it this way: While we may disagree on an issue like abortion, can we realistically expect the Church, which for centuries has condemned the practice as murder, plain and simple, to suddenly one day turn around and say, "You know what? Never mind. It's OK. All those years we told you it was murder? Yeah, forget about that." That's an unrealistic expectation.
So where does this leave modern American Catholics navigating the trials and tribulations of love in the 21st century? I’m not going to say it's an easy, black-and-white issue, because it isn't. I struggle with it constantly. Fundamentally, the Church itself makes it clear that if you contradict its beliefs, you're a "bad" Catholic—in some cases, you might not even be considered Catholic at all.
I suggest that if we're not willing to mold our views to fit the teachings of the Church, we must be willing to play a bit fast and loose with what it means to be Catholic. Take me, for example: As a moderately observant and socially liberal Catholic, I don't adhere to all of the Church's teachings on social and sexual issues. I also don't expect the Church to bend over backwards to accommodate me. They've come a long way in recent times, but I don't expect them to simply "catch up" with the modern way of thinking just to stay current. That's just not what they do.
Full disclosure: I'm divorced, and yet I continue to attend Mass and receive Communion, which the Church teaches I'm no longer eligible to receive; my divorce puts me in a state of mortal sin. I choose to ignore that prohibition. In a way, I've defined my own version of Catholicism.
Maybe I'm fooling myself. Maybe I should just find some Protestant sect that will allow me to do whatever I want and still call myself Christian. But I won't. My whole life, Roman Catholicism has been the conduit through which I interact with the divine and with issues of spirituality in general. It's my comfort zone, just as it is for many other Americans facing similar moral conundrums.
To them, I say: If you're gay and choose to be Catholic, go for it. If you've had an abortion and identify as Catholic, more power to you. If my dyed-in-the-wool Catholic great-grandparents could use birth control, then so can you. The world has changed in so many ways. And while the Roman Catholic Church has not caught up to it, and perhaps never will, that’s no reason to abandon one's faith. The only person who should ever make the decision that you're no longer a Catholic is you.