She's just another fall-away Catholic.

I recently called my mother for the regular check in. My father the local politician is doing well amid incessant small town controversy. My sister's second son is due in October. My brother is taking increasing control over the family funeral home, as my old man pivots toward politics and semi-retirement.

But my mother, a stay-at-home holdover, is aghast by an institution that, for most of her life, defined her ethical and moral approach to the world. 

"Did you see they want to put limits on how long molested children have to report?" she said.

She was referring to bishops in Massachusetts, who are lobbying for a crushing statute of limitations on new abuse claims. It's not about what's correct, legal or moral. Protecting the brand outstrips justice. 

"No. But I'm not surprised," I muttered.

For the better part of two decades, I pushed her to question the institution -- or any institution -- within which she placed unquestionable faith. I'd ask for books for Christmas, such as Nietzsche's "Genealogy of Morals," knowing full well she'd flip through it before applying the customary paper. Yet only the loss of moral high ground and total hypocrisy, as church leaders continue to shield predators, could drive her off for good.

Fewer than 21 percent of Americans define themselves as Catholic, according to a poll of 34,000 people released this month by the Pew Research Center. That's down from 24 percent in 2007. Similar drop offs were present in mainline Protestants, who've dominated the U.S. since the country's inception. All protestant groups represent just 46.5 percent of the populace now. And evangelicals, not Presbyterians, suddenly constitute more than half that figure.

The largest gain occurred among the unaffiliated group, a number that will grow as my generation becomes more established. Twenty-three percent of respondents -- including atheists and agnostics -- didn't identify with any specific faith. It's a massive 7 point jump since 2007.

As reflected within American politics, the cultural chasm is widening. The hardcore are replacing the long-entrenched moderates. Religion has always been, at its core, a political exercise. And, in the West, it's coming to a head.

I suspect, if polled, my mother would still identify as Catholic. Her faith remains deeply important to her. And, when her aging mother visits, she attends mass to keep the 90-year-old stalwart happy. But she can have a relationship with her God without a corrupt institution dictating the terms, she's decided. It's a world-view crumbling event after 50 years of total devotion, complete with a Franciscan education.

Just last week, Ireland voters overwhelmingly supported the legalization of same sex marriage. Twenty years ago, gay sex was a crime in the historic Catholic stronghold. Things have changed.

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But, true to millennia-old form, the Vatican wasn't having it. Ireland's vote, granting equal treatment to thousands of citizens, is a "defeat for humanity," said the Vatican's extraordinarily tone-deaf Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

My mother, like the Irish, has also evolved on the issue. In so doing, she departs another step from the church.

Sixty-three percent of Americans now support gay marriage, said a Gallup poll released this week, up from 40 in 2001. Similar jumps were seen in support for stem cell research and sex among unmarried couples. The moral fabric of the country is, indeed, in flux.

But the hoard of GOP presidential wannabes continues to pander to only the most philosophically rigid, sticking to meaningless and increasingly outdated wedge issues. It's a losing long game. 

Earlier this month, British Conservatives won a massive majority and placed Prime Minister David Cameron back in control of Westminster. He supports socialized medicine and climate science. Never will you see Cameron, or any Tory, fetishize the prejudices of a specific religious minority.

Cameron is the kind of guy my mother, and many like her, could support. 

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Jon Alexander is opinion page editor at The Southern. He can be reached at jonathan.alexander@the southern.com.


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