An Open Letter to My Former Church

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a history of staying in relationships long past their expiration date, even after those relationships became harmful to my own wellbeing. Sometimes I just wanted the comfort of the familiar, and felt too scared to make a change. Sometimes, I continued to give second, third or tenth chances to those who wronged me, because I always thought love included forgiveness. Other times, I chastised myself for not putting in enough work and vowed to try harder to fix what was broken, as though it was always a failing on my part. Usually, it was a combination of all of the above.

And that’s where I find myself with you, Former Church. Our relationship crumbled long before my ultimate tipping point. As I sit and reflect, I realize I should have left years ago. But, for too long, I convinced myself that things would get better. I convinced myself that I just needed to try harder. I convinced myself that it wasn’t you; it was me.

I was wrong. In truth, it wasn’t me, it was you.

I grew up in a very religious family. My parents and grandparents were all actively involved in the Catholic Church, to put it mildly. I was raised on Sunday Mass and Daily Mass and twice weekly Rosary. When my cousins, siblings, and I were little, we used to play church. For real. We read from the missal and said the prayers and ate bread and drank juice. Among my earliest memories was the desire to become a priest. And I suppose the realization that I wasn’t allowed to do so was the first chipping away of our relationship.

In high school, I began my feminist awakening. Imagine my shock when I learned just how deeply rooted misogyny is in the Catholic Church. Saint Augustine argued that only men, not women, were made in the image of God, thus relegating women to the role of “helpmate.” Saint Thomas of Aquinas stated (emphasis added):

“As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence.” (Summa Theologica)

At the same time that I was learning of the early Church’s disdain for myself and my fellow women, I stumbled upon an interview in (the now defunct) Sassy magazine that changed the trajectory of my life. It was a discussion with Laurie Cabot, Official Witch of Salem, and newly published author. Suddenly I became aware that there were religions that respected women and worshipped a Goddess. It was at this time that my inner conflict of faith became so strong that I left the Church, shortly after I was confirmed. I was jealous of the peace that faith seemed to bring the rest of my family, where I felt something was off or missing. I thought that perhaps I could find that peace through a different religion, and spent the next 10 years on that exploration.

I sometimes look back and wonder how that journey brought me back to Catholicism. Over those 10 years, I read and researched and attended services of various faiths. I examined and questioned every one of my beliefs, even the existence of God. And if I’m being completely honest, even that simple question resulted in a great deal of back and forth in my mind and heart. Wicca was the first religion to be ruled out–as much as I admired the centering of women and of nature, I couldn’t accept their disbelief in a force of pure evil. Even at 15 years old, I had already seen things that couldn’t be explained any other way.

I attribute my return to the Catholic Church in 2002 to two factors. First, I came across an essay that discussed how the Catholic Church’s embrace of Mary was proof that they were far more progressive than Protestants with regards to women. The second, and more impactful event was my uncle being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. My grandmother had died of this same cancer the year before, six days before Easter. I received the news of my uncle’s diagnosis in the days before Holy Week began. After staying at my parents’ house the previous night, I accompanied them to church on Palm Sunday. The meditation hymn following Communion was “Were You There.” In those moments, all of my emotions came pouring out, and I quietly sobbed as I was kneeling. I remember my father asking if I was okay and my mother telling him that I was being filled with the Holy Spirit.

After a 10-year hiatus, returning to the Catholic Church was like putting on a favorite well-worn sweatshirt. Then I decided that I wanted to share my voice and join a choir. That’s how I ended up at St. Mary of the Snow. It felt welcoming and there were two choirs to choose from. I felt as though I had found my place in the world.

That isn’t to say that there weren’t issues from time to time. I already understood that being both a Catholic and a feminist was like walking the thinnest of tightropes. I tried to bite my tongue, but there were times silence was impossible. There was a day several years ago, as I was exiting the choir loft, when I was stopped by a parishioner asking me if I was going to add my name to a pro-life advertisement that would be run in the newspaper. I tried to vaguely say that I couldn’t do it. The parishioner persisted and asked if it was because I didn’t have the money for the required donation, saying that it was okay if I didn’t have it. That’s when I was cornered into admitting that while I don’t think abortion would be a suitable option for myself, I am a staunch supporter of a woman’s right to choose. Apparently, the fact that I was pro-choice, but not exclaiming, “Yay, abortion!!” befuddled her a bit, as she asked me how I could possibly be both pro-life and pro-choice. And that’s how I was cornered into telling a woman I barely knew about being raped. By the time I got to my car, I was shaking from the encounter.

But I did my best to shrug it off and learned to tune out each year when the Respect Life campaign was discussed.

Then there was the molestation (and subsequent cover-up) scandal. I could understand the concept of a few bad priests. I could even understand wanting to keep things as quiet as possible, lest those bad priests taint our views of the Church as a whole. But, that isn’t what happened. Instead, the Church engaged in a decades-long cover-up, including relocating offending priests to different parishes and gaslighting victims. If that wasn’t enough, earlier this year Pope Francis admitted that nuns were sexually abused by priests and bishops. If it wasn’t for the very grave and serious nature of these events, it would almost be laughable that a church so adamantly opposed to sex outside of marriage (and procreation) would be filled with a bunch of men who were engaged in exactly the behaviors they preached against.

But even that wasn’t enough to send me running. I told myself that as long as there was an effort to acknowledge the shortcomings and correct them moving forward, it was still okay to continue making myself at home in the Catholic Church.

There are two dates that stand out in my mind as permanently altering my relationship with the Catholic Church. The first date was November 8, 2016, when Donald Trump was named the next President of the United States. The Saturday before Election Day, I sat in the choir loft of a different church than my own and listened to the priest give a thinly-veiled pro-Trump homily. Then the unthinkable happened and he was put into office.

As this country’s human rights violations pile up, I wonder if the Church thinks the appointment of an anti-choice Supreme Court Justice is worth it. Do the lives of migrant children not matter? Exactly which lives is the Church referring to when discussing “the sanctity of life”? I just can’t picture the Jesus I learned about as a child being okay with any of this. I can’t wrap my mind around the concept of the same Jesus who said that what we do for the least of His people we do for Him remaining silent as politicians attempt to dismantle our social safety net and laugh at the idea of a living wage. I struggle to picture the Jesus who instructed us to love our neighbor as ourself ignoring the rise in hate crimes. I cannot picture the Jesus whose own parents fled with him to another country turning a blind eye to the barring of refugees and asylum-seekers here in this country.

The second date is July 28, 2019. That is the day when I realized that my relationship with the Catholic Church was no longer salvageable. When you heard of my intention to depart, did you also hear the reason? Did someone tell you that your homily that day caused my eyes to fill with tears of pain and anger? Did you hear the hitch in my voice as I attempted to announce the next song? Did you know that I broke down sobbing when I got to my car because I knew there was no going back?

As an Empath, this last decade has exhausted me. Since 2017, I can barely stand to read a newspaper or even open Facebook, because I feel as though I’m being constantly bombarded with images and stories of pain and suffering. Each story is worse than the last, and so many are beyond what I thought humans were capable of. From US cities without safe drinking water, to unarmed civilians being murdered by the very people we thought were there to protect us from harm, to neo-Nazis and Klansmen coming out of hiding and standing proudly amongst us, this world fills me with endless pain and despair.

Because of the tightrope I walked as a Catholic and feminist, your decidedly non-political homilies generally made it easier for me to remain in the Church. But sometimes events happen in the world and it becomes our obligation to speak up. As Eli Wiesel said:

“We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

So as you began your homily and wanted to talk about the most depraved and horrible thing you had ever seen, I was thrilled that I might finally hear you speak to the many atrocities happening in our country. But you didn’t speak of hate crimes. You didn’t speak of children in cages. No, what had you riled up was watching protesters throw water at police officers. I wonder what it’s like to live in a world where that’s the most horrible thing you can imagine. I cannot even begin to imagine how wonderful it must be to not be brought to tears just from reading the news each day. I cannot fathom how peaceful it must be to live insulated from all of these other atrocities.

A number of people recommended the Episcopal Church as something that might more closely reflect my beliefs and my understanding of Jesus’ teaching. As I read everything I could possibly find online, I stumbled across the website of one of the local churches. Their website included a link to read/listen to the sermon from that Sunday’s Gospel. I cried tears of joy as the words to that sermon touched my heart. In stark comparison to ire over wet police officers, this sermon addressed what Ezekiel noted was the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah:

“This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.” (Ezekiel 16:49)

The sermon focused on the way we treat the vulnerable and the oppressed. And its message was that, as Christians, our task is to follow Christ in his love for all of us.

As I said at the beginning, I have a habit of staying in unhealthy relationships. But what I failed to mention is that the silver lining to this is that when I finally do walk away, I walk away for good. I also walk away with no regrets. I walk away with a clear conscience because I know I gave everything I could. And unlike when I was a teenager, there will be no return, as the church I leave no longer bears any resemblance to the church Jesus spoke of in the Gospel.

One thought on “An Open Letter to My Former Church

  1. One of the most Progressive forces for good I met in a very not good place was an Episcopalian female rector who even put up a sign about “you don’t have to believe to be welcome here.” I did a lot of social justice volunteering there and ended up attending services that I think helped my Partner deal with the leftover effects of an Evangelical family and be less scared of all religion. I’m not really religious, and after last year I’m just angry at it all over again. But, I feel like that person would shrug their shoulders and say, “you’re welcome back whenever and I’m sorry the world sucks.” So, as much as I’m “not religious,” I find a level of peace in Episcopalian services and will sometimes go to Taize or candlelight services just because.

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