Catholic and Feminist: Being a Bad Catholic

I know, I know… One post on the topic is fine, even two. But now I’m pushing it.

I’m finding that the more I write, the more I have to say. And let’s face it–religion/philosophy/spirituality are the sorts of topics that can lead to really long and interesting discussion and exchange of ideas.

I chose the title of this blog because I wanted to explore the ways that my personal beliefs differ from the formal doctrine/dogma of the Catholic Church. When I take an honest look, there are probably more things I see differently than things I view the same.

First, let’s get the obvious gender stuff out of the way. The Church has made some (superficial) strides toward inclusiveness. I personally believe many of them are silly. I understand God as being neither male or female (or both male and female, if you prefer). But I don’t need traditional hymns revised to tell me this. In fact, I find these sometimes clumsy word revisions to be petty, and nothing but an attempt to placate those of us who feel that women deserve a more equal role within the Church. In other words, no, you can’t be priests, but here, we’ll change the word “Him” to “God” because we’re sensitive to your feelings. Our stand on contraception and reproductive rights all but eliminates your role as an autonomous person, delegated to the role of baby incubator, but we’ll change the second verse of Joy to the World from “Let men their songs employ” to “Let us our songs employ.” Yep, that sure does make me feel better.

But I didn’t start this post to rant about what I don’t like, so let’s move on.

When I was younger, I had a conversation with my father about religion. He used an analogy that I still continue to use to this day. He said different religions were really just different paths up the same mountain. At the most basic core or all religion is a belief in something greater than ourselves and the goal of living a life that is in harmony with the rest of the world. Do not kill, do not steal, help those in need. In the grand scheme of things, the differences between many faiths are superficial. Do you worship “God” or “Allah”? Do you believe that Jesus was the Son of God, a prophet, or a figment of the imagination? None of these things change the most fundamental teachings of religion, which is about being a good person.

As I mentioned in Part 1, I spent about 10 years trying to work through me beliefs.  By the time I was in college, I had already decided that my beliefs were pretty much Christian, but there were certain ideas and concepts that I had learned along the way that drew me in other directions.  I was always open-minded regarding the supernatural.  I found that astrology described my personality very well in the explanation of my sun sign (Sagittarius) and my rising sign (Libra).  I believe in reincarnation and that each lifetime presents us with different lessons to learn.  I read The Celestine Prophecy: An Adventure, shortly after it was first published.  Not only did I love it then, but it’s something I still recommend to people and re-read regularly.  So how could I reconcile all of this with Christianity, and especially with Catholicism?

The first step for me came in the form of a book that I found in a new-age bookstore in Syracuse.  While most of the store was geared toward Wiccan beliefs (the store was owned by a practicing Wiccan), the selection of books spanned almost any religion imaginable and included a wonderfully large assortment of Gnostic Christian texts and writings.  One day I stumbled upon a book called The Nine Faces of Christ: Quest of the True Initiate, by Eugene E. Whitworth.  It was a fictional account of a man who was trained in the old great religions and was eventually crucified.  While it is not about Jesus per se, it demonstrates the relationship be tween Christianity and other great religions.  It’s no secret that Christianity has “borrowed” from earlier religions. For example, we know that Christmas was intentionally set to be celebrated right around the same time as the Pagan Yule/Winter Solstice. All Souls’ Day immediately follows Halloween (also the Pagan festival Samhain).  But this book looked at some of the larger concepts that also became incorporated into Christianity.  For me, this book was the beginning of my journey back to the Catholic church.  Unfortunately, when I gave the book to my father to read, he did not get the same message and actually destroyed the book because he apparently felt it was that bad.

So here I am, over 10 years after deciding to go back to the Catholic church.  For almost nine years I’ve been involved with at least one of the two adult choirs at my church.  For the last two and a half years I’ve been completely committed to both groups.  I sing for two masses every Sunday from September through June.  I generally take July and August off, going to mass a little less regularly (I have two months where I can actually do stuff with my friends on Saturday nights).  I still read books like The Secret or The Four Agreements because I’m okay with the idea that anything that helps me to be a better person is worth reading.  I have more recently been drawn to books that relate to the intersections of science and religion.  I firmly believe that the two can coexist.  I don’t think it’s unreasonable for a Christian to believe in evolution, because I don’t see science as a threat to religion.  I see science ultimately proving the existence of something greater than ourselves, and I know that I’m not alone in this.

Maybe I’m a bad Catholic.  Maybe not.


Catholic and Feminist: Living an Apparent Contradiction, part 2

A few weeks ago, I was leaving the choir loft after Mass, when I was cornered by a parishioner–let’s call her Pam. Pam was one of the parishioners that was always very friendly towards me and told my director that she loves my voice. In other words, not just a random face in the crowd at church. So Pam cornered me, and here’s a brief recap of the conversation.

Pam: So I can add your name to the (Right to Life) petition, right?
Me: Um, well… No
Pam: Oh, is it because you don’t have the money with you? That’s not a problem
Me: No… It’s because I’m pro-choice
Pam: What do you mean?!
Me: Well, I believe abortion is wrong, and I have no problem doing what I can, within legal and ethical means, to present a woman with other options. But at the end of the day, I believe she had the right to make her own decision…
Pam: How can you be pro-life and pro-choice???
Me (debating which way I want to go with this and opting for the explanation less likely to cause a heated debate): Well, I was raped back in college, and it really impacted my views on a lot of things…

The conversation continued for a few minutes after that, with Pam apologizing for prying, and without any further pressure to sign the petition (although I did have to bite my tongue when she made a Todd Akin-esque statement about rape rarely leading to pregnancy because the female body is traumatized- sometimes you have to pick your battles).

As I walked to my car, I was reminded of the tightrope I walk every moment of every day–the delicate balance of being both a feminist and a Catholic. I recognize that I am lucky, in that I am often able to put this constant struggle out of my mind. I belong to a parish where the priest normally avoids those hot button issues that make me so aware of the conflicting parts of my identity. This wasn’t always the case, and I realize it likely will not always continue to be the case. But it’s nice to have a bit of a reprieve, where I don’t have to think about it.

I recognize that many of my beliefs fall outside of the traditional norms and teachings of Catholicism. I support LGBT rights, including marriage. I support real sex education in schools and the use of birth control. I am adamantly pro-choice. I know that I cannot alone in my internal struggle.

For myself, the balance between my seemingly conflicting beliefs lies in a more strict and literal definition of Catholicism. The Nicene Creed is the summary of the most basic tenets of Catholicism. It references the Holy Trinity and the Virgin Mary. It says nothing of abortion. At its root, Catholicism is focused on the teachings of Jesus, who never once mentioned homosexuality. Everything beyond this is man-made dogma, including even the concept of infallibility of the Pope (although I have to admit that I’m liking Pope Francis so far). It is this distinction between belief and dogma that allows me to reconcile these pieces of myself.

Some might argue that this makes me a bad Catholic. Maybe they’re right. But looking around, the world is full of “bad Catholics.” Just look at the numbers regarding contraception- a full 98% of Catholics have stated that they’ve used artificial contraception, despite the continued ban by the Church. Organizations like Catholics for Choice show me that I’m not alone in my beliefs. And seriously, just look at my choir posts. I think the two choirs cover all seven deadly sins between them, and I’m pretty sure the only Commandment that hasn’t been broken is the one regarding actual murder (and even here I’ve heard some rumblings).

Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not trying to say that being a “bad Catholic” is a good thing or something to strive toward. But I know that we all have our flaws and all we can do is try to be good people. And isn’t that the whole point of religion anyway?

Catholic and Feminist: Living an Apparent Contradiction, Part 1

I am a Catholic and a feminist. This first post explains a bit of how I got there. I will explain more of how I’ve managed to stay there in another post.

I was raised in a religious family and attended church every Sunday for the first 15 years of my life. My internal conflict with Catholicism began long before my rebellious teenage years. I was raised to believe that if I worked hard I could be whatever I wanted when I grew up. Well, when I was about 3 or 4 years old, I wanted to be a priest, and the eventual realization that I couldn’t was officially the first crack in my Catholic identity.

Many years later I entered my teenage years and that was when my religious identity was shattered. It was the beginning of my feminist awakening, and I was already starting to revise my opinions on a number of issues, where I had previously just taken my parents’ opinions. Then I read an interview in Sassy magazine with a woman named Laurie Cabot. I convinced my mother to let me buy Cabot’s book The Power of the Witch: The Earth, the Moon, and the Magical Path to Enlightenment, and my life was never the same.

After Confirmation, I convinced my parents to let me take a much needed break from church in order to do some serious soul-searching.  Over the next ten years, I literally walked through my beliefs, one at a time.  I started with the question of whether I believed in a higher power at all, and worked my way through.  Some things I felt instantly in my gut, others required months of reading, thought and meditation.  By my early 20s, I was reasonably comfortable calling myself a Christian.  I was still hesitant of the Catholic label because of the conservative nature of the religion, and then two things happened that caused me to reclaim my identity as a Catholic.  The first was a book about Mary (I wish I could recall the title, but I had borrowed it from a family member), followed by a discussion with my mother about Mary’s role within the Church. From an intellectual point of view, I appreciated the unique role that Mary has in the Catholic church, as compared to other Christian religions.  It didn’t make up for not being allowed to be a priest, but it was something.  On a broader level, it gave me a way to relate these beliefs to my continued (intellectual) study of Wicca.  Witchcraft as my religious belief system was ruled out very early in my search (due to the fact that they do not believe in a Satan/source of pure evil), but I remained fascinated by the history and the ways in which parts of old pagan religions have been incorporated into modern day Christianity.

The second event had nothing to do with research or studying.  Although I stopped receiving Eucharist a number of years earlier, I had started going to church with my parents on weekends when I stayed with them, primarily out of respect for them and their beliefs.  It was Palm Sunday, 2002.  My grandmother (my mother’s mother) had passed away about a year earlier (the Monday during Holy Week in 2001) from pancreatic cancer.  My uncle (my mother’s brother) had just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, himself. Communion had just finished and the choir was singing a meditation piece, “Were You There.” All of a sudden I broke down sobbing. Despite the overwhelming despair, I also began to feel the smallest sliver of peace.
I have no doubt that part of it was the comfort of the familiar, but this was the feeling I had been seeking for the last 10 years. Since that day I’ve once again referred to myself as a practicing Catholic (as opposed to “recovering Catholic,” which is the label I had previously been using).