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.

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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).