I apologize if this email comes quite out of the blue from an alumna you may not remember, but I have a question that I need help answering. It’s a big question, and a nagging one, and I’ve put off facing it head-on for years now. If I’m being perfectly honest with you (and I will endeavor to be so), I’d rather ask a female priest — but since that’s impossible, I’m asking you. You brought me back to Mass after a years-long break in attendance, and I have immense respect for the way that you put me back in touch with what Catholicism is supposed to be. I’m not emailing you because I think you can tell me what I should do with my life — I know I have to make my own decisions. But you know the Church and its mission and teachings better than I can ever hope to know them, and it’s your wisdom I’d like to borrow, if I may.
My big question, simply put, is this: Am I still Catholic? Within it are nested a series of smaller questions: Should I still go to Church? Identify myself, publicly or privately, as Catholic? Pray as a Catholic? Contribute to the Church? Should I receive the sacrament of Confirmation?
I grew up in a small town with one Catholic church. The priest has been the same for as long as I can remember — a very active community member who is nosy but kind-hearted, very un-mystically no-nonsense in his sermons, and deeply committed to serving the elderly, the sick, the poor, and others who are alone or somehow suffering. His is the active kind of Catholic — he leads by example rather than by preaching. His weekly sermons usually center around a joke or a funny story, and end with a simple piece of advice: treat your family well, learn to appreciate the small joys in life, apologize when you have done wrong. As a kid, his words always struck me as very common-sensical, but not very unique to Catholicism I got the same lessons from my parents and my teachers.
By the time I was a young adult, I had come to associate Catholicism with morality — for me, the Church was an institution intended to remind me to be kind, generous, humble, and selfless. To remind me to forgive and to have faith, because good will always win over evil. I knew — and still know — relatively little about the Bible itself, or Church doctrine or history. My parish priest had never focused on those things, and my parents didn’t seem particularly interested in them. CCD classes may have taught me bits and pieces here and there, but I really don’t remember much of what I learned in them.
Suddenly, in high school, I became aware that the Catholic Church was more than just do-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-to-you. Just as I grew old enough to understand the adult world, the politically-charged arm of the Church took center stage in a very personal drama. At the age of 16, I watched my close friend attempt suicide in the foyer of my high school because his Catholic family had shunned him upon learning that he was gay. I watched him being carried, unconscious, into a waiting ambulance. I sat for hours in the history classroom at the end of the hall without knowing whether he was dead or alive. I talked to him on the phone a few days later while he spent a mandatory few days in the psych ward of the hospital.
All I could think was, he isn’t crazy. He shouldn’t be there.
I was 16, and this was one of my first lessons in how the world can be cruel. I had never dreamed that the Church would be the bad guy in such a scenario, but he was my friend. The Church’s teachings had led his own family to reject his very identity. The Church had endangered his life and belittled his soul. I didn’t know much, but I knew that if God made me, he made my friend, too, and the Church’s position just didn’t compute. I couldn’t reconcile the deep-rooted impulse in me to do the right thing by him – an impulse inextricably linked to my Catholic upbringing – with the idea that the Church itself was doing wrong by him, and by everyone like him.
I started to research Church teachings on homosexuality and on anything else I could think of. I found out that its abstinence-only policy had successfully prevented condoms from reaching untold numbers of people in the developing world during the years in which the AIDS virus spread most quickly. I learned that there was no real reason women couldn’t be priests, except that a bunch of old male Church leaders said so. I learned that Catholic money has as often gone to finance wars as it has gone to feed the poor (today those wars may be political battles rather than military actions, but the point still stands). I learned that the Church is led by humans, and Alexander Pope helped me fill in the rest. And though forgiveness may be divine, I found that I couldn’t accept the Church’s mistakes — not while they continued to harm people.
This is the moment when I first walked away from my own religion. In college, I continued my research, and my fight with myself about how I should handle my own personal religious alliances. I read Bartolomé de las Casas and saw Catholicism as a voice of humanity and reason in a world of cruelty and injustice. But then I read Sor Juana and the Reformation thinkers and saw the oppression of an institution unwilling to be confronted, even by those hoping to perfect rather than destroy it. I wrote my thesis on twentieth-century Mexican political culture and realized with disappointment that the Church had played a critical role in demonizing and dismissing women — not just in Mexico, and not just in the last 100 years.
If the Church has committed many sins, this may well be its greatest: having encouraged and normalized the pervasive, perverted, and often violent subjugation of women based on the fictional sin of their symbolic ancestor.
And yet in spite of everything that was wrong with the Church, I missed it. I missed going to Mass. I missed saying the Our Father. I didn’t have a ready-made alternative with which to fill the void that sprung up when I turned my back on Catholicism. And so I came back, wary and cautious, and I was lucky enough to find myself at your church. You and the other priests were unlike any I had ever met.
You reminded me that the real heart of Catholicism has nothing to do with the political battles that play out in its daily interactions with the 21st-century universe. You amazed me with your tolerance, your intelligence, and your careful moral reasoning. For you, and for the chance to be Catholic again, I put my anger and my reservations on hold and I started showing up at Sunday mass on a regular basis. I don’t think I have to tell you how masterfully you appeal to young Catholics like me, on the edge of our faith, because I believe you must do it intentionally. And I have to say, it works.
But now I’m gone from school, and there is no parish like yours where I live today. There are priests who have made me shake with anger while listening to their sermons. I have all but given up on the local Catholic community. I don’t want to go to Church on Sunday to hear a lecture about the abortions I’m never going to have. I might never abort a fetus, but I also can’t fathom a God who would value a potential life over an existing one, and I think there are priests out there who have forgotten that mothers have souls, too.
And then there are the things the Vatican does at every turn. Attack a bunch of nuns for being all charity and no venom. Criticize a nun and professor at the Yale Divinity School for writing about sex in the context of loving relationships. Encourage hatred of a President who inspires me every day to love the human race, in spite of the evil that still runs through it. I’m not interested in a Church that’s too busy hunting Satan to see God.
But I don’t want to find a new religion. I was raised Catholic. I feel Catholic. I don’t want to cede my religion to people who have transformed it into the monster that it seems to be today. I still believe in God. And Jesus. I don’t take the Old Testament literally, but who does? I am not sure I believe in Hell, the way I learned about it, anyhow, but to me that’s a small detail. I see good and evil and morality and justice through a Catholic lens, and I don’t think that will ever change. But I also don’t want to stand by while the Church does things I don’t agree with. I don’t want to enable its social irresponsibility with my silence, or with my prayers.
I am, right now, a Catholic all on my own – no church, no priest, no Pope – just me by myself, not sure where to go next. I’m a woman, so by definition I can’t challenge the powers-that-be from within. Challenging them from without is simpler, but somehow it wounds my heart. Half a century after Vatican II, I find myself in the Limbo that doesn’t officially exist anymore. I can’t be Catholic, but I can’t be not-Catholic. What if I have kids? Should I take them to mass? How would I explain to them that we’re Catholic even though Mommy doesn’t really believe in it anymore? How else would I teach them to be good people? To have faith? To celebrate life?
If this were a more straightforward conversation, I would ask you, as a Church professional: Am I still Catholic? Instead I’ll ask — what would you advise me to do next? And I know you’re just one guy, but I can’t sign off without hinting at the bigger question: how many people like me are out there? How many of us is the Church willing to lose? In case you ever find yourself in a position of Catholic influence, and the conversation turns to all those empty pews at Sunday mass, I hope you’ll mention me. I think the Church ought to care.