I’m a cradle Catholic. .My parents took me to church every Sunday and religious holiday and spent money to pay tuition to send me to Catholic grade and high schools. I have a total of 22 years of formal education nineteen of which were in Catholic institutions. (Seven of those years were, admittedly, at a Jesuit institution. One lesson that I took away from the Jesuits was that I had to form my own conscience. I couldn’t get away with saying, “On religion I always follow orders.” Not only did the Jesuits teach me that but, by some mysterious means, they got the message internalized in me as well.)
For the last 30 years, I have had a peaceful religious home at a Catholic parish in my home town. But, it now appears that my peace is about to end. That’s because the new Archbishop is forcing complete orthodoxy on the parish and all parishes in his diocese. That move has caused me to really think about my relationship to the Catholic Church – possibly for the first time. I now realize how much I dissent from the orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. This essay reviews the origins and nature of my dissent.
How Did I Get To This Point?
I have a lot of company in dissent. All of my friends at my parish church seem to feel that they are hanging on to the last shred of their faith. If it wasn’t for that particular parish church, the common belief is that they would have been gone a long time ago. The question is, how did so many of us arrive at the same place at the same time in their faith journey?
Neither I nor anyone I've talked with seems to have had a single event that caused dissent. Rather, it's been a gradual process for everyone from buying it all as a kid to now buying almost none of it as old geezers.
I'm aware that there are some people who seem to have had such transformative events. Most of them seem to be ones where the Church threw them out -- such as getting married for a second time. The Church seems particularly good at kicking people out.
Neither I nor anyone seems to have started from a place where we were foaming-at-the-mouth Catholics and had things degenerate from there. (By “FATM Catholics,” I mean the ones who still exist who go to Church every day, go to confession once a week, and don't go to communion after a day or so because of the “mortal sins” committed since the last confession.) At best, we went through the motions, like trained mice that learned the maze because there was some food at the end. (I remember that my father's mother, the Irish immigrant, did literally go to Church every day. There was a fall-off from her to my dad because he never picked up that level of commitment to the Church.)
(There clearly are FATM Catholics left. They include the ones who make it their personal jobs to inspect all the Catholic parishes in the diocese and to turn-in to the Archbishop any who aren’t in full conformance with the rules. I find their action to be un-Christian in the extreme and personally galling.)
Neither I nor anyone made a deliberate choice to not pass our “faith” on to our kids. Rather, it was more like feeling that if we were just going though the motions. Because we didn't have that strong of a commitment, we just didn't overcome our kids’ inertia against just going through the motions too.
It may have been easier to stay with a dictatorial church if we were living in a dictatorial political society too. When you had to obey the king, it probably didn't seem all that strange to have to do what the local priest told you that you had to do too. But, when we entered a "free" political society, than left the church alone as a dictator. It became easier to figure that you didn't have to obey when the orders when the orders only came from a very narrow area of one's life. Political liberalism, it would seem, makes keeping faith to a dictatorial religion difficult.
The liberalization of the Church after John XXIII and Vatican II seemed to fit with the liberal politics of the time. So, it was easy to stay with the Church just because it then fit with the rest of the way life worked. However, since then the Church has been trying to get the toothpaste back in the tube. And, it's just not going back in because it's too obvious that obeying now really is regression. Had the toothpaste never been let out of the tube, maybe more of us might have stayed with the acceptance of a dictatorial religion.
The Church has a lengthy and detailed set of doctrines. Considering the simple lessons of Jesus, the elaborate dogma of the Catholic Church is remarkable. Over the years, I’ve come to an adverse conclusion about most of the dogma. Basically, I agree with the doctrines in principle but disagree with the detail of each of the doctrines. In fact, I find the details to be silly.
Perhaps and example will suffice for explanation.
It is Church doctrine that Jesus was born to a virgin. In my mind, this means that, in some way, God really did take a human form. (I rather like that idea. To me, it seems to be God saying, “Yes, I know that not understanding much about your existence is difficult. But, I lived as a human too so I’m not asking you to do anything that I haven’t done myself.)
Anyway, the process for a pre-existing God to assume a human form would involve some process beyond the ordinary processes by which human beings are created. That process was called the “virgin birth” as shorthand for that special process. But, it does not mean that Mary did not have sex in the process of creating the child. But, the Church says the virgin birth is literally true and must be accepted literally. I don’t think that’s a correct understanding of “virgin birth.” I think that all it means is that through a mysterious single occurrence, the pre-existing God took human form. The fact that I don’t understand the process doesn’t bother me.
But, in addition, the whole idea of the literal “virgin birth” caused a major side problem. It turned into a belief that all sex is sinful and is best avoided entirely.
Unfortunately, the Church isn’t satisfied with acceptance of the doctrines it insists on acceptance of all of the silly details of each too. So, I’m saying, “Yes, I do believe,” despite my mental reservations. Going to my parish church even with mental reservations made it easy to stay connected to the institutional Church. However, going to a church that so obviously insists on complete conformity in every thought and action will be impossible.
The ruling that artificial birth control was immoral is one doctrinal element that made the Church really look like a cabal of mindless old men. That was particularly so after I read the encyclical myself. It basically read like a court decision that was going to rule one way but the judge changed his mind but only bothered to change the last paragraph of the previously written decision. The encyclical basically presents an argument for why artificial birth control in moral but gets to the end and says, “But, we can’t be sure about any of that so there will be no change – artificial birth control is still immoral.” It’s a clear assault on rationality.
The mindless attitude of the hierarchy towards same-sex attraction also seems particularly mindless. The Church, it would seem, never learned its lesson when it condemned Galileo’s finding about celestial mechanics. Despite what science figures out, it is still saying that it’s doctrines and not science are correct.
Over the years, I’ve been to see psychologists and psychiatrists. I’m beginning to suspect that my visits with them might give Woody Allen a run for his money. But, one thing that I have figured out from all the visits is that a large share of the blame for my being screwed up (that’s the official designation from the psychologists’ diagnostic manual) leads back to the Church.
That’s funny in one way because I remember being told way back in grade school that psychologists, in particular, were to be avoided. That was because they all had a tendency to say that the Church was screwing with your mind. If it became absolutely necessary to see one, then I needed to find a Catholic psychologist just so the Church wouldn’t be blamed for anything. (I was assured that the Church couldn’t possibly be responsible for messing with my mind.)
At least for me, growing up as a kid in the Catholic Church, I internalized that not only was “man” sinful but that I, personally, was possibly the worst piece of manure in the universe. Just about everything was a sin. It seems clear now that if one wants to grow up having some since of personal self-worth, that spending your kid-hood listening to Church propaganda about how bad you were was not the way to do it. And the sacrament of penance (confession, in the word of the time) while probably a good idea in the abstract, turned into a constant reminder of how bad I was. And the fact that I seemed powerless to change anything (such as sassing my parents) gave it a certain air of frustration to boot.
The disclosures about clergy sex abuse in the Church made a difference too. It wasn’t just an isolated thing but a regular occurrence. (I also had a personal experience. One priest when I was a kid came on to me. Nothing happened but I’ve watched ever since to see if his name ever shows up as abusing someone else.) The effect was to burst the bubble that priests really were a different breed of men who really knew what God wanted. They were obviously very human. And, the church’s response was not to realize that “there’s a terrible problem with priestly celibacy” but to tamp down human emotions even further. So, the burst bubble was compounded with the realization that the Church hierarchy was totally clueless about sex.
I haven’t had to suffer the worst of the church’s attitudes. Because the priests are all male, the whole church has a distinctly male atmosphere. While lip service is given to the co-equal role of women in the Church and life, actions speak louder than words. It’s obvious that the men run it and the women are there to keep the place clean. All the nuns are leaving in droves. It’s a wonder that women entirely haven’t also left in droves.
The Church hierarchy is making it more difficult to stay Catholic. No matter what, they are determined to get the toothpaste back in the tube and they don't really care if they leave a big mess trying to do that. The period of liberalization under John XXIII and Vatican II didn't last long enough for the clergy and hierarchy to settle into the routine of a more liberal church. So, at the first opportunity, they took control back from the liberals and started the process of finding ways to get the toothpaste back into the tube.
It took a long time once the reaction by the hierarchy set in to get to the people in the pews in all geographical areas of the Church. For a long time in the diocese, the attitude really was one that the spirit was more important than the details. But, there were warning sings even then. I heard parish priest say that once that Archbishop was gone, then “the party’s over.” That has proved to be correct.
The Road Ahead
A new, very conservative Archbishop is now in charge. Under him, the reactionaries have seized control in the Minneapolis-St. Paul diocese. The result is that, one way or another; my parish church will be forced to conform to the rules that every parish must be exactly the same model.
The best that can be expected from the new conservatives is that there won’t be a royal edict that we go back on one specific Sunday. But, over the next few years, my parish church will be forced incrementally into becoming more and more "standard." As long as it's a process over a number of years, there won't be any mass walk-out at my parish church. However, its growth over the last 20 to 30 years will turn around and the number going there will get fewer and fewer. Eventually, masses will move back from the gym to the church just because the huge facility just isn't needed anymore. (This is your standard process of cooking a frog by slowly heating the water rather than dumping the live frog into boiling water.)
For a significant period, I believed that there were two Catholic churches. There was the “church of the hierarchy” and the “church of the laity.” They may have worshiped at the same place but their beliefs were entirely different. Up until recently, there was a “live and let live” attitude between the two churches. However, the Archbishop’s recent actions shows that he is determined that there will only be a “church of the hierarchy” and that he’s out to abolish any trace of the “church of the laity.” The simple fact is that none of us can convert to the “church of the hierarchy” even on a pro forma basis.
Personally, my connection with my parish church will probably just peter out over the next few years. The speed of that petering out will correspond to the speed with which complete orthodoxy is forced on the parish. I doubt that I'll go somewhere else. I'll become the "fallen-away Catholic" that I heard about as a kid.
Despite the change, I do worry that the institutional Catholic Church actually does reflect God’s attitude. That is, God is a humorless martinet who is out to make everyone’s life miserable whether he or she is loyal to him or not. Basically, the Catholic Church makes me worry that maybe God is a horse’s ass.
I also can’t say that I’ll ever be totally free of the damage done by the church all those years ago. On a frequent basis I recognize the tug of all the talk about, “That’s a sin” and have to remember that it’s just the rock-hard morality inculcated all those years ago.
I do wonder whether over the really long stretch of time (like, say, 10,000 years) whether there will be the ruins of St. Peter's in Rome that are visited along with the Roman Forum.