An American Catholic

Both of my parents are Catholic. When I was a boy I was sent through the motions of church life. – Baptism, communion, confession. I was sent to a Catholic elementary school. I hated it because I had to wear a tie, other than that it was ok though.

Catholics hold a ‘confirmation’ ceremony for its adherents, generally when they reach between 13 and 16 years old or so. The Bishop comes to town, there’s a big to-do, the Bishop makes a declaration, the adolescent says ‘Amen’ and they’re confirmed. It’s almost like a second baptism for when you’ve reached the age of reason.

I attended the ceremony for my sister who is a few years older than I am. And before you knew it, I got older, and my turn had arrived.

Now, I’ve always been a man of logic. When I was in 3rd grade I remember we had to keep a journal that our teacher would read and respond to. I asked her, with childish curiosity: If there were kings willing to offer him precious metals for his birthday, why was Jesus so poor? You would have thought I had written a bomb threat the way it was responded to. The principal got involved, my parents were called in, the local priest was asked his opinion. Nobody wanted to offend anybody else. Finally, they decided the teacher would tell me that the gifts the child Christ received at his birth were only in token amounts, and not of any great worth. Ahh, well that explains it…

- An unsatisfying answer, but even at that age I was wise enough to just let it be so that I could get back to playing kickball.

When I was young I believed everything I was told. I took a lot of things on faith, assuming the adults around me knew what they were talking about, and that eventually, as I grew, I would come to understand how it is that they knew what they knew. I believed the Biblical stories I was told were historical fact. That’s how they were presented to me. But at some point, probably around 9, 10 or 11 years old, I started to figure out that adults don’t know quite as much as I thought they did. That there are things that are unknown or unknowable. I remember a period of several months where I was fascinated with the concept of infinity and the idea that I exist along a continuum of space that continues on forever. And after talking about it with teachers and parents, I realized that their grasp of the idea was no better, if not inferior, to my own.

And then at some point people started to talk about ‘faith’. But there was no graceful transition from presenting the Bible stories as historical truth to me as a 6 year old, and then trying to explain faith, and belief to me as an 11 year old. You presented this stuff to me with no caveats, as known fact, why would I need to believe or have faith in anything? You told me you knew this stuff was true! It was a betrayal of my trust. What else didn’t they know?

And so it came time for me to be confirmed in my church. The church that held out my parents, and their parents as members, the church my sister adored, and the church that all my friends from Catholic school were being confirmed in. And I decided I wasn’t going to participate. I was willing to concede that the story of Christ was possibly true, but I had no belief or faith that it was so. And given that, I objected to publicly stating in a ceremony anything that would indicate something to the contrary.

I had made my decision. But I held off sharing it with anyone for as long as possible. I knew it wasn’t going to be taken well and it’s a lot to ask of a 15 year old to stand up to his parents, entire extended family, and go against what all his friends are doing all at the same time.

My parents were absolutely livid. I was yelled at. I was told I’d be punished. There were attempted bribes. I was threatened that I’d be shunned by my grandparents. – That it would be a mark on me for the rest of my life.

I never yelled back, or gave in. I explained my position a couple times and wasn’t being listened to. So I just resolutely crossed my arms, sat down, and refused to go.

After about a month of argument my parents gave up and it was never mentioned again.

Looking back on it, it looks like I was being a better Catholic than my parents. – Respecting the church and its teachings too much to lie to its face.

We have all come a long way since those days. Living forces us to grow. My entire extended family has become much less entwined with the severity of a dogmatic church, I think for a few reasons: Me being open about being gay at a young age; the scandals in the church; and a kind of calming gentleness that seems to have been slowly draped upon us through the years.

It was with that personal history in mind that I read the following criticism of the American Catholic Bishops:

They are prepared to go down screaming over contraception in health insurance plans handled between patient and insurer. Letters were read recently in every parish. They planned a campaign against any compromise for months.

But ask yourself: where were they on a much more fundamental cause for Catholics: universal healthcare? Were they anything like as vocal?

Where were they when the Bush administration was practizing and authorizing the torture and abuse and robbing of human dignity of terror suspects? The Pope never obliquely mentioned these categorical evils when visiting the US and cozying up to the war criminals in the Bush administration?

Where have they been on tackling climate change – a sacred obligation for Catholics according to the Pope they follow so fanatically?

Why so utterly fixated on sex, especially the sex lives of women and gay men? Why so utterly indifferent to the whole range of public policies which Catholic orthodoxy has strong views on?

They have become the Pharisees. And we need Jesus.


It’s easy to forget the most important things when so many trivial things are thrust upon us day after day. We need to be reminded often that we can choose to love, forgive and be unworried, and that it can lead to the happiest of lives. But instead we’re suffocated with rules. There is a road the Catholic church could take that would make me proud to call myself a Catholic. They’re just not taking it.

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  1. jennypenny
    Posted February 23, 2012 at 5:58 am | Permalink

    I understand your frustration with the Catholic Church. I attended Mass for decades before deciding to be confirmed fairly recently. The fixation on the sexual behavior of everyone but hetero men is misplaced, and in light of recent church scandals seems dangerous.

    But I couldn’t deny any longer that I was a Catholic. I didn’t want to deny it—I AM a Catholic. And I’m as much a Catholic as any priest or Bishop. It is my church as much as it is theirs. I decided they had no right to keep me from my faith. I chose to take ownership of my faith publicly and fight to change the injustices from within. I strive to live a life that all Catholics should live that is loving, inclusive, and charitable.

    When I take issue with the actions of the government, it never occurs to me to leave the country. I stay and fight for what’s right within the system instead of abandoning it. That’s because at heart I’m an American, and any administration’s misdeeds cannot change that. That is how I feel about being Catholic. Somehow as Americans we feel we have the right to demand change, but don’t feel the same rights as Catholics. Holding up a Bible in defense of the status quo is no different than holding up the Constitution.

    I understand your feelings. Most disputes I have personally with the Church (like contraception) can be dealt with in private. I’m not sure I would have the courage to face things like the denial of the Eucharist or the scrutiny that would come with your situation. It makes me sad that you are denied your faith by people who worship the rules instead of Christ.

  2. KevinW
    Posted February 23, 2012 at 6:48 pm | Permalink

    Around the same age of 10ish I asked a sincere question-bomb. “You showed me Santa and Luke Skywalker, who had super powers, and then later told me they were pretend. Jesus seems to have the same kinds of powers, will he turn out to be pretend too? If not, why is he different?” That was probably around Easter. There was no satisfying answer.

    My recollection from Sunday school was that about 90% of the “Jesus Platform” involved empathy, charity for the less fortunate, compassion for outcasts, peace, anti-consumerism, anti-authoritarianism. He was pretty explicit about not being judgmental. I can get behind all of that. And yet about 90% of what I see being done in the name of Christianity, is sitting in judgement over what minuscule percentages of the population do with minuscule percentages of their time. Somehow they got stuck in this rut of obsessing over gay marriage, abortions, etc. and war, famine, etc. never make it back on the agenda.

    I guess I support almost everything J.C. said, but the institutionalized church, not so much.

  3. Maus
    Posted February 23, 2012 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    Hey Mike, thanks for sharing your story. Your decision not to be confirmed out of priniciple sounds a lot like my decision not to take solemn vows in the Order if I didn’t think I could stay until death.

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that each person has to make this decision of commitment for him or her self. The Church has done some ugly things in history, as well as some beautiful ones. For me, it remains the means for my own appropriation of a fruitful relationship with God. I don’t agree with everything she does. And I find a lot of her priests and bishops to be appallingly ignorant and simplistic. But I get what I need.

    In contrast, my brother (who is also gay), feels so alienated by doctrine and the Church’s moral theology that he simply cannot find any sustenance within it. It saddens me because he used to have this deep appreciation for sacred art and architechture. But he doesn’t denigrate my choice and I don’t denigrate his. I think that ultimately, that’s what being non-judgemental amounts to. But I’m not perfect, I reserve my criticism for the hypocrits who insist that the Church must conform to their vision, as if history and Tradition were nothing in the scales. It is one thing to disagree with the Church, another to demand it agree with me. That is not now nor never was the eye of the needle.

    Keep up the great work of sharing your insights and your philosophy.

  4. Posted February 24, 2012 at 7:43 am | Permalink

    @Maus I thought this post might draw you out.

    Your, and Jenny’s similar point, that one ought to be able to be a member of a church while simultaneously taking issue with some aspects of it, sounds perfectly right to me. And I would not object to joining the church simply due to the poor behavior of its Bishops.

    But, while my personal moral system is in no small part guided by the teachings of the Gospels, the instinct that lead me to refuse to affirm the divine aspects of the story as a boy, is still with me.

    When Mother Teresa’s private letters were published just a few years ago I thought I felt a kindred spirit. She wrote to her Reverend and fellow Catholic, “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.”

    I hear people talk about their pull to faith. – Jenny’s draw towards Catholicism. Your own fruitful relationship with God. I’ve listened and discussed at length with devout people about the most intimate aspects of their faith in an effort to understand.

    But when I open my heart, my ears, my eyes, and my mind, and search at length, and wait with quiet patience, I look and I find nothing.

  5. Maus
    Posted February 26, 2012 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

    I hear you. Dealing with the Ineffable can be a real bitch sometimes. But Mother Teresa is a great role model. She experienced decades of spiritual aridity, but she didn’t dwell on what she lacked. She was pure action on behalf of others. I wish I had one hundredth of her mojo.

    Anyway. Keep on listening. And doing the good things that you do do. As the good Book says, you shall know a tree by its fruits. From my perspective, you seem to be tending a pretty good orchard.

  6. bigato
    Posted May 21, 2012 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

    When young, I started to attend the classes that came before communion. At some point, I don’t remember why, but I just left. I think nobody complained, I also have no idea why. Lucky me. :-)