I met the Pope once. True story: when we got married, we honeymooned in Rome, and there’s a special thing where newlyweds from all over the world dress up in their wedding attire, then get special premier seating for a papal audience, and the pope blesses their marriage. Afterwards he moseys on over to say hello. Benedict XVI held out his hand and I kissed the gold ring, the Fisherman’s Ring, the ring of St. Peter that they smash with a hammer, remelt, and make anew for every pope. “Where are you from, my child?” he rasped in a heavy German accent. He was much shorter than I expected.
“South Carolina, Your Holiness,” I managed.
He nodded and moved on.
Our family was that Catholic. Mass every Sunday, every Holy Day of Obligation, and random days in between. I said the Rosary aloud to put my kids to sleep. I screamed for the saints in Purgatory when I was in transition with my second son. I cried when all three of my boys were baptized and threw a party when my oldest received his First Communion.
Now it is with a hurting heart that I say I can no longer ascribe to the Catholic Church. We don’t give the Church money. We haven’t darkened their door since early summer, and we don’t know yet if we ever will again.
I was always a Catholic with, well, issues. I have a transgender brother, and I am proud to say I never supported the Catholic line on LGBTQ issues. I spoke out against it whenever it came up. I had sex before marriage and never regretted it. I tried the no-birth-control thing for a while, until it became untenable for various reasons and an understanding priest gave me a dispensation anyway. If it’s so bad, how come I can get dispensed from it? I wondered. So that went out the window.
Then the abuse scandal reached a fever pitch. A dear friend, without warning, was expelled from seminary through no fault of his own. And I just couldn’t do it anymore.
We’d been lazy about church. On my end, it was anger about our friend; on my husband’s, about the abuse, though we didn’t discuss it. Then I read a quote in which Bishop Charles Cunningham of New York says, in a sworn deposition in 2011, that “at 7-years-old, children know what they’re doing, so it isn’t rape” — referring to age 7 as the traditional “age of reason” in which children are seen as capable of sin. He also says that, “(Bishop) Moynihan said that right to my face — ‘The age of reason is 7, so if you’re at least 7 you’re culpable for your actions.’ That kind of floored me.”
We were driving to my mother’s house when I read this on my phone. My almost-9 and almost-7 year-olds were sitting in the minivan behind me.
“I’m done,” I proclaimed to my husband. “I’m fucking done.”
“I was done when I found out the diocese of New York paid 2 million dollars to a lobbying firm to block child sex abuse law reform,” he replied.
That’s not to mention the rampant abuses of power everywhere. The Church in Ireland — dear sweet Jesus, the men and women tasked with protecting the poor and vulnerablewho spent a hundred years tossing almost 800 bodies in a septic tank in Tuam, County Galway. I’d driven through that town before I heard about those allegations, years before: a quiet, beautiful place, with ruins of an old monastery. They filmed The Quiet Man there.
Someone said to me, “If you know an institution is corrupt and actively oppressive, you have the moral obligation to not be part of it.”
I totally agree with that statement.
Except, I am Catholic to my bones. I can recite the Nicene Creed with a clear conscience, and I believe every word, down to the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting, Amen. I mostly believe, though this gets shaky at times, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That’s how they trap you, you know. They tell you they have the monopoly on Jesus so you can’t leave, because without Him, where are you supposed to go?
But if it’s really Him, why isn’t His leader bringing fire and brimstone down on the people who perpetuated child abuse for so many years, who committed child abuse, who covered up child abuse, who turned a blind eye to child abuse, who abused power and continue to. Our old priest — I’ll call him out — drives a BMW while homeless men panhandle in our downtown. If that’s not scandal, I don’t know what is.
After a while, maybe you have to step out from underneath what the old white guys are telling you. Maybe you have to develop a faith that isn’t based on a terror of hell. Maybe you can’t turn a blind eye to oppression anymore, to an institution that drove your own brother out, to a group that insists on female submission and servitude as a kind of higher calling than anything dudes can do. Well, you tell me how high that calling is when those same dudes are in the back molesting kids and lying about it.
But I am Catholic. If I were dying, I’d call a priest. If my walls were bleeding, I’d call a priest, because when the demons come a-knocking, everyone knows that you have to call in the Catholics, preferably an old priest and a young priest. I sound flippant, but I’m serious as a nun on Sunday. Where else shall we go Lord, the disciples ask. You have the words of eternal life.
Except maybe if God was really present, he’d flip the Church upside down like a moneylender’s table in the temple at Jerusalem. Except maybe a God who doesn’t understand why I can’t give money to the Church isn’t God at all. Except maybe my conscience says love is always the answer, and love always seeks truth — not lying men covering up the abuse of the most vulnerable, then retreating into rank clericalism.
I don’t know what we will do. Sometimes religion is about more than just spiritual belief. It’s your grandmother walking you to church in the morning, her head bowed in prayer whenever she passed a church. It’s your First Communion veil sitting in your living room, the Baptismal gowns in your attic. Religion is more than just a collection of belief. It’s the fabric of who you are. Dropping it means the courage to become someone else. Do I have that courage?
I don’t know.
But I no longer know how I can stay.