How do Catholics simply disregard/ignore/make peace with huge issues I cannot get past? Part III

This is my response to the lovely note from Gray. Just a heads up, we each wrote a long explanation for her. I don’t think we’ll be doing this for every question. But I felt that this way we could each kind of explain ourselves and our faith. I thought that each letter acted as a really good faith based bio for each Catholic Girl. Now, here is my response.

Hey Grey,

It’s complicated.

That’s how I’ve taken to explaining my faith to people. It depends on what day of the week it is. Some days I wake up and love being Catholic, other days I wake up a fervent Atheist. But on the days in between I try something like this.

I realize that the Church is fallible. I know, they say it’s not, but we all know it is. The Church is a 2,000 year old institution that has lots of baggage and has made plenty of mistakes. Mistakes that it has acknowledged. God (Or Allah or YHWH or Kali-Ma or freakin’ Thor) is an infinite being. He/She is all of time and space rolled up into a powerful ball. I don’t presume to know what He’s got in store, I don’t think any human can understand God. I think that the Church is a human reflection of divinity, I think it exists more for people than it does for God. I think the official church teachings on contraception, abortion, women’s rights, priest’s marrying, gay marriage and women priests are bullshit. I think the sex abuse scandal is a blight on our faith, and will be for centuries. It’s despicable and shameful how that was handled and gives ALL Catholics a bad name. (I don’t think they could be more embarrassed by a feminist in their flock than I am in knowing that my 7 year old cousin’s church has a donation fund to help an accused priest’s legal fees) I recognize that the church is a big group of human grown-ups, and they are not perfect. Because of this I don’t feel that I need to fall in line with all of it’s concepts. I believe that faith and spirituality are intensely personal things and that a person takes what they need from them. I don’t think religion is an encyclopedia of answers, I believe that you have to find the answers in yourself. I believe that you have to find what resonates for you. I don’t believe that everyone should have to wear the same ugly outfit, so why would we all have to worship the same way?

If I believe all that then why do I even stick with the Catholic church? Why not find a better religion? Once I was talking to a very good friend of mine and I asked her how she reconciled her faith with her convictions. She told me that she believed that the church was “in a dark period.” At first I thought she was idiotic for trying to make sense of this 2000 year old disaster. I was angry and the offenses of the church were piling on to me. I believed that we should do away with it entirely. That nothing was salvageable; it was rotten to the core. That was probably about 3-4 years ago. I still make it to mass once in a while, but I took a long break from the Church. You know what? I still cross myself when I’m nervous or scared. I hang a rosary in my car and sometimes I recite the Hail Mary over and over again to calm myself. I might have been done with Catholicism, but I guess it wasn’t done with me. There is something inside of me that still wants to be part of the church.

So what parts of Catholicism do I still cling to? A very important part of my faith is the Virgin Mary and the Saints. I lost my mother when I was young and the idea of a beautiful woman with my name really struck me. I love hearing the Saint’s stories. If you check the right places there are totally badass interesting women. I love the ritual and prayers. I like going to Christmas and Easter mass because they are full “smells and bells” masses. It’s comforting to know that billions of people for 2,000 years have listened to those words and been comforted. Also I’m a religious scholar so I think the rituals are just cool. When I was in high school my church was across the street and I used to get my community service hours by making sandwiches for the poor. That is the church I love. Those are the things I want them spending time on and the things I want to do.

I guess if I’m still Catholic (and I think I am) what it’s come to, for me, is that they don’t get to talk for me. With all of the contraception scandal in the news, with this guy, with all of it I don’t like where the Church is headed. I don’t like my tithed dollars to go sex abuse lawyers or for my sister’s High School to be debt collateral, or to have to hear “right to life” nonsense in the pews on Sunday. You know what else? I also don’t think it’s fair that the Church is determined to scare away strong, smart men and women with their outdated notions. I don’t want to be disenfranchised. Just like you gotta vote to make sure your voice is heard. I feel like I gotta take back my faith, and part of that is exercising it my way.

When I was in college I wrote a very long paper on the subject of women priests. I actually went to a mass officiated by a real life female catholic priest! You know what? It was the best sermon I’ve ever heard. Thinking back on those ladies, I was really inspired. Even though they’ve all been excommunicated they say nope, we don’t want to be part of different church. We don’t want to form our own separate entity, we want to be Catholic and we want to be part of the tradition. The Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community says as part of it’s mission “Making Catholicism relevant.” I think that goes for the vast majority of Catholic Americans. I think the church in the US has lost touch with us and needs to come back in line with what the community needs, not the hierarchy.

Evolution is a natural part of life, and it’s part of religion. Nothing is set in stone. Every religion, across the board, has different sects, beliefs, practices. They disagree about something, then agree again 200 years later. New ones rise up, and old ones die out. I think anything is possible, I don’t think being a Catholic has to preclude me from being pro-choice or a feminist or from supporting gays, I think there is a way to make it all work; to make the Church relevant to me. The only way to make it work is to do it. So here I am a pro-choice, feminist Catholic conundrum. I like doing yoga, I read the Quran sometimes, I have a rosary in my car and a Buddha statue on my desk. Yeah, it’s confusing, but what would we do with our time if life was easy?

But does any of this make it easier on Sunday mornings? No it doesn’t. On a practical note, I’ve been looking for a good open, liberal congregation in LA for years, and I haven’t found one. I’ll go months without going to church. I haven’t been to confession in about 10 years. It’d be a lot easier if I could just toe the line. But that’s just not me. In the holy words of Tim Gunn I’m just trying “to make it work.”

❤ Mary

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I was raised Catholic, but can’t accept it all. How do others, especially women? Part II.

In Part II, Nadia answers a question from “Where Is the Room for Gray,” found here.

Dear “Where Is the Room for Gray,”

How do I take what resonates in my heart and disregard what makes me squeamish? One of my best friends who in the last couple of years went from having no religion to being a Non-Denominational Christian told me, “Religion is first and foremost about your relationship with God and our community.” It’s these relationships that lift us up the most, not our relationship with the institution. I go to church on Sunday, yes, to feel community and ask for prayers, but also to have a chat with my Heavenly Father and Mother Mary in a sacred space.

I spent years feeling guilty (Carmen’s right, we do that so well!) about my beliefs or lack thereof. I once sat across from a family member and cried because I could not wrap my head around the need for Christ’s Atonement or Catholicism in general. This family member, who I am terribly close with, asked me if I believed every line of the Apostles Creed. Still in tears I told her I wasn’t sure. She looked me in the eyes and said, “Well, that’s what it takes to be Catholic.”

Her statement is flat out not true. It isn’t scriptural, part of dogma, or the way I experience Catholicism. Even in times of pure and utter darkness, I knew I was Catholic for two simple reasons: I was baptized, and I chose to be confirmed. That’s it. It’s done. I am Catholic.

The Church can’t get rid of me. I took part in sacred, ritual rites of passage. I refuse to go anywhere. They have to accept me, feminist Nadia, questioning Nadia, renegade Nadia.

How do I take what resonates in my heart and disregard what makes me squeamish? I put everything that keeps me up at night before my Heavenly Father. I tell him, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Really? Mary’s perpetual virginity? Pedophile priests? Woman can’t be priests? Etc. etc.”

I have thrown out what Mass is supposed to be and replaced it with what I need it to be. I have thrown out what prayer is supposed to be, what my role as a woman is supposed to be, what being a good Catholic girl is supposed to be.

I don’t know what it means when Catholics don’t follow every precept of the church other than to say it doesn’t surprise me. It doesn’t surprise because the Church has a lot of rules but a poor way of disseminating information. It doesn’t surprise me because the way people choose to practice religion rarely aligns perfectly onto the dogma prescribed by an institution.

And even though I live my entire Catholic life in a giant gray area, the Church’s teachings on contraception do not bother me. I was taught that fertility is an integral part of my personhood and my divinity. Contraception stipulates that there is something wrong with my fertility and that it needs to be reduced or eliminated in order for me to have choices and freedom. Just as fertility is integral to me, it is integral to men as well. When we use contraception, we withhold a portion of who we are from our partner. Same goes for men. When they put on a condom, there is a literal barrier between the totality of their personhood and their partner. Sexuality as I’ve been taught is the total union of partners. I am in the Natural Family Planning camp of Catholics. (admittedly I don’t know where this leaves our brothers and sisters who cannot have children. I’m still sorting that one out)

If you’re staring at your computer screen thinking, “This girl is crazy! How can she call herself a feminist?” Let me tell you, this particular teaching really resonates with me, but I don’t expect it to feel right or good or divine to everyone. I prioritize human agency over church teachings. The church teaches a lot of things, makes us feel guilt about our very human foibles, but in the beginning God created agency. He gave us minds and hearts and he expects us to use them. Fertility is not the only thing integral to who you are. It’s your questions, love of community, the things that bring you joy, your desire to work things out, the things you find humor in, the things that scare you, the things that frustrate you… you are not supposed to turn any of those things off, to your God, to your family, to you significant other, or to your church.

If you’re are sitting in your pew ready to tear your hair out or think the Church doesn’t want you, I’m here to tell you that I want you. I need to know that Catholics like me are sitting in the pews on Sunday, too. Knowing there are people out there with questions and heartache and a touch of anger brings me tremendous comfort. I find you and Catholics like us the answer to my years of praying, “God, you have got to be kidding me.”

much love,

Nadia, a Catholic Girl

I was raised Catholic, but can’t accept it all. How do others, especially women?

Another day, another challenging and exciting question from a fellow Catholic girl!

And we were so pumped about being here and having this conversation, we decided that we’d all weigh in. The first post will be from Carmen, following the question: below. Nadia and Mary will follow.

Dear Catholic Girls,

How do Catholics simply disregard/ignore/make peace with huge issues I cannot get past? I was raised Catholic–mass 3 times a week, 9 years of Catholic school, the works–but I can’t sit through mass anymore with only a male, celibate priest who feels like he has a right to dictate my birth control options. I’m sorry, but he has no uterus, and he has no sex, so where does he get off telling me that birth control is wrong? I also don’t understand how the huge majority of Catholic families do utilize birth control even though it’s against the church’s decree. If an enormous population of your church disregards what you say, what does that mean?

I just see no place whatsoever in the church for women who don’t want to wear their bodies out having kids or live a celibate life as a nun. I see no place for women who know that they can’t be good mothers to 7 kids, or for women who ache to see a woman in priest’s robes blessing the congregation.

I think my question is: if you aren’t a hard-line, 100% orthodox Catholic, how can you take what resonates in your heart and disregard what makes you squeamish? It’s so black and white to me.

Wondering,

Where Is the Room for Gray

Dear “Where Is the Room for Gray,”

How I feel you! How I struggle with the dichotomy of the Virgin Mary and the woman at the well. How I wish that the Church could recognize the damage it has done to male and female alike by allowing so few examples of what it means to be a woman of God outside of the selfless, suffering mother or the selfless, suffering nun. How I wish that ideology was a less powerful force in our world than it is.

Right now, you feel like it’s black and white because everybody has always told you that’s how it has to be. I’ve heard people say it my whole life. “A cafeteria Catholic” was one who would pick and choose the parts they liked—the jello and the fried chicken but not the wretched soggy spinach—and discarded the rest. You couldn’t do that and be a real Catholic, and being a real Catholic was a badge of honor.

It was doubly an honor because I was a real Catholic in a small town in Southeast Texas, where Southern Baptists had us heavily outnumbered. At school, kids told me I wasn’t saved because I hadn’t responded to an altar call. I hadn’t raised my hand at an Evangelical revival, walked down to the front with fear and trembling, and asked Jesus into my heart as my personal Lord and Savior. Even when they came to my house in the white church van during their revival week to “kidnap” me and take me to First Baptist, where I’d be subjected to the proverbial “turn or burn” talk, I kept my hand down and my ass firmly in the pew.

I resisted it as a good Catholic girl, because of that real Catholic badge of honor. I knew the Catholics were Christians, despite what those Baptists said, and I had two thousand years of tradition behind me to back it up. I had the Sacred Heart of Jesus along with the saints and statues and rosaries and all the makings of a real religion, not something invented in the last 100 years, or even the last 500. And if it meant I had to take things wholesale, well, that was the price of the badge.

But, after years of obedience and sanctimony, after years of guilt and shame (oh, we are so good at that) about my body and the things it wanted to do, after years of trying to reconcile a priest who had never been married counseling my sister to stay in a verbally abusive marriage, I’m not willing to accept that badge.

I don’t believe it has to be black and white. I believe that there are expansive areas of gray where we can honor one another in full acceptance and in love, the way Christ did. To me, there is room for many voices in this conversation, many outside of Catholicism and even Christianity, about what is divine and how to reach it. And—this is a very, very important “and”—I choose to attend Mass at parishes in that exude such a spirit.

One of the reasons I no longer believe the all or nothing, black and white agenda and instead have found this middle ground is because otherwise, I would have to leave the church, the way I would have to leave America—and let’s be honest, the planet—if I didn’t let the stuff I disagree with wash over me.

There would be silence where I used to sing the Gloria, my hands absent where they were joined with others in the Our Father, no imprints in the kneeler where my knees would press during the consecration of the Eucharist.

And then what happens? If I leave, and you leave, and every other woman who wants to be something other than a celibate nun, a Virgin Mary, or a guilt-ridden transgressor, then who is going to fight for a different image of women in the Church? Who will fight for a different role for women in the church? If we are not there to press for change, how will it change?

As for the issue of what it means to have an enormous percentage of the Church disregarding the ban on contraceptives, I think it’s a wake up call. It’s pretty undeniable, even if the 98% figure isn’t exactly what it seems. And though the Catholic bishops aren’t admitting it, I think priests closer to the people know what’s going on. On the website Religion News Service, Mark Silk presented One Priest’s Opinion on the Mandate. “I don’t need Guttmacher stats to tell me that using contraceptives is not an issue for Catholic women,” a priest from the archdiocese of Milwaukee wrote. (Or for Catholic men, I might add.) “I see it every week at the Masses I celebrate at large suburban parishes… each one of those couples has 2.5 kids… I hear it in the casual conversations that men have with me informing me that they long ago had ‘snip-snip’… I haven’t had confession about birth control in years

So women are taking their birth control in silence, abiding this ban in silence, as many are abiding the fact that women aren’t allowed to be priests—that instead of being church leaders, they are put on a pedestal and told to be like the Virgin Mother: selfless, obedient, long-suffering.

But I wonder what would happen if we all spoke up, about any and all of it. I know the Catholic Church is far from a democracy, and this may seem incredibly naive or idealistic or downright foolish, but what if our experience—our lived reality—could change things for the better?

At this point in my life, I attend Mass—not because I have to do so in order to be a real Catholic, nor because I think a priest has all the answers for me, nor has any idea what is good for my body. It’s also not because I agree with everything the Catholic Church teaches, because I don’t.

I attend because it is my church, too, and because it is important that I remain a part of the conversation. I attend because it is a way I feel fed, connected to the larger body of humanity, and I know that lots of those people spend their time contemplating the nuanced shades of gray, too.

I believe that makes me more real than I’ve ever been.

Commenters, Catholic Girls: other perspectives? Any tips for reconciliation (with a little ‘r’)?

Carmen, A Catholic Girl

I’m a Catholic school educated, practicing Baptist and I’m missing the Catholicism of my growing up years. Any Advice?

First of all, we have to thank Joanna Brooks again for her lovely introduction to Ask Catholic Girl that appeared on her blog this morning. We have also received lovely, encouraging emails and Facebook messages from people excited about our work. Thank you to everyone!

Now on this lovely Sabbath Day, we received Ask Catholic Girl’s first, official question. I (Nadia) forwarded it along to the other Catholic Girls and we pulled our Catholic lady wisdom together.

Here’s the predicament:

Hi Ladies,

I’m a 31-year-old stay at home mother of 3 children (5 years, 3 years and 9 months), and I’ve been married for almost 8 years to a wonderful man. I was not raised in any faith but went to a Catholic high school that I loved.

After my husband and I were married we decided to join a church. My husband has a baptist background and consequently we joined an evangelical church where I was later baptized and had my children dedicated. Periodically over the years I’ve found myself reflecting back on the 4 years that I went to catholic school, served in the choir and went on retreats and have found myself missing the beauty and order of the catholic faith.

My husband and I have now enrolled our children in catholic school. I am very happy about this and am sure they’ll receive a wonderful education and a wonderful sense of the community of Christ. My husband is open to attending mass but has proclaimed that he will never convert (I imagine that many years of being baptist will do that to you). I find myself contemplating it again but only had 4 years of exposure to the faith so I’m not entirely sure I’m making an informed decision (if I’m even making a decision at all?)

My other concern is that after 8 years at our current church I’m sure I’ll be severing relationships, especially a relationship with our current pastor who I love and respect very much.   What if I end up not wanting to convert and I’ve damaged relationships at my current church for the sake of investigation?  Yet, at the same time I feel like my heart is pulling me away.

I was wondering if you had any advice for me?

Thank you,

Fearfully contemplating going “home”

Dearest Fearfully Contemplating Going “home,”

First of all, we’re pretty excited that a lady like you is thinking about hanging in the pews with us Catholics on Sunday. The more thoughtful, loving people we have around, the better.

Let me get this straight: You love Catholicism, went to Catholic school, and your Baptist husband is cool with enrolling your kids in Catholic school and isn’t bothered by the idea of going to Mass? If your home and married life can support you as you dip a toe or two into Catholicism then over half the struggle is taken care of. Even if your husband never converts, and even if you never convert, his support and understanding add extra threads to the rope of your relationship, making it stronger, fuller, and more vibrant.

Then there’s your faith community and Baptist home. We can tell that, as a member of the Baptist community, you serve, love, and support the community. There is probably a beautiful spirit of openness and a love of Christ there. ACG’s Nadia grew up around Baptists and other Protestants and Evangelicals who were confounded about how Nadia was both Catholic and Christian. Catholicism makes them uncomfortable. The Saints, Mary, the priests and their vestments, the Pope, the incense, the Eucharist, etc, etc. It is a vastly different worship environment and belief structure. But—unfortunately there’s a but—your decision to experience worship differently is your choice.

For now, we think that your congregation does not need to know how much you love Catholicism. You did not sign a contract when you joined your current church to attend only that church in perpetuity. It is not a betrayal to follow an honest yearning for the divine. In fact, the betrayal would be staying where you are simply out of fear and worry.

If as you begin exploring, you begin to feel that exploring without disclosure is disingenuous, take a few of your closest Baptist friends out to lunch and tell them what’s going on in your head and your heart. Make it known you love them and the community. Explain that it is not about the failings of the Baptist church, but about your heart and spirit feeling drawn some place else.

You and your husband can meet with your pastor and tell him the same things. Assure him that your marriage is great, your kids are thriving in both communities, but you feel the Spirit someplace else, too. We think he’ll appreciate that you’re keeping the lines of communication open and that you want to maintain a love and community with his congregation. If he’s truly invested in your spiritual growth, he’ll understand. If he doesn’t, that intolerance might be a sign that your desire to explore another faith is well-founded.

And as you are sorting this out, we suggest you go to your Baptist church frequently, attend Daily Mass when you can, pray fervently about this choice, and read a ton about Catholicism.

Nadia’s mom suggests you read Jeff Cavins’s conversion story My Life on the Rock: A Rebel Returns to the Catholic Faith, and buy The Catechism of the Catholic Church (a huge book of Dogma about everything The Church teaches). Along Nadia’s journey she’s read Why Do Catholics Do That?, and Fr. James Martin’s Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life and My Life with the Saints.

Based on your thoughtful and interested query, we believe you are capable of handling this time in your life gracefully, stepping on as few toes as anyone can.

Much love,

Nadia and Carmen

So readers, what else should this Catholic lover be doing to prepare herself and her faith community? Anything else she should be reading to doing while she and God decide which community should be her home?

I’m a 66 year old “ex” Catholic. I’m not a conventional believer, but I miss my Catholic home. Help?

A couple of Friday evenings ago, Ask Mormon Girl Joanna Brooks asked me, “What are the problems in your church?” In between tears, I told her. Joanna told me that there are Catholic girls who need to hear that. They need the validation. My first thought was “Joanna Brooks is crazy.” My second thought was, “Where are all the lost Catholics?”

Early Monday morning, I opened a forwarded email from Joanna. “here you go, honey. your first question. you ready?” I propped myself up in bed and glanced over at the map of the world that hangs on my dorm room wall. One billion Catholics fit into that world map. I don’t have to fanaticize about wayward Catholics. They are out there and in my inbox.

Mark wants to know how to reconcile his disbelief with his longing for a community. He asks Joanna:

I’m a 66 year-old “Ex” Catholic. I decided to distance myself from the Church. I believe in married priests, women priests, and family planning beyond the abstinence pushed by the Catholic hierarchy. I’m not at all certain that the Catholic Church is the “one, true church” and that all others, Mormon included, are somewhat defective since they were not established by Jesus. I believe that other gospels are relevant and good. And I’m not into the belief that the host in Mass is truly Jesus’ body.

For years I sat in Mass and listened to preaching of the above and more. One day, a couple of years ago, I finally realized that my quietly listening to such talk was being read by others as agreement, submission. I told my wife that I could no longer allow my presence to be misread by priests and others as support for their beliefs.

I feel bad about the disconnectedness from the community that I was involved in for more than 60 years. I feel like a bad person sometimes. But the Church response is that if I choose to be Catholic, I must believe the tenets of the faith.

How would you answer this dilemma?

With that I began typing. Ask Catholic Girl was born and I made a mental note to tell Joanna she was right.

Mark,

I’d like to let you in on a little secret. I am a 21-year-old progressive Catholic feminist. I long for the day when a woman can raise her right hand to bless the congregation with the Sign of the Cross. I worry that The Church forgets how important the sacredness of human agency is. I’ve read the Book of Mormon and the Quran and they were beautiful. Some days I know that those wafers and the Body of Christ and other days that idea sounds crazy. You and me Mark, we’re the same.

I suspect that when I sit in the very first pew, smack dab in front of my priest in my New York City parish that he thinks I have it all figured out. I don’t. I go to Mass on Sundays to say “And I ask you my brothers and sisters to pray for me to Lord our God” and to share in a community meal.

Some Sundays I lay in bed reading Why do Catholics Do That? because the thought of going through the motions feels disingenuous. Other Sundays, when I am back home in Texas, I sit in my car in the parish parking lot and listen to Mormon Stories Podcasts while sipping a slushy from Sonic.

Let me let you in on a little secret. St. Paul tells us “As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”

Mark, you and me were baptized into this beautiful, confusing, mess of a Church and the priests on Sunday, uber-devout fellow Catholics, the Pope himself or our own misgivings can’t change that.

What would happen if you went to church this coming Sunday? I vote you come home. Maybe it won’t be this Sunday. Maybe this year you’ll go on Easter and Christmas. Maybe, as per wayward Catholic tradition, your first Sunday back you’ll slip out after Communion. You have every right to come home. To sit, stand and kneel. And even though Church doctrine tells us that people like you and me shouldn’t receive the Body of Christ come up to the altar and say “Amen.” It isn’t just saying “I agree” or “I believe” but “I’m here to belong.”

The craziness we carry around with us during Mass is for us to ponder and pray about and for God to iron out.

-Nadia, a Catholic Girl

Dear readers, what lesson have you learned along your journey that you can share with Mark and the Catholic Girls who run this blog? How do you get your butt in a pew on Sundays?

An Introduction

Hello! Welcome to Ask Catholic Girl!

Ask Catholic Girl is a place to send your questions and your quandaries about the Roman Catholic faith, to be answered honestly and thoughtfully, not under the guise of the Church or its clergy, but from progressive young Catholic women wrestling with all the paradox that entails.

We love our tradition, the way people love being home, but reject the idea that the tradition has no room for concerned criticism or heart-felt dissent. Inspired by the inimitable Joanna Brooks, of The Book of Mormon Girl and askmormongirl.com, we believe our voices should be part of the discussion. We want to tell our stories as Catholic women, to be a space where we can search for God and compassion and humanity together, without dogmatic rigidity or doctrinal boundaries.

We are all the Church. We are all the body. And we look forward to hearing your questions and searching for answers together, whether you’re a 66-year-old lapsed Catholic, our devout mothers, or someone who’s never stepped foot inside the nave of a cathedral.

Send your questions now, to askcatholicgirl@gmail.com! And follow us on Twitter: @AskCatholicGirl.

In peace and love and light,

Carmen, Nadia, and Mary

The Catholic Girls