Can a liberal Catholic offshoot last?

RH wrote a few weeks ago to ask about why Catholic priests can’t marry. Here’s a follow up from him, this time about the viability of a liberal Catholic sect. It’s a response to a recent article on Religion News Service about a progressive Catholic sect called the American National Catholic Church, which separated from the Church in 2009 and now boasts seven parishes across the country. Here’s the question:

When I wrote to you several weeks ago you mentioned that “modernizing” Catholicism might in part begin with a more “liberal” offshoot of the faith. Think this new “church” might last?


First, a disclaimer: I’m no Nate Silver with reams of statistical data that could effectively predict the fate of the American National Catholic Church (ANCC). So my guess for the fate of this fledgling body would be just that–a guess, and something that readers should feel comfortable quickly dismissing.

But within the article that RH brought to our attention is the opinion of someone with more socio-historical knowledge than I have: a Jesuit priest named Father Thomas Reese, who attests that “successful liberal movements are rare.” Even without Inquisition-like punishments for such heretics, these movements have a hard time taking flight.

Honestly, this is unsurprising to me, and a couple of possible factors seem immediately apparent. It’s probably hard to keep going without the institutional support and resources of the Holy See. It’s probably difficult to get the word out about what these new churches offer that is different from the orthodox positions of the Roman Catholic Church. And as Father Reese points out, it’s pretty easy to disagree with some of the tenets of the Church and still go to mass, like all those Catholic men and women who use birth control.

But I think another factor that probably works against liberal sects is the type of people that it attracts are not the kind that are easily organized and retained. Another way to say it is they are not easy to shepherd. They’re the type of folks who would flaunt the establishment in order to abide their own consciences, making them less like sheep and more like cats. And we’ve all heard the expression about herding cats.

For those simple facts, it seems like the prospects are bleak for the ANCC.

Of course, there is always the possibility that this spark could grow into a sustainable flame. The article names a couple of exceptions that seem to have solidified into establishments, but also explains that most Catholic offshoots are hyper-conservative traditionalist offshoots, sects that disavow the reforms of Vatican II and hold to Latin masses and thirteen children per family.

So despite my hope that a more progressive movement will sweep the Catholic-sphere and provide an alternative to the fierce conservatism surrounding such issues as human sexuality and women’s role in the church, it doesn’t look very likely.

Part of this is for the reasons mentioned earlier, and another part of this is that sustaining a church movement these days is difficult. In recent years, church attendance in America has decreased significantly, along with a marked decline in religious affiliation, especially among young people. Just google “church attendance in America” or “religious affiliation,” and you’ll see lots of stats demonstrating religion’s steady wane. Some people predict that religion in North America–even in the conservative evangelical sects that experienced a boom in the 1990s as mainline churches began their decline–is going the way of the church in Europe, which is going the way of the dodo.

Conservative Christians decry this as the downfall of civilization, à la Sodom and Gomorrah, while skeptics applaud these changes as much-needed liberation from silly and oppressive superstitions.

My hope is for a space in between. My hope is to find a place where people accept the advancements in science and rational thought but leave room for the possibility of mystical encounters; a place where we can participate in rituals that bring us peace and unity, but where we can recognize and transcend our social constructs in our pursuit of the divine.

I think this is probably the space that the American National Catholic Church is reaching for, along with the North American Old Catholic Church (mentioned in the Religion News Service article) and other liberal Catholic offshoots, and even the Episcopal Church, which is probably the most progressive mainline church in the United States. In some ways, these are efforts to realize progressive ideals of equality and justice. In other ways, these are efforts to remain relevant in people’s lives as the world changes.

But in an op-ed from July, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat points out that changing to more liberal doctrines is not, on its own, a recipe for growth or even retention–that like everything else, liberal Christian churches are in decline. Of course, as a conservative Catholic, Douthat predictably points a finger, arguing that modifying doctrine or dogma makes for a church with no backbone. There is nothing the Episcopals won’t compromise on, says Douthat, and that undermines their necessity.

Or as he puts it, “Today… the leaders of the Episcopal Church and similar bodies often don’t seem to be offering anything you can’t already get from a purely secular liberalism.”

And though I think Douthat’s argument is flawed (which Diana Butler Bass addresses in her response on the Huffington Post, which is just a taste of her excellent book Christianity After Religion), he does touch on something that I think is important for liberal churches–or any church, for that matter–to keep in mind in order to succeed:

They must realize that we are past the days when most Catholics were afraid to miss mass for fear of the stain of mortal sin, past the days when many Protestants feared the smiting hand of God, past the days when the majority of people defer to authority qua authority.

At the same time, they must realize what people are not past. And what people are not past is a good stop.

What’s a good stop, you ask?

Well, I consider it a privilege to explain.

When I moved to Austin, Texas, for college, I attended St. Austin Catholic Church, a vibrant faith community just across the street from the bustling University of Texas campus. There I had the honor of knowing Father Bob Scott, a semi-retired Paulist priest who, sadly, passed away this summer at the age of 90.

When I first met him, Father Bob was already quite advanced in age, but he was still very sharp and energetic, wiry and electric. Deeply devoted to his vocation and to his faith, Father Bob celebrated the mass as something mysterious, mystical, and miraculous, something he was so grateful to be sharing with others. Despite his love of cracking jokes–and truly, the whole congregation would laugh aloud several times throughout each mass he presided over–Father Bob’s homilies were profound theological considerations, not retrograde social commentary.

And for me, those masses were transformational. Father Bob changed the mass from something I had to do to into a time and space where I wanted to be.

That was central to his philosophy: attending mass should not be something done out of obligation or compulsion, but out of joy. Every year he gave a sermon called “The Good Stop,” which was based on a frequent expression of his father’s. They could be on a family road trip, and they might stop at a small café and spend fifteen minutes over crisp Coca Cola. “That was a good stop,” his father would say as they walked back out to the car. “A good stop, indeed.”

So the good stop was a time where they paused from the demands of life, the relentless forward struggle of daily existence, and took stock of the moment. It was a time they could celebrate being alive and together. It was a space that provided sustenance, that lifted them up. Father Bob told us that’s what the mass should be in our lives, and the fact that he believed it made it so.

And when we get down to it, I think that’s what many of us are searching for when we seek a faith community. We are looking for a good stop that brings us peace and sustenance and unity and an opportunity to rest in the presence of the divine.

So despite my reluctance to predict their future, I believe if the ANCC can provide that good stop, then people will flock to them because they are a healing balm like nothing else, and the outlook for the ANCC would be just fine.

Wishing you all a good stop,


Readers, do you know of churches that are providing that good stop, either inside our outside the Roman Catholic Church establishment? Take to the comments, and share!


I have a follow-up question about priests. Why no women?


My wife is Catholic and is encouraging me to investigate the Church. You’ve written on why priests are unmarried but now a follow up question: Is there a scriptural reason why women cannot become priests? Is it because Jesus’ disciples were all men? Your reference to 1 Corinthians says a MAN should remain unmarried as a priest; by inference does that mean a woman cannot become a priest? Your recent inclusion of the article regarding American Sisters pretty much shows that the Vatican will not soon authorize women priests. Is it canon or dogma that it cannot happen? Thanks much for your interesting blog!


Dear RH,

Where to begin!?! In just one simple paragraph, you’ve opened the lid on a two-thousand year old argument, one that seems to be an insistent thorn in the Church’s side, or more recently, a hydra that grows two more heads each time they lop one off.

The issue began in the first centuries after Christ, when the Gnostics and a few other sects began ordaining women. The Church was in its infancy, without an explicit policy on the matter, and so they established one. They decided that if Jesus had meant for women to be priests, he would have chosen some as Apostles. They labeled the practice of ordaining women a heresy, and it has remained that way in the eyes of the Church for two thousand years.

So the simple answer to your question is: yes, the Catholic Church refuses to ordain women as priests because, after a night praying to his Father in Heaven, Jesus chose the Twelve for his mission, and those Twelve were men (Luke 6:12). In the Catholic Church, this was the beginning of apostolic succession, the idea that those Twelve were the first bishops, through whom the message of Christ and the traditions of the Church have been handed from one bishop to the next in an unbroken line for two millennia.

Reading the official Church stances, there are very few references to the Bible to support the argument against women priests. There are a few places in the Pauline letters where Paul says women should not teach—I think in Timothy, and somewhere in First Corinthians—but these are not the main sources for the Catholic Church in establishing their argument for a male-only priesthood.

Instead, they cite Jesus’ actions, as well as the opinions of (often ultra-orthodox) Church fathers through the centuries, men like St. Irenaeus, Tertullian, Hippolytus of Rome, Epiphanius, and St. Augustine. They also cite the fact that Eastern Orthodox churches have refrained from allowing women to be priests. There are a few more nuanced, more philosophical elements to the argument (for example, priests are stand-ins for Jesus while celebrating the mass, Jesus was a man, ergo priests should be men so people can make the connection more easily), but it’s mostly about preserving the tradition begun by Christ.

To understand why that would matter to the Church, one must understand the role of tradition in the Church. Tradition is one of the two sacred and foundational pillars of the faith, the other being Holy Scripture. When I was young, I can remember my mother telling me that it is because of a commitment to tradition that the Catholic Church has been able to withstand the march of time. You don’t change just because times change; you stick to your traditions, especially if you believe that God instituted those traditions as his plan for the salvation of the world.

You ask whether the prescription against female priests is canon law or dogma, but neither of those two terms are used to describe it in the research that I have done. Instead, it is called “infallible doctrine,” a term that was only applied in 1995. It seems that the issue was quiet for a long time (centuries, multiple centuries). But over the course of the last 50 years—unsurprisingly coinciding with the women’s liberation movement—external pressures have forced the Catholic Church into a dialogue about the practice, and so they’ve issued several treatises to buttress themselves from these attacks. In these treatises, they have refined where the practice falls in Catholic teaching.

In 1976, the Vatican issued the Inter Insigniores, a declaration about why the Roman Catholic Church must continue excluding women from the priesthood. An apologetic in every way, the document traces and affirms the tradition of the male priesthood and rebuts several claims of those in favor of ordaining women. While Inter Insigniores acknowledges the rapid social change happening in the world and asserts that working for gender equality is right and just, it claims that the priesthood is not the place to do it since priesthood is a matter of divine law, above and beyond the sphere of human and social law.

That document must not have quelled the debate in the way that the Vatican had hoped, because in May of 1994, Pope John Paul II issued his Ordinatio Sacerdotalis. In it, he reasserts the arguments in the Inter Insigniores and goes on to “declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.” Only a missive from God himself would make that possible, JP II seems to say, so don’t hold your breath.

But that didn’t seem to do the job either. So to put the nail in the coffin of the discussion, there was another statement from the Vatican in October of 1995, this time signed by Joseph Ratzinger, more commonly known now as Pope Benedict the XVI. In it, he declares JP II’s Ordinatio Sacerdotalis “infallible doctrine,” and therefore an immutable fact of Catholic life.

Given that progression, it seems that in the face of criticism, the Church tightened its grip on practice, and with the “infallible” label, it is much closer to dogma than canon law. The traditional line is that now Catholics should accept this teaching and desist arguing about the matter. As Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, head of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops when the “infallible” label was applied, said, “I ask you now prayerfully to allow the Holy Spirit to fill you with the wisdom and understanding that will enable you to accept it.” Stop fighting this fight, please, stop fighting this fight.

Of course, the modern world is not what it was in the early days of the church. Obeying authority simply because it is authority fell out of vogue decades ago, and this is evident in the number of people who defy the Church’s teachings on things like how often a Catholic must go to confession and more contemporary issues like birth control. Despite the fact that the Vatican would rather we all fell in line and stopped talking about it, the debate is still raging. Some groups are more radical, with rogue bishops ordaining women (before all are promptly excommunicated); other groups attempting to lobby from within the church to effect change. A simple google search will reveal dozens of websites with articles from prominent theologians on both sides of the issue, still hotly contesting whether Jesus chose men as part of the divine plan, or out of necessity in an era when women would not have been accepted as spiritual leaders.

Who knows where the issue will go from here. A 1995 article in the New York Times said that 61% of Catholics think women should be ordained. I’m not sure of who they polled or where, and I have no idea how that number has changed in the succeeding 17 years. But I do know that the church is by nature reactionary, and as with the married priests issue, I think it would be internal pressures (not enough priests, or less conservative priests infiltrating the highest ranks) rather than public opinion that would precipitate the change. And to be honest, I could foresee a split–a sort of Reform Catholicism–before I see the bishops and the cardinals and the popes sharing their access to power with women.

And I know you did not solicit my opinion on the matter, so forgive me, but I can’t help but share a few of my own thoughts on the matter. To be blunt, I find the Church’s stance untenable in light of its historical reality. Claiming that apostolic succession is an unbroken and holy vessel that carries the truth of Christ through the millennia clangs in the ears of anyone who has studied history–the papal schisms of the 12th century, anyone? or the Inquisition?–or is aware of the current sex abuse scandals. I also believe that it is problematic to follow tradition for sake of tradition; it may be stable to do so, but that does not make it just.

With all of this said, I hope you are able to explore the Church with your wife with an open mind and with the knowledge that a shared spiritual practice can be an incredibly strong bond. I have seen it in my own parents. And despite what I see as many and various flaws, the Catholic Church is a spiritual anchor in a difficult world, for me and another billion or so people around the world. As our beloved Mormon Girl has shown us with her characteristic honesty, any faith tradition has its demons, and our lot is to wrestle with those demons and prove that we can come out on top, as more loving, more compassionate, more enlightened souls.

All best,
Carmen, a Catholic Girl

I’m 17 years old and grew up in a Baptist home, how do I start the journey to becoming Catholic?

Today at Ask Catholic Girl–behold a teenager! I happen to be nuts about teenagers.

Dear Catholic Girl,

I’m 17 years old and I was raised in a home where we are I guess what you could say was a Christian Baptist home. We never really go to church. But, my mother was raised up going to church. I want to experience going to church but I don’t feel a connection with Baptist Christianity. I always felt more closer to Catholicism for some reason. I have a boyfriend who was raised up to believe in the Catholic faith. His family also doesn’t attend church very often. We both want to know how can we become catholic (fully) and experience going to church and really having true faith. We also want to get our families involved as much as possible can you give me some advice on how we start this journey? Please 🙂


Dear S,

Let me start off by saying that as someone who has spent the last year of her life hanging with teenagers in public schools I think the fact you are being proactive about the things you want out of life is just plain beautiful.

Pray your guts out along this journey. Learn good ol’ fashioned Catholic prayers (the Anima Christi and the Hail Holy Queen are my favorites) and learn to pray in your own words too. Figure out what you love about Catholicism. Get to know God better through the community, by attending Mass, and reading everything you can (I can never recommend Why Do Catholics Do That? enough),

Don’t stress about becoming “fully” Catholic. Being fully Catholic is as easy as a sprinkle of baptismal water done in the name of the Trinity. Work on feeling Catholic first. Work at your own pace, pray and learn at your own pace. The Church is suppose to be more of a blessing than a burden, more uplifting than a giant list of rules.

See what Catholicism is all about right there in the trenches and get your butt in a pew on Sunday. If your boyfriend was raised Catholic he and his family probably have a parish, even if they aren’t there most Sundays. I would start there because it’s the parish you’re probably most familiar with. Then head to other local parishes to see if other places work for you too.

The Catholic Church is broken up into geographical parishes, so we attend with those that live near us. Some parishes are a lot looser about these types of things. For example, when I moved to New York City I went to the parish affiliated with NYU but a friend of mine “parish hopped” until she found a parish she really liked. Each parish you visit will be different. Sure, we all pray the same things and sit, stand and kneel at the same times but each parish has its own flavor. Some have contemporary music, some only sing at the beginning and end, some have young (and attractive!) priests who give dynamite homilies, some have priests who are super old dudes who are the best and most loving priests you’ll ever meet, and I know of a handful of parishes where nuns get to give the homilies on a regular basis. Most parishes have a special Mass just for young people (teenagers and young adults) on Sunday evenings. To find a parish near you go to your city’s archdiocese website, for example The Archdiocese of San Antonio. (Each site is different and sometimes kind of poorly made so if you’re having trouble email us!)

Once (or if) you feel comfortable hanging in the pews try a parish activity. Many parishes have breakfast after Mass, weeknight Bingo (yep, and it’s awesome), and youth groups that meet during the week for fun activities or service projects. This is a great way to meet other young people.

Then if you’re still loving the whole Catholic thing look into religious education. Some parishes have youth Bible study classes or other high school programs. Each parish has their own way of doing things but I think because you’re already at the tail end of high school (if not already done) that you could head into a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program. These classes tend to begin in the fall and culminate at the Easter Vigil the Saturday before Easter Sunday. In RCIA adults who are converting to Catholicism or never made their First Communion learn about the Catholic faith and prepare to become Catholic. I don’t know the ins and outs of the program but if you have more questions ask and I’ll find the answers.

Your boyfriend is more than likely already Catholic. Even if his parents never really attended Mass I’d bet all the money in my pockets that he was baptized because us Catholics, even those of us who only go to church at Christmas and Easter, we baptize our babies no matter what. I’ll even take a guess that he received his First Communion too because it’s what we do. I knew kids whose parents would drop them off a Sunday School week after week and then head to breakfast or go back home to watch football. They never took their kids to church or went themselves but it was important to them that their kids made First Communion. If your boyfriend is looking to get back into the world of Catholicism then he might just have to take a Confirmation (when when we receive the Holy Spirit and become adult members in the church) class and then get anointed with holy oil at a special service.

At any point in this journey when you feel ready invite your family to an activity at your parish. Let them meet the awesome youth and young adult leaders, friends and community you’ve found for yourself. Invite them to attend Mass with you. I think it’s great you want them involved and I don’t want to deter you from that but prepare yourself for them to be resistant. They have their reasons for not attending church on a regular basis and let them have those reasons. You never know your parents could all the sudden become very active Baptists after seeing you working hard at becoming Catholic. Involve them with what you can, the parish picnic, the children’s concert, midnight Mass at Christmastime.

Ultimately, this choice is yours alone to make, independent of your boyfriend or your family, and I think you’re savvy enough to figure it all out.

We’d love to hear how everything works out!

Much love,


We’ve been away

Dear, dear readers,

Sorry we’ve dropped off the planet for the last month!

As of late us Catholic girls have been exceptionally busy but are incredibly humbled that we keep receiving interesting, and thought provoking questions. I (Nadia) am graduating from NYU in two weeks and have been a bundle of nerves, excitement and all around craziness. Even as I have been trying my best to stay in the eye of the storm, you–dear readers–have not been far from my mind.

In the coming weeks we’re tackling cathedrals, evolution and maybe even some heavy biblical questions. Also, no one has written in about this (wink, wink) but I have been following this little gem for the last couple of weeks.

Much love and sending good vibes y’alls way,

Nadia, Mary and Carmen

Why can’t Catholic priests marry?

Good afternoon, Catholic Girls!

I am a moderate Christian woman with Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish family. I love getting to know more about other faith traditions and find religious culture fascinating! So of course, I am a fan of AskMormonGirl, AskCatholicGirl, and now AskJewish Girl! 🙂

I’ve always wondered why the Catholic Church requires their priests to be non-married? Is there a Biblical passage that the Catholic Church bases this decision upon?

It just seems to me that in our post-modern world, having a leader who understands the joys, sorrows, needs, and demands of a family might be better equipped to understand the lives of his parishioners. Not to mention having a partner who can be a support, sounding board, and partner in ministry.

Just thought I would ask since the reverends and rabbis in my life are all married and have families… and this has always been a curious question of mine!

Warmest Regards,


Dear EH,

With this one, you’ve hit upon something that every Catholic has considered many times in the course of his or her life, but probably no one more than priests themselves. The insistence on unmarried priests by the Roman Catholic Church is curious in our contemporary lives, and to the common person, celibacy can seem antiquated and restrictive, especially at a time when the Church is finding fewer and fewer young men willing to forego the pleasures of a wife and family in favor of heeding a call to shepherd the faithful, as a Catholic might say.

And as you rightly point out, sometimes it seems like priests would be more accessible to their congregations, and their congregations would be more accessible to the priests, if they had more common life experiences. Yet in the 12th century, after many centuries of pondering the question, the Roman Catholic Church rendered clerical marriages invalid at First Lateran Council, and of all the things decided there, this one really stuck.

You ask if there is a Biblical support for this, and there is. Probably the most often cited is 1 Corinthians 7:32-34, where Paul writes, “An unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But a married man is anxious about the things of the world, how he may please his wife, and he is divided.” Growing up, this is what I was told about why priests couldn’t marry. The demands of shepherding a congregation and tending to their spiritual needs would be too much to balance with the demands of a family. One or the other would always be getting the short end of the stick.

But another reason cited for priestly celibacy is the accepted narrative (for the majority of Christians) is that Jesus was celibate, therefore it is a way for the leaders of the Church to emulate him. Many argue that this is most appropriate given the fact that consecrating and administering the Eucharist, which Catholics believe is the Body and Blood of Christ, is the priests’ most sacred responsibility. Even in strains of Catholicism where priests can marry—Eastern and Russian Orthodox, for example—the priests are supposed to abstain from sex with their wives for a certain period of time before they participate in these rituals.

This fits with the idea of celibacy as a means of purification and a discipline, which is not only part of the Catholic tradition but also appears in Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, among others. Celibacy is one form of denying the body in favor of the spirit, one means through which the individual transcends the baser human instincts in an attempt to reach the divine.

All of this is not to say that there were not contradictory motives for the prohibition in the Catholic Church. There are probably many layers of political and power struggles underneath the polished veneer, and it’s possible that Pope Calixtus II (and many popes, cardinals, and bishops that have followed) didn’t want to worry about the heirs of priests attempting to claim Church property or funds as inheritance.

With that in mind, it’s important to point out that the prohibition on married priests in the Catholic Church is Canon Law, which is a complex set of guidelines that functions the same way as laws drawn up by our legislators. It is not dogma. And while dogma is unalterable, Canon Law is not, so it may be that someday, Catholic priests will be allowed to marry. Based on recent statements by the current Pope, it doesn’t seem that will happen anytime soon. For now, Canon 247 will remain, and seminarians are to be taught “to hold celibacy in honor as a special gift of God.” This seems to reinforce that the practice is a discipline, but not integral to faith itself.

The fact that celibacy is not integral to the faith is also reflected in the fact that the church does allow exceptions to the rule, also following from Paul. Protestant clergy who convert and desire to become priests can receive dispensations from the Pope to be ordained as Catholic priests, even if they are married, even if they have children. There aren’t many—I’ve heard anecdotally that there are about 80 in the United States, though I’ve never seen that confirmed—but one of them is the priest in the tiny parish where I grew up. A convert from the Episcopalian faith, Fr. Martin arrived when I was 16, and he remains to this day, almost a decade and a half later.

So speaking from experience, it is a little different to have the priest’s wife sitting in the front pew or reading the scriptures during mass or administering communion (as a layperson, of course). I do think his “marriedness” and the fact that he is a father does give him some credibility when a parishioner looks to him for advice about what to do in a marriage or with worries about a child.

On the other hand, I’ve known the sons and daughters of Protestant pastors who speak of the pressure of being a pastor’s kid—how you’re expected to be well-behaved and perfect, how it feels as if the ministry is always the priority and that you are the secondary concern. And I’m ghost-writing the memoir of a retired minister of an Evangelical megachurch who says that it was all just too much.

I’m not advocating one or the other here. I truly believe that celibacy has a place and that it can be a true vocation, but I also see the point that imposed celibacy and be a lonely and alienating practice. I also think that rabbis and Protestant ministers and Orthodox priests probably do find a lot of comfort in their families. But they also might feel stretched pretty thin.

But if we’re talking about Catholicism, I don’t see the Church changing because priests aren’t connecting with their parishioners. (We’ve never been that democratic.) More likely it would be that young men are not hearing or responding to the call to priesthood, and that the shortage of available priests becomes more than the Church can withstand.

Which could bring us to the topic of women priests. But that’s a whole different question.

Peace and light,


I’m 16, raised as an atheist, but searching for a faith. Should I try Catholicism?

Dear Catholic Girl,

I’m a 16-year-old girl raised atheist, but this past year I’ve been searching for myself through faith. I’ve tried all different dominations of Christianity, from United Methodist to Mormon to Congregational, but I’ve never thought to try Catholicism because I’ve heard so much about the rules in the religion. What if I have a different opinion than my church? Does that mean I can’t be Catholic? And since I wasn’t raised Catholic, will that mean I would never be a ‘true’ Catholic? How do I even become a Catholic? How do I learn everything about Catholicism? I have no one to teach me about Catholicism, because my whole family is atheist! What do you think?


Confused & Questioning

Dear Confused & Questioning,

I’d like to start by giving you a big kudos, a hearty congrats, and big pat on the back for beginning the search for your own spiritual path at your young age. I spent a lot of my life not searching, just idling down the path placed in front of me, and I wish I had found my individual faith sooner. It’s clear you have a very open mind and heart, which is a rare and beautiful thing in this world, and such a blessing for the people in your life.

There are a few of your questions I can answer quickly, so lemme get those out of the way:

No, you don’t have to be raised as a Catholic to be a “true” Catholic. Oftentimes, converts are the most enthusiastic Catholics around. (My dad is one, and we sometimes call him St. Terry because of his reverence and enthusiasm for the Catholic Church.)

As for who will teach you? To learn about Catholicism, you can begin by reading, and there’s enough out there that you can read and read and read forever, on Wikipedia, in books, in magazines. For the basics, the Catechism of the Catholic Church is a big heavy book that explains the beliefs of the Church in the traditional format of question and answer. Last year, they came out with a youth version, called Youcat, which seems to be very popular. Might be worth checking out.

Because the faith is very old—the Roman Catholic Church cites St. Peter as the founder of the faith around 2,000 years ago, when Jesus said, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I build my church”—there’s a lot of material, some more essential, some less. If after reading up on your own and attending Mass (the name for a Catholic service) a few times, you decide you like it, you can then go through a program to learn everything you need to know to become a Catholic. It’s called the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA).

Normally in RCIA, you would attend classes once a week for about six months. You’d learn about the core beliefs of the Catholic Church, especially the heart of the Church: the Sacraments, which are the seven sacred rituals of the church. At the end of RCIA, you would participate in three of them: Baptism, Communion, and Confirmation. The process may seem long, but I’ve always sensed in RCIA candidates a growing excitement and a deepening faith commitment. It seems to me a real time of growth, and they enter the Church knowing what they believe and why they believe it. When they are finally confirmed into the Church, usually at Easter, it’s often very moving.

So now that we’re through the straightforward stuff, I’m going to weigh in on your other questions: about “rules” in the Catholic Church, about whether you have to agree with everything the church teaches.

In my experience, Catholicism doesn’t have more “rules” than other religions. As a Catholic growing up in the Bible Belt, I always felt that Catholicism was more lenient on individual behavior (stance on alcohol, dancing, music, etc.) than many other Christian religions. In many cases, the Catholic Church sticks to the principle of moderation. So drinking alcohol is okay, though drinking to excess is not good for you. (Seems like common sense, right?) It’s true that the Catholic Church has a very Puritanical stance on sex, especially outside marriage. But I don’t think it’s any more rigid than the many Protestant religions I’ve encountered.

One thing that is true is that Catholics do have a stricter policy about actually going to church—you are supposed to go every Sunday, as missing means you’ve missed an opportunity to take Holy Communion, which to Catholics is an incredibly meaningful ritual. In the eyes of the faithful, missing an opportunity to take Communion is like shooting yourself in the foot, and therefore, attending Mass is very important.

Which leads to the next point: you ask if you have to believe it all, or if you are allowed to have different opinions from what your faith teaches. (If, for example, you don’t feel compelled to go to Mass every week and take Communion, can you really be Catholic?) Some people would answer that question with a simple, “Yes, you have to believe everything to call yourself a Catholic” and “No, you cannot disagree with any part of Catholic teaching.” This is the way I was raised, and for many years, I believed it. But I don’t believe this anymore, nor do the other Catholic Girls.

I truly feel that this is something you have to decide for yourself, as you take what you learn and test it against your common sense and your life experience and your conscience and the innate wisdom at the center of your being. As I see it, God is bigger than every religion and cannot be contained by any. I believe that religion is something we humans have invented as ways to connect with the divine, but God is bigger than all of it. There’s a Buddhist expression that illustrates this: “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.” It seems to me that what’s most important is to find what is going to get you closest to the moon. Too often we get hung up on the finger.

So I say, try the Catholic Church. If you’re looking around anyway, why limit yourself? There might be something about the Mass that you feel drawn to, as it offers an experience that is quite distinct from the Protestant services you have attended. I would recommend going with a Catholic friend or contacting someone at a local parish (what each individual church is called) beforehand, since the rituals of the Mass are sometimes confusing to a newcomer. Having someone help you through the service might make you feel less isolated.

But even if you decide you love the Catholic Church, or if it’s totally not for you and you love something else instead, this search for your faith will always be a process. I have always loved the tradition of the Catholic Church and the rituals that have been instituted over 2,000 years as a means of seeking the divine. But a few years ago, I began also studying traditional Indian yoga through the lens of Tibetan Buddhism, and found those practices enriched my experience as a Catholic. I found that on Sundays, as I sat in the pew below the image of Jesus on the cross, I could focus my mind and truly pray for the first time in my life. I could close my eyes as we sang together, and I could feel an awesome connection to the people around me. I could also feel my heart swell with something powerful, which stayed with me and, in the days that followed, allowed me to approach everyone I encountered with kindness and patience and compassion and love.

Which to me is what it’s all about anyway.

Best of luck in this confusing and wonderful search,

Carmen, 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.


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