Friday, November 18, 2011're Catholic now? WTF?

I have a friend in Gainesville that I've known for about ten years. We've never been really close and she tends to pretend the internet doesn't exist and disappear for months at a time, but I've always liked and respected her and we've always gotten along. She's an independent, intelligent liberal with feminist leanings who maintains a full bar in her home and raises chickens. As long as I've known her, she's been pagan. Last night, I found out that she had converted to Catholicism.

This information has been difficult for me to process. She didn't just start going to church, she attended months of classes and fasted during Lent and other serious shit like that. She's a full-blown Catholic for realsie-reals. From what I have heard second-hand, this decision was motivated by her love of ritual and the stability the church offered. I can see that. What I can't quite understand is how any independent, intelligent, liberally-minded woman could even tacitly approve of what the Catholic Church represents by adding her name to their roster.

I should take a moment here to distinguish between the abstract concepts that the Catholic Church represents, based on the actions of church officials and the actual dogma and teachings of the faith, and Catholics themselves. Catholics are like any other group of people. Some of them are crazy and messed up, but most of them are all right. Recent polls suggest that a majority of Catholics don't actually understand or believe in some of the key teachings of the Catholic Church. Transubstantiation, Vatican Authority, celibacy of priests, contraception use, same-sex marriage...many Catholics are flexible on these issues, or act in direct conflict with the teachings of the church while still considering themselves Catholic. For many of them, Catholicism is more about tradition or pageantry or their personal connection with God. Which is totally cool with me, do whatever makes you happy as long as you don't go around hurting anyone or try to legislate your particular flavor of religious morality.

People who are not born Catholic, though...they don't have those established traditions or family connections. They don't have a personal idea of what it means to be Catholic that is softened by those traditions. They just hear about the child rape and the cover ups. They read about Catholic AIDS workers who, until recently, refused to provide condoms to patients because of the church's positions on contraceptives...even though condoms are effective in halting the transmission of AIDS and other STDs. They see the Catholic church not only refusing to give women equal standing within the clergy, but making the attempted ordination of a woman a crime that is equivalent to child rape. They see Catholic adoption agencies shut down rather than allow gay couples to adopt children. They see scandal after scandal come to light, such as the recent revelation that Catholic hospitals were stealing babies from 'unfit' mothers and selling them. They see, unfiltered and without rationalization, the institution of the Catholic Church acting amorally and its teachings being used to justify horrible things. And I'm barely touching on the attacks on female and LGBT equality.

Now if I'm being honest, I don't completely understand why anyone would want to be affiliated with an organization like that. I do get the appeal of the tradition and the pageantry, and I'm sure being born into it helps. I understand that a lot of Catholics don't really believe that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ or that the Pope is infallible and Vatican Authority is absolute, so they're clearly reasonable people. Maybe it's a case of selective hearing. Or maybe when they hear about all of the awful things that are justified by the tenets of their own faith they tell themselves 'that's not me, I wouldn't do that, I don't think that way' and just ignore all of the people who do. Maybe they don't listen at all. Maybe they just don't care what the Catholic Church does as long as they're happy and their kids aren't being molested.

However it works out, there are plenty of reasonable, intelligent Catholics out there that are totally ok with tacitly approving of the Catholic Church's actions by their continued membership. A lot of them even actively support the institution by tithing. I don't get it, but I've come to accept it. Actually making the informed decision as an adult to join such an institution, though? Is there really no other way to incorporate ritual and stability into your life? What is the appeal of this institution of scandal, excess and fucked-up priorities? It seems to me that whatever good you may be able to get out of associating with the Catholic Church you could easily find elsewhere without having to join the ranks of child-molesters and baby-stealers. There are secular charities, secular meetup groups, Universalist Ministries, meditation techniques...the only thing you couldn't find elsewhere would be your personal traditions, and my friend wasn't born into Catholicism. She has often called herself a 'recovering Southern Baptist'. She has always struck me as delightfully irreverent, and I am left befuddled by her philosophical paradigm shift.

What really sucks is that I may never understand this. It seems unlikely that she will continue associating with the predominantly-pagan social circle through which we are acquainted (she hasn't been around for ages, anyway). I have no idea how she would react to questions about her faith if I even got the chance to ask. I may just have to add this to the increasingly-long list of 'Things BW Doesn't Get About Religion' and let it go. Sigh. I hate it when things don't make sense.

1 comment:

  1. A colleague of mine is a liberal, feminist, intelligent, highly educated woman. She's also a devout Mormon. I didn't understand the involvement she and her husband had with her church and the lengths they go to to be faithful to their religion in light of their education and worldliness.

    I asked her about it one day and she explained that all the things that are bad about the Mormon church can be changed from the inside by members who care. She went on to say that it's not all bad, and she wants to buffer the influence of Mormons who want to perpetuate the bad parts of Mormonism. She and her husband are extensively involved, often to their extreme annoyance and inconvenience, because they feel they can be a balancing voice and work for positive change as a member of this religious body.

    For similar reasons, I rejoined the Catholic church recently. I have been an atheist for nearly a decade, and yet I'm also a Catholic. I was raised Catholic so I do relate to the tradition, as you mentioned one might. There was a lot about being Catholic that I missed as an atheist, things that had nothing to do with strict literal belief in God. You mentioned in a previous post something to the effect of all religions are a system for understanding the world, and I wholeheartedly agree. I see all religion as a way to approach life and our place in it, and that will entail varying levels of belief for the individual.

    So why then am I an atheistic Catholic? Am I condoning subjugation of women's rights and sexual abuse by priests? Absolutely not. Do I believe in transubstantiation and salvation? No. I believe that the Catholic church, like it or hate it, is a world community to which many belong. I can influence it for good, much as my friend the Mormon wishes to in her church, by my involvement. Choosing to be involved is not an acceptance of the Church's sins. It's a desire to be part of the solution, to serve my community and fellow man through established channels, and to benefit in ways unique to me by being there.

    In my confirmation class, the nun asked us "Who is God?". No one wanted to say, since it was a room of lapsed adult Catholics who were all worried we'd be outed as the nonbelievers we were. She answered her question, "God is love. Anything you do in love or with love is from God." If we define God thusly, that's something I do believe in. What I learned from this class is that the concept of God, religion, and what it means to the individual is so personal and individual that anyone else can't really understand or pass judgment on why someone does or doesn't believe in something.