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Reminder from an ‘Ex-Catholic Girl’

October 1, 2010

Miranda Celeste Hale has a blog about being an “Ex-Catholic Girl.” And for my part, as someone who didn’t grow up attending church with agnostic parents, I find her description of how she was indoctrinated by the Roman Catholic church chilling:

When a child is taught that the simple act of doubting or questioning any of the Church’s teachings is a sin, and that even the tiniest of sins can result in an eternity spent in a literal hell, they quickly learn to suppress those doubts and to feel intense shame, guilt, and fear when they fail to do so…

…As a child, I obsessively recorded in a little notebook anything that I had said or done that could possibly be considered sinful. Then, when the time came for confession, I would recite this list to the priest, my head hanging in shame, my cheeks burning. I’d do my penance and be absolved. For a fleeting, blissful moment, I would feel light and pure and holy. But soon I would sin again, the guilt would return, the little notebook would be filled up with a record of my indiscretions, and I would return to the confessional and repeat the process over and over again.

What a horror show. I think she overstates how strictly doctrinaire the Catholic Church is. (I have a lot of Catholic friends and they did not all have the same number done on them–though some definitely did.) But her account makes me all the more resolved (as the coordinator of St. Peter’s children’s ministries) to never push children to be so hard on themselves in the name of God. I’m reminded of a line of Thomas Merton’s: The enemy is not so much sin as it is fear. My Lord did not say to his disciples, ‘Why do you sin?’ but rather, ‘Why are you afraid?’ In my opinion, anyone teaching in Jesus’ name should never, ever preach fear.

At St. Peter’s our Children’s Chapel program is explicitly designed to offer kids particular sorts of religious experience, but not to program them with religious beliefs. Through our program we give our kids the chance to get to know the great stories of the Bible; the chance to express their own individual opinions about God and Jesus and right and wrong; the chance to pray on their own and as a community, by requesting God’s help, singing songs, giving thanks and offering gifts to those in need; and we explicitly present our kids with the chance to lead and teach adults about knowing and loving God. In fact, our first Kids Lead service of the new program year is coming up two Sundays from now, Oct. 10, during our main 10:15 am service.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Matt permalink
    October 2, 2010 5:15 pm

    I cannot connect with the author’s description of how doubt is viewed in the Catholic church. My understanding was formed, most likely, in a different period of the Catholic church. However, I think it’s important to understand how other Catholics view doubt.

    One has only to look at John of the Cross, Theresa of Avila, Mother Theresa and the like to see their descriptions of doubt, often referred to as the ‘dark night of the soul’. These individuals, who are exemplars of lived faith, tangled with doubt and emerged. Now, their lives and their spiritual experiences are held up as an example for others. It is often noted that doubt played an important and integral part of their spiritual lives.

    On another note, Fides et Ratio speaks powerfully about the role of doubt in coming to faith. In one section it reads:

    “The truth comes initially to the human being as a question: Does life have a meaning? Where is it going? At first sight, personal existence may seem completely meaningless. It is not necessary to turn to the philosophers of the absurd or to the provocative questioning found in the Book of Job in order to have doubts about life’s meaning. The daily experience of suffering—in one’s own life and in the lives of others—and the array of facts which seem inexplicable to reason are enough to ensure that a question as dramatic as the question of meaning cannot be evaded.”

    In a very real way doubt leads to faith. Doubt raises questions of ultimate concern (Tillich); these questions informed by reason lead to faith.

    Doubt should be valued. It is a completely human experience, something that the saints have experienced and an avenue that leads to deeper faith. The role of doubt in the Catholic experience is important and some may say integral, it is not stigmatized.

    • jamiemcelroy permalink*
      October 4, 2010 2:33 pm

      Thanks so much for this thoughtful post, Matt. As someone who didn’t grow up in the Catholic Church (or any church for that matter), I have no first hand experience of this, but I’m wondering:

      My sense is that all of Christianity explores the issues that arise from doubt and view doubt as something that goes hand in hand with faith when working with adults. But are most Christian congregations (Roman Catholic or not) open to the doubts of children? Do most Christian congregations allow their children to openly wrestle with their own profound doubts about the goodness–or even the existence–of God?

      I believe we should let children express and grapple with doubt just as much as we allow and encourage adults to do so. But I’m not so sure how much that happens.

    • October 6, 2010 9:31 pm

      I think there are two very different definitions and contexts of doubt in this conversation. The specific ‘doubt’ that the cited article references is doubt in hindsight over the Roman Catholic interpretation of “sin” (essentially not agreeing with everything the church puts forth) balanced against its own institutional hypocrisies and various scandals; she professes doubt in the institution. If you only read one post from the entire blog, the context is lost.

      Struggling with God’s call seems, in my opinion, to be more about fleeting trust and not so much about doubt. Surely, people like Mother Theresa must have struggled and had doubt over giving up all earthly possessions, taking on poverty, trusting that God would provide and going to minister to the poor and oppressed. I doubt we would hold them up as exceptional people if they hadn’t gone through that process of questioning and still accepting the call.

      That aside…
      Having grown up very Catholic, I think there’s little separation in Roman Catholicism between “faith in God” and institutional faith, if one wants to avoid “sin” or excommunication; Catholic scholars would probably disagree. But for the people in the pews, the “pedestrian Catholics”, the two are coalesced, and the RC church seems to do little to suppress that notion.

      Catholic children in CCD may be taught, “the Church is the people, not priests.”; but the reality for many as they get older is that, “The Church” = an infallible Pontiff, attempting to reconcile, yet trying not to ever question [publicly, anyways] a conflicted and floating institutional “‘moral’ compass” riddled with hypocrisies and an ever-changing Catechism. As a rule, one generally does not question the “mysterious mysteries” of Roman Catholicism.
      The lack of answers to burning questions though does seem to snowball as Catholics grow up leaving many to their own devices to seek out answers — or walk away out of frustration, as Ms. Hale did.

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