Thinking Aloud: Being Catholic in America

Sometimes it’s really tough, and being a Catholic woman just adds to the fun.

Religious intolerance—as long as you are some form of Christian—is perfectly acceptable. The amount of snark I saw on Twitter yesterday about Lent was… I’ll use the word “impressive”. “Since Catholics give things up for Lent, I’m going to ADD something for 40 days.” “I’m going to develop a bad habit for the next 40 days.”

I, personally, blame Rick Santorum. He’s totally a sanctimonious twit, but I think that’s really more of a personality trait, and his Catholicism is just a convenient foil. Believe me, the Catholic church has no doctrinal position about pre-natal testing.

Actually, it’s not difficult for me to stay true to my Roman Catholic faith. What is difficult is to explain why I am still — in the face of a possible Santorum candidacy, in debates in Washington about birth control and what rights a woman has over her body, in the face of the painful child abuse crimes committed by priests and covered up by the hierarchy — a Roman Catholic.

I get reactions that range from genuine curiosity to outright scorn. I, obviously, have little patience for the latter. But I try to meet all the responses with equanimity. I guess I could keep my trap shut, and maybe people wish I would. It’s just that as a practicing Catholic woman, I feel like I have to defend my faith as well as my decision to be a part of that faith.

Let’s take the birth control debacle. The common misperception that I saw was twofold: Those dirty old men are trying to oppress women by not allowing them to have their birth control. And Catholic women obviously don’t give a fig about what those dirty old men think; 98 percent of them use birth control anyway!

I addressed the latter point a little bit, and Guttmacher issued a clarifying statement. Their “98 percent” stat referred to practicing Catholic women between the ages of 15 and 44 who had ever, even if just once, used a form of artificial birth control. It’s less Catholics Gone Wild than at a first glance.

As far as those old men trying to deny women or men or couples anything, and if you aren’t Catholic, you may not understand this, but: Our God is a God of Yes.

SECOND READING: 2 Corinthians 1: 18 – 22

18 As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No.
19 For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, Silva’nus and Timothy and I, was not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes.
20 For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why we utter the Amen through him, to the glory of God.
21 But it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has commissioned us;
22 he has put his seal upon us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.

I understand that on the face of things, it doesn’t look that way. But God didn’t just give us a list of stuff to NOT do. He (She, It, Turtle) instructed us in things to do: Love thy neighbor. Take care of the poor. Marry and be faithful. Be open to having children. Learn and educate.

Catholics understand we have free will, and that’s why plenty of couples will choose to use artificial birth control. In my opinion, the hardest prayer is the Our Father. The hardest thing God tells us to do: to have strong enough faith that HIS will be done. But that is what we are asked to do. How do we know God’s will? By reading the Bible and going to Mass. By praying and listening to the small, still voice.

I saw a couple of tweets last week about those dirty old men, as well, that invoked me to respond directly. Two people were very respectful about it; one person I had to block. That was a first. As far as pedophile priests go: It is a horrible crime that haunts the church to this day, and rightfully so. But the rate of pedophilia in the priesthood is lower than that in the general population. Men don’t become priests because they want to abuse young children — you may as well say that men have children so they can become pedophiles. So please don’t rant about old men who abuse children. That doesn’t define priests.

As far as the Catholic church changing its position on artificial birth control: I don’t expect that it will change. It relates directly to the idea that we should do God’s will, and that our actions (abstaining from artificial BC in this case) should reflect that. It’s not about the oppression of women, although I understand why it looks that way.

As a final note, I would like you to understand one last thing: I don’t want to make you Catholic. I don’t want to force my moral and religious choices on you, especially via the political realm. And I don’t want anyone else to do that either; and I don’t want people to force their moral imperatives on me. This, too, speaks directly to the idea of free will and religious freedom. It’s not about obeying the rules so you don’t go to hell. It’s about loving so much and so fully, that you want to do God’s will.

I could go on (and on) about my faith. It has sustained me through some very difficult times, and it has helped me to celebrate very joyful times. I cannot turn away from it or deny it — I can’t even be quiet about it because it fills me so. I’ll just leave you with two other things. One is my favorite prayer, and the other a video that a friend sent to me via Twitter. I was moved by it. “This is why I’m Catholic,” I thought. And I’m not afraid to let anyone know that.

The prayer of St. Francis

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy;

O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; 

to be understood as to understand; 
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive;

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

“What makes this religion great is not errors of wars or inquisition.
It’s that broken men and women get to participate in his mission.”

20 thoughts on “Thinking Aloud: Being Catholic in America

  1. This is a great post. My feelings on Catholicism were similar to those of a sibling. Parts of it annoyed and frustrated me, but when someone attacked it, I become defensive. I’m no longer a practicing Catholic, but some of my family and friends still are, and I try to respect that. I don’t know where I really stand with religion, but I know I’ll never be able to remove the Catholicism from my bones. It’s as much a part of me as my past.

    • I’m not a practicing Catholic either, but my mother, along with a lot of my husbands’ family are.

      But that Catholic guilt. Yeah, that sticks with you, it’s almost like brainwashing, and I hope that doesn’t sound insulting to anyone, but that’s how it truly feels sometimes. Like I’m going to go to hell for something I’ve done, or not done.

      I find it very difficult to accept most forms of organized religion.

      Anyway, Great post, RPM. I love learning more about you!

      • No, I’m not into the guilt thing, I agree. As far as the term “brainwashing” I think a lot of times the perception about religious people in general is that they have blind faith. That they never search or question — and the perception is that churches encourage that kind of non-seeking behavior. But I have always felt welcomed by my church and by my parents and teachers to search for reasons and understanding, not to blindly accept. I don’t know if other religions encourage that or not, but I certainly never felt the Catholic church told me: You can’t ask or know that.

        Granted, I may find answers I don’t like and find hard to accept (see: ordaining women), but that is when prayer is most important.

  2. I’m sorry, but the rationalization of not using birth control because it goes against God’s will is like saying I don’t use traffic signs because it goes against God’s will. Without either, an accident is going to happen. We all have control of our lives to some extent and some things are up to God.

    But to just blindly walk into a situation and say “whatever happens will be God’s will” is foolish. It wasn’t God’s will that I stubbed my toe this morning, I just wasn’t paying attention. I guess that’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in natural family planning. How can a person with 13 kids tell me that it works (happened during marriage-prep course)?

    I love God, but the men that run the church make me very upset. It’s so easy to make up a rule and say “God said so” and then point to a random bible verse to try and back it up. I guess that’s why I don’t go to church anymore, but still pray every night.

    • Oh, dear, I think you missed my point. But I totally hear your frustration. I’m not trying to rationalize anything. I don’t see a comparision between obeying the law (traffic signs) and choosing to use BC. As far as accidents… I don’t know what to tell you. I feel like we’re on different pages. Which is fine. I use NFP, too, we just chose not to have 13 kids. (Yikes!) I’m not advocatiing walking blindly into anything, or saying that everything that happens is God’s will. I’m saying that we try to be open to God’s will. In the church’s doctrine artificial birth control goes against that, and NFP supports it. I, personally, doubt whether or not God cares? But that’s what the church teaches.

      • I wasn’t saying you were trying to rationalize, I think it’s the church trying to do the rationalizing. And, yeah, I think we are coming from 2 different places. After years of catholic school and upbringing, I think the church’s real agenda is far from what it preaches. But that’s just me. That doesn’t change my opinion on God, who I still believe is up there watching out for all of us. I also think that he’s shaking His head in disbelief at a lot of what people do in His name.

  3. You call it “God’s will” and I call it faith. When we give ourselves to God in order to live our lives for His honor and glory, every now and then we slip. We start taking things back that we think we should control. I think that is where the practicing Catholic can put artificial means of birth control.

    My Church teaches the ideal….the truth, as it should. It bases its teaching on natural law. It is against natural law to artificially prevent an egg from being fertilized by the sperm to produce a life. Sounds pretty simple; but not always as simple to live.

    That is where faith in God comes in. And that is where we humans must pray every day…..Jesus I believe…help my unbelief!

  4. I read an article in my mom’s paper over the weekend, and I thought of you. The opening paragraph of Gene Lyon’s column was this:
    “The priest who married us in 1967 advised us that we could in good faith practice birth control. He reasoned that as Pope Paul VI was then preparing an encyclical regarding faith and sexuality, young Catholics could reasonably assume that church dogma regarding contraception would soon change to reflect contemporary realities: specifically that a couple intending to bring children into their marriage might legitimately seek to do so in their own time.”

    As I have said (maybe here), I “get” the church’s stance on BC. Many non-Catholics (and Catholics) don’t have a clue about NFP, and if they did, they might better understand and be less critical of the church. But I still am in full support of artificial means and saw a priest about it, before I joined each of the three churches I have belonged to as an adult. I told at least two of the priests that if they were not okay with it, I would leave the church. I said this because I respected the teachings and did not want to be a hypocrite, not because “I wanted to take my ball home” or thought I was right or knew best.

    Catholics do take a lot of ridicule, but I think probably half of it is due to ignorance. I don’t claim to know a lot about other religions, but I certainly don’t bash them. Good for you for being able and willing to defend your religion. No religion is perfect and there are sinners everywhere, religious and non-religious alike.

    • Right, I understand many of the church’s reasonings, and some I do find easier to accept than others. I also think that the riducle comes from people who don’t understand the Catholic faith because either a) they’ve never practiced it or b) they grew up in the church, and decided to reject ALL its teachings because of the ones they didn’t like. If someone is willing to respectfully listen to me explain my faith, or why I still follow my faith, then I feel less defensive and more joyful. Even if they aren’t going to come around to my POV or convert to Catholism, it’s nice to have civil discussion (and disagreement) rather than snark and outright rejection.

  5. I think there’s a BIG difference between real religious intolerance and things like misinformed criticism or well-crafted snark (which, incidentally, is *my* religion.) I mean, you can talk about intolerance leading to genocide in Sudan or the Troubles in Ireland or you know, um, The Crusades come to mind. But I think if you’re going to proudly align yourself with the Vatican in 2012, my sister, then yes, you’re going to find yourself doing some pro bono PR now and then, and there’s going to be some (perhaps irreverent, insensitive, disrespectful, scornful) tweets. With or without a prominent nitwit like Santorum in the national focus, the RCC is always going to be right in the thick of many hot button issues: abortion, gay rights, women’s rights, child abuse, etc. There are many people who feel that the Church oppresses them in policy and practice or carries water for those who do, and those people aren’t going to temper their tone so as not to offend the more progressive Catholics or the Catholics still working within the system for change. You’re gonna hear from them. (and I’m not suggesting this is news to you, I’m just sayin’) Until someone is physically stopping you from attending Mass, or bullying your kids at school because of where they go to church, or making it illegal or life-threatening to worship in the way you want to, I’m not sure that you can play the “intolerance” card.

    But maybe we’re splitting hairs regarding word choice. Maybe the phenomenon that you’re referring to is that there seems to be a double-standard in this country that plays itself out in this way: it’s considered politically incorrect and in bad taste to criticize or ridicule muslims, Jews, pagans, turtlists, but fair game to mock Catholics, or Christians in general. Especially in liberal, progressive circles, where there is professed acceptance of all paths, there is a surprisingly blatantly high tolerance of irreverence toward Christians. I think that’s a valid point, but you know, I also think that it’s earned, or, if not earned exactly, that it’s the price of doing business when you’re in the “dominant” culture.

    It’s related to why it’s ok for every family sitcom to portray an incompetent, socially retarded Dad, when they wouldn’t get away unscathed if they portrayed an equally moronic Mom. It’s related to how some folks wouldn’t think twice about mocking white trash and hillbillies and other negative white stereotypes in a way they would never consider mocking asian, hispanic or black people. There’s something that seems mean/nasty/cruel about mocking or criticizing underdogs or the disinfranchised that isn’t there when you’re mocking the Powers That Be. I can tell you as a writer and performer that “sticking it to the Man,” whoever the Man is in any situation, is pretty much always safe and fair game, at least when it comes to comedy or relating to an audience, like one does on Twitter. So, in this country, maybe that’s why popular culture tolerates these attitudes toward Christians in general and Catholics in particular. Your personal, kindler, gentler, God-of-yes thing notwithstanding, Catholicism is often seen as The Oppressor, and, I would personally suggest, often has been. So yeah, there’s gonna be some be some snark, and when an educated, contemporary, feminist, self-actualized woman like you identifies herself as part of a group with this kind of socio-political baggage, yeah, there’s gonna be some raised eyebrows. Maybe that reaction is ihypocritical or ignorant or superficial – but it’s not surprising.

    • Pretty much your second paragraph. And, yeah, it did occur to me that just like white men (and probably not so coincidentally), it’s hard to say “don’t say mean things to me/about my chosen religion” when, again, it is The Dominant player, and (as was pointed out, quite reasonably on Twitter as well) a CHOICE. I could turn away from my faith — I have done so. It didn’t go so well for me.

      I just wanted to say my piece, and I stand by it. I understand why people don’t get why I still claim my Catholism, but it is because of the good it does in the world, and despite the not-so-good. And, you know, that Jesus dude. I dig him. 😉

    • Another private communication I had with a friend asked, basically, “Do you think Catholics get as bum a rap as Muslims?” To which I answered absolutely not. Muslims are by far more misunderstood and more discriminated against than any Christian faction in the good old US of A. And, again, it’s ignorance, this time combined with fear. However, I think a liberal, non-religious person would be appalled by hate speech directed at a Muslim family or woman, but would turn around and call a Catholic a sanctimonious prig. And take the stand that since Catholics are a “majority” that’s okay.

      Well, women are a majority in this country too. And look how well that’s going for us. :/

  6. I’m glad you are willing to talk about your faith. When the only people who talk about faith are the ones who tell you what you should and shouldn’t believe or do, then religious dialogue and religious tolerance goes out the window. We used NFP, and it wasn’t in God’s plan for us to have kids of our own. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to listen for God’s will for us and not our will. I personally think protestants miss something by not observing lent; there is one period of time in which we think specifically about that relationship with God, and our need to listen to that and not our vision of the world. If that means giving up something we love more than our relationship with God, like television (say, because we would rather watch mindless shopping channels than pray) aren’t we richer for that?

  7. I have always loved the prayer of St. Francis. It was one of my mom’s favorites too. The message is so simple…Love and take care of one another!

  8. Thank you for sharing this post. I too am a practicing Catholic woman and rather progressive. A lot of people think the two things are contradictory, but they are not. Progressive people believe in helping the poor and loving their neighbors as they are. So do Catholics. I think a lot of people don’t get that NFP is a form of BC, just not artificial. While I did use artificial BC for some time, we do NFP now and it works just fine for us. And while we do that, I would never begrudge someone who used artificial BC. It’s not my place to judge, but do what’s right for me and my family.

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