“On Being a Reluctant Catholic” (By: Michele Babcock-Nice)

Female Praying Hands with Rosary (Retrieved from http://rachelhelie.com/?p=404 , December 23, 2013)

Female Praying Hands with Rosary (Retrieved from http://rachelhelie.com/?p=404 , December 23, 2013)

For the past few years, especially, I have been and would consider myself a reluctant Roman Catholic.  There are many reasons for this, as I will reflect upon herein; and these are thoughts and feelings that I have personally encountered and coped with in the past, as well.  While I do have my own internal, personal struggles with being Roman Catholic, I have always returned to the same realization after much introspection and contemplation – to remain Roman Catholic.  I am sure that the internal struggles that I feel about being Roman Catholic will not just go away, and in fact, they seem to increase with time.  However, for now, I continue to remain Roman Catholic, whether more or less involved as I have been in the past.  My religion and spirituality are a strong part of who I am as a person, and are not things about myself that I take lightly.  And so, serious understanding, thought, awareness, introspection, and consideration are concerns that I bring to my own table in contemplating what being Roman Catholic means for me.

I was born, baptized, and raised Roman Catholic in the Greater Buffalo Area of New York State.  My mother is of purely Polish descent, and was born and raised Roman Catholic.  When my parents married, my dad converted from being a nonpracticing Quaker to Roman Catholicism.  My mother, especially, and my dad, often, attended weekly mass on a regular basis even before I was born.  Therefore, it was a sure thing that I would become Roman Catholic, being indoctrinated in the ways of Roman Catholicism.  It was an expectation that, as the offspring of my parents, I would be Roman Catholic.  My mother made sure that my brother and I received religious education.  We attended public school, and so, took religious education classes every Sunday before going to mass since religion is not taught in public schools.  We both attended religion classes at my hometown church and school from our ages of 5-16.

Even at a young age, the thing that struck me the most about Roman Catholicism was that there were few female role models in my church, and even fewer who were visible, appreciated, or recognized in any way.  Certainly, in the parochial school in my hometown, there were nuns who were principals and teachers, however I did not attend Catholic school and did not regularly experience women’s leadership involvement in my religion.  I attended religious education classes for one hour each Sunday, and went to mass for one hour each Sunday.  Therefore, it was the men in the leadership positions of the church whom I always saw, and who were always prominent in speaking, performing mass, and being at the forefront of the faith.

As a young girl, these experiences caused me to feel that the male leaders of the church were out-of-touch with children.  Of course, they spoke about God, Jesus, His family, and His followers, and how we should love Jesus, however their words always seemed so far away.  They seemed to preach about what they did not practice.  Jesus showed the example of being caring and compassionate for children, but I did not observe any of them being that way.  They did not know how to interact with children, how to appreciate children, how to respect children, how to relate with or reach children.  They were – and, often, still are – out-of-touch.  There was alot more spiritual need that I had as a child that went unrecognized, unnurtured, ignored.  As a result, I felt invisible and unappreciated by the male leadership of the church when I was a child.  They did not know, understand, or care about me.  They preached what they did not practice.  How is a young girl supposed to gain respect for those who are so distinctly separate from her?

When I was five or six, I had my weekly religion class with Sister Mary.  Sister Mary was a very young nun who always dressed in her habit, and who was a role model for me.  She was kind and caring to children, especially to me.  I was one who wanted to stay after class and help Sister Mary clean the chalk boards.  I had alot of questions for Sister Mary who probably thought I was more of a chatterbox.  She seemed to look for reasons for me not to remain after class to talk with her, however I ignored and overlooked her hints, and asked more questions.  Always, she was very kind, compassionate, and understanding.  To me, she always had the right answers, could relate with me, and placed me at ease and at peace.  The next fall, it broke my heart to learn that Sister Mary had been relocated.  I never saw her again.  Sister Mary was like an angel to me – and worse, an angel who had been ripped away from me.  I cried over the loss of my relationship with Sister Mary.  I needed a female role model to look up to, and to whom to ask all of my curious questions, and she was gone.

I never got that feeling back about anyone in a leadership position in the church even coming close to understanding me, as a person, until I took my Confirmation classes with the deacon of my hometown church.  Deacon Louis was extremely knowledgeable, and also very upbeat and enthusiastic about Roman Catholicism and people’s individual spirituality.  I told Deacon Louis that I was interested to learn more about the Rosary, and that I wanted to pray the Rosary but did not know how.  Deacon Louis provided me with a beautifully-pictured and colored pamphlet about how to pray the Rosary.  Wow!  For once, someone who actually listened to me – amazing!  As time progressed, I learned that Deacon Louis was very understanding and respectful about individuals’ faith and spiritual development.  Again, I privately spoke with Deacon Louis and let him know that I was contemplating a few saints to be my patron saint at Confirmation.  He made photocopies of a few pages of a book for me that he had about the saints that I had identified to him.  Based on that information that he provided to me, I chose my patron saint, St. Joan of Arc.  I had a great respect for Deacon Louis.  He was a man who was married and who had three daughters; he understood me and my need for faith and spiritual fulfillment in my religion.

Throughout my life, I have always tried to reach out to priests in the churches that I have attended and/or those in which I have been a member.  In most cases, I have not had good experiences in that the men seem unable to relate with or understand my experiences as a woman.  Most priests are extremely uncomfortable in speaking with me, as a woman, about women’s issues and traumatic life experiences, for examples.  Even less so, most are unable to understand and relate with me about relationship, marital, divorce, children’s, and even career and financial issues.  They often seem to feel threatened by or unable to cope with such topics.  One expects to go to a priest for support and guidance, and when it is not received, it may lead to one questioning his or her faith.  It makes me wonder if they are simply like most men who, when faced with a problem, want to “fix” it; or if they are truly unable to relate with or understand the issues that women, children, and families face.  Certainly, fixing problems is good, however there are often times when women simply want to talk out and vent their concerns, seeking emotional support; most priests seem to be unable to understand and provide that.  For these reasons, I have learned that it is often better not to approach priests with such issues because they are typically unable to understand about and relate to them with me, at least on a personal level.

In my mid to late 20’s, I seriously contemplated becoming a nun in the Roman Catholic Church.  As a person with a strong religious faith and who was single with no committed intimate partner in sight, I thought that religious life might be suitable for me.  I sought to understand whether or not I had “received a call” from God to become a religious.  I was a member of two Roman Catholic Singles groups in Western New York State, and had opportunities for interactions with many religious, both women and men.  In this capacity, I also learned more about religious life and took several opportunities to go on religious retreats with my peers.  I participated in one weekend retreat at a convent in Cheektowaga, New York.  I also personally interviewed with a nun at the convent in Athol Springs, New York.

While both of these experiences increased my faith and spirituality, they did not convince me to pursue religious life.  In fact, they did the opposite.  At the first convent that I went to, I saw women who appeared to do much praying and sitting.  Most of the women were older or elderly, and many did not have the medical assistance they needed.  It seemed that the convent was more like one big dormitory building for women of the same faith who prayed alot.  I did not see their good works, but only saw them living amongst each other in lives that caused them to be excluded from society at large.  I similarly observed and felt this at the second convent where I interviewed.  The elderly woman who interviewed me did so in her small bedroom.  She appeared to have no family, no nothing.  To me, she appeared to have lived an empty and solitary life, and was very much unappreciated.

After more thought, I realized that I did not want any of what I observed at the convents.  I felt sorry for these women, and angry at the Roman Catholic Church for requiring them to make such huge sacrifices in their lives.  I was also upset that the Church required priests to be single.  I did not believe that was fair, or took basic human nature into serious consideration.  It seemed to me that the Church wanted fewer people for which to pay simply by requiring that religious did not have families.  Conversely, I desired the opportunity to be married and have a family.  I also realized, after more thought, that I was pursuing religious life for some of the wrong reasons.  I had experienced a traumatic experience at college as an undergraduate, and pursuing religious life was a way of escaping from it.  I realized that, and decided to deal with it – and did.

As a woman in the Roman Catholic Church, I also realized all of the limitations on and misjudgments about women that it practices.  The Roman Catholic Church is often extremely rigid and insensitive toward people and understanding the basic needs of people.  Certainly, there are many wonderful things that the Catholic Church does in helping and supporting people throughout the world.  I have also received assistance and support from the Roman Catholic Church, but this has only begun being received after having been a member of the faithful for 41 years.  Most people cannot wait 41 or more years before some of their basic needs are met; they would be dead, otherwise.

The Roman Catholic Church is also extremely patriarchal.  Women are excluded from high-ranking positions in the church.  Women are not allowed to be priests or deacons, bishops or cardinals, or popes.  Even if a Roman Catholic woman becomes a priest, she is often not recognized or supported by her followers.  Women – often but for the Virgin Mary – are viewed in a negative light in Roman Catholicism.  After all, followers are typically taught that it was Eve who led to Adam’s downfall, and the resulting exit from Paradise.  There are different versions of this story that place equal responsibility on both Adam and Eve for being removed from Paradise, though those are the stories that one does not hear and that are not taught in the faith.  Whether consciously or unconsciously women are, therefore, blamed and condemned by the Roman Catholic Church.

Additionally, the Roman Catholic Church is also sexist.  In viewing Jesus’ mother, Mary, as a virgin and placing her virginity on a pedestal, the Roman Catholic Church has elevated a woman to a position in the natural world that is unrealistic for all other women.  Certainly, virginity and chastity are important for women, however they are also ideals that are not realistic.  Often, for example, the Roman Catholic Church does not hold the same ideals for men, and this leads to a sexist double standard.  Such standards are biased and unfair.  Further, the many prayers and recitations in the Roman Catholic Church are sexist because they are not gender neutral, therefore excluding and purposely ignoring the need for increased rights, equality, and freedoms of women within the Church.

The Roman Catholic Church is also sexist in regard to its views regarding abortion.  I am a Roman Catholic for whom the choice for life is extremely important, however I also understand that it is important to provide choice, as well.  As a person who has only had one pregnancy, and who has never had any abortions or miscarriages, I believe in the value or life, though I also support the importance of choice.  It must be understood that there are situations and experiences that girls and women have that may be traumatic, out of their control, and/or life-threatening.  The are other situations in which females simply decide against continuing their pregnancy.  Women and girls must have opportunities for choice in whether or not to give birth to children.  It is wrong when the Roman Catholic Church preaches about life, but then, does not provide support or assistance to girls or women who are in need of it.  And, what about the male who has caused a pregnancy to occur?  Typically, the Roman Catholic Church does not hold males accountable to a role of responsibility when women and/or girls whom they impregnate obtain abortions.  Again, the responsibility is usually all upon the female, and the male is absolved of responsibility.  The female, again, is often blamed, stigmatized, and lacks support she needs in the very place that should provide it.

In marriages in which there is difficulty, abuse, or domestic violence, Roman Catholic priests are not consistent in their views regarding what steps should be taken to either maintain or dissolve the marriage.  Such views contribute to confusion and increased sexism in the Roman Catholic Church.  Some priests maintain the view that the wife and children must be subservient to the male, whom they view as the head of the household and the absolute, all-powerful leader of the family.  Such a view is harmfully patriarchal, and in fact, can contribute to a worsening of the situation in which the victims continue to be victimized, blamed, and unsupported.  Men should not necessarily be believed or obeyed at all costs, or it could cost one her life.  (Then, of course, people will ask why she did not just leave the marriage.)   On the other hand, there are priests who encourage marital counseling for a couple who is in trouble, however none of those with whom I have ever interacted are qualified to provide it.  First, they are not licensed counselors, nor do they have experience in marriage, or in having a wife and family of their own.  Then, there are those priests who say that if counseling does not help and if the situation is so bad, then divorce is the best option.  Wait, I thought marriage was supposed to be forever.  Sometimes, however, no matter how much a woman may try to improve and maintain her marriage, divorce is the only viable alternative that remains, whether it is initiated by her spouse or herself.

There is also the issue of homosexuals in the Roman Catholic Church.  I am an individual who is and who always has been heterosexual, though I recognize that there is a need in the Roman Catholic Church to provide support and equality to all peoples, including those who are homosexual.  I am also one who believes that marriage should be – notice that I said “should be” – between a man and woman, though I recognize this as one of my values because this is what I was taught.  I also take care not to impose my values about this issue onto others.  Therefore, I maintain the view that marriage should be between two partners who love and are fully committed to each other, for the benefit of themselves and their families, if they have them.  Therefore, I believe that the Roman Catholic Church should not exclude or condemn individuals who are homosexual, nor create guilt in them or cause them to feel sinful simply because of their sexual orientation.

Further, there are many experiences that I have had in the Roman Catholic Church – a church that promotes Jesus and Christianity – that have been extremely unchristian.  Within individual Roman Catholic churches, schools, groups, and/or organizations affiliated with it, there have been a great number of situations I have had in which people who contend to be Catholic and Christian behave in decidedly unchristian ways, in ways of which Jesus would not approve.  There are many Roman Catholics who are basically hypocrites because they preach about and say they believe what they actually do not practice.

As an example of such hypocrisy, a number of Roman Catholic men throughout my life (both as a child and as a woman) have been sexually harassing (or worse) of me, and have outright wanted to have an affair with me, even though they are married and/or we were both married to other spouses at those times.  I am a person who has never – I repeat, never – had an affair with any man.  Even in a difficult (to say the least) marriage in which there were temptations to be unfaithful, I remained faithful to my then-spouse.  I have also turned down every man who has wanted to have an affair with me.  I understand that he is seeking something temporary and for his own gratification, and does not understand the seriousness or implications that having an affair would create on himself, his wife, and his children.  The Roman Catholic Church and society must teach men to be faithful to their wives and families, even when times are tough.  When times are tough, it is taking the easy way out to throw in the towel regarding one’s marriage and commitment.  More instruction and better role models are needed for Roman Catholic men (and all men) in regard to maintaining and developing healthy marriages, at least from my perspective.

Another major issue in the Roman Catholic Church is abuse and sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and/or harassment by priests toward female and male congregants, particularly those who are younger and/or who are in positions of vulnerability.  In churches and dioceses throughout the United States, in Ireland, and elsewhere, there have been numerous instances of sexual abuse by priests.  While I have not personally experienced sexual abuse by any priests in the Roman Catholic Church, I do know of those who have and those who have perpetrated abuse that was unrecognized by the greater congregation and not at all addressed, corrected, or resolved by higher level diocesan church leaders.  Such abuses have ripe ground to occur in such a closed, structured, hierarchical organization of men who all too often have ignored, overlooked, and not considered the seriousness of the situations.  Instead, and all too often again, abusive priests are ushered along to different parishes where they continue and/or escalate their abuses, and/or continue them unrecognized.  Certainly, there are many good priests, and those who perpetrate abuses give a bad name to those who do not.  And, the Roman Catholic Church has implemented serious steps at preventing future abuses, as one good thing that has come from these situations, however they do continue to occur.  Such abuses by priests have caused many followers to leave the faith, and to lose hope in the very people who are supposed to be Christ-like.  I personally know of several people who have left Roman Catholicism because of these issues – such issues that should never occur.

Because of all of these experiences that I have had as a Roman Catholic, and more, I have become a reluctant Roman Catholic.  In the past couple of years, I have actively sought out and have considered other faiths.  All of the faiths that I have considered are still within Christianity, though they have been either less Catholic or more Protestant than Roman Catholicism.  In these faiths, however, I have found many issues that are similar to those I have encountered in the Roman Catholic Church.  Certainly, in some faiths, women have higher positions of power and might actually be the highest leader of their faith, however I observe that being practiced to the most minimal extent in the area where I live around Atlanta, an area that is mostly Baptist and thus, also highly patriarchal based on related religious and cultural views.  Also, in other faiths, the Virgin Mary is not held in nearly the same regard as she is in Roman Catholicism.  While Roman Catholics may place her on a pedestal and view her unrealistically in regard to virginal expectations of women in society, she is completely absent in some other faiths, leaving me with a feeling that I could become a member of such a faith, but that is the only thing holding me back – that faith’s exclusion of Mary as the Mother of Jesus.

So, I always return to the same crossroads – do I remain Roman Catholic or do I convert to another faith?  While there are many things in Roman Catholicism with which I disagree and do not support, I always reach the same answer – to remain Roman Catholic.  The most important part of my decision always includes that I am a faithful follower and believer in Jesus.  I might not agree with many of the practices of Roman Catholicism, however I do believe in the teachings of Jesus.  I have always come to the conclusion that I can pray for myself, and my friends and enemies.  I can pray that the eyes of those who have sight but who are blind can be opened.  I can work to do more to bring awareness about the importance and value of women and children in the Church, rather than support the male leadership’s exclusion of them.

I recognize that I am one who is not content to simply accept the rigid, patriarchal, and sexist nature of the Roman Catholic Church, but who is one who strives to bring increased equality and support to marginalized groups, including women and children.  While Blessed Teresa and Pope Francis, for examples, are excellent role models within the Roman Catholic Church, and have brought much compassion and support to people around the world, I, personally, continue to experience much rigidity, patriarchy, sexism, and inequality in my faith.  I doubt that the Roman Catholic Church will ever provide full equality, understanding, or acceptance in the Church for women, and while I am intolerant of that, I do accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.  Thus, I continue to remain a reluctant Roman Catholic, and will likely revisit this issue at many points throughout the remainder of my life.  I place my faith in God that He will continue to guide me on the path that is right for me.

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