I’ve written about having been Catholic. I’ve written a touch about being Methodist and Episcopal and much more about being UU. I’ve written about agnosticism and atheism as well, in both broad strokes and brief bites. What I’ve not said much about is the leaving of the faith that was with me in some form from ages 5 to 35. And I’ve said little with what I retain from that faith that filled almost three-quarters of my life.
It’s not an angry tale. It’s not filled with pain, shame, or fear. I was brought up in what I’d maintain is the best sort of Catholicism at one of the best possible times for a faith with a checkered history. From the mid-seventies through the mid-nineties, my Catholic base was at the University of Detroit. Until my undergraduate and graduate days, noon mass in the St. Ignatius Chapel — located in the Commerce and Finance building — provided my spiritual sustenance. Once ensconced as a student at U of D, I moved to the nighttime student mass. Aside from the latter having a bigger crowd with younger people, there was little different about the experiences. Both services were led by the same Jesuits, men of the Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius of Loyola almost 500 years ago. Both boasted guitar-based music that was singable and relatable.
And, notably, neither were representative of what Catholicism would look like in the suburban parishes my then-husband and I would sample.
We tried. We tried half a dozen parishes over the next ten years, looking for a place that resonated. Since I was the family Catholic, I suppose much of that resonance centered around me, but we left each place in agreement — it just wasn’t working. I don’t imagine it helped that during that same decade, the Catholic church was swinging towards conservatism, perhaps the inevitable backlash against the liberal shift a few decades before. But not having lived the history of a more conservative Catholicism, I’d naively assumed that the accepting, loving place of social justice and radical inclusivity was a mature church — one that would never, in my mind, move backwards.
We baptized two children in two different parishes that felt entirely alike. There was a homogeneity to the Catholic experience of these decades. Families — mostly Caucasian — filled the pews, those with children in any associated Catholic school seemed to belong a bit more than those of us that didn’t. Laity seemed to play little role in the everyday workings of the church and almost none in the Mass. Gone was a message of social justice and inclusivity. Gone were women in the pulpit. And gone was a sense of belonging.
And so it went. Gradually, attending Mass became more habit than heart. I was growing uncomfortable with the Catholic Church as a whole and with the response of our parish and the larger Church to the ever-increasing number of cases of sexual predation within the Church. While that was not why I eventually left, the lack of seriousness which that continuing scandal received left me wondering why I was there. We could have just stopped going, drifting away, and had not one sermon on one Sunday been given, that’s likely what would have happened.
The priest was not our usual priest but rather an occasional giver of sacraments and sermons. He began urging us to think of the wonderful people we knew. The people who gave willingly of their time and talents to friends, family and the world. The people who focused love on their families and lived with integrity and love. All that was fine. And then: “If only they were Catholic.”
That was the end. We never returned. None of our parents were Catholic, at least at that point. Certainly they were fine people, devoted to their families, some within other faith traditions and some without any at all. Our friends certainly weren’t all Catholic. And as far as I could see, it didn’t matter. And why should it? Why should having selected (or having been born into) a particular faith tradition make you better than those from another tradition? The sermon wasn’t why we left the institution, but it was the gust that took me out of an institution that, for a decade, had increasingly been a poor fit for me.
It was more than intolerance of difference that was nagging at me. It was more than the minimally acknowledged pedophilia. It was more than the disappointment that the rest of the Catholic church was not what I’d thought of as Catholic — liberal, loving, accepting, and working towards greater inclusivity of women. All that was bothering me, but I was also tugged by the nagging doubt that all the rules and rituals that had attracted me at thirteen were not going to bring me any closer to meaning and truth. Not that they’d been completely meaningless all those years. Comfort came from those, and the sameness of the rites was an anchor when everything else around me moved.
So I left. I moved to a less-restrictive faith, where I spent a few years allowing myself to sort through questions about prayer and about the nature of God. And I came out quite whole and quite agnostic. But decades of Catholicism left their mark, with the liberal leanings of the Jesuit Catholicism of my youth leading me towards what is inclusive, loving, and open to growth. It is what was planted in my youth, starting at five or six, that led me to the Unitarian Universalist church I cherish today. It is what showed me a faith community could be, illustrating the support, compassion, and quest for meaning and knowledge a spiritual home could provide. Without that upbringing, I’m not sure I’d have bothered to search for church after leaving theist traditions. I’d likely have been happy to stay home in my jammies with a paper and coffee.
I know many previous Catholic who looks back with mostly anger at the church of their youth. Some have been hurt by the church they encountered; others, excluded; still others, just disenchanted. Many remain angry, even years later. While I don’t understand the Catholicism I saw as an adult nor the conservative, myopic, male-centered view from the Vatican that is seeming to wrap itself tightly around the Church of today, I don’t revile it either. Where we’ve been informs where we are, and the person I am today — some of the best parts of who I am today — was forged in the Catholic Church.