Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Maybe The Pope Was Just Having a Bad Day

I make no secret of my blue collar background. I'm Italian (second generation American) and Irish (sixth generation). With a background like that, Catholicism comes along for the ride. I spent my elementary years in parochial school--until my family moved from New Jersey to Florida.

By age eleven, I didn't have much going for me, but I'd learned that doing well in school was a way to get the attention I craved. Books were also a safe escape from our chaotic household so I did a lot of reading outside of school.

When my sixth grade history class skated past the Spanish Inquisition without a mention, I raised the issue, confident I'd be praised for my juvenile erudition. Instead Sister Mary Catherine slapped me down.

Convinced she'd misunderstood (or had perhaps missed that chapter of history) I pursued the matter...and got myself sent to the principal's office for my trouble. When I didn't do any better with Father Meara, I began to smell a conspiracy.

Our family's "instability" had made me a miniature control freak, and the idea that I might be missing other important parts of history alarmed me. What else weren't they telling me? For this reason, when we moved to Florida, I decided it was time to make a clean break from parochial school.

Give my father's uncertain temper, this was a huge (and risky) decision, but I was willing to suffer for the promise of intellectual freedom. I sounded Mom out first, and ran into a brick wall. To this day, my mother believes the Church can do no wrong.

I grimly accepted that I'd have to take my cause directly to my father, the scariest man I knew.

On the morning my parents took me and my younger brother to St. Jude's to enroll us in sixth and fourth grade respectively, I simply refused to cooperate.

Looking back, I now suspect I had an ace in the hole I didn't realize I held. Parochial school for two kids is expensive, and my parents had just bought a new house and spent a bunch of money moving the five of us from New Jersey.

To my shock and my mother's horror, instead of knocking me into next month, my father agreed to enroll us (my poor brother went along for the ride) in public school.

Mom was furious, but it didn't matter. Daddy made the decisions.

That single event began a long, slow alienation from the Church. Within the year, when my brother became an altar boy (Mom was determined to keep him close to God) the paternalistic putdown of females began to grate on me. Why weren't there altar girls?

When I went away to college, I visited the health clinic and started on birth control pills. Not because I had plans to bonk every boy in sight, but because my cycles were wildly out of control and needed regulating. When I mentioned the pills to my priest during confession, he told me I was damning my soul. He didn't want to listen to my female health complaints. His universe was black-and-white. Take those pills and go to hell.

There's a passage in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn that reads:

"I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself: 'All right, then, I'll go to hell'."

It's been years since that priest refused me absolution for a sin I hadn't even committed. In the intervening time, other, more moderate priests suggested my conscience should be the ultimate arbiter of my behavior. I had long since reached the same conclusion.

Even so, I still find myself grieving for the Church I wish I had.

In the same way I am appalled by George Bush's cavalier approach to the Constitution, I am dismayed by the Catholic Church's inability to reconcile itself to the realities of life.

I'm not arguing with the word of God. I'm arguing with the word of man. Maybe Pope Gregory was just having a bad day when he decreed pleasure suspect (it "befouls" intercourse). And God wasn't the one who decided priests and nuns needed to be celibate. Man did. Mainly because if priests had children, they might try to bequeath Church property to their offspring.

I bring all this up here because of an ABC News item yesterday:

A 79-year-old nun has pleaded no contest to two counts of indecent behavior with a child for incidents involving male students at a Milwaukee elementary school where she was principal in the 1960s.

It just hurts my heart.


Alex said...

I was raised among Southern Baptists, who surely rival Catholics in their narrow judgmental hypocrisy, if not in their worldwide path of destruction. As I contemplate my kids' inevitable spiritual questions, I realize that I simply can't, with a clear conscience, bequeath them the same childhood years of religious certainty I had; the disillusionment, in these days of extremists and fanatics, would be harder, more vicious, and do even greater damage to them.

Stephen Parrish said...

I was raised Catholic too, and briefly attended Catholic grade school. I knew something was funky when my third grade teacher (a nun) ordered us to sit at edge of our seats to make room for our guardian angels.

This same nun told us all black people should be put on a boat and sent back to Africa. There should, she added, be a leak in the boat.

The Inquisition isn't so long ago after all.

Heather B. Moore said...

Kind of along the same lines . . . I always wondered where it all started. Who was the first person to call a woman a temptress? I've written a book based on the Queen of Sheba and religious leaders viewed her as evil or as a demon because she had power and wealth (those should belong to a man).

As far as your blog, I think to deny someone the natural expression of sexuality will lead to unnatural expressions. Many many god-fearing people are married. I don't think abstaining from a healthy sexual relationship makes someone closer or more intune with God. In fact, I think it can have the opposite effect in some cases.

I think one main issue I have with some doctrines taught by various churches is that infants need to be baptized. I don't believe they are evil or can be tempted for that matter.

The priest who gave you the suggestion of letting your conscience be the ultimate arbiter, was wise indeed.

Maya Reynolds said...

Alex: Interestingly enough, this post started me thinking about the same subject.

Even though I eventually moved away from the Church, I think children need religious grounding in their formative years.

I still find great comfort in reading my Bible and in prayer. I would hate to deny that to a child.

Maya Reynolds said...

Stephen: I am truly alarmed by the intolerance I see in America today.

I listened to a debate on Sunday titled "Is America too religious?" One speaker said something I liked: "AMERICANS as individuals are not too religious. AMERICA as a country IS too religious."

I think I agree. As individuals, we are free to be as religious as we choose. However, religion should not dominate our government or the social fabric that is our country.

Maya Reynolds said...

Heather: I absolutely agree with you that permanently suppressing a healthy expression of sexuality will not prevent all expressions of sexuality. It will simply result in an unhealthy expression.

As a Catholic, I was taught that baptism erased the taint of original sin. Like you, I have difficulty believing children come into this world with a stain on their souls. I had the same issue with believing that eating fish on Friday was holier than eating meat.

So many of those old traditions were established in a time in which the populace was uneducated. The clergy developed mechanisms to explain concepts like consecrating a child to God's use or the value of sacrifice. IMHO, it's time to revisit the dogma.