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.