Friday, October 30, 2009

From Erica: oh, Catholicism

In light of the recent news that the Pope is extending a relatively warm welcome to disgruntled Anglicans and their clergy- a reaction to the Anglican Church's ever-warming attitude towards female and openly gay clergy- I think it's time to talk a little bit about faith life, disappointment, and hope.

I make no secret of the fact that I'm a practicing Catholic. I was born to parents who are Catholic, who baptized me when I was three months old, and I've attended Mass on a relatively regular basis for the vast majority of my life. At age 9, I wrote a letter to the Pope demanding that he allow women to become priests so I could be one. At age 16, I made the choice to be confirmed in the church, and have stuck with that decision in spite of the numerous differences between my personal politics and the many professed politics of the global Catholic community.

The thing that's been challenging, at least for me, is the fact that many people- especially in the feminist community- completely fail to understand how I could espouse the politics I do and continue to participate in an organization that, to them, is entirely oppressive, backwards, and wrong. At best, I'm delusional, and at worst, I'm a hypocrite. To be honest, this logic is the reason I left the Feministing community in Fall 2008 and started Not Another Wave a few months later. Not that Feministing didn't have other, equally troublesome biases going on; but this was the straw that broke the camel's back.

I think the most bothersome thing about such polar thinking- either you're with them or you're with us- is that it shows a complete lack of understanding of how identity works. Identity isn't an all-or-nothing process, and it's not a static thing. Group membership hardly ever functions on the notion that all members believe identical things at all times. Look at American politics- most of us, for better or for worse, accept the identity of American, but that identity means very different things to each of us. And the identity's meaning will not only vary from person to person, but also from location to location, and situation to situation. There have been times in my life when I've been extremely proud of my national identity, and many times (especially since 2000) that I've been utterly ashamed of it. Ambivalence, I would argue, is a hallmark of the identity process, no matter how much you can argue that your identity is a choice.

Let's get back to the example of Catholicism. For me, there is a lot of shame associated with the broader politics of the Catholic Church. I spent a lot of time being enraged about Pope John Paul II's refusal to reconsider the church's stance on birth control, even in light of the incredible influence that Catholicism was having in regions of Africa that were being stricken by HIV and AIDS; the fact that my sex and gender identity meant that, at age 9, I was told by my mother that I couldn't use the priesthood as a means of effecting social change still upsets me; and the church's stance on abortion rights makes me want to bang my head against a wall. Even more than that, there are many individuals- clergy and non-clergy alike- who would read this post and what else I'm about to say and tell me that I'm a sinner, I'm going to Hell, I'm not really a Catholic, I'm a bad person, etc. These are people that I'm supposed to feel in community with and feel an ability to confide in. This is the part of the church, and of my Catholic identity, that I despise with the most bitter loathing I've ever experienced.

But, by way of contrast, let me tell you about the church in which I grew up and came of age. It's a relatively small community- about 700 folks from a broad geographic area in New Hampshire- and very close-knit. Many of the members were there when my parents first moved to the area in 1984, and will be present at my wedding next summer. When my parents went through medical crises, the community was there. When my sister left school to work for the Obama campaign, the community- even the members who were McCain fans- supported her. Whenever I walked the 3-Day for the Cure, the community supported me with warm wishes, thousands of dollars, and offers for rides, training, and help fundraising.

The priest in my church for many years was Fr. Daniel St. Laurent- or, as we call him, Fr. Dan. During his decade with us, he connected us to an incredibly impoverished community in Honduras- San Francisco de la Paz- and got our communities networking to begin Project Eden, which is a grassroots project in Honduras that simultaneously prevents soil erosion, provides sustainable farming for the community, and raises money for local students to go to school. Fr. Dan's example of how to be a Catholic- how to recognize the problems of poverty and inequality in our world and how to respond to them ethically- extended to many of the other members of our community as well. When I was preparing for confirmation, my sponsor- a woman who had spent years doing education with incarcerated women- brought me to my first Habitat for Humanity project and volunteered alongside me. The man who will be officiating my wedding is a former priest (his wife is a former nun) who provides pastoral counseling in a local hospital and, on the weekends, co-facilitates support groups with my father at the federal prison.

Growing up, it was instilled in me that being a good Catholic and, more importantly, being a good person meant dedicating my life to social justice, equality, and the freedom and empowerment of all. My particular career choice (social work) has nuanced and shaped those values, but the overall themes remain the same as they were when I was a little girl at St. Thomas More parish. In my community, abortion wasn't the problem- the social conditions that made abortion desirable, such as rape and a lack of social and medical support were. Sexuality wasn't the problem- the ostracization of sexual minorities was. And while no one actively encouraged sex before marriage, or abortion, or queer relationships, no one prayed for the restitution of those folks' souls. No one preached about those folks' sins. For us, the church was about loving kindness. And this is the part of Catholicism that brings me a deep pride and joy, and that I see as consistent with my politics and choices.

Over the years, I've gone from insisting that "I'm not THAT kind of Catholic" to learning to distinguish between the values I support and the values I reject. Instead of seeing the perfect church as being taken over by evil conservative zealots, I see the church for more of what it is- a faith body with incredible flaws and incredible virtues. Given its role in shaping the justice-seeker I am today, and given the peace I gain from many of its rituals, communities, and prayers, I could no more leave it- in spite of the pain it often causes me- than I could leave feminism. So instead of turning my back on it in frustration and sorrow, I choose to remain with it and advocate for its change. Audre Lorde had a point about social change when she wrote that "the Master's tools will never dismantle the Master's house," but I also think that ignoring or denying the "Master's house" isn't any more effective in bringing it down. Belonging to an institution that has so often been anti-feminist and anti-progressive is an incredible challenge. But it doesn't make me ignorant or a hypocrite.

1 comment:

  1. I think one thing about religion that is incredibly tricky is that each religion preaches that some behaviors are damaging and draw an individual away from God, while others are wholesome and necessary in and of themselves, and yet others are good within reason, but should be kept in balance. More traditional or conservative individuals bristle when they're told that they're not being loving if they don't accept behaviors such as homosexuality or extramarital and premarital sexuality.

    But as someone who doesn't see those behaviors as something that is innately good, but who nevertheless earnestly desires to respect the rights and freedoms of individuals, I can say that it is possible to accept individuals, while not accepting some of their behaviors as part of my own lifestyle, and without being particularly excited about their lifestyle.

    I guess a good example of this would be coffee - as a Mormon, I won't touch the stuff. And I don't think it's a good thing to drink it - in fact, I think coffee is a harmful substance. But I recognize that for others who don't share my beliefs, it may simply be a refreshing beverage. And I respect that. I don't think they're sinning, and I'm certainly not about to judge them.

    I think part of the reason traditional religious people bristle when they're told they shouldn't think about sins in religion, that they should just think about religion in positive terms, is because any reasonable person knows we have to shun some behaviors - rape or murder, for instance. Or assault. And if it's not ok to teach one's children that a behavior is wrong unless that behavior directly harms someone else, then why do we teach children not to abuse drugs?

    I think everyone is willing to discourage behavior that they think damages an individual, even if it damages nobody else *directly*.

    So, long story short, I think accepting and loving individuals, while discouraging the behavior we believe to be damaging, is a process every religion (and individual) has to take part in. It's also a process we have to tolerate to some degree in other religions and individuals.