When people ask me if I go to church, what religion I am, or any other question that probes my spiritual beliefs, I respond that I am a “recovering Catholic.” That usually produces a smile on the part of some questioners, and a look of mild concern on others. I rarely explain what I mean by that, mainly because it would take too long and even if I did, the likelihood that my words would be misunderstood is high. Religious people don’t like to hear criticism of their religion, and as a rule, I don’t like to give it. I am not criticizing their religious experience. I am criticizing mine.
I was raised in a traditional Catholic family in the 1960’s. Back then, the Mass was said in Latin with the priest’s back turned to the congregation. We didn’t eat meat on Friday’s during Lent. We had ashes put on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. We attended Stations of the Cross. Going to church on Sunday was a non-negotiable. I was baptized on Holy Saturday Night and was given a little priest robe to keep as a souvenir. I can still remember my mom being upset at the news that Pope John XXIII died. We were that Catholic.
When I was old enough to attend school, there was no discussion where I was going. I was going to St. Mary’s Catholic School, just like everyone else in my family did. Back then the school was run by nuns, and most of the teachers were nuns. It was a real no-nonsense kind of place. Every day school began by all of the classes walking over to the church and attending the 8 a.m. Mass, said in Latin by a priest whose back was turned to us. None of us had any idea what was going on, but we knew it was important. There was no talking, no giggling, no squirming, and God help you if you fell asleep. Back then, the nuns could hit you, and they did. I saw kids slapped for talking, and struck with rulers and pointer sticks when they were caught copying off their neighbor’s paper. It was an unforgiving place.
Public shaming was often employed to coerce compliance. A classmate of mine once had to stand in front of our 1st grade class and suck on a baby bottle because the nun said he was a baby for not completing his homework. Seating was arranged in 5 rows, with the “smartest” kids in the row furthest to the right, the “average” kids occupying the 3 middle rows in an intelligence gradient of sorts, and the row furthest to the left was called “the dumb bunny row.” Students who were not performing as well as the nun expected were publicly called out to change seats and move into a row that advertised their academic weakness. Students who performed well were publicly lauded and given a seat further to the right. I was seated on the far right, the “smart” row, and every day was a struggle filled with fear of making a mistake and being publicly humiliated by being moved to a seat to the left. I still remember the day that an 8th grade boy was brought into our class as a punishment for, as the nun put it, “smoking cigarettes and growing a mustache.” Growing a mustache? Whoa. That’s serious stuff.
We didn’t do a lot of touchy-feely, self-esteem building exercises. As a matter of fact, we didn’t do any.
In 2nd grade, we had all reached what the Church called “the age of reason,” where we were now able to tell the difference between right and wrong. This also, unfortunately, was the age where we were now able to commit “sins,” transgressions against God and his commandments. The Catholic Church had a sacrament called “confession” where the offender went into a small, dark room, knelt down, and confessed their sins to a priest who sat on the other side of the wall and listened through a small opaque window. The priest then assessed the sins and prescribed what punishment must be given to earn forgiveness. This usually consisted of a few Our Fathers and some Hail Marys thrown in for good measure. Once the prayers were said, your soul was clean and white, and if you died, you would go to heaven.
In the days leading up to our First Confession, we spent some time practicing. It was required that you confess all of your sins, because only those that were confessed were forgiven. If you forgot one, too bad. So it was critically important to list them all. The easiest way was simply to go down the list of commandments mentally and tell the priest how many times you violated each commandment. At age 7, some of the commandments were a little vague in my mind. I wasn’t sure exactly what adultery was, and I felt stupid asking, so I just assumed I probably did it a bunch of times. So too with coveting my neighbor’s wife. I knew the women in my neighborhood, and they were all very nice people. Did liking them constitute coveting them? Again, I wasn’t really sure what coveting meant exactly, and the nuns didn’t do a very good job explaining it, just like with adultery. The only commandment I was 100% sure I didn’t violate was killing. I never killed anyone. That much I knew for sure.
On the day of our First Confession, I was filled with dread and hope. When the time came, we marched over to the church, took our seats, and waited for the big event to begin. In my head I went over everything I needed to get off my chest, a sort of mental checklist of sins I needed to have forgiven. I must have looked like one of those tortured political prisoners who was ready to confess to anything. When my time came, I walked up to the door of the confessional, went inside and knelt in the darkness waiting for the priest to open his window. I began….. “Bless me Father, for I have sinned…..this is my first confession…..” And I went down the memorized list of my transgressions. I upped the numbers on most of them just to be safe. I mean, if I took the Lord’s name in vain 35 times, and confessed to 45 times, I was covered. It is best to err on the side of over-confessing instead of risking underreporting. I didn’t know if the surplus carried forward or not, and I wasn’t going to ask. No one ever said anything about confessing in advance, and that was one sleeping giant I didn’t want to awaken. I am sure the priest was probably busting a gut listening to a 7 year old boy confessing to an incredible amount of adultery and coveting though. When I was finished, the priest gave me some prayers to say, and let me know that once I was finished saying them, I was forgiven. I returned to the pew, said my prayers, and wanted to die right then and there before I had a chance to sin again so that my entrance into heaven would be assured. That was not to happen, however. I went on to sin again, and again, and again.
Even when I was in 1st grade what they taught me about God and religion didn’t add up, and as I got a little older and engaged in some critical thinking, it got worse. I wondered why, if there was just Adam and Eve, with their sons Cain, Abel and Seth in the Garden, where did everyone else come from? Where was this Garden? Were Adam and Eve white? If so, where did black people come from? Asking questions about this kind of stuff usually got you the canned “you have to have faith” or “God works in mysterious ways” response from the nuns. I mostly just kept these thoughts to myself because I knew I would not get a straight answer. Then I began to notice the cruelty and barbarism among the holy men they taught me about. I wondered why Noah would just let his neighbors drown when the Great Flood came. Of course, when the Ark landed the only people who were still living were from Noah’s family, the problem of repopulating the Earth resurfaced. How did they do that exactly, given there were only Noah’s wife and a daughter-in-law or two? Think about it. Take all the time you need.
I also remember being taught about the Passover, and wondered why the Angel of Death would murder innocent babies who hadn’t done anything wrong except not be Jewish. Wouldn’t it have been easier just to take out Pharoah?
We read about Abraham killing a ram and burning it as a sacrifice, and I remember thinking that would be really good to eat. Religion class must have been right before lunch.
Was Judas a good man for betraying Jesus? If he hadn’t done that, there would have been no crucifixion, and mankind would not be saved. No one came to the defense of Judas. He was painted as a bad man. That seems unfair. He just did what he was supposed to do.
We learned a lot about the martyrs. Not so much about the Inquisition.
The Church also taught us that in the afterlife, there were 4 different places a person could end up. If you lived a good life and died without sin, in other words immediately after confession, you would go to heaven. They really didn’t tell us a lot about heaven other than that is God’s home and that it is a nice place. I bet it is. If you were like most people and died with some sins on your soul, you would spend time in Purgatory, where your sins would be burned away. It sounded like Hell Lite, and you weren’t there forever. It didn’t sound pleasant, but it wasn’t permanent either. You just did your time and then apparently you could go to heaven. The third place, the one that intrigued me the most, was called “Limbo.” This was the place where unbaptized babies went. These babies hadn’t sinned (other than being born with “original sin” like all of us), so they couldn’t be sent to hell. Neither could they go to heaven, because they had sin on their soul. It seemed to me that a little time in Purgatory would have taken care of that, but I guess I was wrong.
In 1992, Pope Benedict did away with Limbo. When I read that, I couldn’t believe it! What a powerful guy! But why didn’t he do away with Hell instead? Then I got to thinking, if Pope Benedict did away with Limbo, where did all those unbaptized babies in Limbo go? For all those years, the Church taught that people who weren’t baptized could not go to heaven. Were they wrong? If so, could they be wrong about other things as well?
In time, I came to question the Bible itself. Who decided what went into the Bible and what didn’t? We read The King James Version, and I wondered to myself just how many versions are there? They taught me that the Bible was the word of God, and yet there were different versions? That sounded fishy. If I was in court and was told to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and I responded with “what version would you like to hear?”, I would probably be issued a contempt citation.
My last interaction with the Catholic Church came in the late 1990’s when my son was born. I wanted him to have at least some kind of religious foundation, and since I was familiar with the Catholic Church, it seemed like the logical place to start, even though I hadn’t attended in years, or rather decades. My plan was to have him attend church, and maybe even attend the Catholic school there. I could mitigate whatever strange teachings came his way. I was seasoned in that stuff. I could wade in those waters.
One summer afternoon in 1999, there was a fundraiser “carnival” for the church, and I thought I should at least put in an appearance. They had food, and the usual kind of games-for-cheap-toys that you always find at these things. During a break, I sat down for a bite to eat when I was approached by someone running for office. He was extremely conservative and had his own table set up with all of the usual campaign propaganda laid out. Then it dawned on me that he was using this get together as a campaign event, and the church apparently sanctioned it. There seemed to be this unspoken expectation that if you attended this church, you were supposed to be conservative.
I am a liberal Democrat. I took my son and left, never to return. I was done.
In the years since, I have gotten over the idea that organized religion has anything to offer me. As far as I can tell, it is all just made up, with a few seeds of vague historic fact thrown in that “biblical scholars” twist and torture in an attempt to prove what they believe. Does God exist? How should I know? I certainly don’t believe in the old white man with a long beard living in the clouds. That much I am sure of. Maybe “God” is just all of us. I was created in God’s image, and if that is true, am I not a god? If not, I wasn’t really created in his image. What happens after we die? Is there an afterlife? I like to think so, but without a heaven or hell or purgatory. How could a god that loves us send us to the fires of Hell to burn for eternity? I no longer go to church. I feel closest to the source of my existence when I am out in nature, or with people I care about. As the Indigo Girls once sang, “The less I seek my source for some definitive, the closer I am to fine.” Maybe when we die, the life force inside us is liberated and we just exist, without all of the man-made laws, ridiculous rules and the fear of judgment that permeated my childhood. There is no more death, no more suffering, no more pressure to conform to the laws forced on us. Maybe we just are. Maybe that is what heaven is.