Interview With A Catholic

by Alexandra Molotkow


To start, can you tell readers who you are, and what you do?
 I have a Masters of Divinity from Regis College, a Jesuit college at U of T, and I’m a chaplain and psychotherapist in Toronto. I’ll be working in a hospital starting in August, but I also have a private practice for psychotherapy. My work is often about broader, humanist, kind of existential questions; a lot of that will come up in a hospital because people are suffering or facing end-of-life issues.
 How does your spirituality come to bear on your psychotherapy?

 My spirituality is a big part of my self care. It’s how I remain stable enough to hold the space for another person; I know I have a place that I can retreat to, where I can sort of repair myself. It also uniquely informs my practice. I’d say the core of my practice is what Carl Rogers would call unconditional positive regard: when the person feels truly seen, when they’re given the regard and the reverence that they deserve as a person, which is connected to this Catholic idea of the power of loving regard.

And it’s linked to my sense of adoration for God — seeing the spark of the divine in the other person. When I was training, I worked in boarding homes in Parkdale, with people who were living in poverty, who mostly had been diagnosed with various mental illnesses like schizophrenia. It became like I was a raw nerve all the time. Like, it’s really hard to walk past people in the street as a result, because everyone became this beacon of glowing humanity, which made me a little more prone to heartbreak, because I was also exposed to the heartbreak of losing those connections, and seeing those people suffer terribly.
 So, I have no religious background, and I really know nothing whatsoever about Catholicism. I think I understand intuitively when you talk about the spark of the divine in people. But I’m curious about the specifics. Can you give me a rundown of your concrete beliefs, as a Catholic?

 So, I believe in a God. I believe in a God who is love. And — I’m a Christian, I believe that love was communicated in the form of a person, and that person was Jesus. I believe that Jesus is an expression of the intention of a God who desired intimacy with people, desired closeness with us. And that sometimes we’re a mess, but that we’re essentially dignified and beautiful, and there’s this inbuilt straining of the heart toward the fullness of love. l think about God in sort of more abstract terms.

My definition of belief might be different than yours: I don’t really think of belief as a cognitive assent to like, a list of facts. Belief for me is a response to an encounter, it’s like a falling in love. There are points in my life where I have experienced what I would call an encounter with God, like a mystical encounter, and the way I would describe those phenomena are euphoria, boundlessness, union, at-homeness. It’s not really a question of whether God exists — I can’t know with certainty anything like that, but I can long for those moments of union.

I don’t always have them, especially if I’m experiencing depression — certainly I feel the absence of God in those periods. But it’s not that I stop believing in God, it’s that I stop having those experiences of intimacy. Belief is more like a relationship, where the person goes on long trips. [Laughs] You’re, like, desperately in love with them, but they’re just not right there so you can hug them.

And then I also have wackier beliefs, like the Eucharist. And I choose to cling to that belief, despite my acknowledgment that it’s wacky, because it’s so beautiful! The idea of this tangible, physical presence, that moment of transformation in the consecration where the priest is blessing the bread and the wine, something magical has just happened. And this strange mystery of approaching, with great reverence for the taste of bread and wine, the presence of your beloved. That kind of intimacy is definitely worth living for, for me.

Could you tell me about your history in Catholicism?
 I grew up in a Catholic family I think would be best described as traditional. We went to mass every Sunday, in high school I went to morning mass daily before school. There was a lot of emphasis on making it to confession, to always renewing that honesty and openness with God.

In high school, there were really not many Catholics. When I would talk about Catholicism I felt like, Oh my God — suddenly it’s a huge culture clash, there was a lot of anger among my peer group and misunderstanding of this thing that I’d studied and treasured, and also been told was a great thing my whole life. A lot of that anger, I came to understand, was really justified, and some of it was based on constant media misinterpretations of Catholic faith. I got a really good education in critical thinking about media very early on. And then it became a process of dialogue: how do I explain what is beautiful and valuable to me, so I can still have a connection to this peer who is justifiably, to them, very angry about this core part of my identity.

I joined a feminist group around that time, because I was really drawn to some of the intellectual rigor. Being raised in a pro-life household, I had never really engaged with someone who believed otherwise. But there was a passion for justice that really appealed to me, and that’s a super Catholic value. I thought, where are there overlaps, and where are there tensions? I always feel if there are overlaps in this Venn diagram of seemingly opposed ideologies, there has to be some truth there.

Can you talk about those overlaps?
 What drew me to feminism was it felt like it was right and true. With my Catholic sense of the dignity of the person, and social justice, it just seemed very obvious to me that things like violence against women, or the way young women were socialized to feel about their bodies — it was an easy transition for me to slide into a political viewpoint.

My parents taught natural family planning; they were instructors in the ovulation method. This was another amazing overlap for me: I found there were lots of feminists who really embraced fertility awareness as a way of being in touch with their bodies, rejecting patriarchal control through ingesting hormones, and it just seemed like a different way of framing exactly the same argument that my parents had offered around hormonal birth control. In fact, my parents came to speak to my feminist group at one point. They spoke about their relationship, and they talked about how this practice, which came out of a religious practice, changed the way that they communicated with each other, changed the way that they saw each other. I think the essence of the Catholic perspective for them was a reverence for the whole person, a reverence for the embodied person, the holiness of two embodied persons in the sexual encounter.

I’ve struggled with Catholicism myself. It’s not like I’ve had an entirely beautiful or positive experience, but I do see the core of Catholic culture as a celebration of what human life is about, and an intimacy with God, rather than being a puritanical crackdown culture.
 Is there necessarily a tension between being a Catholic and, say, being queer, or being a Catholic and having sexual relationships outside of marriage?

 That’s real. But, it’s complex. It depends on the kind of subculture that you were raised in. And it’s not just a liberal versus conservative thing — I think it’s also a sociological question within Catholicism. A Filipino Catholic family and an Irish Catholic family can attend the same parish and have very different experiences.

Irish Catholicism has been, I think, more shaming around sexuality than a lot of other Catholic cultures. I think of a lot of the sex abuse scandals that have arisen in Irish Catholic communities — Ireland, Boston, Newfoundland. There’s a shame, there’s a disassociation between mind and body, there are these flickers of things that are not super healthy, especially when it comes to sexuality, and that’s been a struggle for me. And then I meet people coming from Catholic cultures like Brazil, or other parts of Latin America, and the sense of sexuality is very, very different.

You can totally convey the very same teachings in a way that is a lot more affirming of the goodness of the body, and the goodness of sexual impulses. I think that’s possible within Catholicism, and I’ve seen it. And there are lots of queer Catholics who just never got that hung up on that sexuality thing — there’s a lot of other stuff in Catholicism to focus on. I think this Pope has definitely made that clear, and I don’t think it’s much of a coincidence that he’s Latin American. Let’s not all waste each other’s time here shaming this person or that person for that essential and beautiful part of who they are. He hasn’t said that in so many words — he’s said, there are other things that we can be talking about. Like poverty.

It could be very possible to live a healthy life as a queer Catholic, but it would take a special kind of climate. I would like to be part of creating that kind of climate, in which everyone is treated like a beloved child of God. There may be cultures that believe that they’re doing that, and they don’t even really notice the people they’ve driven away. There are a lot of people out there who are heartbroken, and really hurting. And that’s a tragedy.

Is it something that you’ve struggled with?
 It’s fair to say that I have a sexuality. I’m a person. Yeah, and it’s something that I have struggled with. It’s not a secret that I’m living with my fiancee. We’re planning to be married, but we’re not yet. And there is an element of scandal to that, for some people. In my conscience, I feel wonderful about living with him. But I think my struggle has been to recognize that there are compromises along the path. Was living with him a choice that I made in good conscience? Yes. Was it against church teachings? Also yes.

In some ways it’s been therapeutic for me to embrace messiness. But also to recognize that sexuality is very beautiful, and the church is recognizing this truth when they build up these rules around circumstances under which sex should be taking place. It is a recognition of the incredible power and sacredness of those acts. And that essential truth behind the teachings is one that I’ve totally embraced. Like, John Paul II referred to the sexuality expressed within marriage as the closest human beings come to reflecting the inner life of the Trinity. Right? Pretty heavy stuff.

But there’s a sadness for me, too, the feeling that if I had ended up with a female life partner, I would be outside of the church. I couldn’t have both. I couldn’t have a family with a woman and feel totally at ease in the Catholic community, raising a family. One of the things that drew my partner and I to each other is that we both felt a mutual devotion to God. Would I feel that was absent if I had ended up with a woman? No. I would still want that to be an essential component of a romantic relationship, the feeling of, together, participating in divine love. But there’s the element of heartbreak, when that’s not recognized by the rest of your religious community.

I would have had to make a choice if that had happened to me. In some ways, it’s a funny twist of luck that I ended up with a man. Of course, he’s also a divorced Jew, so there are other canonical issues, but whatever.
 So you could square your love for a woman with your relationship to Catholicism, but you’d have to know that it wasn’t recognized within the greater community that you also belong to, and identify with.

 Yeah. That would suck. Many, many priests that I have encountered are very, very sensitive to making people feel welcome, and meeting them where they are, and recognizing the complexity of human situations. But even for me to defend, or try to articulate the kind of heartbreak a queer person might experience at the hands of a Catholic community can release this incredibly painful backlash from people who, I’m sure, feel like they’re defending their faith. But it feels like hatred. And those are the kinds of people I feel great difficulty being in a community with.
 How important are specifics, in terms of thinking about God? Do you think if you hadn’t been raised Catholic, you could as easily have been Muslim, or Jewish?

 Yeah, and I think some of the fundamental experiences I have had — one of the things that has colored my experience, as well as being a Catholic, is being bipolar. Because those more elevated experiences of intimacy, some of them happen in mania. And I still treasure those as mystical experiences. I don’t feel like they were any less real because they were part of an episode of a diagnosed illness. They’re also part of me, they’re also part of something that was deeply meaningful for me. I could have had a different meaning system for that, and those experiences would have been just as profound.

I’m interested in these phenomena in human experience that are so difficult to name or describe, but so meaningful, and which people long to recreate. It happens regardless of belief; maybe there’s no religious belief at all. I’m a little concerned that sometimes those mystical things happen, there’s no belief structure to explain them, and they become pathologized. But everyone longs for meaning, everyone longs for some kind of self-actualization, and union in community, and recognition in community.

All of that might be very horizontal, not aimed toward the traditional heavens at all. And is it holy? Yes. And is it the kind of thing that gives grandeur, and meaning to life? Yes.
 That’s so important, your point about pathologizing experiences that, by another interpretation, might be religious.

 That’s a big fascination for me. Also, I’ve worked in the psychiatric system, and there’s still sort of a fear around spirituality and religion: “don’t encourage the delusion.” At the same time, psychiatry is struggling to move more toward a Recovery kind of model — it’s your life, you have agency, live your life fully and medical treatment is just part of it. What they’re finding is one of the things that’s most meaningful across the board is spirituality. That’s what gets people out of bed in the morning, and that’s what makes them want to keep going with their treatment.

For me, in terms of my mania, there were things that I wanted treatment for. The manic depression, for sure, was impeding my ability to do the things I wanted to do, so medication was part of my healing process. But despite the sense of some of these experiences coming from an “illness,” even still, the kind of heightened experiences I was given, I chose to embrace as a gift. And now I can play with spiritual experience, and I adventure into heights I feel safe to go now that I’m more stable. Why don’t we tell people there’s a way to look at their experience as prophetic, and valuable in its own right? I don’t think that delusion is so susceptible to encouragement, that it would be dangerous to say “your way of being in the world is also a gift.”
 I don’t use this word dismissively, but would it be fair to say that the appeal of Catholicism is partly aesthetic?

 I would say there’s definitely an aesthetic element. This is where I feel at home, ritually, this is what ritual looks like to me. Which is funny, because it totally does not mesh with my belief in the essential validity of all approaches to God, and all approaches of making human life meaningful. But I can’t abandon the Eucharist. I can’t get that anywhere else!
 So it’s sort of like being in love itself — you’re in love with one person and not another person. It’s the same love, but you’re in love with this person.

 Exactly! Yeah. It’s still love. And there are the messy particularities of the relationship, and funny habits and in-jokes that don’t translate if you fall in love with another person. You create your own little culture with the beloved. But it’s still love.
 What about Heaven and Hell?

 Ooh ooh ooh! Well. Heaven — I have to throw Purgatory in there, sorry. So Hell — Catholics have to believe in Hell, but not that there’s anyone in it.

 Which is a funny thing. I don’t put a lot of emphasis on Hell. Satan, not so much. My understanding of Purgatory comes from a priest who was a prof of mine in undergrad, who said, I always like to think it’s just a moment of deepest recognition of your flaws and your mistakes. It’s just this one moment of purgation, and pure vulnerability, and all of the things that were standing between you and God, and that ability to be close and intimate, are washed away. You just enter totally into that union.

I believe that the most good thing, Heaven, would be a place of community, but a community where you’re totally recognized for who you are, and for your goodness. And you preserve a sense of your uniqueness, that ongoing narrative that makes you you, but the resistance — the sandpaperiness between you and the people who surround you is gone, it’s just love.

I believe that Heaven is this ultimate union with love, with the source, with the ground of all being. And the traditional Catholic teaching — this is my probably lax interpretation of it, I should add that caveat — is that a person who actively rejects the love of God, who knows the love of God and still says, “No thanks,” and turns away, that person doesn’t end up in Heaven, because God honors our free will, and that’s not what that person chose. And I guess I have very little respect for the idea of free will, because I really believe that love is that powerful — that if you truly know it, you can’t turn away. Who could possibly, knowingly reject something that good? That’s just silly. So there’s kind of an inbuilt paradox there.
 Do you have any physical conception of it?

 No, I don’t know, but I do have, like in my spiritual experience in this life, I guess, a lot of images that come to me, and feelings of light and glowiness and sort of sparkliness that I associate with things that are holy and beautiful. I don’t believe it’s up necessarily, but I do recognize the incredibly mystical moving beauty of the sky. I get why people would want to think it was up. The grass is also pretty nice.
 I think of faith as something that would be really nice to have, and something that you kind of have to work to have, because it’s a better conception of life. And I guess, thinking about faith that you don’t want to have, but can’t help — in a strange way it’s comforting, the idea that there are people for whom this just rings true, and they don’t have to struggle to accept it. At the same time, I don’t know if nothing forever is worse than Hell forever.

 Yeah. Faith has to be, I think, done in a way that’s totally you. That’s the adult struggle with faith. As a child, if you’re raised religious, you get taught a bunch of stuff, and as an adult, you have to say, Does that mean anything to me? If you were raised without a religious faith, that doesn’t mean there’s nothing meaningful in your life, either. And if you don’t believe there’s life after death, that doesn’t mean there’s not great sacredness in the day to day.

For me, I see visions of things, and I have great experiences of darkness and doubt, and I can’t cling to faith as a certainty, in the way that maybe another person could. But that’s the way that faith presents itself to me. But there’s sacredness in everyone’s life. And part of it is an issue of how to name the experiences that are the most beautiful experiences of our lives. I don’t think faith is really any great mystery.
 Can you talk about points of tension between your Catholicism, and your own sense of identity?

 One of my core struggles was a sense of feeling unworthy. And particularly feeling unworthy of God’s love. It’s very easy for me to give love — I think it’s also a Christian woman thing, it’s very martyry and self sacrifice-y.

What I really needed to work on, in my spiritual practice and in my life, was to receive. Part of the tradition of Catholic confession is, you do not go up for communion if there is something on your conscience. In Catholicism, we believe that taking communion in the form of the consecrated bread and wine, that a real transformation takes place, and it’s a physical, kind of intimate encounter with God, that you’re receiving God. So there’s a sense of wanting things to be right as you approach that intimate, sacred encounter. Which I get, but also a part of me internalized this rule, that you can’t go for communion until you’ve been to confession, as: I’m never good enough.

I’m in a period right now where I’m not practicing very much. I still identify very much as a Catholic, but it’s very painful for me to practice. I’d been lost in this epic battle of all-or-nothing kind of thinking. And that destroys a person, and that destroys the flow of love in a relationship, and that’s how I see my relationship with God — as a loving kind of relationship, ideally.

I had a really beautiful experience with a Jesuit, who was my Old Testament prof, in confession. So, for penance, there’s that movie cliche of “Go say 10 Hail Marys” or whatever, but Jesuits are always more creative than that. And he was like, For your penance, I want you to imagine that you’re in a biblical scene where Jesus is surrounded by a crowd, and you’re a member of the crowd, and people are jostling for His attention, and He turns to look at you. And I would like you to let Jesus look at you.

And I just burst into tears. I tried to do my penance, and it was really fucking hard. I didn’t want to let Jesus look at me, because I didn’t want to be seen. But that’s what love is, that’s what happens in love, is that you’re seen in your flaws, and you’re still loved.

I’m crying now, by the way.
 Are you OK?

 Yeah, I’m fine! I love crying.

Kate McGee is online here.