Below is an edited email I sent to a few friends about what got me questioning Catholicism and Christianity in general. My thoughts have developed since this email, but I think it illustrates some of the holes in Catholicism and Christianity that got me questioning.
I’ve been having a “crisis” (if I may be so bourgeois about it) of faith for a about a year now. Below I’ve thought out loud. The people I’m sending this to I trust will understand that myquestioning is of good will and that I am open to explanations. I’d rather think this through with people than bottle it up and then one day get set off by something minute and leave the Church over that. My intention is not dissent or heresy, but rather questioning and doubt.
Can I in good conscience stay Catholic?
Why I am a Christian
I am a Christian because I am drawn to the person of Jesus of Nazareth – a man who challenged the religious and political establishment and offered an alternative: Love. And, yes a man who claimed to be the Son of God, the Word Incarnate – Incarnate God who broke bread with sinners and rebuked the legalists. I follow apostolic Christianity because I want to be a part of the Church that began with those closest to Jesus himself. I’m Catholic because ultimately I think Christian unity hinges on the Catholic Church, since all other forms of Christianity at one point or another were in communion with the Catholic Church (with a thousand qualifications to that statement, but that’s not the point of this exercise). I’m an Eastern Catholic because Eastern Christianity is more realistic and intellectually honest about the person of Jesus, human nature, and doctrinal development.
Fallibility and Vulnerability
I went to a talk with Cornel West a little while ago and he said something that hit me, “In our search for truth there are two issues we must face – fallibility and vulnerability. We must admit our fallibility in order to receive truth and we must make ourselves vulnerable to open ourselves up to truth.” Now, I initially applied this to the level of the individual. But, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that these are two areas Christianity, especially Catholicism, can’t let go of. While apostolic Christianity may be the incarnational representation of the truth, and the physical assembly where we experience Christ in the Eucharist – I don’t see why it must necessarily be infallible. What happens when it’s wrong? Am I supposed to blindly deny the truth and “just have faith” like Mormons and Evangelicals? Clinging to infallibility creates a neuroticism for absolutes in a grey, grey world. Additionally, the Church has a hard time making herself vulnerable. The most obvious example is the sexual abuse cover-up. But another less obvious example is the Church’s involvement in the state – obviously for centuries they were one in the same, but currently there are demands of special treatment, cries of persecution when laws are passed contrary to conservative beliefs, pushing laws about personal morality, all the while refusing to critique existing power structures. What’s wrong with not having special treatment? What’s wrong with being criticized? What’s wrong with not being in bed with the state? Hell, what’s wrong with actual persecution? The early Church didn’t seem to find these problematic.
It seems to me, and I may be wrong, that Christianity has a problem admitting fallibility and vulnerability because of the control aspect. It’s much harder to coerce someone if you can be wrong or have weaknesses. We see this outside of the Church too – in politics, in relationships. The best analogy is our relationship with our parents; we do what they say and accept punishment when we don’t, because we think they know everything and can do no wrong – then, as we grow older, we start experiencing the world and observing our parents, and we realize that they don’t know everything, and have many faults of their own. A healthy relationship would result in an open dialogue with our parents so we can better understand each other, while an abusive one would punish dissent and censor outside voices. Likewise, a healthy Church would have open dialogue while an abusive one shames and shuns.
Incoherencies and So-Called “Organic Development”
While I’m a firm believer in Emerson’s “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” coherence is important to me. What drove me from Evangelicalism wasn’t inconsistency – it was quite consistent in terrible reasoning – but incoherence. I now find myself in the same quandary in relation to Catholicism, especially when on one hand it claims that nothing can substantively change, but on the other claim that much can organically develop through revelation.
The differences between Eastern and Western, and Early/Medieval/Early Modern/Modern Christianity are too much to reconcile. The official positions on whether and how a person can be saved outside of the Church/Christianity have taken many contradictory forms. The Western concept of original sin and the Eastern concept of the ancestral curse have very real (and very different) implications for sin, salvation, and the nature of God (side note: the theology of the Ancestral Curse renders the Immaculate Conception unnecessary, and the IC is a dogma in the Roman Catholic Church!). Marriage, between East and West and between ancient and modern within those traditions, has taken on many different theologies, from what makes it sacramental and valid, to who the minsters of the sacrament are, to what role (if any) the Church plays in marriage – all have serious consequences as to preparing for marriage, living out a marriage, and the possibility divorce or remarriage after widowing. There’s other theological points like the role of the Bishop of Rome and his fallibility, celibacy, “age of reason”, confession, mortal sin, and participating in war have taken so many contradictory forms, I have a hard time taking seriously the claims like women can’t be ordained because that just cannot change, period, end of catechism.
I think this gets back to fallibility and vulnerability in seeking truth – why can’t the Church just tell me “we were/are wrong” or “we don’t know” rather than some intellectual gymnastics about how papal infallibility really does date back to the apostolic age? Or how Just War really was taught by the Church Fathers, or how Ephesus and Trent and Vatican II really did all use the same theology?
Nothing has been more irritating to me than the conflation of conservatism with Christianity. I tried hard to stay something that could be reasonably defined as “conservative” for a long time. But, you know what? Jesus wasn’t a conservative. Jesus was a radical who challenged the establishment. Jesus was preaching peace and love while the Pharisees were policing people’s personal lives and Caesar was off waging war and executing “criminals.” But, if you’re not a political conservative, you’re treated as a heretic in much of the Church today. What irritates me the most about this is that discipleship is reduced to intellectually accepting theoretical ideas and not about loving our neighbor.
The so-called “5 non-negotiables” have practically become gospel for Catholics and even many Evangelicals and Orthodox: opposition to abortion, euthanasia, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and marriage equality (interesting that it’s all about opposing things). We’re told that only these things matter when voting – in practice it’s become a useful tool to try to control Catholics who care deeply about social justice and make sure they support a conservative candidates at the ballot box rather than the more progressive candidates they might otherwise support. If you vote for someone who isn’t ideologically in-line with these 5 points, then you shouldn’t receive communion, we’re told. I think that there are both more non-negotiables and no non-negotiables at the same time. We should be against violence and for the poor – these are non-negotiable. But, I find it interesting that while conservatives say that there are a number of prudential ways to address poverty or war, there is no room for discussion on how to address abortion – you just must seek to limit legal access to abortion, that is the only way you can address it, oh and mention to all those sluts that they should stop being so slutty. The non-negotiables are just another (successful) attempt to control people.
I’m over the “pro-life” thing. It’s not “pro-life” it’s anti-abortion. And the reason it’s anti-abortion is because it can be used to control (mostly female) sexuality. If they were really concerned with reducing the number of instances of abortion (which is my concern), they would get to the core of why abortions are sought out and be the biggest supporters of welfare, Head Start, Medicaid, comprehensive sex education, access to contraception, and routine Plan B for rape victims. Also, not slut shaming will help remove the stigma of unwed births – and yes, the stigma must be removed if you actually give a flying fuck about reducing abortions.
Additionally, being pro-conception-to-birth is not being pro-life; life exists beyond birth. And, it’s not just keeping someone alive, it keeping them alive without the infliction of violence upon them, and having all of their basic needs met. That means that if you’re really pro-life, you’ll support everything you can to reduce gun violence, enhance food assistance, make sure the unemployed have some income, fight racism, and support more robust measures against sexual harassment and assault. Will some people take advantage of that system? Sure, but don’t punish the 99% for the sins of the 1% – that’s anti-life.
There was an epoch in the Church’s history that was pre-Just War. The early church had very rigorous penances, often for the duration of years, for people who fought it wars (including wars considered “just”) – that gradually disappeared and gradually morphed into praise for those who “serve” us (read: the state) by killing. No longer is penance required, but rather we should honor their killing of other human beings as long as it’s for a “just” cause. Of course, we’re also told that they’re just following orders, so whether it’s “just” still doesn’t matter for one’s salvation. Just War has practically become a “non-negotiable” and opposition to this near-dogma is met with a lot of angry reaction. This is a far cry from the peaceful Jesus.
Yes, it all comes to sex doesn’t it? I wish it didn’t. Really, I wish this didn’t have to be an issue – I really, really do – but, alas. Many, many people leave Christianity because of how out of touch with reality it is when it comes to sex. I wish this wasn’t the case – I wish that if people left Christianity it was because they had a problem with the Trinity or Incarnation or loving their enemies, but that’s often not the case. The truth is that the Church’s teachings on sex (or Christians’ attitudes toward sex) are psychological damaging, not to mention based on facts that aren’t real. Some people are sexually attracted to people of the same sex or both sexes – and some/most of those people cannot be psychologically healthy with being forced into celibacy or continence. Some/most people aren’t compatible with the first person with whom they have sexual relations. Not having sex can cloud judgment when getting married, and you shouldn’t have to get married to find out that you’re not sexually compatible or that the person you married isn’t right for you. The fact that sex has become such a point of contention for me and my faith irritates me because I spend 90% of my life not having sex or trying to have sex. Nonetheless, control and lack of charity in relation to sexual issues have opened my eyes to where control and lack of charity are being exercised in other aspects.
Premarital Sex and Cohabitation, especially in relation to marriage
Even when I held very conservative views on sex and marriage, I was also a little realistic – I used to say, “I would rather a couple fornicate than get married to have sex, because that is a terrible reason to make the biggest decision of your life.” I would now take that a step further and say most people should probably sexually experiment before deciding if and who to marry. How much of a role anticipated sex plays in deciding if and who to marry is absurd given how little marriage ends up being about sex. I may have a great sexual connection with someone, but their financial management, or housekeeping methods, or general personality may make for a terrible fit. Likewise, someone could be my best friend and a great roommate, but we may not get the job done for each other. Sexual behavior before marriage is no indicator as to how the marriage will go. I’m not saying that it doesn’t affect your marriage, but rather how it affects it will be different couple to couple – for many, one or both spouses being virginal at marriage has been a problem in the marriage. In the course of a year, I saw four of my friends’ marriages (two Catholic, one Evangelical, one Mormon) fall apart within a year of the wedding – all four of them entered into it not having premarital sex, and all of four of them got married within a year of meeting their spouse – all of them were cautioned to wait a while to get married, but all of them were antsy to have sex. Divorce is a bigger threat to traditional marriage and families than premarital sex ever can be.
It may be that promiscuity is generally unhealthy, as is so-called “hookup culture” (the degree to which that is a thing, or a new thing is debatable), but much, if not most, of premarital sex doesn’t fall into that category. Additionally, some people need to go through a promiscuous stage to learn about themselves – and that, not just in relation to sex, is something that I think the Church as a whole gets wrong – sometimes shit needs to happen. Then, we learn from that shit and are better for it.
I don’t think there’s a good argument for an absolute position on premarital cohabitation. There are too many factors to come up with good data – there are practical, financial, familial, and sexual factors that affect whether or not cohabitation is a good idea.
In sum, there isn’t a good practical argument against premarital sex or cohabitation. The only argument is “the Church says so,” which gets back to my fallibility concern.
Pregnancy and child raising isn’t always a blessing, no matter how many times you repeat the mantra. Sometimes it fucking sucks. Sometimes it creates an undue financial or physical burden. Churches (ahem, Catholicism) that oppose (and even say it’s infallibly taught that it’s a mortal sin to use) contraception, are putting their faithful in a bind. “Just don’t have sex” doesn’t cut it. People are sexual beings – not to mention, we’ve already been told throughout singleness not to masturbate or fornicate, so now we’re married and we can’t have sex unless we’re absolutely open to having a child? When does the control end? Never, that’s when. Here’s the thing – if we can’t afford to have a child, or my wife can’t deal with putting her body through that again, we don’t stop being sexual beings. So, our options are: 1) contracept, 2) outercourse, 3) masturbation, 4) be sexually frustrated, or 5) take our chances on pregnancy. According to current teaching, our only options are #4 and #5, and that doesn’t seem healthy or practical.
Masturbation has been around as long as genitals have been around, and the vast majority of people engage in it, and nearly everyone has tried it at some point. It’s a way to experience sexual release when there’s not another viable option or without the affecting another person. My wife once said that it’s better for a marriage for a horny spouse to “rub one out” than to pressure their unwilling partner into something they don’t want to do – and I think she has a point. Also, masturbation can allow people to understand their bodies and their desires better, not to mention that the majority of women learn to orgasm through masturbation, and a few can only climax solo – I don’t think that it’s fair for their orgasms to be off the table. Too many teenagers experiencing high levels of hormone surges or too many single people without a steady partner end up in the confessional week after week agonizing about their salvation because of 5 minutes in their bedroom. That’s psychologically unhealthy and absurd.
“Some people are gay. Get over it.” But, seriously, get-the-fuck-over-it. I’m tired of having the conversation – with all of the exploitation, lack of charity, war, sexual assault, sexual harassment, racism, etc. continually happening to humanity, it is disgusting that a religion would single out gay sex as “crying out to heaven for vengeance” or “intrinsically disordered.” You know what is intrinsically disordered? Fabricating evidence to gain popular support for a war that lead to the death of hundreds of thousands of human beings, not two dudes or chicks shacking up. It pains me that my Church gives my queer friends the option of forced celibacy or eternal damnation because of who they are.