I Was Raised Catholic—But My Views Have Changed

“I was raised Catholic”–that’s my go-to line when someone asks me if I’m religious.  To me, “I was raised Catholic” means that I loved church growing up.  It was a thing I did with my family, stories passed down from my grandparents, holidays and guardian angel pins.  It means getting to wear my mother’s bridal veil the day of my First Communion, going to CCD classes every Wednesday, and finally, being confirmed and choosing the Saint name Brigid to honor my Irish heritage. 

When I was young, religion was just another part of my life.  It wasn’t a thing I celebrated or took pride in–it was simply a part of who I am.  It wasn’t until I started college that I realized just how much my faith has affected my life, and that realization only came after some pretty awful experiences. 

Even though I didn’t think about my faith that often when I was young, I always found comfort in the church. St. Columbkill Church in Boyertown, PA was a place that always made me feel safe, and Sunday church was a family tradition I fell in love with.  Even though we went pretty infrequently, spending an hour a week listening to a beautiful mass and reflecting on my faith, followed by donuts at the farmer’s market next door, really provided a sense of comfort to my everyday life.

That comfort fell away when I started high school.  Around the time I turned 16, I realized that I was bisexual.  Even though some Christians view same-sex attraction as a sin, I never felt insecure in my faith because of my sexuality.  I knew who I was, and I knew that if there was a God, he wouldn’t view my love for another person as “sinful” just because that person wasn’t a man.  And I truly expected my church to feel the same way; our masses were always full of positivity, and I couldn’t picture my church as a place that would promote outdated prejudices in the name of God.  Unfortunately, that wasn’t the experience I ended up having.

Just before my junior year of high school, one of the CCD instructors who had prepared my class for Confirmation became a Deacon at our church.  I was ecstatic.  This instructor had been such a positive and inspiring force in an extremely dull Wednesday CCD class.  I insisted to my mother that we go to church to hear his first homily as a Deacon.  Spoiler alert – it wasn’t a fun time. 

After weeks of anticipation, I finally got to listen to my CCD instructor give an EXTENSIVE homily about the deconstruction of the “traditional Catholic marriage” by young people today.  As our new Deacon rambled on and on about the importance of marriage as a contract between a MAN and a WOMAN that will go on to create a perfect Catholic family, I felt unsafe in my church for the first time.  I felt like this safe place that had brought me so much joy since I was a little girl was being taken away from me, and that realization was heartbreaking. 

As I became more comfortable with my sexuality and learned more about the world throughout high school, it became impossible to ignore the hatred that existed within Christian churches.  I read stories about the horrifying cruelty of the Westboro Baptist Church and heard accounts of queer people who came out to their Christian families and were abused, kicked out, or cut off. I stopped going to church.  I just couldn’t understand how so much hatred for the LGBTQ+ community, full of beautiful and kind individuals, could exist in a place I once felt so comfortable in.  My faith still meant a lot to me, but the Catholic church started to become a part of my past.

By my senior year of high school, I had sort of stopped thinking about church.  I hadn’t been in so long, and it wasn’t a thing I talked about a lot.  I had my graduation to look forward to, and college after that. When I was reflecting on my life at home and looking forward to the new chapter I was about to start at BU, I was forced to think about my Catholic roots for a pretty terrible reason.

Some context: my church was a part of the Allentown diocese in Pennsylvania–one of the six PA dioceses investigated by the government in 2018 for sexual abuse.  This investigation resulted in testimony from just over 1,000 children who had been abused by over 300 priests over a span of 70 years.  The details of these stories are horrifying, but perhaps even more upsetting is the fact that almost none of these men who abused their power as church authorities to commit violent and revolting crimes against Catholic children will face charges for what they did.  Many of these priests reported these crimes to other church officials and were either moved to a new church to stop the information from leaking or quietly dismissed from the priesthood, often getting jobs working with children elsewhere and still receiving compensation from the Catholic church.  These attempts by church officials to sweep the long history of sexual abuse within the church under the rug, as well as the fact that for many of these crimes, the statute of limitations has expired, means that most of these men will not be brought to justice. 

While this is the largest investigation conducted against the Catholic church, it certainly isn’t the first.  In 2002, the persistence of the Boston Globe resulted in nearly 500 victims coming forward to file claims against 150 Boston priests.  This was one of the first times that the extensive and violent crimes of priests against Catholic children were revealed to the public, and unfortunately, it wasn’t the last.  17 years later, families in Pennsylvania are facing similar emotions of pain, fear, and confusion as their church officials are revealed as sexual abusers.

While the church scandals in Boston and Pennsylvania directly impacted the members of those dioceses, a story broke just last week that rattled Catholics worldwide. Cardinal George Pell, top financial advisor to Pope Francis and the Vatican’s current economy minister, was convicted in Australia of molesting two children in a secret trial that began in 2017.  This follows a 2018 report by the Royal Commission Inquiry finding that, “4,444 people reported they had been abused at more than 1,000 Catholic institutions across Australia between 1980 and 2015”.  Pell is the most senior Catholic cleric to be charged with sex abuse, and his close relation to the Pope is extremely disheartening.  With church officials at all levels being accused and convicted of such horrifying crimes, and with such little accountability for these crimes demonstrated by the Vatican, it can be difficult to imagine a safe or comforting future for young Catholics. 

I started college as my memories of the Catholic church crumbled around me.  My grandmother still wears her guardian angel pin, and some of us still pray, but my family has lost the comfort of feeling safe in church.  My little brother isn’t even being confirmed because the thought of dropping him off for an hour each week in a Catholic church is just too big of a risk. 

I think we all grow up and realize that the world can be a scary place. Some things are so much more complicated than the idealized images we had of them in our heads as children.  We learn that the world can be scary, and that adults aren’t perfect, and that there is a whole lot of pain in the world–but a part of me is so frustrated with the violent way in which I was thrown into that realization.  I can barely see that young girl in a white dress and her mom’s wedding veil through the hatred, abuse, and overwhelming pain that has tainted my vision of the Catholic church forever.  Perhaps the church can be reformed, but with the track it’s on today, the future of Catholicism looks dim.

“I was raised Catholic”, I tell people.  I was raised in a religion that made me feel safe and loved, a religion that I was proud to identify with.  “I was raised Catholic”, a description of a past self, buried under news stories and testimonies and fear, because to be quite honest, I have no idea what a present description of my religious views would look like.

I was raised Catholic, and like so many kids growing up in the church today, I am angry and afraid. I continue today to grapple with my own faith and with the pain inflicted by the authorities of my church.

 

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