I was writing this morning – reflecting on the evolution of my relationship with Jesus – and it occurred to me that I had never formally written about my decision to leave the Catholic church. In truth, leaving the Catholic church can seem painful and challenging – not to mention spiritually dangerous and impractical – but for me, it led to a rich revitalization of my spiritual life. I do not think I am alone in this.
Let me say first that if you’re a happy Catholic, at relative peace with its practices and traditions, then I’m happy for you. I have many friends and family members whose identity as Catholics is inspiring to others and relieving and succoring to them. This isn’t a post about shaking anybody’s cage who doesn’t want it shook.
That said, if you feel some distance between you and the church – if your perception of your Catholic faith is that it is insufficiently narrow – if it seems to place obstructions between you and your desire to know and by known by Jesus and by extension God – then I am here to tell you that making a positive change is possible. It may not be easy, but if it is the right transition for you, then you will not be asked to go it alone. You will not be asked to deal with your family or your old faith community without help. You’ll be lifted when – and to the precise degree – that lifting is needed. It’s going to be okay.
My break with the Catholic church came when the Massachusetts bishops so publicly and vociferously opposed gay marriage. It was clear to me that the loving union of two men or two women posed no threat to anyone, and that opposition to those potential unions was in fact causing pain and heartache to many people that I loved and cared about. It hurt my brothers and sisters.
It was also painfully – and sadly – striking that it was this issue that caused the men who led the church to rise up and make demands of the faithful. We weren’t castigated for cultivating riches while at best throwing sops to the poor. There was a ridiculous silence about the injustice of the death penalty. There was only a minimal and strained and intellectually deficient attempt to justify the church’s institutional misogyny.
And this was before the sexual abuse scandals came fully to light.
I had been able to make adjustments to all of this – largely by focusing on the men and women who shared the pews with me. If the church leaders were morally and spiritually bankrupt – and I believed (and still believe) that many of them were – there was always some brother or sister beside me who was authentically and dynamically making Christ real in the world.
But the gay marriage thing was – to coin a phrase – the straw that broke the camel’s back. I remember the priest reading a letter from the bishop aloud from the altar, calling on us to oppose gay marriage as a matter of Catholic doctrine. I took my daughter’s hand and together we stood up and walked out of the church. I have only been back for funerals.
This was the physical separation – the physical break. And in some respects, it was the easier break. Awkward in the moment, to be sure, but there was a rightness to it. I am glad still that I provided my child with that example.
Jesus Knocks . . .
The harder break or separation is the one that is more mental or mindful – a blend of spirituality, psychology, and intellect. It is somewhat simple to walk out of a church. Leaving Catholicism – in the deeper sense – is a more complex and subtle process.
That break takes time and, in fact, is never really accomplished. It is more in the nature of a process, an evolution in which we come closer and closer to God by looking closer and closer at the belief systems that underlay our faith. It is my experience that as those systems are gently undone, our lives begin to resemble the spiritual ideal at which those systems meant to aim. In a way that is probably confusing and even offensive to some people, I feel that I am a better “Catholic” today than I was ten years ago.
On some level, I began leaving the church when I was only a child. I experienced a significant and painful loss when I was nine and there was no way to reconcile it with the kind and loving God my parents and other adults assured me was always in attendance. The disconnect – if not yet subject to articulation – was profound and, importantly, it didn’t go anywhere for decades.
The gap widened when as a teen-ager I began to actively question the whole idea of God. How can a loving God allow for starvation of Ethiopian children? How can he allow Jews to be herded into rail cars for slaughter? If sex before marriage is wrong, then why make it a desirable option?
I began to see God as akin to a poor engineer – you know, creating a speed limit of 65 and allowing cars to be built that went 100. If he was there – in the way I was being taught – then he was either inept or in possession of a strange sense of humor indeed.
It’s not that the Catholic church can’t answer those questions – and in some cases answer them quite effectively – but that by asking them I was inviting – or embarking on – a personal relationship with God that was independent of institutional theology or influence. Because one thing was clear in those days: no matter how much I questioned, no matter how stubbornly I resisted, God – someway, somehow – remained present and open to debate. He never left.
I learned then that God longs for us and that Jesus has nothing we do not have. The mind with which we know these Truths is the mind with which God created them as true. Nothing is that isn’t God.
By the time I was in my early twenties – and a devoted Catholic, largely under the dual tutelage of Thomas Merton (and the Christian mystics who had preceded him) and Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker – it was clear that I was no longer trying to understand and appreciate God through the lens of the Catholic church but rather trying to adapt the church’s teachings to my personal living experience of Christ.
That is an important distinction and bears repeating, in part because it is the opposite of what Catholicism intends. The church was no longer the mediator of God for me. Heaven was attainable with or without it. Indeed, the notion that a human institution with such a complex and at times troubling history could act as such a mediator was hard to take seriously. I liked the church – I enjoyed the social aspects, I loved (and still love) its contemplative wing, I believed some formal structure was at least helpful if not necessary to practice faith – but I was no longer bound to it.
Let me add that my life at this time was full of kind and intelligent priests (and some nuns), men (and women) who recognized my genuine desire to know God and wanted to help me any way possible. Often, that took the form of shedding their clerical identity and meeting me as a fellow human being struggling with the burden of having fallen and seeking now to regain divine favor. I am grateful for the honesty, integrity and experience of those men and women, and I honor their choice (in most but not all cases) to remain committed to the Catholic church.
But those relationships only strengthened my conviction that we cannot truly know God in a church or through a ritual but only through the rigorous honesty of our experience.
I recalled that Jesus said knock and the door shall be opened. He was unequivocal. He did not say that only doors to the church or temple or rectory would be opened. He did not say that only the penitent or religious would see the door opened.
If the church was helpful, great. If not . . . well, it clearly didn’t rule out a relationship with Jesus.
Catholic Guilt and (Yes) Love
Gradually, my experience of being Catholic became one of quiet resignation. I was what many pejoratively call a cafeteria Catholic. I ignored what didn’t work, took what did and tried to make peace with the resultant division. I don’t think it was clear to me at the time, but I felt that compromise was the only way to retain a relationship with Jesus, and through him with God.
But of course that was a lie, and we cannot live a lie, even if it takes a long long time to see that, and perhaps longer still to act on it.
How did I see the lie and reconcile it with truth?
To answer that, I have to talk a bit about what is abstract and not easily considered in concrete terms: love and guilt.
There is a great emphasis in Catholic theology on our fallen nature. We are sinners and our sin is detestable. There is hope, though. Jesus atoned for those sins through his crucifixion and our acceptance of him activates a grace that is redemptive. That grace is not automatic, however. It requires our active participation. It can be lost. And the stakes are quite high. It is not a religion for the faint of heart!
This is the source of what many people refer to as Catholic guilt. I consider that charge unfair. So far as I can tell, guilt is a human condition regardless of what church or culture we hail from. We humans seem composed, in part, of an ontological guilt that necessitates a spiritual absolution. Catholics hardly have the market cornered on guilt, though I do not dispute its problematical nature in that tradition.
When I look back and ask why it took so long to finally leave the church (I was in my late thirties), there is only one answer, and it is awkward and uncomfortable.
I did not leave because I felt guilty and scared.
The Catholic church had presented itself and its methodology as the Way, the Truth and the Light all my life. Period. Although I was encouraged to be respectful of other religious traditions, it was understood that ours was the One. To be outside its unique fold was to be forsaken – not unloved, necessarily, but deprived of the opportunity to activate my salvation through a sacramental participation in Christ.
If you tell yourself repeatedly the bridge is going to collapse beneath your feet as soon as you step on it – and when everyone around you affirms that belief – then it is quite natural that you will fear the bridge’s demise and avoid putting it to the test.
But what you have been taught is not the bridge and they do not make the bridge. They only make your thoughts about crossing it. The bridge is its own reality.
Does that make sense? I never felt a sadness at leaving the church, the way I feel sadness when people or pets that I love die. I felt only a cold fear that I had turned my back on the one thing that could save my poor and rotten soul. That I knew better – both intellectually and experientially – was put severely to the test in those days.
What made taking those first steps possible – and remember, we are talking now about abstract steps not the actual physical removal of oneself from a church – was love. Love and a story.
When my father was a young teen-ager he was sent to a seminary in Pennsylvania to become a priest. My father is a smart and thoughtful man devoted to living his life in harmony with Jesus Christ and the Catholic church. But he was not meant to be a priest. And he knew this. Several months into his studies, he decided to leave.
You have to take my word that this was not an easy decision for him. His parents wanted very badly for him to become a priest. Many of the priests he knew – both at the seminary and back in his local parish – wanted him to take those vows. Under all this pressure, he talked to the priest who was in charge of the rectory.
And that priest – who I believe was a holy man – told my father that his calling was in the end a private matter between him and Jesus and God. If he was meant to be a priest, he would be. If not, then God would guide him otherwise.
There is great wisdom there. Following God is natural. It might not be easy, but it is right. We can trust that.
God’s love is not conditional.
I knew that if I was meant to be Catholic then nothing I did or said could separate me from that church. Jesus would lead me to where I needed to be. God loved me and his love was not contingent on my participation in one or another human institution. It was going to be okay because it already was okay.
So I took a step.
The bridge did not collapse.
So I took another. Then another.
My life now is a walk into Stillness. It is a walk into Love.
One Step Toward God
We are loved by God because God is love. There is a goodness that fuels our existence, that passes through stones and trees, through laundry on the clothesline, through the wood that forms the chicken shed, and through our bodies and out into the stars and beyond. That is God. You are an expression of God, a thought of God. You were created thus and while you can deny that, or forget that, you cannot make it untrue. You cannot undo what God did perfectly.
We are fallen in the sense that we have forgotten who we are and Who created us. As fallen women and men, we can barely discern the outline of Heaven in the broken troubled world that appears to surround us. Our recognition of our helplessness is, paradoxically, the moment of our greatest strength. It is what makes our knocking on the mystical door real and solid. It is what assures us the door will be opened and real help step into our hearts to assist. This is not a theory. It works.
All institutions – be they governments, churches, countries, corporations, recreation committees or even, yes, families – have only their own survival and benefit in mind. They may start with lofty ideals and goals but those fall apart. History will teach you this if you look at it. There is a reason that Jesus wandered from town to town, not setting up shop in Jerusalem or Capernaum. There is a reason he didn’t set up churches, didn’t create the Jesus code.
Codification is not of God because God’s law – which is one and all – is true and you can neither make Truth nor make it more True. It is and that’s enough. Our permission and participation is not needed! Gravity doesn’t work because Newton persuaded somebody to pass a law. It works because it is. So it is with Christ, and with God, and with you and me.
We meet God in the silence of our hearts, in the deep center of our being where our identity as this person in this time period in this location vanishes and there is nothing but our need and our love. We acknowledge the former and then the latter rushes in, all-consuming. See if it doesn’t work that way for you.
When I stand in my front yard, my little house fills up my vision. When I walk into the fields and look at it from a mile away or so, it is much smaller – a shred of larger fabric. If I floated overhead at five miles, it would not even be visible. It would be a dot, indistinguishable from the landscape that surrounds and merges with it.
So it is with leaving the Catholic church. When we first step away, the church fills our vision and our minds. It is big and daunting! But as we move away from the institution towards the love that is Christ, the institution becomes smaller and smaller until it is merely a single point amongst many. We have mistaken the forest for one of its trees. And it’s the forest we’re after.
There is great peace in knowing this and acting on it. There is a great potential for genuine creativity and lovingkindness. And isn’t that what we wanted all along? Union with Christ instead of membership in an organization?
Recall the New Testament story. Jesus told the disciples to go and invite everyone to dinner – everyone. He didn’t say just the poor, or only Pharisees, or make sure you exclude the Roman soldiers. He said everyone – without exception or qualification. If you think and pray on this – if you wonder how it might play out in your life, in your socio-political framework – you will see how radical – and anti-establishment, anti-institution – it is.
That invitation is the spiritual mandate of all those who profess to follow Jesus all the way to Remembering God. It is a radical equality, a radical familiarity, a radical openness. The Catholic Church surrendered this radicalism long ago. Don’t look for it there. It’s gone. It has become what it was supposed to oppose. Jesus wouldn’t recognize it.
What is left is what was always there in the first place – you and me and our desire to know God. Our personal interior experience of God, our recognition of our Christ mind through the example and model of Jesus. Our efforts to live in harmony with that power, that grace. It is hard work. It can be lonely work. It can be frightening sometimes, too.
But we are sustained in it – as we are transformed through it – by Love.
And yes, yes. You can go back.