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repeat alert!

Busy, late, etc.

This is a good time as any to trot out an old one, apropos of the season:

Catholic Guilt: The Easter version.

It's the season of Lent, that time in between Ash Wednesday and Easter when I feel the most guilt about leaving Catholicism.

Now, guilt comes with being Catholic. It's instilled in you from an early age, honed and perfected until you become one with it. And someday, should you choose to leave the church, denounce its teaching and have nothing to do with any organized religion whatsover, you will still have the guilt. It's forever.

When I was little, I remember the frequently uttered phrases from my aunts. God will punish you. God is watching you. Do you want God to know you're doing that? God is not happy with you right now. All fed to you with pointed finger and clenched teeth and stern eyes.

For a while I was frozen in fear. I couldn't do anything without wondering if God was watching me. I was six years old and picking my nose one day when it suddenly dawned on me that I was probably being watched and I would go to hell for wanting to get a booger out of my nose. I ran into my room, knelt down by my bed and asked God to forgive me.

This persisted through the course of my life, those phrases always ringing in my ears whenever I did something wrong. I laid in bed at night, imagining a stern, cross god screaming at me for everything I did during the day, reviewing it on some huge monitor he had up in heaven.

I've never quite gotten over that. Making the decision to leave Catholicism and religion in general caused me so much anxiety that I thought I would have a nervous breakdown. On the one hand, I knew that I did not believe in a higher being and I did not subscribe to the teachings of the church, but on the other hand I was still entrenched in this fear of wronging the god I didn't believe in.

Maybe it wasn't god I was afraid of. Maybe it was my aunts or my mother or my grandmother. Perhaps on some level I viewed them as the all-powerful beings and thought that they would be punishing me for leaving the church. And they really are pretty powerful if they can instill that kind of guilt in fear in me as a child and still have it remain all these years later.

I am still raising my kids Catholic, which no one seems to understand. I think kids do need some kind of religion. It's comforting for them to have that feeling that someone up there is looking out for them, that there's someone listening to them and trying hard to answer their prayers, that there is a heaven where all their relatives and puppies go when they die and it is a better place than earth. Basically, I teach them at home instead of sending them to the church for catechism, because I can teach them religion the way I think it should be taught. I can give them the side of religion that is about love and respect and comfort, and leave out that vision of the all-seeing, vindictive god that I grew up with. What they choose to do with their religion later on in life is strictly up to them.

So now it's Lent and everyone has given up something for the season, and they are preparing for Good Friday and Easter and all the things that go on during this season. I don't feel bad that I'm not a part of it, because I don't believe it. I just feel bad that people try to make me feel like I should feel bad about it. Some people just cannot understand the whole concept of thinking for yourself. I must be stupid or blind or inherently evil to not want to repent or kneel down and pray or re enact the Stations of the Cross. And really, that's my problem with organized religion in general. That they (and by they I mean almost any religion) think that their way is the only way. Their choices are the right choices. That closed-minded way of thinking that alienated me in the first place is certainly not going to work if you're trying to bring me back.

So this has become for me the season of guilt. The season of accusatory looks and a "shame shame" attitude for not joining in the festivities. I have my own way of viewing Easter. I look at it as a time of renewal, a welcome to spring and the colors of nature coming back again. I like spring. I like the feeling I get when the buds are starting to show on the trees and impatiens are peeking through the ground and the streets are filled with kids playing hockey. I tend to appreciate life more during spring. I like the whole feeling that comes with emerging from the darkness of winter.

So why can't people leave that alone? Why do I have to take the joy of this season and have it mixed with guilt and sorrow that I seem to be a failure to my family, that I am not doing right by them, by my kids and by a god that I don't believe in?

And if I don't believe in Easter and all it's trappings, am I still allowed to indulge in Cadbury Eggs without feeling like I've given in?

originally printed 2/26/02

Comments

Dear Michele,

As a practicing Catholic myself, and one who returned to the Church after a long period away, there's much in your post that I sympathize with. The Church is a human institution, controlled by men. Over the centuries the libido dominandi has frequently had more to do with its pronouncements and behavior than the love of Christ and His teachings.

Watch the Palace. I'll have a piece up on this today or tomorrow. There's a lot to say, and I'll try to cover as much as I can.

Sincerely,
Your Long Island neighbor Fran

As someone who was raised Catholic I think it depends more on your church and family. I was never taught to fear God and I am thankful for that. I think that is one reason I still have such strong faith.

I think that many people don't realize how one different one Catholic church can be from another Catholic chuch. I think you need to find one whose views you are comfortable with. My current church would never think of saying someone's choices and feelings are wrong. I also believe that the God I believe in is all loving and forgiving, so whether you are Buddist or Catholic, your chances of getting into Heaven are the same.

I think it is great that you have come to a decision on your own beliefs and ignored pressures from others. I also think it is wonderful that your kids will have that base to grow up with, and that when they become adults you will be supportive of their decision to stay or go (in regards to the church)

This year I gave up abstinence for Lent.

Making folks feel guilty makes them easier to control... Now, my question is, who's trying to control me with guilt and why?

There is enough room for everyone to explore their hearts and love in faith and joy.

Deb, sounds like you have a nice house at which to visit with God... If only more folks were indoctrinated with tolerance and compassion, rather than being fed guilt and fear.

I vote for an open heart, rather than a closed mind.

Enjoy the Spring, Michele! :-)

Michele:

I cannot say that I have undergone the tremendous crisis of faith that you -- and many other Catholics -- have experienced. In fact, my doubting moments were brief and, in any case, never involved questions about the existence of God; I simply wondered whether the Catholic Church really had the inside track on the understanding of God and whether it has the authority it claims. This period lasted all of about a year (I was 19 at the time), during which I took it upon myself to learn as much as I could about Catholicism and a host of other religions. After that year, I came back to the Church, and my faith has grown stronger with each passing year.

It is not that I fall into the category of people viewed as "holy rollers"; quite the contrary, I am a colorful sinner (which, of course, means I need God more than most). Nor am I an apologist for the terrible crimes (sex scandals, etc.) or mistakes ("let the Iraqis rot in the name of peace") committed by human beings who also happen to be members of the Clergy. I have learned, however, that one should not throw out the baby with the bath water; more to the point, I am not prepared to fault the Church -- as an institution -- for individual human error or even for collective misinterpretation. I would put my mother up against any other mother in a "Catholic Guilt Contest" . . . but (and it would pain her terribly to hear this) I recognize that she is not actually the authoritative voice of the Church.

None of this is, of course, to say that my path, as compared to yours, is more correct. I simply throw it out there as an example of an alternative interpretation of the same situation. I do, however, disagree strongly with the notion that one can raise Catholic children by teaching them another version of Catholicism. Leaving aside the inherent difficulty of trying to convince kids to believe in a God in which they surely know you do not believe, the whole endeavor seems a bit cynical. To my way of thinking, it is akin to saying "I want to be in the military, but I don't want to go to boot camp and I don't want to follow orders with which I disagree." You are free to think that way, but, the fact that you wear camouflage and march about smartly notwithstanding, the reality is that you will not be in the military and cannot conscientiously claim otherwise.

Anyway, I appreciate your thoughts and the opportunity to share mine.

-patrick

On a completely non-serious note:
If it helps, just imagine that the Cadbury Eggs are a seasonal fruit that only appear for a couple of months, like clementines.

Admittedly, I don't have quite as much of a problem with it, because I gradually moved from Catholic to non-aligned-but-mostly-Christian. Still, Easter candy has about as much to do with Christ as salad dressing, so I wouldn't worry about it too much!

I grew up catholic, too. I perceived the catholics al time full of suffer. They seemed to me to have a masochistic need to suffer. To suffer for their sins, to suffer for feeling good while they should not because of Jesus on the cross, suffering for being as a human being so far away from what the priests tell us god wants us to be. I did not have so much fear, but I was pretty sure I do not want to suffer. I'm not made for suffering just because I am a woman and Adam ate the apple, which was what priests told us. That lead me to stop going to church with 16 (after having been really active in jouth work and all that before). My daughter is not into the church, and if we will ever do it, she won't be catholic, she'll be lutheran. My family is still very religious and tries to drag me into church whenever there is an occasion, but I just tell them I'm a witch, so I can't walk into a church. That made them stop.

Now you know why you will be featured in my next book with your own chapter. This was interesting, showing once again that you can venture where no pundit dares to go.

I remember a friend years ago who was an atheistic but whose wife was a born again Christian. (He eventually return to the Church.) He told me that his wife handle the chore of religionous instruction due to the fact, "he did not want his kids to share his loneliness." (I am not assuming your feelings are the same as him.) As you recognize, even Religious tradtions have some role. (A point made by athestic Camile Paglia in her book Sexual Personae.)

As a man raised as a Catholic and now presently a Methodist, the pull of the Catholic tradition is strong. I had a discussion on what I call cultural Catholicism that even ex-Catholic feel pull long after they leave. They still feel the power of the Church and that does not exist in the Protestant tradition. (An argument that close Methodist friend of mine agree with.)

Excellent piece.

Sincerely yours,

Tom

First, Ken... LOL, man!
Michele, eat all the damned Cadbury eggs you want. Candy has nothing to do with the resurrection of Christ, which Easter is SUPPOSED to be about. I see no reason for you to feel guilty about it.

I will say, however, that I am not a big fan of the Catholic church. Why? Bill Clinton (pretends he) is a Catholic. Why should that matter? It's safe for him. No one there would say anything to offend him (or those like him)' it's all PC. Deb's post should illustrate that, and Catholic churches are surpisingly similar in this regard. Christians shouldn't just accept peoples feelings and choices as valid or OK for whatever reason. One can accept another without accepting all their choices and feelings. There should be no "well it must be right for them" stuff. What if killing kittens with baseball bats is "right" for them? In your church, that would be OK, right? It's their choice to kill the kittens, after all.
There is no moral center in the Catholic church. The church should be a place of right and wrong, period, not this is OK for you, this is OK for me. People need a moral center, not just religion for the sake of religion or tradition.
I hope I don't come across as a Bible-thumping fundamentalist, but if that's what I am, then so be it. At least I stand for something, unlike so many who profess a religion because it's the thing to do.

I thought it went without saying that the "choices and feelings" I referred to into my post were those that didn't directly relate to serious sin such as killing, adultery, or any other really big thing. I was simply implying that I doubted any person should feel that a (in the scheme of things) small decision such as whether or not to go to a particular church should make them feeled damned to hell or something.

Amen, Sister. Being Catholic is AWESOME!

Pat, whether you come across as a "bible-thumping fundamentalist" is a secondary consideration; the primary problem with your comments is that they are utterly devoid of fact. First, Bill Clinton does not consider himself a Catholic. He was raised Baptist, I believe; in any case, he currently attends churches of his wife's denomination, Methodist. Second, I must say that of all of the accusations levelled at the Church throughout the ages, this is the first time I have ever heard the "PC" or "no moral center" argument . . . with all due respect, this charge is laughable in its sheer stupidity. In fact, most criticism of the Church focuses on its rigid adherence to dogmatic notions of what is good and evil, right and wrong. The Church has been outspoken in its opposition to abortion, the death penalty, birth control, etc. A PC institution would only have clung to the anti-death penalty plank and caved on the others, don't you think?

I live in Texas and I often have occasion to hear otherwise good Christians rail against the Catholic Church; more often than not, such attacks are, like yours, based on nothing more than the regurgitation of some nonsense spouted by a preacher or some other person and never independently explored by the proponent. While proclaiming as fact things about which one knows nothing is an evil in itself, the divisive effect this has on fellow Christians is the greater evil and is, at the end of the day, quite unbecoming of a "bible-thumping fundamentalist".

-patrick

Michele,

I left the Roman Catholic church knowing a lot about it. I mean A LOT. I'm an informed defector. My father's sister has had a long-life career as Mother Superior in Rome (Ordine di Maria Santissima).

I think it's pretty cool that you are teaching your kids about spirituality. Spirituality is a basic human need, in any form you choose. I personally get a clutching pain in my chest at the mere thought of 'organized' religion. But I digress...

A couple of years ago I picked up this book:

I Like Being Catholic: Treasured Traditions, Rituals, and Stories
by Michael Leach.

It focuses on all the really neat traditions and rituals that you may want to hang on to. You might want to check it out.

Happy Easter and Cadbury Egg Eating!

Whenever someone complains about "Catholic Guilt" my mother says that it's not guilt. It's called a conscience.

Guilt is healthy if there is something to feel guilty about. Scrupulosity is where you run into trouble.

I forgot to mention that this Triduum and Easter Sunday will be the first in 12 years in which I will not be participating. A very painful decision, but after 12 years of hardcore Catholicism I've just about given it all up in the past 9 months. I understand your "guilt." believe me...