I should have known I was asking for trouble when I chose Thomas as my confirmation name. Even at seventeen, I thought a sincere faith could withstand rigorous questioning. And I have always been a Catholic with doubts. Now I am a Catholic with doubts and a child. The doubts grow more urgent lately because deciding to raise my child Catholic is, in many ways, deciding whether I would do it all over again myself.
Already I hear a clock ticking like a time bomb. The questions are only a few years away: Why are only men priests? Why does the church say my friend shouldn’t have two mothers? If Catholicism is the one true faith, is Ali bad because he doesn’t love Jesus? Who says what priest comes to our parish? Why do they have gold chalices when there are poor people?
All right, he’s only three, but simpler whys will soon start and this unapologetic feminist, straight-queer, anti-authoritarian mama bristles at the idea of absolute answers. I’ll have a hard enough time toeing the party line on bedtime. My husband says his atheism exempts him from negotiating what to do with the boy’s religious instruction. He’s a fantastic partner and parent in every way, but no help on this matter, saying only “I know this is important to you; I’ll support what you decide.”
The fact is I have questions of my own.
Why do some bishops advocate for Republicans? Which is worse: abortion, on which the church speaks clearly, or the death penalty, about which they barely speak at all? If these guys are living with grace, why do they seem so defensive? Why do I belong to a religion if I disagree with so much?
Thanks to a Jesuit education, a mix of thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart, the twentieth-century novelist Graham Greene, and a timeless belief in Eucharist, I’ve managed to remain on the Catholic team. The Jesuits prize intellectual rigor. They cut a steady example as worldly, educated men animated by desire for God. If these guys, who are much smarter and more dedicated than I, can stay with this institution, maybe I should too. Meister Eckhart wrote the most mind-blowing Zen-like sermons on the nature of God and the need to see God without the labels of love, truth, spirit. God is nothing, he argued. God is empty. God is, simply is; it’s we humans, with our limited minds, who hang our names and constructions and limitations on God. Graham Greene’s heroes are always broken and filled with doubt, but they fumble on. I recognize them. And Eucharist is the greatest story ever. The divine became flesh, and as the central rite of our religion we take part in that flesh. It is, like the Christ from which it flows, the most astounding amalgam of celestial and tangibly corporeal. How does one explain belief in something so absurd? I can’t. I just believe.
What’s kept me Catholic is an understanding that doubt is what makes faith genuine— that the presence of doubt is what makes the church ring true. So I stay. I stay even though the men in charge often contradict all the gospels taught me about humility, forgiveness, and compassion. I stay despite the corrosive corruption of a church that fetishizes authority and infantilizes the voice of its people. No bishop has yet been held appropriately accountable for the child sexual abuse scandal. I stay despite the sexism, the homophobia, the Gnostic disrespect for body, the soul-negating fear of argument. I stay even as my allegiance in these culture wars is squarely on the side of secularism. I stay because I believe what I think is the heart of it and because leaving seems like treason.
I believe in Eckhart’s ineffable Godhead, not this anthropomorphic God we can make small enough to fit in the ballot box. I go to Mass because I know I’m just a frail human and we need ritual. I’ve received communion at an immigrant parish in the Bronx, with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, at the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, in a tiny Gaelic-speaking village in Ireland, and among aid workers and journalists in Phenom Penh, Cambodia. Life in each place and the circumstances that took me there were radically different, but the miracle of Mass was always stable. Despite variations of language, music, and architecture, the church and sacrament were always home. Something happens there that my proudly rational mind can’t grasp but that makes my soul soar. This faith of mine is an awkward postmodern thing.
But I can’t really hand the kid Camus and Rushdie and say, “Look, honey, there is this howling emptiness. We make our own meaning. Mama believes in the most fantastic bit of the church. And ethno-culturally, we’re Catholic and, really, 99 percent of the moral code is excellent, so, off to CCD you go.”
The idea of growing up without Catholicism seems like a great void, like the ultimate white bread. No Advent calendars, no sweet moments before the Nativity scene in the front of church, admiring the tableau of baby Jesus in the manger surrounded by lowing cows and the humble donkey, no sugary sheet cake flowers and the hum of relatives at First Communion parties.
Then there is the loyalty issue. My Irish ancestors suffered for their faith. I can hear fifteen generations of Irish people rolling in their graves at the thought of me going across the street to the Anglicans, a church with such similar theology, but a greater
respect for the maturity of its members. I can hear those relatives, “So Paddy’s granddaughter would rather the Queen of England be the head of her church.”
My son has an uncle who does not have a tone for the religious. His family left the church when he was six or seven, and he’s like a tuning fork that doesn’t vibrate. He doesn’t have that part in him that allows him to understand the transcendent. To him, religion is just the man behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz and the people who are duped. He sees no holy residue on every blade of grass.
And of all the things we will give this profound, sacred child— from breastfeeding to cuddles to a love of learning—shouldn’t a vocabulary for the divine, the means to communicate with the ineffable, membership in a worldwide community be among
I can’t imagine keeping this faith from him. There is nothing that can take the place of Eucharist. It’s sacramental. It’s social. It’s political.
God became flesh and dwelt among us. I want him to have that. This life is imbued with the divine. God is among us. That’s what communion means. Every fragment of human experience, including the corporeal, is experienced too by God.
Catholicism informs every aspect of my life. It’s how my marriage moves. It’s how I chose my profession as a journalist who tells the stories of people Christ would have sat with: the criminal, homeless, immigrant, and reviled. It’s why I smile to people on the street, knowing Christ comes in the face of the stranger. It is why I believe in working for economic justice and not for war. It’s why at the depths of my periodic depressions, I know ultimately all is one. Not only is there meaning; it was born into the world, and had a mother.
But being Catholic increasingly makes me feel like I’m on the wrong side of the rational versus sectarian split in this country. There was an article on the front page of the newspaper a few years ago about the church equivocating on evolution. Catholicism’s belief in faith and learning had always been a source of pride. When secular friends would warily ask what science I was taught in Catholic school, I would proudly retort that the post-Galileo church wasn’t antiscience. We weren’t some whack-job Christians. Then I’d remind them that Mendel, the father of genetics, was a monk.
I’m familiar with the line on working for change from within. My Catholic membership card has been taped together with that idea for going on fifteen years now. But Rome doesn’t hear the concerns of loyal dissenters. To Rome, we are just unruly Americans seduced by our sex-obsessed and selfish culture. Our usual retort—the church is the people in the pews, not the hierarchy—rings hollow since the people in the pews don’t make the rules, count the money, or decide who gets denied communion. In the wake of the failure of true, open response to the child sexual abuse scandal and the election of Pope Benedict XVI, I feel a new sense of outrage, or maybe just resignation. By staying I’m tacitly assenting to how this organization operates. The pope has said he would be satisfied with a church that is smaller, if more pure. There is no room for equivocation or relativism, he’s said.
My church doesn’t want me.
It is a profoundly lonely feeling.
I love this church and I also can’t, in good faith, profess membership in this organization that fosters inequality, refuses to truly repent for wrongdoing, and distrusts the fresh air of argument. I love this faith and I need to practice its central tenets in a community, but I don’t want the men in charge to infect my son with their certainty.
So we struggle on. He’s three now and says bedtime prayers to an unnamed God, gives thanks for the day, and requests for help in being good and kind. I see the value of religion as an agent of social control—I’m up to my elbows attempting to raise a civilized child. But it also seems unconscionable to fill his open little mind with this Catholic narrative and label it TRUTH. We go to church, but not regularly. I am emotionally exhausted after Mass because it is too often celebrated with small-minded certainty by a priest just out of seminary who sees my presence in the shrinking congregation as assent to increasingly reactionary Vatican dictates. My son goes to synagogue too, where the lesbian parents of a playmate are part of a proudly queer and proudly Jewish community. As he grows he’ll join our after dinner conversations with beloved Jesuit priest friends. He is surrounded by religion. He is surrounded by people whose lives and work as attorneys, activists, social workers, teachers, human rights advocates, and writers are inspired by Catholic social teaching. He will be engaged in a Catholic dialogue. I give him religion. But I can’t give him certainty, because I don’t have any to give.
Reprinted with the permission of the Liturgical Press.
Eileen Markey is a reporter who loves living in a progressive community in the Bronx, New York. She writes about urban public policy, teaches journalism, grows vegetables on the roof of her apartment building, and marvels at the wisdom of her now four-year-old son.