Jo O’Sullivan writes on the development of her faith
Believe it or not, Saoirse, I can totally relate to your confusion as to why I still consider myself to be a Catholic. And I’d like to try and explain myself to you.
I’m from a very ordinary Catholic background – no great delving into the tenets of my faith during my life – no great exploration of theology or church history – no participation in ‘progressive’ movements or anything like that. In fact, all I did was try to observe the teachings and ‘living out’ of Catholicism as best I could – going to Mass on Sundays and Holy Days (and the occasional daily Mass if I was in a position to do so) and playing a full part in my church, parish life (I have played the church keyboard and been part of a lively children’s liturgy team, among other things, here in my parish for many years).
I suppose, to be totally honest, I carried a unease with certain aspects of Catholicism for a long time and had to reconcile things as best I could –sometimes by acknowledging I was ‘breaking the rules’ but letting myself off the hook (f.eg. for using contraception) and sometimes by not allowing myself to think too deeply about them (f.eg. the huge wealth in parts of the church contrasted with the poverty in the world; the position of women, people in second relationships, gays in the church etc.) I sometimes felt I was a ‘bad’ Catholic for having such critical thoughts about the structures and teachings. After all, those who dictated how things should be- those in positions of authority over me in my spiritual life, were much greater than I in every way and it was the sin of pride on my part to harbour such criticisms and doubts. In particular, anything coming from the Vatican was coming from those closest to God in this world so I had no business questioning the validity of anything they had to say.
I spent most of my adult life in that way, Saoirse, living a rather superficial version of Catholicism because, I think, I was afraid to delve too deeply!
However, my relationship with my loving Creator, as experienced through my Catholic faith, sustained me through many rough times in my life – many situations/times when no amount of logical, rational thought helped to see me through – life’s messy, difficult, paradoxical and sometimes cruel and painful chapters. So it was enough that I practiced Catholicism without thinking too deeply about it.
Life kept nudging me in my unease every so often though – sometimes it was in the shape of my growing children asking me questions and not accepting pat answers so I had to try and find answers which I felt to be true and valid; sometimes it was in finding myself in situations where the Catholic teaching just didn’t sit properly with my conscience. It was in meeting and knowing wonderfully Christian, caring people who were deeply hurt by the fact that the faith of their childhood rejected them because of their life’s circumstances.
I continued trying to accept that my ‘betters’ knew more than I did – I didn’t want to be proud and arrogant – so I tried to quieten my conscience by continuing to try and build a nurturing community in my own wee world and keeping my head in the sand over the rest of it (not something I’m proud of, but it’s the truth!).
The revelations of the Murphy Report caused a chasm to appear under me. I had been able to accept that there were individual criminal perpetrators of evil but I could not bear the fact that my ‘betters’, my moral and spiritual guides, had totally failed our most vulnerable little ones by choosing to protect the institution of the Catholic church over them.
I could no longer continue to contribute to building up the church in my own wee way if, by doing so, I was allowing the rottenness to continue.
It set me off on a long, terrifying journey, Saoirse, where I felt blasphemous and heretical and totally confused by my thoughts at times. All I could do was read and talk and listen and agonise over what was right and what was wrong. For every article I read by experts extolling adherence to strict Catholic teachings evidenced by readings from scripture, I read another one which interpreted scripture in a different way in the light of on-going theological exploration. All the experts were absolutely sincere and genuine in their arguments. I so wanted to be able to go back to being as I was before, but I couldn’t and I still can’t!
The conclusion that I came to was that, for me, there are no absolute certainties anymore. I can never know for sure that I am ‘right’. So, it follows on from that that I can never be sure that anyone who doesn’t see things MY way is ‘wrong’. In reading such people as Richard Rohr O.F.M., I have actually come to realise that I am moving beyond dualistic thinking and that’s a GOOD thing! I’m getting to a place where I can accept that I don’t HAVE to be right and others don’t HAVE to be wrong! I can reconcile myself to living in faith, living in the paradox, and constantly trying to see things from as broad a perspective as possible.
I have no problem accepting that our church leaders sincerely wish to discern what God’s will for humanity is so that they can be our teachers and our guides. I know the argument that they do not come to decisions by their own power alone – they pray and reflect and study scripture and Tradition very carefully so that they can eventually speak ‘the mind’ of God. But what if God is now nudging us, those of us living in the non-rarefied conditions of messy, secular society, towards having our voices heard? I cannot accept is that putting up walls and silencing debate is the way to move forward.
Neither can I go back to my old argument (with myself!) that I’m a nobody, so I’ve no business speaking out my silly little views. I think I have to speak out.
I truly worry that there’s a move to make Catholicism smaller and tighter. My whole belief is that our role in life, as Catholic Christians, is to reach out to all of humanity in love, tolerance and compassion – not to judge them and find them wanting.
There’s so much more in my head and in my heart that I’d like to say – but it has taken me three days to get this much down on paper. I’ve been dipping in and out of it – adding to it, taking from it, since I read your comment on Thursday morning. If I don’t submit it now, I won’t do it at all.
I respect your views Saoirse; I know you speak out of honesty and I can feel that you’re hurt that other Catholics seem to be utterly disloyal to something you hold very dear; that they’re trying to destroy Catholicism from the inside.
And I don’t know if I’ve gone any way to explaining to you that I honestly don’t want to do that – I want Catholicism to be a way of life that attracts the lonely and the lost – a way of life that nurtures all its children – a way of life that gives my grandchildren a path to follow so that they will ‘live life to the full’ and be happy that relationship with their loving Creator is at the very core of their everyday living.
I don’t know what stage of life you’re at Saoirse, but I bet you’d want the very came things for your grandchildren?