How I sort of left the Church, and why I came back

Here is a little story about how I left the church, sort of, and then came slouching back home, more or less.

The late, occasionally great Mad Magazine once published a bit that showed people’s secret thoughts. A scene looks one way from the outside but is very different and allegedly very funny on the inside. The one I remember showed the inside of a church. The congregation piously bows their heads, apparently engaged in placid worship. But on the inside, the well-to-do man is freaking out over gambling debt, the adolescent boy is slavering over a sexy fantasy and the teenage girl is desperately praying for a negative pregnancy test. It is just as well I don’t remember what the priest was thinking.

This was supposed to demonstrate that religious people are a bunch of hypocrites who pretend to be righteous and clean but are actually a mess on the inside. Har har, religious people! Look how they live.

The cartoonist was, of course, not making this up. When my parents had found Jesus but not yet the Catholic Church, my poor mother was perpetually humiliated when people visited our shabby, disorderly home. She was overworked, outnumbered and struggling with undiagnosed thyroid issues. And their allegedly Christian landlord thought laundry lines made the outside of the house look tacky, so whatever my mother did, she did it fighting her way past a line of damp diapers drying slowly over the hot air vent. A poor substitute for the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit that they sought.

But conversion happens stepwise. She knew her fellow Christians believed that outward disorder and chaos were caused by secret sin, so if anyone came to her door, she fell into the habit of making excuses. “Sorry about the mess,” she would say, and then explain that someone had been sick or they just got back from a trip. Here was always some temporary, mitigating factor that explained the general chaos.

Then one day, she didn’t. Someone came over and saw their typical chaos, and what came out of her mouth was: “Sorry it’s such a mess. This is just how we live.”

I don’t know how long after that moment she began to feel a pull toward the Catholic Church, but this moment in our family mythology feels like a very Catholic moment. This is literally what the church is for: So you can have a house to be a mess in. It is your house; you are a mess. Why try to deny it?

This is just how we live, and it’s not new. Chaucer, anyone? Dante’s “Inferno”? The Gospels? This is just how we live. If there were no mess, there would be no reason for the church to be built to house it. If there were no sin, there would be no need for baptism and confession and the Eucharist. If there were no human misery and wretchedness, there would have been no need for God to become man. I know this, or I thought I did. At home in the Catholic Church, we are a mess, and we cannot seem to help opening the door to show all comers our own weaknesses and sins and hypocrisies.

But as I write this paragraph, it feels a bit like I am distilling the faith down to an Etsy-worthy wall hanging for suburban moms: Bless this mess, Lord!

But the mess of the church is no adorable, kid-style mess, with couch cushion forts and colorful alphabet blocks strewn around the rug. It is the sex abuse scandal, which continues to break and break and break on the shore like a punishing, never-ending tide. It is the scandal of pastors and bishops pitting faith against science. It is the scandal of open disobedience and contempt for basic doctrine. It is the general crappiness and malaise and infighting of Catholic culture and Catholic social media. It is the disorder where culture, tradition, doctrine and lived experience all try to inhabit the same living space. This is how we live, and it is a mess, and the mess goes down deeper than I thought.

A number of personal experiences have widened some cracks in my life that used to be manageable. I used to think my personal faith-house was rock solid. It is not. It was shored up with 10,000 little pebbles, and some of them carried a bigger load than they should have. Many of them have been swept away, and when I look at what’s left, I don’t even know what to call it. “Mess” seems inadequate. It’s nothing comfortable or homelike, anyway.

Read the rest of my latest for America magazine

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Image by Michael Garlick  (Creative Commons)

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15 thoughts on “How I sort of left the Church, and why I came back”

  1. I needed to read this because I am struggling so much. I feel trapped between left and right and just homeless in all this messiness.

    I was a card carrying a member of the late 90s / early 2000s religious right. I had a purity ring. I Marched for Life. Raised a devout Missouri Synod Lutheran, I was active in Campus Crusade for Christ and the Republican Party. When I converted to Catholicism at 21 I was received into the Church during a Latin mass at Assumption Grotto in Detroit, and my sponsor was a Santorum intern and Grove City alum who I had met volunteering at the GOP Convention in Philadelphia. (LOL you can’t write this script). Of course I transferred to Steubenville, where I finished my BA in 2003, and where I still have wonderfully happy memories. (I would like to take this opportunity to thank several of my professors in the Catechetics program there for instilling in me a love of moderation and common sense. I’m sorry that I probably disappointed you in many ways, but please know the mark you made was permanent.)

    I did not thrive after leaving Steubenville. Maybe this is the time to add that as an adolescent I was a rape victim twice over. First time was at 13, when a teacher at my middle school let a boy into a room where I was working alone on a project, and that boy shoved me up against a shelf with a paper cutter, assaulted me sexually, and threatened to shove my fingers in the cutter if I continued to resist. Second time was an ongoing abusive situation. A lot of my religious struggles and seeking were tied to recovering from PTSD and having what I would gently call a very bad relationship with my identity and vulnerability as a woman.

    My career as a theology teacher was short lived. I started to feel some doubts, not about God, but about some of the ways that certain right-wing parts of the Church packaged teachings and played loose with facts, promoting what felt like propaganda rather than honest but difficult presentations of truth. Then there was the abuse scandal. I’m a rape victim. I just couldn’t anymore. Child harm and sexual violence are just the two things that put me over the edge.

    But the abuse scandal and some of the worst tendencies on the Catholic right also made me very vulnerable to the worst of the left. I was very much one of those young people who so enthusiastically wanted a white knight to come along emblazoned with Capital-T-Truth to save me. I bounced from one ideology to another. And the ideology that got my attention when I was in my late 20s and feeling disillusioned with the Church was the most toxic aspects of what was emerging as Intersectional Feminism and Gender Theory.

    This ideology ate my brain. It led me to resent my marriage, my motherhood, my parents, and the Church. It twisted the entire way I looked at and engaged the world. It let me cover up a lot of pain, displacing it on others in the form of anger, and made me unable to live happily with myself as a woman.

    I twice left the Church and came back. Going to graduate school for mental health counseling at Fordham and then working there and further going to graduate school in Spirituality and Ethics for 8 years kept me somewhat grounded and broadened my relationship with Catholicism, even while I struggled with it and dropped in and out of practice.

    The other thing that kept me grounded was my marriage. My husband and I both have strong, intact families. We have three lovely little girls. We have good relationships with our parents and aunts and uncles and cousins. After spending 8 years by his side while he battled cancer – he turned out to be one of MSKCC’s immunotherapy miracles – our marriage is strong and founded on sacrificial love.

    Well, I’m 41 and I’ve returned to the Church for good. I decided to love the Church in all her messiness. I think both right wing nastiness and the current brand of bitter left wing feminism that is so popular right now can go pound salt along with all the other bad ideologies I’ve embraced. I feel so liberated from all that. Luckily we have a lovely and active parish (St. Rose of Lima in Newtown, CT) with a good school and a pastor who is everything a pastor should be and who I think someday will be canonized as a Saint.

    But at the same time I am struggling so much.

    On one hand I have rediscovered my old love for the teachings of the Church. I’ve rediscovered John Paul II and all that Thomism that for awhile I thought was just so mean and futsy. The Culture of Death is real. I’ve accepted that even though my adherence to Humane Vitae has been extremely spotty at best, the Church is still right, my own failings don’t invalidate her ideals, and I’ve been humbly reconciling that it is OK to struggle with certain teachings while still being faithful. I hope my struggle with that one make me more compassionate towards others who struggle with the Church. I love the way Pope Francis encourages meeting with and engaging all people, including those who live outside the church and her teachings, or are even hostile to them.

    I’ve decided to have a relationship with the Church of mutual mercy; I’ll forgive you your failings, because you forgive mine.

    On the other hand, in the midst of my newfound love for the Church, I see so many people I know from the conservative Catholic world who would otherwise be my friends fall into idolatry of Trump and the worst nastiness and cruelty of the conservative movement while completely ignoring the needs of the vulnerable and the teachings of the Church that they do not like. When I read about people who turn their eyes from the abuse scandal or the suffering of refugee children, I feel sick, and I think that is a reasonable reaction. But I’m told this makes me a heretic and traitor.

    But then I see people on the Catholic left, in their compassion for people who suffer from things like Gender Dysphoria (compassion that is good! We should reach out to and minister to all!) cross the line into trying to get the Church to abandon her anthropology altogether, while completely ignoring how that might affect vulnerable women, rape victims, families, and children, and disregarding the teachings of the Church that they do not like. When I read about female prisoners being raped by trans women, or about the Tavistock lawsuit and cover up or Johanna Olsen-Kennedy saying that girls who resent getting their breasts cut off can just “get new ones,” I also feel sick, and I think that is a reasonable reaction. But I’m told this makes me a bigot.

    I feel so lost right now, trying to tread the middle path. I feel like I have no one to talk to. I feel like on both “sides” right now everyone is so intense in their ideology that no one is allowed to be a struggling person genuinely trying figure things out; rather we are all locked into this or that ideological box and then doled out contempt accordingly, with no hope of growth or grace.

    Between Trump, Trans, my need to take care for myself as a sexual assault victim, and my parental obligation to my daughters and my Christian obligation to radically open my heart to everyone, I literally wake up and feel like vomiting every morning. I have a constant ache in my stomach like it is being torn open all the time. I feel nauseous. I feel like I have no trust in anyone, any institution. I feel like I have no people to struggle in solidarity with because I’m not ideologically committed to either “side.”

    I feel so very, very, very alone, in a way I have never felt alone.

    I cry every single day out of a sense of confusion, loneliness and loss.

    1. Abigail, my heart goes out to you. I’m so sorry for what you endured when you were younger. I share many of your dilemmas regarding the Church. I too fall into the middle ground, and often feel alone because, like you, I reject Trump idolatry but also the other extreme which uses misguided empathy to compromise on Church teaching. The truth is that we’re not alone. Simcha is the perfect example of a Catholic who is faithful to Church teaching yet rejects the extremism of some ultra conservative Catholics. I do think that we’re in the minority, but we aren’t the only ones who feel this way. It’s just hard to find like minded people in person, as opposed to online (well, it’s not exactly easy online either…). Again, I’m sorry for what you’ve been through and for your current struggles, which I share to an extent. I hope you have a blessed Easter.

      1. Thank you. It is good to know I am not alone.

        I think a lot of the COVID quarentine is getting to me, like it is getting to all of us. I honestly have recently said a lot of things, online and in letter form, that came out of my own anger and brokenness and I regret that. (In particular I wrote a scathing letter to the editor of Commonweal that in retrospect I wish I had not. Oh, well). I wish there were more in person conversations available for us to work ourselves out in.

        But I know things will get better.

        It is just so hard right now. I think everyone being stuck behind a screen amplifies a lot of the most hostile voices and makes people who are struggling feel like we have to be silent or face a lot of depersonalized flaming (or shunning.)

        I’m glad though that we aren’t alone.

        It was very helpful for me to read the comments here and see other women’s stories of negotiating similar things, and I spilled my guts with the hope that there are some other broken people with a similar background who can find some comfort in not being alone in this mess.

        Returning to the Church to find that a lot of the conservative Catholic culture I had once been a part of has in many ways fallen apart has been really hard; it was kind of like coming home to Tara only to see it all burnt out. But I guess the whole lesson of Easter is that new life rises from broken things.

        I wish you a happy Easter, too.

  2. I miss the Eucharist so much. Last Sunday we did “drive in” Mass at another parish and I received for the first time in about, I don’t know, 7 months? My kids are lucky enough to go to a Catholic school and receive every Wednesday. I’ve been going to the adoration chapel about every other week for hours just to see HIM and know He’s there. The physical comfort of being in His presence is so real to me now. I’m not going to take the sacrament for granted again.

    When this whole thing hit, we were finally on a cadence of going to confession every 2 weeks as a family and getting settled into it. Then, BAM, no Mass, no sacraments. This pandemic has truly been trying.

    As for leaving the Church, I can relate. I got mad at God and resentful about my husband (who was supposed to, in my mind, live perfectly aligned with Church teachings). I felt they both deserted me and betrayed me- God in “calling” me to marriage and motherhood, only to dump me with a husband who coerced me into a vasectomy and calling me to motherhood only to dump me into deep post partum depression. I checked out spiritually, instead of leaning in and asking WHY and looking internally at what I was responsible for in that situation.

    It’s only now, 9 years later that I’m really healing and trusting Him again. The personal relationship that’s been building in the last year from the deprivation of His presence has really been a tremendous journey for me in my faith life.

    Being in the desert away from His presence can bear fruit- if you are looking to nurture it as best you can from where you’re at.

    1. We too had just returned to the church and gotten into that rhythm when this hit. It felt like having the rug pulled out from under us.

      I can relate with the conflicts about birth control and spouses.

      I feel like many of us when we were younger were sold a very idealist version of the perfect “Catholic” spouse. I try to remember that my husband isn’t a perfect avatar of Church teachings. He’s a person, and a broken person, too. Literally. His stomach is covered in scars from 3 surgeries. I try to let those scars remind me that just like we worked with that brokenness, we can work with this brokenness.

      All the best to you and I will keep you in my prayers while you pass through your desert.

  3. I will add my voice and say it definitely feels like a very difficult time to be Catholic, for all the reasons you listed abs then some. Nearly all the “good Catholic” people I know are fixated on how evil and stupid everything in the “mainstream” world is, but what kills me is just how evil and stupid practically everyone in the church is. I grew up in a lukewarm Catholic family but was personally devout from childhood. When I went to college, I encountered Catholic subculture. I got to enjoy the honeymoon of finding Catholic friends for all of about a year before a number of them betrayed me, causing me to have to rethink the whole narrative I had swallowed from them. Well, to be honest, most of them would even look me in the eye because I wasn’t homeschooled and listened to secular music, but even many of the ones I thought were my friends turned out to be conniving hypocrites. Two in particular I am convinced are narcissists in the clinical sense, who saw in the church an easy audience to manipulate. They cultivated a reputation for holiness simply by having a knack for riling up a sense of moral indignation at all the evils of everyone but us. God forbid we see the log in our own eyes. Anyways, it’s never been an easy journey for me being Catholic, but the behavior of Catholics in the past year has been just so beyond appalling, and in top of it we don’t even have the sacraments to strengthen us.

  4. Oh man Simcha,
    I think the whole Church was forced to “sort of step away”. I still haven’t been able to figure out everything that has been happening to our souls during Covid, but I have to say that there has been some relief too (alongside the fuzzy guilt). The Pope said, “can’t go to confession? Confess to God!” “There is no Sunday mass obligation.” (exhale)

    It’s not that I don’t miss our old life, no, I want it back, but without the pressure of serious sin. I always hated that. Covid spirituality could *feel* lukewarm and watered down, but honestly, the frenetic pace that was my life this time last year was just too much. We didn’t have much perspective as we whirled on our hamster wheels. Was it more spiritual back when things were “normal”–no, I don’t thinks so–I just checked more of the “good girl” boxes.

    Watching Catholic people behave disgustingly over Trump really took the cake for me, but it’s not like they *became* that way under Trump’s influence, no, they were like that all along. I’d rather know the truth. It certainly explains a lot of things about the whole cult of conservatism. We always knew something was off–well–now we know. It’s better this way. I can never go back to being an idiot-Pollyanna-Catholic-housewife. sometimes I mourn for those days of innocence when the children were little, and things *felt* like they were purer–only…they weren’t. It was an illusion.

    Anyway, I hope your Pastor is a good guy. That counts for a lot. I have to say with gratitude that we have been very lucky to have mostly humble priests over the years and decades, who were trying to be good…UNTIL this last one. It is so disheartening. He isn’t team liberal, or team conservative, he’s team *himself*. I’ve never seen such a thing in my life. It’s clinical. Just when we needed a good guy the most we were stuck with the worst one. It has gotten so bad we finally wrote our archbishop, but I doubt he cares, he’s too busy being incensed and holding press conferences saying that the Catholic Church is being discriminated against. I mean–Is it really? (He sided with Vigano when Vigano wrote that stupid letter about the Pope needing to step down!)

    I keep looking at Jesus and saying, “I know it’s not your fault, but really?” I’m not mad at Jesus, the timing of the crazy pastor just feels like the cherry on the (crap) Sundae.

    Simcha, I didn’t set out to add a complain-fest to your tale of hardship, I just wanted to convey that I understand. You have a lot of common sense. I’ve always admired your penetrating take on matters. As for the mess–your kitchen project was bad ass. Keep going for it and wielding a whip, I mean a paintbrush, to put a little fear of the God of cleanliness in your little heathens. (I guess I shouldn’t call someone else’s kids what I call mine.)

    1. It’s good to see you commenting Anna Lisa. This pandemic has me so paranoid that I’m always relieved to see a familiar name! I hope things are getting better in your part of California. At least there’s a light at the end of the tunnel!

      1. Hi Claire,
        Oh thank you for being glad to hear from me 🙂 I hope your sweet family is healthy and managing to weather the strangeness. It all started hitting the fan here almost exactly a year ago.

        I switch off between paranoia about getting IT and being in denial. A couple of weeks ago I was absolutely sure my husband had IT and we were all going to succumb. There was drama because my 85 y.o. Mom has only had one shot. We were at our place on her property for ski week, and my husband had this nice kid from Michoacan (tends the plants at a pot farm in Carpinteria lol) helping him nail down new wood planks in our bedroom and bathroom. (my stenciled baby-blue floors that were cute when I first painted them had become seedy looking) All of the windows and doors were open while the two of them worked but sometimes they had to get within a foot of each other. Out of the nowhere, on a Thursday evening my husband started shaking with a fever–no other symptoms. What else could it be? My brain alternated between planning for the worst and considering the risks. Our health insurance doesn’t work in that area. Everyone had an opinion about what we should do. My Mom had found a reason to visit at least three times a day. So we hopped in the car with the three youngest and drove to our place up North feeling so upset that my Mom had been exposed (she’s only had the first shot) and that the kids would miss MORE of the paltry seven hours a week of school that they have in person. I of course wrote melodramatic chapters in my head about how terrible my life would be without my husband. Luckily testing is good and fast here. We tested on a Monday and received a negative result on Tuesday. It was our second scare. A few weeks before, half of us came down with a little cold –WHO gets a regular cold ???? –Apparently us. And if you can catch a cold you can catch…
        Oh my word.
        So done.
        Then the following week our pastor yelled at us for attending mass across the street from the parking lot where he was celebrating it. You’re supposed to sign up three days before the mass, and then “tickets” are closed.) He literally ducked out of mass during the psalms to come over and tell us off. His shiny green robes were flapping in the wind as he strode over–It made for quite an impressive scene. Angry Jesus in green with crazy eyes. Everyone turned in their fold out chairs to wonder what the heck he was doing. My poor Charlotte was mortified to death, frozen as she watched him approach. By the look on his face you’d think we’d just shoplifted the collection basket or pushed an old lady down. I told him we were playing it safe, and he waved us away. He told us to stay home and that we couldn’t receive communion, and he wouldn’t allow anybody to bring it to us –but he’d bothered to cross the street to tell us that. What a HUGE difference from Santa Barbara where the Franciscans literally bust a gut telling everyone how happy they are to see you. People come with their pets, blankets, umbrellas…Everyone is conscious of the six feet. I still don’t know what to make of it. It’s the fourth time now that he has imperiously withheld or begrudged a *sacrament*. He even refused to give me absolution once. It was so strange, and all I’d confessed was garden-variety sins. (It was against my better judgement but the Feast of Divine Mercy was that Sunday, and I couldn’t see my regular confessor.)My husband says that behavior like this is against canon law. I’ve never experienced any priest in my entire life who is like him, but the parish has been stuck with him 12 long years because he told the archbishop he’ll quit the priesthood if he gets another assignment anywhere else.

        How long God? (Not Covid. Covid I can deal with.)

        1. Wow Anna Lisa, you really have your hands full, between Covid and that crazy priest. His behavior is really bizarre. How sad, just at a time when people need good pastoral care.

          We’re doing well. It’s been a year for us, too. (March 1st last year was the first confirmed case in NYS, and within a couple of weeks schools and businesses were shut down and NYC became a war zone, but upstate where I live never got too bad.) My 80 year old mother and my husband are now fully vaccinated. We won’t completely get back to normal till my 13 year old son can get vaccinated, and I don’t know when that will be. But at least now we can safely socialize with my mother, and once the weather warms up we’ll have lots of options.

          1. Oh, that’s right, your son has asthma. I’m so sorry about that extra worry Claire. I hope they prioritize him soon. I’m told that 20% of our county has been immunized. Last week it came to light that a bunch of people in our almost all-white town had been sneaking over to Oakland where frontline workers from the most impacted communities were getting immunized. It didn’t surprise me. The lesson about CA has been that the big cities have become prohibitively expensive. The big outbreaks occur wherever people are living in tight quarters in dense areas to survive. I feel a little schadenfreude that the slumlords can’t legally collect rent right now and that middle management types might never have to live in high-rent cities again.

            I’ve been doing a bit of subbing at the school where I used to work. They have had zero cases of transmission even though they have been fully (8am-3pm) in school since August. Every class was split into two classes of about 15. It makes me a little nervous to be with the little guys because they are generally more snotty and drool-y; they get right up in your face to tell you their urgently important stories and don’t wear their masks too well. The teachers don’t even try anymore to keep them six feet apart (impossible). It feels a bit like Russian roulette. So far so good though. A teacher and the custodian caught it but it happened off campus and luckily they felt the symptoms before returning. The custodian looked pretty bad. He told me that he would never be the same, and for that reason, he would quit in four months and go back to Mexico to be with his sons. I just love that man, he is truly the salt of the earth, and proof that God rains upon the just and the unjust. The teachers are all going for their shots now. Perhaps when the regulars are covered for they’ll arrange for an appointment for me, but I won’t stop worrying until it’s my husband’s turn.

            That drama that played out in NYC at the beginning of this thing is etched into my brain forever. The refrigerated trucks in Brooklyn literally made my heart feel pain. Our oldest daughter was there but thankfully came home. Her CEO says they will be back by July, hybrid form. It’s been really nice having her around. She has been conducting business from my kitchen table in SB (hahaha designing sexy lingerie). Her colleagues are working from all over the place. We had a really warm winter so the New Yorkers gasp when she’s Zooming with a bandeau and shorts on. –It is quite possible that corporate culture has been ruined forever! A lot more dogs will be coming to work too. 🙂 🙂 :O

            I think good things will come of it!

            1. Yes, I agree that some of the changes to corporate culture are going to end up being permanent. In my opinion, that might not be a bad thing. My hope is that working from home will make cities less crowded, which will be better in terms of future pandemics. And the prices of commercial real estate will drop, making it more affordable for businesses like restaurants to occupy more commercial space, making it easier to keep people further apart (again, a big plus in the event of a future pandemic). I’m really glad that your daughter is home and that you have remained safe while substitute teaching. So sad about the affluent people who manage to worm their way into vaccine sites that were intended for essential workers (often minorities). Sadly, that’s happening all over the country.

  5. I really relate to what you’re going through. The never ending sex abuse scandals, the hypocrisy of being pro-life when it comes to the unborn but not to mitigation to minimize Covid deaths (an attitude that seems very common among faithful Catholic laity as well as some priests and bishops), Trump worship, and widespread cafeteria Catholicism all make it very difficult for me to remain Catholic. But I know how badly I need the sacraments, and I too pray that God will chip away at this mess. I know it will never be perfect this side of Heaven, but I sure hope it will get better.

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