Fear was a central emotion growing up in a large devout Catholic family in the upper Midwest. I learned to be afraid of the devil, hell, sins, priests, and even my thoughts. All of these fears originated in church, in catechism and at home.
I was afraid of dying with a sin on my soul, because of how hell was described to me as a child in church and in catechism. Fire, intense screaming, and pain were words associated with hell. I was afraid for babies who might die in childbirth before being baptized. In catechism, we were taught how to do an emergency baptism if a priest was not available and someone was dying without having been baptized. I was afraid to miss weekly church even when sick. I was afraid I’d receive communion before confessing a mortal sin. I was afraid I might “hear the calling” to be a nun and would have to answer it, even if I didn’t want to. I was afraid of breaking one of the many Catholic rules.
During the night, I was afraid I might see a spiritual apparition. I was afraid of being possessed by the devil. I was ashamed of my sinful thoughts. I was taught that thinking “bad thoughts” related to anything sexual, jealousy, anger, and above all – doubt – were sinful.
There were so many rules and sins to remember that I was afraid of whatever I wasn’t doing, and I was afraid for whatever I was doing.
I now know that religious conformity and control are achieved through fear. It’s not surprising that people stay in the fold. It’s easier and safer to conform, and a “small” price to pay given the alternative: fear of hell for eternity. Even though there was so much control imposed, I felt so out of control at the same time. The “euphoria” of going to church was more of a relief that I didn’t have to worry about going to hell if I died that week. I am sad that I was entrenched in a church and family that didn’t want questions, actively averted answers, and as a result, supported exclusionary, ritualistic, elitist, and narrow thinking.
When I was in junior high, I wrote in my diary that I felt so lucky to have been born a Catholic, because if I had been born Lutheran, I wouldn’t have known any better. I learned to pity other religions, because they didn’t have “the best.” The elitist attitude was taught directly in catechism class, and subtly at home. For example, if a Catholic married a non, there would be disapproving messages, clearly saying s/he wasn’t good enough and they should not settle. If the partners didn’t convert to Catholicism, they had to promise to raise children Catholic. There would be effusive praise for those who converted for a Catholic partner, indicating they found a much better religious choice.
Later in life I asked a brother if he had ever searched out other religions, to compare and learn, and perhaps find something better. He scoffed, indicating he already knew he wouldn’t find anything better. Then he caught himself and what he said. Elitist to the core.
Even though my journey of leaving the fold took from high school through college, I remember the exact moment of when I started to leave the fold. As a curious 10th grader, I asked my Mom a few random questions about our Catholic practices, especially about holy days. She couldn’t answer them, and reacted with quizzical expressions and disapproving messages for even raising those questions. This surprised me, because I thought as a consummate Catholic, she would most certainly have these basic answers. From then on, I questioned more things, and the lack of answers told me we were “robot Catholics.”
Breaking away is most difficult after one starts to question. You really don’t want to leave the fold. It’s really scary to step out of a safe, controlled and accepting religious environment, especially in a big family where approval is king. You try desperately to get the answers so you can say, “There, that’s it! Now I understand.” But the more I questioned, the more muddled the answers. In college, I spent an afternoon in a coffee shop with a cousin who is a priest, a fairly modern one, whom I thought would settle my uneasiness. These questions weren’t about the mysteries of God, but more about being a Catholic. But still the same…more questions, more irrational answers, more doubt. I don’t expect religion to be irrefutable, but it should be consistent and sensible. I found neither in the Catholic church. I found the rules to be “of man” and not “of God” and mostly “of fear and control.”
Many in my large family (which is now nearly doubled with Catholic spouses) cannot accept that I have left the fold. Even after 25 years, it’s very cult-like in their subtle and not-so-subtle ways. They seem to think they have every right, being from the “one true religion” to impose and enforce their beliefs on others, especially those who have left the fold. I’ve been invited to coffee so that “my faith life” can be questioned. I’ve been cornered in hallways to say they’re “worried about my soul.” When they come to visit in my home, they impose their prayer time. I’ve been shamed, blamed and defamed. I get e-mails asking me to pray a novena for this or that, even while knowing my religious views. I am ridiculed for my liberal thinking. It’s very passive-aggressive and self-righteous. I am an outsider in my own family.
Whenever there’s a problem, my family primarily turns to prayer and going to church more often. “Pray for him/her” is the standard call to action. When someone heals from an injury or illness, it was “our prayers were answered!” Never mind they were in the best of hospital care, not on some deserted island. When a baby dies, it “must be God’s will…we’ll never understand.” Prayer as the universal fix teaches people to be passive. To me, prayer without action is merely wishful thinking; the same as taking a prescription for depression without seeing a counselor too. Action needs to be part of the solution. When there was clearly child abuse within a sibling’s family, over many years, instead of calling the authorities, we visited their family priest. He basically told us to “look the other way” and “pray for them.” Funny, we prayed but the abuse continued. My greatest regret is letting fear, the sibling’s anger, risk of disapproval by the family, and our learned passivity from our Catholic upbringing step in the way of doing what was right.
I was taught that if you prayed, went to church, and abided by all “the rules,” you met God’s expectations. The central question for me in this scenario is: If you are doing those things out of habit, fear, and control, whom do you think you’re fooling? To me, it’s more important to participate actively in helping others in large and small ways. I believe that when we die, we will become part of a universal eternity, one energy. That’s very different from what Catholics are taught. When I reflect on what I wrote in my junior high diary, I now write how lucky I am to have become a clear-thinking, strong, loving adult who is not dependent upon the fears and bondages of the Catholic church. I’m free.