I grew up a classic good Catholic girl in the Midwest.
I went to Catholic school and attended church every Sunday and never thought too deeply about the meanings behind their messages. But as I’ve grown up and my worldview has expanded, I’ve begun to question some of the Catholic practices that I used to consider canon.
Questions I had about the church started surfacing in high school when I realized that men’s voices dominated church teachings and we so rarely heard from women. I had nuns as teachers and mentors at my all-girls Catholic high school, and yet never got to hear what they had to say in a public setting. When this was discussed in my parish youth group, we got what I felt like was a blowoff answer: that priests needed to represent the male image of Christ, and that women were called to serve the church in other ways. Yet, none of these “other ways” felt like a sufficient alternative to representing the voice of God at the pulpit every Sunday.
From there, other questions just kept tumbling into my mind. Why does the Catholic Church still condemn the act of homosexuality, while also telling us that every human was made in the image and likeness of God? Why does it forbid the use of contraceptives but also forbid abortion? Why are divorced people banished from receiving sacraments until they annul their marriage when getting an annulment basically just consists of paying the church a bunch of money to consider their marriage void? As the questions continued to nag at me, I started attending youth group less and less and started becoming disconnected from the church that I had for so long considered a second home.
And then, in my twenties, I started to see the treatment of engaged friends who wanted to have a church wedding. They were required to undergo marriage counseling by a priest (who, sidebar, has probably the absolute least applicable marriage experience possible) and had to answer countless questions, some of them deeply intimate.
Then, if the priest didn’t like their answers, they were chastised for their honesty, whether it was confessing to living together before marriage, having premarital sex, or that they were simply waffling in their faith. Certainly, this might not be every person’s counseling experience, but I heard it from enough of my friends that it didn’t seem like an isolated incident. I began to wonder why we would force the declining number of Catholic couples still seeking a church wedding to go through such a hostile and invasive process, especially when people aren’t exactly banging down the door to marry in the church these days.
And those questions don’t even begin to touch on the many, many sexual abuse scandals, which are on a whole other atrocity level that my mind still has difficulty fathoming.
I’m twenty-seven now and I still don’t have the answers to those questions. Yet, I find that I can’t quite give up my ties to Catholicism either. I quite literally grew up in the church. I was baptized there as an infant and I still go back to my childhood parish for Mass every Christmas Eve. I sang in the choir as an earnest but off-key grade schooler. I stood at the pulpit and gave the commencement speech at my eighth-grade graduation, my voice trembling and my mouth full of braces. I attended youth group through senior year of high school and met some of my closest friends during the many years spent in those pews.
The truth is, I don’t want to be a lapsed Catholic or a former Catholic. I truly believe that the person I am today is largely a result of my religious upbringing. I see so much good that the church does, and I feel a calming sense of comfort every time I return to the hushed and hallowed building. I believe that religious institutions can foster connections and community in a world that seems to take those things for granted. However, I continue to struggle with perhaps the most glaring question of all: how do I reconcile my feminist and progressive outlook with the blatant sexism and archaic mindset that courses through the Catholic Church?
The Catholic Church is, in many ways, a beautiful institution steeped in centuries of tradition. It is also an institution that is deeply problematic and, as a result, is facing rapidly declining membership. When will it be time for church leaders to realize that their antiquated ways aren’t working anymore? It might be time for them to truly practice what they preach and consider how they treat those at the margins of society. Otherwise, I’m not sure that the church will survive in a modern era.
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Michelle Vincent is a project manager and freelance writer. She enjoys traveling, is worried she won’t love her future children as much as she loves her dogs, and is actively recruiting podcast recommendations.