Friday, February 17, 2012

Losing My Religion?


Last week an NPR talk show was asking Catholic listeners to call in and share their thoughts about birth control.  I found myself wondering whether I’d meet the test.   I was certainly steeped in the culture and tradition.  My great-grandmother went to Mass to pray for a husband.  She met a prosperous widower who’d lost his first job for being Catholic.  My grandmother was their eighteenth child.  Her inheritance went to the Jesuits.  I spent my childhood in parochial schools. I’m the sixth of ten, or seventh of eleven, if you count my oldest sister’s twin.
My mother, a convert, followed the Church’s teaching on birth control, despite her severe morning sickness.  Somehow she made it through those nine years of nausea without losing her sense of humor, or humility.  She’s the archtypal Madonna figure.  Self-sacrificing, self-effacing, a calm Lady Madonna.  

When I ask her about the rhythm method, she shrugs and says, “We were so stupid!” 

According to polls, 98% of Catholic women seem to agree.  I remember in high school, in a Family and Marriage class, the priest saying God had special reverence for women.  I wonder now, though, how much you can revere someone while at the same time telling them they’re incapable of deciding when and how they’d like to have children?  In some ways, it’s as if the little red hen says, “Who will help me plant this wheat?” and the priest says, “Not I.  Agriculture is artificial interference with God’s plan.”

I presume that argument didn’t get extended to grains because even the pope likes his bread and beer.  Oddly, Viagra is also perfectly acceptable at most Catholic hospitals.  I guess gravity is one law of nature you’re encouraged to defy.  Go figure. 

It used to be that religion, politics and sex were not to be discusssed in public.  Now, the three subjects, like drunk uncles at a family reunion, have wrapped themselves so tightly around one another that its hard to know where one ends and the other begins.  Right wing politicians whip their congregations into a frenzy over sex. You have to wonder why this unseemly emphasis on our lady parts?  What’s missing?   Or as the French like to say, “Cherchez La Femme.” 

She’s notably absent from the pulpit, or the college of cardinals, conference of bishops or halls of the Vatican.  Apparently, she’s not smart enough to think for herself, which is, I’m afraid, the real reason I feel I’m losing my religion.  Not because I don’t believe in a beautiful, all loving God.  

I do. 

I just think she’s been silenced in our Holy Mother Church, along with all those female parishoners who appear to be using their God-given conscience to separate the wheat from the chaff, or in this case, the ridiculous from the sublime. 

For two provocative essays on being/not being Catholic, I recommend the thoughts of two of my favorite Catholic writers,


  1. I recently attended my nephew's Catholic wedding, and was struck by the absurd irony of hearing a young, unmarried priest expounding on the essence of marriage. Your mother, on the other hand -- a wife for sixty-something years, the mother of ten -- now SHE would have had some insights worth hearing!

  2. As as resident Protestant, may I be so bold as to comment? Great post, Sheila! Really interesting. I married a Catholic, the youngest of six. His mother was 29 when he was born; they were very devout. I oh so always wanted to ask, "So what happened after that..."

  3. Hah! thanks guys for listening to my complaints!

  4. Very thoughtful post. As a Catholic and a feminist, I find this aspect of the church very hard to logically work out in myself, which could be why I ignore it and go with my heart. But, I wish wish wish the Catholic Church would grow up when it comes to gender and to sex.

    I walked away from a parish when the priest said the patriarchy does not exist in a homily and I am still steaming about him even saying that. Then, down the road at the next church, the priest there talked about the patriarchy and its effect on women in church history. I think these two examples reveal the differences from parish to parish. Without them, I might not go to mass. With them, I can find a place in the church I decided long ago I felt I belong to and I can actually belong there. Though I don't agree everything. And why should we? We are a lot of people.

    It is tough.

  5. Sheila,
    I can really sympathize and even empathize. My grandmothers, too, both of them were devout Catholics. My father is the youngest of nine children. I went to Catholic School. I have loved the Catholic Church as much as a person can love anything. But I have also been so incredibly frustrated and angry about the actions of church officials. I don't know what I would call myself either, but I think it's fair to call myself faithful. Only that word means something different to me than it does to some of those in power. --Lori

  6. I love this post and am so glad you gave a shout-out to Julianna Baggott and Mary Gordon, two magnificent writers.

    Thanks for your smart, candid thoughts, Sheila.

  7. Thanks everyone for your great thoughtful responses! It's fascinating that the news cycle is focusing on the House committee on birth control...with no women on the committee and possibly no women's testimony allowed. What are they so afraid of?