Losing My Religion


The last few weeks have been rather stressful for me. When I find that I am over stressed and have difficulties in my life, I find that it is usually time to go to confession. There is probably some sort of sin in my life that is holding me back. If nothing else, I could use the spiritual guidance.

So Saturday morning I went to confession in the hopes that my soul would be unburdened. My regular confessor was out of town, so we had a substitute priest.

It was totally a Reconciliation Room.

It was totally a Reconciliation Room.

What I was looking for was help in dealing with the unexpected blessing that we found out about a few weeks ago. When you’re married to someone who is somewhere between highly skeptical and outright hostile to Catholic teaching on sexuality, an unplanned pregnancy can have serious consequences in your marriage. What I was looking for was reassurance, advice, and comfort.

What I got was not-so-subtle hint to just ignore the Church.

The priest was rather incredulous that anyone would have a third child after having two, much less that anyone would ever try to follow Church teaching on the matter. He told me:

I have to be careful about what I say, but, umm, you know more about your marriage than the Church does. These teachings aren’t infallible, you know.

Then I realized that in trying to unburden my soul, I had just scandalized a priest in the confessional. I had inadvertently reassured his doubts and dissents on Church teaching.

The Blind Leading the Blind

This is not an attack on this individual priest. Given his age, he was likely formed in the wake of Vatican II. He was likely told of the dangers of the clericalism that was prevalent before the council. He was probably lectured frequently on how little he knows and how unimportant he is—a “They are the Church” formation in the “Spirit of Vatican II.” (Note: This was not to say all was rosy before Vatican II. Clericalism, moral rigor, and legalism were real problems, especially in the United States, and they led to many of the problems after the council. Put another way, when you tell people that eating meat on Friday is as bad as having an abortion, you shouldn’t be surprised when they conclude that having an abortion is no worse than eating meat on Friday.)

The "Spirit of Vatican II" could be brutal(ist). Church should have kept the Oath Against Modernism

The “Spirit of Vatican II” could be brutal(ist). Should have kept the Oath Against Modernism.

Marital issues, especially sexual issues, are always awkward in the confessional. Most priests feel very uncomfortable with the subject and for good reason. It’s not their vocation.

They have no personal experience with marriage.

They have no personal experience with parenting.

They have no personal experience with marital sexuality.

They have no personal experience with women’s health.

As a result, many priests assume that the Church knows as little about it as they do. They assume that married couples appreciate advice from a priest on the most intimate aspects of marriage as much as they appreciate parishioners giving them detailed instructions on how to say mass. They assume we don’t want guidance from the Church or that we don’t need it. They are afraid that Catholics will stop coming to Church, or more cynically, stop giving.

They see difficult and unpopular teachings like Humanae Vitae, not as being the true teaching of Church protected from error by Holy Spirit, but as yet another example of clericalism run amok. They see the encyclical not as being about marriage and sexuality, but about a raw assertion of Church authority.

They see clergy who support the teaching not as faithful Catholics, but as careerists looking for a promotion from Rome. They are suspicious of Catholics who follow the Church as being radicals. (Admittedly, not always without reason—sometimes well-meaning, but overzealous and ill-informed lay Catholics can do serious harm to couples.) Because they were taught that the Church’s teaching is based strictly on authority, they don’t see how anyone who wasn’t power hungry could support it.

Then I realized why the USCCB isn’t doing more to promote NFP and is so resistant to those who would try: Not only do most Catholics disagree with the teaching, but so do a significant number of priests and bishops.

No Surprises

None of us should be surprised at how many pastors and bishops promote NFP less-than-enthusiastically.

Nor should we be surprised when Melinda Gates sees promoting contraception worldwide as fulfilling her Catholic faith. The Ursuline nuns who educated her told her “[W]e absolutely believe that you’re living under Catholic values.

Nor should we be surprised when the product of a Catholic education from kindergarten to college tweets about how we should spend more money on family planning (contraception) for the developing world.

Nor should we be surprised when a majority of Catholics—more than the general population—believe that employers should cover contraceptives in their health plan.

Nor should we be surprised when a majority of Catholic use contraception.

Nor should we be surprised when it’s so hard to find guidance and support in living the Church’s teaching.

Yet I remain hopeful.

…to be continued.


9 thoughts on “Losing My Religion

  1. In fairness, I think where you say “priests don’t know much…” it would be more charitable to say something to the effect of “priests don’t have intimate personal experience with”.
    I am not a parent. However, I “know” much about parenting in the sense that I read about it, I’ve seen it and dealt with it in my role as an aunt, I study church teachings on it. Nonetheless, others would know I don’t know much about it when they really mean, “don’t have an intimate personal experience with it”. Does that make sense? [I’m not trying to nitpick].

    That said, I don’t think you’re totally off base here…. at all.

    • Thanks for the advice. I’m trying to convey the awkwardness of talking to someone who really doesn’t have a full understanding of the marriage vocation without being too uncharitable. Not always easy.

      I actually toned this down a bit before I published it.

  2. Oh, I was going to email you with more commentary on your experience, but i can’t find a contact/email so let me know if you’d like to hear it. 🙂

  3. It is tough. I wish the Church ‘felt’ more supportive. For instance, it is highly unlikely we will be able to afford Catholic school if we have more than our current two kids. And my husband makes a decent salary.

  4. I have found family planning in the church to be sort of “don’t ask don’t tell”. My priest has even said he’s pro-contraception over abortion. (With good reason, but I think we would all prefer neither!) He also gave me a one line “We encourage you to look in to Natural Family Planning” in our first pre-cana meeting but that was it. One swift mention. I don’t think the church actually expects anyone to follow the rules on sexuality so they’re just kind of swept under the rug.

    Sometimes, I, too, feel at loss for even trying. “Why should I even bother when no one else is?” We’ll never be truly sinless human beings. But I guess we are called to at least try?
    Sorry to hear about this experience, it would certainly put a small dent in my faith – but I guess it’s all part of the journey.

    • I’m not really sure about our regular priest. I know he likes to work pro-life messages into social justice homilies. 🙂

      Overall, I think he’s generally supportive, but doesn’t want to push it. He’s of that era, too. He talks about how the Church is always changing. Still, he speaks fondly of growing up in an era of large Catholic families. He’ll build up to the “difficult teachings”, but then pull his punches. He’s never told me to do the wrong thing in the confessional, but has been very indirect about these issues.

      On the other hand, my understanding is that a good pastor isn’t supposed to be too direct and give someone more than they can handle. The goal is for you to recognize something as a sin for yourself, not to tell you what to do.

  5. Pingback: 7 Quick Takes – Volume 22 (Hope) | Life's Rich Pageant

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