Although I don’t resonate or agree with everything in Rose Murphy’s reflection, “With Age, My Catholicism Holds More Uncertainty,” I nevertheless sense she powerfully articulates what many Roman Catholics are questioning and experiencing.
For me, Murphy’s reflection brings to mind certain questions I’ve been living with for some time now. And in the spirit of honesty that infuses Murphy’s article, I share these questions on The Wild Reed . . .
First, is a mature faith, one that allows questioning, faithful dissent, and the potential for evolution in our understanding of truth, possible in the Roman Catholic Church? Or has the church become a ghetto for those afraid to grow - both spiritually and psycho-sexually? Is it worth my time and energy working to reform such a ghettoized church? Maybe a place will always be needed for such people and maybe the Roman Catholic Church serves as this place? Who am I to deny those unable and/or unwilling to evolve a place to feel safe, a place to call “church”? Is it fair to expect this particular church to evolve with me and others when: 1) God’s welcoming and encouraging presence can be readily discerned and experienced by spiritual pilgrims such as ourselves elsewhere, in other churches, and 2) when the Catholic Church is obviously bigger than the “Roman Catholic” church (a term which, after all, is an oxymoron)?
Of course, I experience God’s welcoming and encouraging presence in the Catholic communities to which I belong, but, at the same time, these communities are increasingly being maligned, condemned, and threatened by the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church that is fearful of such communities very presence undermining its limited and static understanding of church. How best, how most Christlike, does one respond to such fear-based intimidation and oppression?
Do questions such as these signify that it is time to go or simply time to acknowledge and embrace a maturing faith? All of which brings us back to the first question: can such a faith be honored and nurtured within Roman Catholicism?
These are some of the questions that Rose Murphy’s reflection, “With Age, My Catholicism Holds More Uncertainty,” raises for me.
Although it’s reprinted in its entirety below, I recommended you also view Murphy’s article online at the website of The National Catholic Reporter, so as to read the many and varied responses it has elicited. Some of them are truly horrendous. Take, for instance, this response by “Augustine” to Murphy’s honest and heartfelt reflection:
You’ve long since stopped being a Catholic. The heresies in this one essay alone are legion - and quite old. Stale. “I would like to think I am still welcome at the communion table,” [you say.] You might like to think this, but no, you are not welcome. Get out.
Others are more empathetic, such as “Serenity” who writes:
Thank you, Rose, for articulating so clearly what I knew in my own heart but could not express. No offense to the younger posters here, but it seems that it takes a certain amount of age and life experience to evolve spiritually on one's life path. As this happens, our relationship with God becomes more personal, and transcends church dogma and doctrine. We come to realize and accept that there are many paths to God, and we don’t condemn other religions or people for not believing according to our own personal path or according to the doctrines of the Catholic church. We let go of our need to judge others. We choose to live and let live, and we find peace in that. We allow ourselves to ask the questions, and we trust and become more comfortable as we wait for God to reveal the answers. The spiritual path is a journey and if we have the courage, we will trust God to lead us.
With Age, My Catholicism Holds More Uncertainty
By Rose Murphy
National Catholic Reporter
December 26, 2008
By Rose Murphy
National Catholic Reporter
December 26, 2008
My current, critical reading about religion and my growing disenchantment with the Catholic Church do not proceed without some pronounced unease. I feel driven to question beliefs I once held with assured confidence. But am I needlessly cutting off a strong spiritual lifeline by going so rarely to my local church? Am I wallowing in intellectual smugness and neglecting an insistent Catholic tie that goes beyond logic?
It is difficult to stay loyal to a church whose members once unleashed cruel forms of the Inquisition on presumably evil non-believers and whose clergy so recently and secretly protected pedophilic priests. But I am more disillusioned by dogmatic bans on birth control that afflict poor women in developing countries and that too often obscure the core message of Christ’s call for compassion.
Impossible now to recapture that ardent, unquestioning faith I had as a child, and into adulthood: that Christ was physically present in communion, that I had a special guardian angel, that certain prayers chipped away at Purgatory time. Even after outgrowing those fantasies, I continued to keep a core faith in the larger Church tenets: that Jesus was the Son of God, that he died for my sins, that I was preparing for an afterlife where I would see God and presumably my parents and all those who had gone before me. Today all of that doctrine is hazy to me, not so much rejected as irrelevant. I know now that humans can never penetrate the idea of God; certainty is – and has always been -- an illusion.
Intellectually, I can reject much of the Catholic Church, but emotionally it reels me in whenever I wander from it. I am still nourished by certain Mass rituals: the Prayers of the Faithful (with touching reminders of so much pain among my neighbors), the Sign of Peace and the communal grasp of another hand, the preparations for Eucharist, and the walk up the aisle to receive communion. Just what am I receiving? I know the act of communion matters to me, feeling the host on my tongue is significant, but I don’t know why.
But slowly, I am becoming more comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. And I find that meeting the challenge of practicing compassion in this troubled world is much more difficult than showing up for Sunday Mass. More and more, I see Christ as a rebel, an advocate for the poor, an agitator, an outsider who spoke truth to power and paid the ultimate price for it.
His message focused on loving one another, without reservation, not on explaining the Trinity. And whether or not he is the Son of God seems a pointless discussion.
Such realizations still do not alleviate feelings of restlessness and guilt when I choose a bike ride and coffee on Sunday morning instead of Mass. But on those Sundays when I do slip into church, I hear a foreign language all around me, especially when it comes to the Apostles Creed. I cannot dutifully mumble it any longer. I cannot relate to ecstatic utterances about a “personal relationship” with God, because for me such a relationship is impossible. It smacks too much of a cozy, privileged connection with a physical being who sits among the fluffy clouds and notes all the details of my daily life. I can imagine a spiritual force at work in the universe, something that connects all life, humanity and nature, but I cannot personify it or give it the familial name of “Father” or “Son.”
But rather than reject a lifetime spiritual path, perhaps I need to get more comfortable with the idea of metaphor in Catholic doctrine and look beyond the literal pronouncements; then it becomes easier to see Christ as a symbolic son of God, as a presence that helps me find the divine spark (God) within myself, and more importantly serves as a model for truly compassionate living.
Receiving the spiritual nourishment of communion then becomes a reminder of so many people who lack food or the means to acquire it.
So can I continue to call myself a Catholic? A friend once framed the dilemma in whimsical language: “I can no more stop being a Catholic than a Navajo could stop being a Navajo.” Ultimately, I think this struggle will always be with me, and that I will come to accept, and perhaps even embrace, a natural state of discomfort. Despite all the ambiguity, I would like to think I am still welcome at the communion table.
Rose Murphy is a writer based in Sonoma, California, who explores current events and also focuses on Irish culture and history.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What It Means to Be Catholic
Thoughts on Authority and Fidelity
Dispatches from the Periphery
Conflicting Understandings of Church and Revelation Underlie Situation in Madison and Beyond
The “Underground Church”
To Whom the Future of the Catholic Church Belongs
The Holarchical Church: Not a Pyramid But a Web of Relationships
The Two-Sided Catholic Crisis
Comprehending the “Fullness of Truth”
The Shrinking Catholic Tent
A Smaller, Purer Vision of Church - and Why It Won’t Work
Images: Michael Bayly.