A self-described “Catholic under protest” reflects upon
the Church's “long tradition of radical thinking”
the Church's “long tradition of radical thinking”
Poet Michele Madigan Somerville’s essay in Saturday’s New York Times on the problems and passions of being “Catholic under protest,” is definitely worth reading.
Defining herself as a “feminist-progressive living in 21st-century Brooklyn,” Somerville, in her heartfelt essay, demonstrates that what she is drawn to in the Catholic Church, i.e., its “long tradition of radical thinking,” is indeed alive and well.
Following are excerpts from Somerville’s essay, “Born Again in Brooklyn.”
Growing up Irish Catholic in New York City put me in a good position to experience the best and worst of the Church. Most of the Sisters of Charity who taught at my grade school were tyrants. In 1971 I knocked on the door of my parish rectory to inquire about becoming an altar server; I was advised that only boys could serve. Brides, said the priest, were the only females allowed on the altar. When my mother became critically ill at age 30, a Catholic priest administering last rites, refused to offer absolution when she, who had given birth to four children by age 25, refused to express contrition for taking birth control pills. People for whom I care deeply have been molested by priests.
In 1985, while working as a high school English teacher in a parochial school, I watched a 19-year student of mine weep in homeroom in response to that morning’s “pro-life” announcement, which included references to “mothers who killed their own babies.” I learned later that this young man’s mother had terminated a pregnancy two days earlier. My gay brother, at the time of his death at 45, felt despised by the Church he had always loved.
But a radical nun was the first person to teach me anything sophisticated about poetry. The Catholic Church in New York has fed, educated and clothed more poor people than any other agency in the city. On most days a logic-defying confidence in the potential of the sacraments to deliver grace persists in me. The beauty of even ordinary churches has never failed to astonish me. While I consider the brutality of the papacy, now and throughout history, a source of shame, Roman Catholic art, often commissioned by those very same bad popes is a source of pride, and comprises a tradition in which I, as a poet, often work.
Roman Catholic, as it turned out, was the language my spirit already knew. Burning hyssop and frankincense, the stark and heart-charging splendor of Gregorian chant, Marian devotion; the iconography, the Latin Agnus Dei and Litany of the Saints, the Angelus bells, the rapture at the crux of Catholic worship have always held fierce sway with me.
. . . You might wonder how someone like me — a feminist-progressive living in 21st-century Brooklyn — can abide the Vatican’s positions. Well, I don’t. I am Catholic under protest and I’m in good company. The long tradition of radical thinking is alive and well in my Church.
I recently attended an interfaith Gay Pride Celebration in held in a Roman Catholic Church. One of the speakers was a former Catholic nun who left her order many years ago and is currently an Interfaith minister. She spoke of her work as a person of the cloth, her life as a lesbian, her 25 years with her beloved. The honorific “Reverend” precedes her name. She wears a Roman collar. That night, her address was filled with surprises, but only one aspect of her speech shocked me: her fervent recommendation that progressive Catholics remain in the Church — so as to be in a position to create change. She still worships in a Roman Catholic Church.
I love the radical Catholic Church. I love that there are Roman Catholic bishops sticking their necks out to ordain women. That Catholic doctrine places mighty emphasis on the role of conscience in worship and creates fertile ground for conscientious dissent. I support dramatic change as energetically as I can. I withhold my cash from the bishops and hand my diocesan appeal tender to the Woman’s Ordination Conference and to SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). I devote much time and talent to working in the Gay Ministry at my church. I recognize it is my obligation as a conscious, conscientious Catholic to discern — to know that the church no more belongs to the Vatican than it does to me. The power of the Church may rest with the College of Cardinals, but its glory rests with people like me.
Once I accepted that being Roman Catholic did not require that I be a papist — once I understood that it was possible to be simultaneously outraged by and in love with the Church — I saw the obstacles to being a practicing Catholic in a new way.
To read Michele Madigan Somerville’s essay, “Born Again in Brooklyn, in its entirety, click here.
Not surprisingly, Somerville’s essay has generated a range of comments on the New York Times website. Following are a few that, for one reason or another, particularly caught my attention.
George writes: Thanks for your essay, that resonates with my own experience and approach. I believe that we must remain as faithful remnants to challenge the Church to be authentic to the gospels. In my heart and after a great deal of prayerful reflection, I believe that is just as much my calling as it is to be a husband and a father. Those who suggest you or I join the Episcopal denomination miss the point. The Catholic Church is MY church, part of my very fabric. I have observed and believe that true Catholicism is joyful, life giving and unpretentious. The cynicism of many regarding religion based on the papacy, clericalism and equating the Church’s spirituality with certain personal devotions is understandable. Sadly, such definitions mask the more radical and profound reality of the gospels embodied in the practice of Catholicism.
Mike writes: I feel mostly the same way. I left. I came back. I’m not leaving again. It’s my Church and my path to God. It’s not always right, according to my view of the world, but that’s ok. I don’t expect perfection from anything on this planet, including my Church or myself. Two things are clear to me. The good far outweighs the bad. And it’s a big house, with plenty or rooms for all of us.
Maureen Cronin writes: Become an Episcopalian–all the best of the Catholic tradition (for the most part) and little of the hateful side, acknowledging that humans do have brains and can sort out their own paths to God. I weep for the RC church, but believe that before it can turn around, it must reach bottom and it’s not quite there yet. Close though!
John-Robery La Porta writes: I am just flabbergasted at what you had to say. . . . It is not up to you to decide what the practices of the church are; the church is not a democracy. . . . If you have a problem, it’s not your place to question. . . . . Just go to the protestant branch down the street that suits you best. . . . The Catholic Church has been under attack by these sorts of people since the reformation started. I will never justify anything having to do with the molestation; that is of course never tolerable. But involving church dogma, it is what it is. It has been for 2,000+ years. It is not to be changed just because you, one person, feels like it. Go and do what you want elsewhere, and stop trying to make the institution bend and change to your whims.
Tony writes: I’d have to disagree with Mr. La Porta. Church dogma maybe be dogma, but study up a bit and find out the differences between dogma and doctrine. You’ll find that much of what conservative Catholics believe is dogma is actual doctrine–and doctrine is not the Word of God and may be . . . and has been changed many times over the centuries. Those who truly love the church should not simply run away to other faiths if they happen to disagree with some of the hierarchy’s opinions or doctrines, but rather, because they love the church, remain faithful Catholics who openly speak their mind and lovingly push back. In the end, religion is the tool we use to reach God. Most of us are striving for the same mountaintop. We’re seeking the same God. When did God become so small and man so wise?
Robert writes: Catholic doctrine and practice have changed repeatedly through the ages, and will continue to do so. Freedom of religion was forbidden, as recently as one hundred years ago; now it is endorsed. Academic study of the bible was prohibited; now it is advocated. Mandatory celibacy was once not the norm; for the moment it is. And so on. La Porta writes “the church is not a democracy”. No, but it is a community. The experiences of all the Church’s members matter. The struggles ordinary Catholics endure in living their faith are important. Our voices can lead to the next change in doctrine and in practice. La Porta also says Somerville is outraged about “what the church truly is.” What the church truly is is the embodiment of Jesus Christ. Charity, compassion, feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, welcoming the outcast — these are essential. Praise, worship, prayer — these are indispensable. Adhering to every moral precept, against the admonishment of one’s conscience, is not. Finally, the tragic irony is that the widespread enablement of child molesters which La Porta rightly excoriates occurred because John Paul II filled the episcopacy with rigidly observant men, who were afraid of controversy, rather than with men capable of thinking, questioning and acting.
Brian C. writes: When Mr La Porta comments that any Catholic who disagrees with a church position should “Just go to the protestant branch down the street that suits you best” because “church dogma, it is what it is. It has been for 2,000+ years. It is not to be changed just because you, one person, feels like it.” he not only indicates ignorance of church history but also of why organized religion in general and the Catholic church in particular risk obsolescence without change. The Catholic Church has changed significantly in our life time never mind the 2,000 years which Mr LaPorta refers to as the time of Christ when in actuality the Catholic church as we know it and much of church dogma was started by the council of Nicaea and the Roman Emperor Constantine over 300 years later. The motivation for the recent changes has been to stay relevant or risk losing participants in droves. A significant portion of the population today does not believe sexual orientation is a life style choice and therefore a sin against their creator but rather an innate trait. If the church does not modify it’s position on this issue, to list one as an example, it will eventually no longer be an option for people who have modified their belief system accordingly. Many are leaving already but some, such as the author of this piece, have decided they love the church too much to simply leave and therefore will attempt to change it. God bless her. It wasn’t all that long ago that all masses were said in Latin and almost no one but the priest understood a word.
Sandra Pinkerton writes: You’ve accurately expressed my own Roman Catholic attachment in almost every way. However, you’re a great deal more resolutely courageous and “faith-full” in your active engagement and modeling of a Catholic life than I am. Roman Catholicism is the better for the intelligent compassion you bring to it. Thank you for giving voice to your experience and not leaving the Church only to those like Mr. La Porta.
Karl writes: Prior to the schisms, reformations and counter-reformations that helped direct the evolution of Protestantism, there was only one Church – albeit a Church in many places, peopled by believers with cultural, linguistic, and, yes, theological differences. I imagine that between the age of the Church fathers in the first century AD and the rabble rousings of a discontented German cleric of the sixteenth century, there were plenty of free-thinking one churchers who didn’t have a forum for expressing their views as freely as does Ms. Somerville. To suggest that her wonderfully-nuanced stand for an evolving Catholicism is somehow tainted by “consumerism” or misplaced discontent with the status quo ante is to disavow the richly -textured and well documented evolution of Catholicism itself.
Aaron writes: Michele, this is a wonderful expression of what I think is a growing movement in many faiths where people are waking up and starting to “take back” the essence and true meaning of religion from those who have turned it into nothing but a brand - and, in many, cases a very ugly and soulless brand.
Lindsay writes: Beautifully written. As a young Catholic who gets constant criticism for voicing my opinion in favor of gay rights, especially from my family, it’s nice to know others feel the same. The Catholic Church is changing and I’m excited to be a part of it.
Chris Colenso-Dunne writes: . . . For all its warmth and charming candor, Somerville’s position is untenable. The papacy, for it is and remains a papacy, is unbending in its insistence that the Roman Bishop alone can be the divinely appointed successor to Peter, the Rock upon whose solid foundations the Church of Christ must be maintained. In principle, there is currently no place for dissent from canonical law because the Curia insists that when speaking ex-cathedra (albeit extremely rarely) on matters of dogma, the Roman pontiff is necessarily infallible.
It must also be reiterated, however, that contrary to the assertions of John-Robert La Porta, the papacy has continued to redefine itself as need has dictated. Contrary to the historically ignorant teachings of the simple minded men and women who have always been recruited into the lower echelons of the Church’s servants, and of the current Roman Catholic laity, the papacy is above all a pragmatic institution that did not hesitate to take several steps back from its most cherished principles when threatened by National Socialism.
The papacy is in essence the last vestige of Roman imperial power, a lukewarm continuation of an unbroken, imperial tradition that dates back almost seventeen centuries to the institution created by Constantine the First.
The Roman papacy is a totalitarian, political machine whose closest modern parallels were to be found, until recently, in the Communist Secretariat of the Soviet Union and the oligarchs of the National Socialist Party of Bavaria and, ultimately, of the German Third Reich.
Anybody who insists upon remaining in the Roman Church should be under no illusion that by doing so they lend their support to, and continue to uphold and maintain, the world’s longest standing organ of political repression, and the fountainhead of so many of the modern world’s ills.
Annie writes: It’s people like this not leaving the Catholic Church who keep it in its traditional position of power. Weepy, sentimental apologias aside, the Church will always willfully be behind the times, no matter what happens in the next 80 years. They’re invested in keeping power, and they are corrupt, with a long history of corruption. If all the progressive Catholics left the church, or became Episcopalians as one commenter offered, the church would lose the ability to hide the sins of its many pedophiles and hypocrites, not to mention losing the ability to create grief for loving, compassionate people it calls sinners because they are not married or use birth control or are homosexual.
It’s exactly like Michael Jackson. He may have been a great entertainer but I wouldn’t let my son go to his house. You have to draw the line somewhere. To say that remaining inside the church gives you some ability to create change is naive. Perhaps progressive clergymen can push a limited agenda of change, but simple parishioners are no better than feudal serfs.
Del writes: . . . What the author thinks is love of her church is really just narcissistic sentimentality for elements of her own lost youth. It’s over, and now you’re supporting a corrupt and corrupting institution out of nostalgia and fuzzy thinking.
Martin Allison writes: . . . From observation over decades, I’ve deduced a simple fact—organized religions direct their followers what to believe, usually documenting the tenets of that belief as doctrine. Most say their doctrine is divinely inspired from ancient, inherited sacred texts. In actual practice, however, it can be observed that church doctrine is always based far more on interpretation—varying opinions of what sect leaders would prefer the text to mean—than on the words of texts themselves.
Periodically, every religion goes through a episodes of controversy as its leaders inevitably start to disagree about the appropriate rigidity of interpretation—loose, literal, or (most often) somewhere in between. When leaders differ on this judgment (either of the literal meaning of the texts themselves, or of the appropriate degree of flexibility of interpretation), the result is schism and a resulting new religion (as worldwide Episcopalians/Anglicans are currently demonstrating, and Catholics, for the umpteenth time, are approaching).
Mr. La Porta simply is comfortable with the sect most in alignment with his own beliefs and prejudices. When the Catholic Church completes its inevitable evolution to acceptance of woman priests (probably in more than 20 but fewer than 100 years), such as he will either agree with the Pope’s authority or join a conservative schismatic movement such as currently led by still-defiant Catholic Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
Perhaps the worldwide Catholic community may eventually sort itself out and reach an accommodation similar to Judaism, within who’s four major branches—“Reform” (home of the so-called Secular Jew), “Conservative” (actually, liberal), “Orthodox” (conservative), and “Ultra Orthodox” (fundamentalist)—nearly all Jews can find a home.
Richard Gustafson writes: Why in the world would I support my oppressor? To me that is rather sick. As a gay man of 75, who was as a lad very religious, an altar boy, and one who thought of becoming a priest, I see the Roman Catholic Church as a violation of the spirit of Christianity. Why all the riches in the Vatican? Why the idolization of the Pope? Why the sense of superiority dignified by the doctrine of ex ecclesia nulla salus, once again being pushed by the Inquisitor become Pope? How could I in good conscience justify lying–i.e. confessing sins I do not believe are sins, claiming remorse I do not have, or just ignoring those “teachings” that I personally do not like. Sounds like this is more a church of one masking as a member of the church that brought us the Inquisition, the Crusades (the results of which we are still living with at this moment in history), and the horrible violation of the people encountered by the Conquistadors, to mention a few of the Christian accomplishments of the Roman Catholic Church. Reform from within does not work. Vatican II is proof of that.
Elizabeth Siler writes: Excellent article. I’m a Catholic coming from much the same position as the author of this article. When asked why I stay in the Church (and by “stay” I mean why I identify as Catholic), I say, “I stay for the Spirit” because I firmly believe the Holy Spirit is alive and well in the “radical” Catholic Church (and also elsewhere — but I’m most familiar with/comfortable with the Spirit as manifest in radical Catholicism). Do I worry about dictums from Rome? No. Fine points of theology? Again, nothing I’m going to waste time worrying about. I worry about discerning the Spirit and doing the best with that discernment in my life — as a Catholic. God is Spirit and God is Love. Two truths to move forward on. Thank you for your great article.
Anonymous writes: There seem to be two types of people in this world: people who will read this and identify with its basic humanity, tolerance, and general progressive stance; and then others who see change as a threat, who hate going against tradition, and who will fight to the death to keep things the way they are.
I just don’t understand these people (in the second group), but sadly, it seems to be a way of thinking and living life that is impossible to change — it’s sort of in their blood. These are the people to fight change, who fight progress. They are not necessarily evil, but I see them as destroying much of the beauty in this world.
Of course, they’re unable to understand a word I’m saying.
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
What It Means to Be Catholic
Authentic Catholicism: The Antidote to Clericalism
Tips for Thinking Catholics
Many Voices, One Church
Mary Hunt: “Catholicism is a Very Complex Reality”
Benedict’s Understanding of Church
To Whom the Future of the Catholic Church Belongs
A Time to Re-Think the Basis and Repair the Damage
The Real Battle
Preparing to Claim Our Place at the Table
The Emerging Church
A Church That Can and Cannot Change
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 1)
A Catholic Understanding of Faithful Dissent (Part 2)