She thought it was funny, and I sort of did, too, and was never offended by it. Truth is, though, I seldom wore a “frock,” and I wasn’t de-anything’d. I freely sought a dispensation from my promises as a priest and was granted it.
Although through the years I’ve had serious doubts about my faith, my leaving the priesthood was not a rebellion against the church. I was never treated with anything but respect by church members, including the dozens of priests and nuns with whom I studied and worked. And as I’ve mentioned before in this blog, once I accepted that the only way to determine the existence of a personal God is by faith, most of the rest of what the church teaches was a walk in the park. I simply couldn’t live a life of celibacy.
Some ex-priests have left the church or become its enemy, and I’ve had my differences with how the church operates. But I could no more leave the church than I could my family. And I can’t see how leaving the church can do anything to change the things about the church I don’t like. You can’t bail out and expect others to promote the changes you want.
Of course, the key is caring. You can’t change anything unless you care about it, and I understand that many people simply don’t care about the church, if not God or religion. That includes many Catholics and, presumably, some people who read this blog regularly.
A problem for Americans in the Catholic Church is that it’s not democratic. However, I believe that in its slow, deliberative way, it is becoming more so and will continue to do so. It is filled with consultative bodies, on the parish, diocesan, national and world levels. And in an unprecedented move, the Vatican recently issued a worldwide survey on family life that includes questions about people’s views on birth control, cohabitation before marriage and gay marriage. A meeting of bishops is set to discuss the survey’s results next October.
(I again ask the indulgence of non-Catholics. I know I tend to write a lot about Catholicism, which is what I know best. Much of this can be applied to other faiths, however.)
I suspect a lot of people leave the church after much soul-searching and even agonizing analysis. Others, I suspect, leave as a reaction to a cliché, not the church I know and love. To me, the church is at once complex and simple. It’s not primarily the pope, the Vatican curia or bishops and priests, although there is a sense in which the church is an “organization.” It’s a community of people on a communal search for God, having found important clues that encourages the trek.
It includes solidarity with believers in my family and others far back into history, to the time of Christ himself. I have a hard time understanding the modern cult of the celebrity who excels in sports, popular music or the cinema, but has doubtful ethics. After all, it’s easy to be a “bad boy,” hard to consistently do what’s right. My heroes are the “saints,” canonized or not, who, though considered naïve or unrealistic, heroically follow Jesus’ teachings.
In a time when trends last only months or years, when society rushes from one “new thing” to another, having a sense of solidarity with those believers is important.
Recognizing that all analogies fall short, the church is sort of like those pioneers who crossed the western U.S. during the 1800s. They were all on a journey together for many different reasons but pulling for each other and defending each other to the hilt. Some left to take a different route, but that was OK, as long as they were trying to reach the same goal.
I often feel this sense of community when celebrating Mass with fellow believers, feeling that we’re on a pilgrimage together. And I often have a sense of loss when perceiving that many others who were formerly there seem to have abandoned the journey. Only God knows whether that’s actually the case, of course.
As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, some might say the sense of peace and joy that comes from belief is what Karl Marx was talking about when he called religion the “opium of the people,” that believers are simply involved in massive self-deceit. But that’s a superficial look at faith and the solidarity with other believers that is part of the deal.
Returning to the analogy of the pilgrims crossing the American west, there were certainly “no-goods” among them, at least according to the Westerns that I watched incessantly as a kid. There were people who faked having the common vision of the pioneers, people who just went along for the ride and people who took advantage of others and whose deeds embarrassed those whose vision was sincere.
That hasn’t changed. It’s obvious that all of us pilgrims are scarred. Some in our number do horrible things in the name of religion. The incidents of child abuse by the clergy are only the latest examples. Some are hypocritical to the hilt. Others are simply clueless and mindlessly follow the rituals and dogmas. I believe, however, that the vast majority of Christians are sincere and recognize the benefits of searching for God as members of the church.
Among those benefits are shared hope, and the trust in God and others that results from that hope. Even a “defrocked priest” can recognize these benefits, and profit by them.