The Other I

April 8, 2014

Who are my people?

I have often been surprised in recent years by the number of friends and family who have told me that they don’t believe anymore a lot of what the Roman Catholic church teaches, nor do they feel an obligation to abide by many of the church’s moral dictates.   The surprise is not that so many people find the church’s teaching unbelievable.  The surprise is how many of these same people still consider themselves Catholics.

I have asked myself a hundred times how this is possible.  How can someone reject fundamental doctrines, many of which are even supposed to be infallible, and still consider oneself a Catholic?  The Catholic Church itself tries to convince us that “once a Catholic, always a Catholic.  Catholics cannot become “non-Catholics.”  They are lapsed Catholics, or perhaps even more accurately “fallen-away Catholics.”

But this doesn’t match up with my own sense of myself.  Although I am still discovering ways in which my early socialization as a Catholic influences my thinking, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, I feel no desire to interact with the institution of  Roman Catholicism today, and I would not describe myself to anyone else as “Catholic.”

In pondering this conundrum for myself, I have come to understand that doctrine is not as important to many people as I was taught.  For many people it is as Harvey Cox put it, “if you feel you belong, then you belong.”

Why then, raised as I was as a Catholic with friends even today going back to my Catholic days, do I not feel as if I am a Catholic?  It’s not that I don’t feel welcome.  It’s that I absolutely do not want to belong to a Church that seems to me to be so rigid, so frightened, so sexually neurotic, so authoritarian.  But above all, I feel no sense of identification with an institution that itself cuts people off.   Even if one agreed (which I don’t) that gays and the divorced or those who have an abortion are by definition sinners, how can a church that argues that we are all sinners — all of us — cut some sinners off from communion with those who presumably consider themselves saved?

It’s almost as if there were a group of Catholics getting ready to stone the woman caught in adultery.  And then when Jesus said that he who was not guilty of any sin should throw the first stone, the entire Catholic congregation started throwing.

This seems to me to deny the single valid core message of  Christianity:  that we are all one.  We are all in this together.  Two thousand years ago, St. Paul told the Galatians that “here is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”  Paul did not say that here we are the saved rather than sinners.  He did not say we are Catholics rather than ex-Catholics or non-Catholics.  I think today he would probably say that here we are neither Catholic or Protestant, Black or White, Muslim or Christians, Buddhists or Communists.  We are all of these things.  Because the essential command of Christianity is to love our fellow human beings.  All human beings.

This does strip Christianity of any claim to being the one and only true religion.  Many other religions also are based on a fundamental respect for all humankind, even for all of life.  Yes, of course, we belong to our own communities, our own cultures.  We belong to different ethnic groups, different nations, different sexes, with different talents, interests, skills, and opinions.  But that is potentially a great strength for humanity, not a weakness.  We have incalculable benefit  to gain from embracing our differences.

So if I’m going to feel a kinship with a community, it has got to be one that respects our differences.  It must be a community that recognizes that we are all of us incomplete in different ways and that we all need each other.  Above all, it is a community that doesn’t cut off anybody who might disagree with the high command.

Am I, I wonder, a minority?




  1. I have the same questions for whoever preaches exclusivity.



    Comment by tskraghu — April 8, 2014 @ 4:42 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for the insight. That really is the core of it, isn’t it? Exclusivity — with the attending message that somehow my community is superior to everybody else’s.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — April 9, 2014 @ 4:04 pm | Reply

  2. The BBC are doing a thing soon about “who do we think we are” all about how people’s ways of identifying themselves have changed. Some of your questions are the kind of questions that have sparked it off.
    Your post was interesting – one of these ones that I should probably reply to in the form of a post. But, being not a Catholic to start with, maybe it wouldn’t be so relevant. It is my experience too that most “Catholics” have issues with Catholic doctrine. Which seems sensible to me – as a non catholic – when we at church are raised to question everything.
    I hope to get back to respond to this properly in due course.


    Comment by sanstorm — April 8, 2014 @ 9:47 pm | Reply

    • I do hope that you will find the time to share your thoughts more fully in this topic. You come at it from such a different beginning than my own, which makes your experience particularly enlightening.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — April 9, 2014 @ 4:14 pm | Reply

  3. Interesting, isn’t it, why a Catholic remains a Catholic no matter what. It’s those indelible marks on the soul (at least the one you get from Confirmation). With a Jew, it’s racial, physical, though I don’t know any Jew that wants to be called a member of a separate race from white. If your mother’s womb was Jewish, you are a Jew (Roman law, adopted by Rabbis in the early centuries CE), just as (I’m not making this up) you are only a real Pole if you came out of a Catholic Polish womb. The NY Times actually ran an article in its Science edition on the problematics of Jewish identity for proxy and in vitro pregnancies, for which they got expert opinion not from Rabbis but from OB/GYNs.

    I repeat. I am not making this up.

    Either way, you are what other people think you are is what either of these two idiocies come down to. You can’t not be a Jew or a Catholic because…well, just because. Shlomo Sand’s (The Invention of the Jewish People) new book, still only available in Hebrew, alas, but supposed to be published as The Invention of the Secular Jew is actually titled in the Hebrew version How I Stopped Being a Jew. Maybe someone should do the same mitzvoh for Catholics of the fallen away, lapsed or, in my own case, recovering kind. And, like a recovering drunk I will be at it for the rest of my life.


    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — April 8, 2014 @ 10:46 pm | Reply

    • Hmmm, a recovering Catholic? Does that mean you are trying to give it up, the way an alcoholic struggles with giving alcohol? Or that you are recovering from the experience of being a Catholic?

      Personally, I can identify with the former. Whatever it is, our early socialization, like the planting of a tree, sets us on a path, and wherever we may go, that is where we started.

      Seriously, what do you mean by “recovering”?



      Comment by Terry Sissons — April 9, 2014 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  4. unfortunately, yes. original sin human condition whatever explanation we are not in the garden of eden and never will be a friend calls herself a cafeteria catholic i guess i am that and buddist and viking and nazi and platonist and who knows what all to blur the edges is the best i can hope for in myself but the battle brings me peace


    Comment by kateritek — April 8, 2014 @ 10:48 pm | Reply

    • I suspect that what you call “blurring the edges,” is what ,I perhaps a bit more pompously, call “living in mystery.” Like you, I would say it brings me peace. It also brings me joy, and delight, and absolute fascination. It seems to be such an incredible thing not only to have life, but to have human life at this point in all of time.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — April 9, 2014 @ 4:18 pm | Reply

  5. Yes, it’s a reference to the AA model of once an alcoholic always an alcoholic. Ideas, fears, fantasies that were implanted in me very early on, well before school age, are rooted, as you suggest. It’s as if someone had been an alcoholic from birth, a la those crack babies, and had to live all their lives with that disability. If they remain drug- or alcohol-free that is the best they can do.

    I have higher ambitions, of course. I don’t have a problem with the giving up part. It’s the part that won’t give me up. I find myself capable of having almost consecutive thoughts that are mutually exclusive, one gained from long decades of trying to free myself of my early indoctrination, the other being a reproduction of that indoctrination — both an embarrassing and scary situation.


    Comment by Thomas J. Hubschman — April 10, 2014 @ 12:10 am | Reply

  6. I agree with your comments. After a long indoctrination in Catholic school, grades 1-12, plus five years as a nun, I began a phase (after I left the convent) of religious and philosophical questioning. Finally, I decided I could not call myself a Catholic if I didn’t agree with its teachings–though today I definitely consider myself a Christian (not a church-goer). Too bad Pope John XXIII did not live to complete the Vatican Council he started in the 1960s. His efforts to bring the spirit of Christ into the church were revolutionary at the time and somewhat effective, but were almost obliterated by subsequent conservative cardinals and popes.

    Though I haven’t gone to a Catholic church in years, I’ve recently read many articles about Pope Francis and feel hopeful that he seems to be a person who is really dedicated to Jesus’ teachings. He seems to be “the real deal.” It remains to be seen whether his influence will turn Catholics and the hierarchy into more Christ-like followers. Even the 8 Cardinals in his new “cabinet,” are much more conservative than he, namely German Cardinal Mueller and Boston’s Cardinal O’Malley. Will Francis lead them to give fresh look at issues such as annulment, divorce Catholics receiving Communion, or even birth control, at the upcoming Oct. Synod on Family? It remains to be seen. During his first year as pope, he has constantly admonished Catholics to be compassionate, understanding and inclusive. I hope he manages to change them into individuals who will recognize their own failings enough not to throw stones at another flawed or different human being.

    As for me, I’ve attended enough theology and philosophy classes to last a lifetime and have spent thousands of hours in church during my youth. It is enough now for me to find God in the simplicity of each day.


    Comment by kbsartori — April 10, 2014 @ 9:44 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for your comment. It sounds as if your experience and your assessment of the RC Church has a lot in common with my own.

      I would like to hope that Pope Francis represents a profound change for the church. I worry though, that he might just be a better salesman. But we will have to wait and see.

      Hope you will be back here again and will share your comments as events unfold.


      Comment by theotheri — April 11, 2014 @ 8:34 pm | Reply

      • I noticed that some of your most popular posts had to do with your knowledge of convent living. That intrigued me. Do you mind if I ask if you still see some of your former nun friends? I do, and it’s been quite wonderful!


        Comment by kbsartori — April 11, 2014 @ 8:40 pm

      • Me too! In fact, my best friends outside of family are friends from my convent days. None of us are still nuns, and we live all over the place, but as you say, it’s quite wonderful. Who ever would have predicted a gift like that as an outcome from so much angst? TOI


        Comment by Terry Sissons — April 12, 2014 @ 2:27 pm

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