Confessions of a Former Bad Catholic

A reflection by Sarah

Another surprise blog post today. We seem to be in a season of life where the need for these is popping up quite often. After a very intense response to my ear injections yesterday which kept me riding an evil tilt-a-whirl all night, I’m spending the day working from home. Usually my vertigo episodes continue steadily for minutes to hours until coming to a sudden end, but last night I had about an hour of respite around 3am, during which time I read this article by Aaron Taylor at Ethika Politika. Taylor cites the story of Louise Mensch — a divorced and remarried Catholic who is not currently receiving communion due to her own convictions — as an example of the quickly dying (perhaps already dead) “bad Catholic” archetype:

Reactions to Mensch’s piece fell predictably into two camps. On one side, “liberals” decried Mensch for being self-loathing, for not dancing to the beat of the modern, sexually enlightened drum. On the other side, “conservatives” were baffled as to why, if Mensch really believed the Church’s teachings, she would not abandon her lifestyle as an “adulteress.” What both critics share is the belief that Mensch’s situation makes little sense because one cannot simultaneously uphold a set of moral standards and fall short of those standards.

Yet, until fairly recently in Catholic history, women and men like Mensch were easily understood by others in the Church as conforming to a particular type: the type of the “bad Catholic.”

“Bad Catholics” knew the moral rules taught by the Church, and they broke—even flouted—them, particularly when it came to sex. They did not, however, argue that the rules should be changed to confer moral approval on their behavior. Despite their moral failings, bad Catholics also tended to maintain a high regard for the Church’s sacramental and spiritual rules and practices. They attended Mass, were devoted to the Virgin Mary, and expressed love for the Blessed Sacrament precisely by not receiving it in Communion when in an unworthy state to do so.

Taylor goes on to point out that Mensch’s story is not representative of what generally happens to today’s “bad Catholics,” who usually end up identifying as “liberal Catholics” or leaving Catholicism altogether. Without judgment upon anyone’s faith journey and without intending to stigmatize anyone who identifies as a liberal Catholic, I am inclined to agree with his basic point. This is what becomes of today’s bad Catholics. I’ve seen it myself more times than I can count. As I’ve already outed myself on the blog as a former Catholic, I can say openly that this article struck a strong chord with me. My own reasons for leaving the Catholic Church for a different Christian tradition are completely removed from any moral teaching or behavioral expectation. (If you must know, the final nail in the coffin was my inability assent to papal supremacy after significant theological study on this doctrine’s development, but perhaps that’s a post for another time.) However, after reading the article I spent the rest of the night — at least what time I wasn’t focused on asking God to save me from falling off the floor — in reflection. I suppose I ought to thank Eve Tushnet for this as well. Somehow I’m feeling both unusually brave and extra vulnerable after my recent read of her new book.

Confession time: not only am I a former Catholic, but I’m also a former “bad Catholic.” And today, I’m still entirely capable of being a bad Christian within my current tradition. Yet despite this awareness, most of the time I don’t feel free to admit it to anyone other than Lindsey and our parish priest. I don’t have permission to be a bad Christian, and when I think seriously about it I realize that this was also true during my years as a Catholic.

Let’s back up a bit…

Though sexual sin has never been a serious struggle for me, I’ve experienced seasons in which I’ve been unable or unwilling (or both) to behave morally in other ways. Everyone who practices rigorous honesty can identify with this to an extent. But somehow, it’s still easy to presume that if a person is engaging in unchristian behaviors, his/her spiritual life is nonexistent…or alternatively, that if a person engages regularly in spiritually healthy devotional practices, he/she must be living in a way that is fully aligned with the teachings of the Gospel.

As I thought about this last night, I was taken back to my college and early graduate school days. Without hesitation, I can say that I was a deeply devoted Catholic. I attended Mass almost every day, not out of compulsion but because I woke up each morning with an eagerness to hear that day’s Gospel proclaimed, to be present with the very small daily Mass-going community in my college town, and to be in the same chapel where bread and wine mysteriously became Christ’s Body and Blood despite my inability to see this happening. I had a consistent daily prayer rule and engaged regularly in theological conversations with friends. But quite often, my most profound spiritual moments were intertwined with my most immoral behaviors.

I was a very good student and never had trouble maintaining excellent grades, and during my freshman and sophomore years everyone in my residence hall knew me as the girl who would sit in the lobby and study for hours into the night. As I immersed myself in the works of Aristotle, Tertullian, Shakespeare, and Virginia Woolf, I would take frequent mini-breaks to say a Chaplet of Divine Mercy and snort an Adderall, crushing it beforehand with my copy of the Langenscheidt German Dictionary…or the Daily Roman Missal. There wasn’t an evening that passed without my calling out to the Theotokos, whom I referred to as “Mom” at that point. On weekends after I had finished all my homework, I would load my pockets with prayer cards, a rosary, some cash for cocaine, a fake ID, and head off to a party with my sorority sisters or friends from work. I remember one night when after my eighth jello shot and an untold amount of Bacardi and diet coke, I sat in the backseat of one of my sisters’ cars, pulled a rosary from my pocket and began praying it loudly on the way back to campus. My sisters all found this quite amusing, and I remember one requesting jovially, “Pray one for me too, Sparky!” Then, there was also bulimia — the “good girl’s addiction” that I had developed by age 12. Saying the Litany of Loreto or part of Vespers/Compline on my drive to the grocery store and between binge/purge sessions was a common practice of mine for several years.

I have no doubt that some readers are horrified by this point in the post. I’m anticipating getting some nasty comments and emails from pious individuals demanding to know what possessed me to engage in such appalling and irreverent behavior. Sometimes, I wonder that myself. I wondered about it at the time too, which is why despite going to Mass almost every day, more often than not I didn’t commune. And while I always took these matters with me to confession, I never attempted to approach this sacrament if my attitude was, “I know what I’m doing is wrong, but I’m not ready to repent and amend my life.” During these times I always held onto the hope that God would eventually guide me to a place of desiring repentance. I was a bad Catholic, and I knew it and accepted it as the present reality.

I’m sure my reflection today will also receive many responses from readers who are wondering, “Why are you beating up on yourself? Why can’t you see that these behaviors you’re describing are indicative of mental illness, not sin?” I’m not beating up on myself. I’m calling a duck a duck. Sin and illness are not mutually exclusive. Yes, there’s a level at which my culpability for some of these actions was compromised. Identifying these actions as results of sin is not the same as blaming, shaming, or implying that struggles with substance abuse and behavioral addiction are my “fault.”

Coming full circle to the article’s discussion of what happens to bad Catholics, I’ve seen stories similar to mine play out very differently in the lives of other people I’ve known. There are folks who leave Catholicism or Christianity altogether because of the pressure to be perfectly free from sin before ever approaching the church’s front stoop. They know that they can’t be perfect, so they stop trying. There are others who experience pressure from secular society to ease up on themselves to the point of dismissing Christian teaching altogether, or picking and choosing the parts that are gentlest. They hear from friends and mental health professionals that thinking about their struggles in any way related to sin is pathological and masochistic. Because issues of sin that are directly related to mental health can be highly sensitive topics, these people may find that the only way they can move forward in life is to reject the moral expectations of traditional Christianity and replace them with whatever counsel is helping at the moment. I’ve noticed that these things happen frequently when a person struggling with serious sin attempts to discuss it with a priest or pastor who is more concerned with quoting dogmas than attending to the needs of a deeply wounded soul. Another common instigator is members of the parish who do not trust their priests to steward the chalice, so they take it upon themselves to protect the Church from sinners. Such people use passive aggression or sometimes direct confrontation to inform the sinner that his/her lack of repentance is scandalous. And fellow parishioners who encourage abandoning truth in favor of grace also contribute to the problem.

At this time, I am (mostly) in a positive space with regard to the spiritual issues I’ve discussed in this post. But I am still a bad Christian, and still capable of fitting the “bad Catholic” archetype at times. I can’t speak for anyone else, but seeking space where I can be accepted as a “bad Christian” or “bad Catholic” has been necessary for my spiritual growth. Such spaces are woefully rare, and I can’t say that I’ve ever belonged to a parish where the community fully appreciates what it means to accept those who believe, have committed to being obedient, but do morality poorly most all of the time and are willing to admit it. It troubles me that at our current parish, neither Lindsey nor I feel free to abstain from communion when necessary. If we do, the culture warriors begin imagining that we must be having sex. Sometimes people indicate to us that they know exactly what our sins are, and if we aren’t ready to repent of them we shouldn’t even show up. If we aren’t able to commune for whatever reason on a given Sunday, we’ve taken to visiting a large parish where we can be invisible. It also troubles me that when I’ve been a member of parishes with more “liberal” members, I’ve not felt free to abstain from communion. In these settings, everyone — no matter how much or how little he or she knows about my spiritual life — has been eager to tell me that whatever is bothering me, I should approach the chalice because God loves me and nothing else matters. What’s a person to do when he or she feels caught in the middle of all this? I ask myself that question at least once a week, usually on our drive to Liturgy. But like Taylor, I am convinced that until we all make room once again for the “bad Christians,” the entire Church will suffer from their absence.

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34 thoughts on “Confessions of a Former Bad Catholic

  1. Thanks for a helpful post.

    I’ve little doubt that most of us, the Pope included, are “bad Catholics”. We know something is wrong and bad for us but we still do it. That’s what sin is.

    But I’m far from convinced that abstaining from the Holy Communion is what God wants from us, given the bunch of inveterant sinners Jesus invited to the Last Supper and gave Holy Communion to: Judas who had agreed to betray him, Peter who was about to deny him 3 times, and the others who were arguing over which of them would be the next leader !

    My brother expressed a helpful view from his Yoga tradition:

    “The Eastern traditions largely avoid this problem by teaching right action and also encouraging discernment through direct experience. Wrong action is then seen within the context of spiritual maturity, rather than as sin. Of course, the true meaning of sin “missing the mark” actually is the same as the Eastern tradition, but modern Christianity has distorted “sin” to be an act of evil, as opposed to action based in in-perfect spiritual maturity. Much of that comes down to language and attitudes.”

    Love and Prayers

    • Hi Chris. I think the decision to receive or abstain from the Eucharist should be between a person and his or her confessor. It is not my place to tell any other person that he or she should not be receiving communion, and I’m very glad that I’m not a priest. But I do believe that abstaining from the Eucharist can be as spiritually helpful as receiving it. This depends on many factors. Everyone’s circumstances are different. My personal belief is that unless a person knows all the ins and outs of another person’s spiritual life, it is inappropriate for the first to counsel the second either to receive or not receive. -Sarah

    • You’re welcome. I’m glad you liked the post, and I hope you’ll return to our blog in the future. We always love interacting with new readers. 🙂 -Sarah

  2. I find this sad because it is the “bad Catholics” who need the the Church the most, and they know it. I don’t believe that “bad Catholics” are attracted to liberal Catholicism as much as they are repelled from puritan Catholicism. But since liberal Catholicism is not what they are looking for, they leave.

    The “pressure to be perfectly free from sin before ever approaching the church’s front stoop” is a largely Anglo-American compulsion that comes from the surrounding Protestant culture, not the Catholic faith. English speaking American Catholics tend to have an inferiority complex and often try to act like Protestants.

    I think Pope Francis understands this and is deeply concerned about such trends in the US Church. I also believe this is why conservative, Anglo US Catholics are deeply suspicious of Pope Francis.

      • I agree with you on that point. Calvinism has had some level of influence on virtually every form of Christianity with a presence in America. Even Christian traditions that completely disagree with many of Calvinism’s theological claims are still influenced by it culturally. I also agree with you that this is probably why many American Catholics (and non-Catholic Christians too) are suspicious of Pope Francis. -Sarah

  3. A very thoughtful and honest post.

    I’ve met people who seem to have thought that the Church isn’t for them because they see their lives as involving too much moral failure.It’s a terrible mindset to fall into.

    • Thank you. Writing the post felt very good. I had a great need for the vulnerability. And yes, that is a terrible mindset to fall into. -Sarah

  4. I am an occasional (Catholic) reader of this blog, and while I find most posts highly interesting, this one is particularly thoughtful and spot on. Thank you.

  5. Sarah is this also a way of unofficially stating that your a member of the eastern orthodox church? ( yes this is absolutely irrelevant)
    I agree with your post. Its like the church, as a whole, likes to distance itself from sin, the appearance of sin, sinners, while focusing more on judgement. I don’t even understand how churches have parishioners to fill the pews with this mindset. I feel like with humans there will always be room for sinning in the future, it’s not just something that magically disappears. I’m reminded of televangelists who preach about if you become christian than your life will be perfect, (no more depression, or suffering) or evangelicals who always speak of their conversion story (for years on repeat) without mention of how their relationship with God is in the present. There is just so much diconnect from preaching and reality.
    End weird rant.
    One day I do aspire to give positive feedback about the church.

    • I think it’s perfectly okay to give negative feedback about the Church as well as positive feedback. It consists of a bunch of very fallible human beings, so reality of being in church we will have a negative experiences. I think it’s a good thing to accept that. Feel free to leave comments, either positive or negative, anytime.

      As for our Christian tradition, there are several reasons we don’t come right out and state what it is on the blog. Most of these we have discussed in our frequently asked questions. That said, both Lindsey and I are fully aware that if a person reads all our posts, it’s easy to figure out what our tradition is. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. 🙂

      Sarah

      • You have much wisdom. But I feel like i could read every post obsessively and doubt all of my conclusions and just decide it’s ok not to know. So I’m skipping to acceptance.
        Fyi if you two ever have a book, I would buy it.

  6. hi sarah, when I read eve’s post on her somewhat hedonistic student lifestyle combined wiith her prayer life I started to laugh even though as a devout catholic I understand the gravity of her situation which she obviously did to. and this took place after her conversion. but let’s face it, there is lots of potential for humour in our struggles and tragedies. this attitude of mine may have come from our tragic irish catholic history I respect eve because I see from following her posts for two years that she is very sincere albeit, like myself, a weak sinner. the only criticism I have of eve, that I’m aware of, is that I wish she could expand more beyond her struggles and joys with lesbianism to include more of the church’s awesome struggles we are engaged in today. that said I’m very fond of her.

    your follow thru post about the dilemmas you encounter presumably along with with Lindsay, prompt me to add my comment. what you said about “bad catholics” certainly resonates with me because I was raised in the pre Vatican 2 church on the east coast of Canada, and it would never have occurred to any one, in or out of the church, to challenge church authority. And that is non-negotiable still today in spite of the disarray in today’s church in the wake of vat 2.

    I could go on and on but i’ll stick to one point. I have a lot of sympathy for you and your friend lindsay. nowhere in your post, however, and the comments(particularly chris Sullivan’s)was there any recognition of how the secular/pagan culture we all live in, and how no one of us is unaffected, and no one of us is untainted by it. your reference to the “liberal” and the “conservative” mindset is really just skimming the surface. God’s generosity to me has led me to see deeply how easily we fallen/ wounded humans deceive ourselves. I know this not just from infallible church teachings regarding original and personal sin but having been given the privilege to look deep into my interior life and come face to face with who I am time and time again to this day. My endless capacity for self deception, my blindness, weaknesses and my need for god’s limitless love and mercy have led me to accept my desperate need of god and his church. Christ, knowing what we are like(wounded not depraved)gave us his church and we need the infallible doctrines that the church teaches.
    I toyed with the idea of starting a blog and calling it “life is not easy”. lol. anyway sarah, I recognize that you are an honest soul to the best of your ability, but today’s society is saturated with such corruption with no end in sight that the very idea that there is lasting moral truth is up for grabs. only Christ and his church have the answer. it’s true, life is not easy especially since Christ said we will have crosses and to accept them. I hope my thoughts are clear. god bless!

    • Thank you for reading and leaving your thoughtful comment. Writing this post was quite humbling for me. It’s necessary to remind myself quite often that I am a sinner and very much in need of Christ and the Church. I hope you’ll come back and read more of our posts in the future. I appreciate your sharing from the heart about your own experience. -Sarah

      • and thank you for understanding my comment in the spirit in which I gave it. I just discovered your blog three days ago thanks to eve and the link to you. I want to say that your fairness and desire to make fine distinctions is something that makes me want to sit up and listen. it’s unusual, in my opinion, to find bloggers, or for that matter, any form of communication, who are as dispassionate as you and Lindsey are. for that I thank you. and even though that is my own nature too, I have to confess that my irish catholic temperament and insecurities do sometimes get the better of me.

        having said that sarah I still have to say that I have reservations about some attitudes and implicit assumptions you seem to make. I won’t go into them here, and I’m not being coy. first I want to review some of your recent posts to be sure I at least know what I’m talking about. god bless you and Lindsey, and bye for now.

        • Hi Tom. Yes, do feel free to challenge us. We don’t blog to hear ourselves talk. We want to learn from other people’s perspectives and we’re open to changing views if we discover that something we currently hold to is false. I’ll be very interested to hear more of your perspective. We probably won’t always agree on everything, but I can promise you that you’ll always be treated with respect here. God bless. -Sarah

          • hi Sarah & Lindsey. I want to go deeper with you, more so than the few times i’ve commented on several other blogs and was in a dialogue with one for awhile. There is something about you that I interpret as permission. your vulnerability I relate to in a very personal way. I’m sure you know that vulnerability is a great gift from god, but it’s also a terrible gift to live with. there is no end to pain. that’s god!! infinitely beyond our desires and comprehension. only a catholic or orthodox can possibly get that god’s gifts often cause pain since his desire is to purify our flawed natures.

            that’s my little intro.

            I bought my first laptop two years ago, and my first smart phone 3 months ago. the internet was a total mystery and I went to a public library here in Toronto to get the basics. in a way the joke is on me. I used to think unflattering thoughts when I saw countless young people sitting, walking staring at their phones. now I can’t live without mine. it’s like a book I can take it anywhere and hold it easily in my hand. lol.

            anyway, two years ago as soon as I got an address and password I went looking for catholic blogs. what the hell is a blog??? the first one I stumbled upon was unequally yoked by leah libresco who was telling about her journey from atheism to the catholic church. and leah being leah reasoned her way into Catholicism. no small job and very rare! and from that I stumbled upon eve tushnet, mark shea, Elizabeth scalia, dawn eden and some others.

            and now yours and Lindsey’s. both of you write beautifully and in great personal detail. that you’re writing from and about your agony and struggles is a big draw for me.

            I mentioned in my second comment that I have some issues with some aspects of several posts, and rather than flying all over the place i’ll just concentrate on one – that you are a “former catholic” and your “…inability to ascent to papal supremacy.” which to me is the important one anyway.

            btw, your description of the incomprehension and even hostility you encouinter at church and churches helped me to see an attitude of my own that I was blind to. I have a favourite coffee shop I go to daily here in downtown Toronto. the manager is gay, I know he’s gay, and we really like each other. several months ago I overheard him tell a customer his plans for the weekend with his “friend”. I see now that I had a reaction but just put it aside. which is unusual because I write and pray, pray and write every day about my interior life and nothing is off limits. so I flashed back to that moment from reading about your struggles.

            then I made the interior connection with a way of life where I grew up. I was born and raised in a newfoundland fishing out port of about 50 catholic families except one. there were two “LGBT” men who were attracted to teen boys like myself. everyone knew what they were up to, but it was never talked about. not even the priest. it was like too shameful. the point I’m getting at is that I absorbed that shame and secrecy into my psyche, and that was the negative reaction I had to the manager that morning as I drank my coffee and prayed. I had never seen them together. there was something about them being together like a normal couple that did not sit well with me(I did not put quotation marks around normal because I don’t want to pretend). so now I have separation from that prolonged subliminal experience for the first time, and it has lost some of its power over me. you see sarah, now I have some detachment from that conditioning which shows me how frail we are and inclined to take the easy way out. there was a lot of denial in my boyhood community. and it frees me to love more fully my gay brothers and sisters without in any way compromising my catholic faith. obviously grace comes to us from many different directions, and reading your story was one for me. thank you!sarah, when I started to type this comment off the cuff almost an hour ago I had no intention of going off on a tangent. even though I know that it’s my way to give background, create a context. and you’re speaking from your heart invites me to share from my heart. I won’t get to discus my issue tonight, hopefully tomorrow night. god bless you and Lindsey and good night!

          • Hi again, Tom. Wow, thank you for sharing so vulnerably with me. I feel honored, truly. I also experienced a lot of shame around certain sexual topics in my childhood community. The secrecy that is normative in many communities is deeply hurtful to everyone. And I know it’s not easy to open up and discuss things like this, especially on the internet where everything is public. Your openness inspires me.

            Yes, regarding papal supremacy, I would certainly expect that you and I disagree. Because you are Catholic and being a faithful Catholic requires intellectual assent to the doctrine of papal supremacy, I would be quite concerned if you and I *didn’t* disagree on that matter. Perhaps I’ll write more on this in the future. It took several years of intense thought, study, and prayer for me to come to my conclusions about that theological issue, and leaving the Catholic Church was indeed very painful for me. I loved being Catholic. Imperfect as church communities are with all of us sinful human beings, there will always be some kind of problem in any church. I want to communicate clearly that my reasons for leaving Catholicism were theological. Papal supremacy was the clincher for me, but I also came to some different conclusions regarding understandings of sin and salvation, and also Mariology. But I do miss Catholicism very much. Just this weekend, I found myself sitting before the tabernacle in a Catholic chapel with a friend of mine who is still Catholic. It was my first time darkening the doorstep of a Catholic church since my conversion to my new Christian tradition, and it brought about a flood of emotions. Adoration is a practice I miss more than I can put into words, and this is not a usual practice in my new Christian tradition (in general…there are some exceptions). I’m very confident that I made a good decision when I converted, but that decision involved considerable sacrifice and emotional pain, and was not taken lightly. I tell you all this just to add more context to my brief mention that I’m no longer Catholic and finally left Catholicism because of papal supremacy. As with many conversions, mine was quite complicated. I would love to continue discussing this with you, and also other areas of possible disagreement we may have. Hopefully we can challenge each other in some meaningful ways that help us both to grow closer to Christ.

            Sarah

          • hi again sarah and thanks. getting back to where I left off last night about your comment “…my inability to ascent to papal supremacy.” I won’t argue or try to convince you that you’ve made a big mistake, and anyway I’m sure you probably already know all the arguments, pro and con, for why the papacy is god’s will. i’m not at all qualified biblically or theologically to debate at that level. however, I know of two excellent priests, fr mitch pacwa of ewtn and fr robert barron. you know, the guy with the zillion catholic videos on utube. both understand all the arguments. perhaps, you’re already familiar with them.
            before I get to what I think I have to offer which certainly harmonizes with church doctrine, I want to mention your choice of the term “supremacy” to depict the pope’s high office because it’s misleading. it resonates with feminist radical ideology, hatred of patriarchy and men(I’m not implying you chose that word with that feminist intention). supremacy equates with power and abuse of power. true! but not true of popes the pope has no power. he is a servant with limited authority to speak for the universal church on faith and morals. I can’t imagine that you don’t already know this. it’s just that I can’t avoid emphasizing the obvious at least sometimes. everything I said above about popes and their high office in no way is meant to say that popes are not sinners.

            of course the way any pope exercises his authority depends on whatever challenges the church is facing, his personal holiness, intelligence and resolve. and as you know the church’s claims to teach infallibly in this narrow venue have been debated, challenged or rejected time and again. ad nauseum. but no matter! the pope will always protect the church’s “deposit of faith”.

            now I’m finally getting to the juicy part.

            in my own faith journey, I’ve come to see, or more accurately to be shown, the poisonous fruit of original sin in my own life. that it’s impossible for me to be honest, to not deceive myself and thus to go far astray from god who created me and loves me infinitely. I’m prone to the sin of pride, stupidity, blindness, rebellion. I’m hardly unique. it’s all inherited from our first parents. so I’m grateful and reassured that Christ gave peter to the church and all of his successors through the centuries to today. my woundedness shows me, compels me to accept that I need the pope.
            if you ever watch ewtn, marcus grodi and hear the testimonies of hundreds of protestant lay men and women , scholars and pastors who made the “Journey Home” to rome because of the colossal disaster of tens of thousands of protestant churches with different claims, yet each preaching that they speak from the holy spirit. it’s very sobering. this is the protestant contradiction that is impossible to deny without great spiritual cost, i.e. they accept original sin, but they trust their feelings and convictions. sarah, this is a terrible tragedy of which I have no doubt that satan inspired to divide the church and destroy souls. in contemporary society the vast hordes of secular liberals and pagans trust their feelings, for god’s sake. but I want the sublime, and the papacy is a sublime office. pope pius xii, pope st john paul ii, pope emeritus benedict xvi. some of my favourites. men of great intellectual genius and sublime spirituality. so they, the protestants, are forced to delude themselves unless they see the light as so many of marcus’ guests have. the name scott Hahn just popped into my head. he has videos on the papacy on video sancto. if you don’t know of scott he is a convert and a professor at Steubenville university. he’s a brilliant guy.

            you mentioned in a recent post that you hope to clarify your reasons for not accepting the papacy. my hunch is that it would be very threatening and you’ve put it aside. in my mind that, if true, this is separate from your vulnerability which means to risk being misunderstood, rejected, mocked, ridiculed. of course that possibility can’t be ignored. I want to tell you something — I feel exposed in sharing these deepest graces from my interior life, and whether you accept my embrace of the papacy or not, I see this as a grace which allows me to open up to you because you are so vulnerable and open about it. my vulnerability terrifies me and it has roots both spiritual and psychological. but that’s another story. slowly I’m coming to accept it as a gift from god. so if I’m correct in my assertion about your reluctance to go into detail concerning you and the papacy I understand and empathize with your fear, however I’m curious and would love to know your struggle and reasons which led you to leave the church.

            I have more to say about my own ontological predicament, my wounded nature and original sin. i’ll send this now and hopefully finish tomorrow night. I look forward to your response. good night and god bless you!

          • Hi again, Tom. Thanks once more for your thoughtful comment. I’d like to clarify a few things before we get deeper into this discussion. First, I don’t reject “the papacy.” I reject the very specific doctrine of “papal supremacy” (which is the term for the actual doctrine…not just word choice on my part.) I believe that the papacy plays a very important role in the Church, and I accept papal *primacy* in the “primacy of honor” sense. I’ve also had a great fondness for all three popes who have held the office during my lifetime. So I want to be clear: I absolutely affirm that the Pope is the true Bishop of Rome, and that the office of the papacy should exist. Papal supremacy has to do with universal jurisdiction, not the basic idea of the Pope having authority. What I cannot assent to intellectually is the belief that the Pope “has full, supreme, and universal power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.” That’s from paragraph 882 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. My main reason for not writing about this yet and not being sure of whether I will is my uncertainty of how the topic fits into the broader purpose of our blog. But I’ll be thinking on that more. God bless. -Sarah

  7. The measure of “bad Catholicism” should not the presence or absence of sin in our lives. Catholics need to realize that we are all sinners in need of grace and mercy. What is damaging the Church today is the attitude on one end that we should accept sin in order to accept the individual, or that we should be completely free from sin in order to be a “good Catholic.” Neither of these attitudes come from Christ or the official teachings of HIs Church.

    As waywardson23 pointed out, the “perfection principle” comes from a Calvinist mindset – if you’re “saved” then grace is working in your life and you won’t sin. We saw this in the way certain Christian ministries handled the sin of their public figureheads by completely writing them off.

    The attitude that we need to accept “sin” and call it something else (imbalance, etc) comes from modernism, which rejects claims to objective truth and therefore rejects an objective measure of sin.

    Your experience is a great indicator of true Catholicism rather than “bad Catholicism.” You start out in the “Purgative Way” by recognizing that you are in sin, but like Saint Augustine you’re not quite ready for conversion yet (I love his famous line, “Lord, make me chaste . . . but not yet!”). Then, as grace works in you, you begin to conquer your sin and grow in spirituality. Eventually you do want to get rid of all mortal sin – that is a very real possibility for people who are actively seeking a relationship with Jesus! The Purgative Way is just step one of three in our spiritual growth!

    And that seems to be what’s missing in your story (but I’m sure not missing in your life). The motivation for getting rid of sin is not to become an accepted member of the Catholic Club. The motivation is love for God. We can accept ourselves wherever we are in the journey because of God’s love for us. But we should never be satisfied being an imperfect Catholic – because of our love for God. God’s love also means that He wants what’s best for us, and that means getting rid of sin and growing in relationship with Him.

    Unfortunately, the relationship with God is often missing in all of these philosophies. Those who consider themselves perfect and without sin would not consider themselves so if they were really allowing the light of Christ to shine on their lives. Those who try to rationalize away sin completely miss the point that our evil actions harm our relationship with God. The balance you are looking for only exists within a real relationship with Jesus.

    That’s where reception of the Eucharist comes in. Why are we asked to abstain from the Eucharist if we are guilty of mortal sin that we haven’t confessed? My favorite explanation is that it would be like fighting with my wife and then demanding sexual intimacy without saying I’m sorry. That puts it all in the perspective of relationship, where it needs to be. By the way, this is different from denying Communion to someone because of public scandal – that’s a matter of correcting the sinner but also of teaching the People of God about the sacredness of the Eucharist and the nature of the scandal (which leads other people into sin, not just the individual).

    Sorry for the long diatribe, but God has put heavily on my heart the need to guide Catholics back to a relationship with Him. That’s why I founded fromtheabbey.com and why all of my teaching takes this as a theme. We need to stop treating the Church like a social club!

    Thank you for your honesty and insight!

    • Hi there! Your comment is insightful and challenging. I do see where “desire to get rid of sin” is missing from this post. I’d like to write more on that topic in the future. Even with this much of the story, I was already concerned about the post being to lengthy…even though I see the content of this post as such a small soundbite of my faith journey. I’d also like to write more at some point about how reception of the Eucharist (or at times, abstention from the Eucharist) has impacted my relationship with God. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and giving me some new ideas for future writing! -Sarah

      • ok sarah I get it. thanks. this is kind of funny because the rest of my wordy comment is based on what I understood from your choice of the word supremacy. I certainly want to avoid preaching to the choir. however, now that I understand what your objection is it makes even less sense to me why you would leave the church. you accept most of what the church teaches. you love the popes like I do – it seems to me that you are “straining out gnats and swallowing a camel”. you know protestants have all kinds of crazy ideas for rejecting the papacy, and mary. none of them stand up to serious scrutiny. can you give me a couple of historical examples of where any pope did this or possibilities for a present/future pope doing this. that is ” ‘has full, supreme and universal power over the whole church…’ “. and why you object. this is off topic, and maybe I’ve missed what’s in front of my eyes. in any case I’m curious where you and Lindsey live. which state? I assume you’re American. thanks!

  8. Hi Tom. Yes, Lindsey and I are American. Currently, we live in a city on the East Coast. For some further clarification, I agree with you about Protestant arguments against the papacy. I don’t see this as a gnats and camels issue because it is the primary doctrinal dispute that has kept Catholicism and my new Christian tradition from reconciling. Though Lindsey and I don’t identify our Christian tradition directly on the blog, you can probably figure out what it is based on what I just said. I’m far from being the only person who has ever seen papal supremacy as a final-nail-in-the-coffin issue leading to leaving the Catholic Church. To your question about when has papal supremacy ever been used and how might it be used in the future: the clearest example is that the Bishop of Rome has claimed universal jurisdiction over the Church for roughly a thousand years. Isn’t that a continuous exercise of supremacy? A more specific example would be Pope Urban II’s call for the Crusades. And even if you would not agree that either of those involves the use of papal supremacy, the doctrine is still there in the Catechism, in black and white. If it’s in the Catechism, it’s acceptable. The mere fact that this teaching is in the Catechism makes it problematic for me, knowing what I know about Church history. I embrace a firm belief that Christ intended all his apostles to have equal authority. It makes no sense to me theologically why Rome came to be viewed as *the* Petrine See when there are other Sees founded by Peter even before Rome, Antioch being the most prominent example. -Sarah

    • ok. some pieces are falling into place for me. I must say though that I’m really not qualified to address the 1000 year split with the orthodox church, which I assume you belong to. my catholic journey is basically spiritual in union with the pope and bishops. I leave the biblical theological disputes to the experts. I make use of video sancto, ewtn, forward boldly, michael voris, fr paul scalia, the two priests I mentioned in an above comment, and others to help me with the intellectual side of our remarkable church. there’s the crusades, the “filioque”(correct spelling?). I see what you mean by papal supremacy now even though it needs to be fleshed out. I realize we come down on different sides of these issues, so I can only say that I’ve never heard an objective debate on the papacy, as it’s exercised, or the crusades that I felt inclined to disagree with. certainly nothing that would compel me to make a decision like yours. the sainted pope jpii spent much energy and prayer to reconcile with the orthodox(“two lungs”). and pope bxvi too. is there some possibility for the “petrine see” and the “other sees founded by peter” to share authority and supremacy? I’m not against it, and I’m not for it because I just don’t know. it’s way over my head biblically, theologically and not to forget church tradition. both the mentioned popes seem to agree that the excommunication of the eastern church was a mistake based on passion and arrogance? I’m afraid my contribution in this matter will be a little boring. anyway, sarah I read your post from today and once again I was reactivated into a state of oppression. I don’t even know if I agree with what you were doing at the retreat religiously. it was too vague and general to get a grasp of. but that’s beside the point. what I ran smack dab up against was some hidden resistance with regard to my relations with people, the way you describe. the openness, sharing intimacy. I know I have a lot of lonliness that is deep down and is not really healed. as I type this I’m thinking of comments by eve and leah touching on the lonliness so prevalent today. it’s not something I can reveal to others easily even though I see very deeply into my psychological life. your post sent me into oppression which was really my ego’s way of dealing with something that is not easily relived. heartbreak really! since I began this second phase of my spiritual journey in 1986, it’s become almost routine to be guided by the holy spirit to books, people, situations that help me spiritually and therapeutically even though I don’t know what that help will be until afterwards. usually! god knows I had no expectation I would be telling you these things. so once again thank you.. I had planned on sending two more lengthy comments, but now that I have some understanding of what you mean by papal supremacy I want to wait and see how I feel in a few days. good night sarah and Lindsey and god bless.

      btw my gradual acceptance of my own vulnerability is helping me see the courage pope francis has to expose his heart as he does. remarkable man. so different from the two preceding pontiffs in temperament and training. yet, the first is a saint, the other two saintly. ciao

      • Hello again, Tom. We don’t have to agree on the papacy or on anything else in order to have conversation with each other. I’m a theology teacher, and I try not to let myself wax theological in too intense a manner on the blog. Lindsey and I see our writing project as more personal and relational, so I don’t want to get too heady and I’m certainly not going to start writing apologetics for my beliefs on the papacy. I don’t see that as my calling, though those types of conversations are important. I’m sorry that you’re experiencing some difficult feelings right now. You will be in my prayers this night and in future nights. And on your last comment related to Pope Francis: because of his particular approach to the papacy, I’ve sometimes wondered if my own faith journey might have played out differently up to this point if I had still been Catholic by the time he became Pope. Much love and many prayers. -Sarah

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