Last week, I found out that my priests were arrested. When I found out the details, I was excited. At one point during the week I burst out the news to some coworkers, one of whom promptly asked if it was for child molestation. I was taken aback.
My two priests were arrested for protesting the scheduled deportation of an undocumented mother and father living locally, as well as protesting the general ICE deportations. My priests were among 30-some people, including other clergy, who blocked the doors to the Immigration Court in Hartford and were arrested for disorderly conduct and trespassing. This fits in with the social teachings I started learning about a year ago in RCIA (adult confirmation), and goes along with the thoughts of moral leaders within the church like the Jesuit writer Fr. James Martin and my homeboy Pope Francis. My church stands for active pursuit of social justice, and I consider myself extremely lucky to have found an intellectually-focused, progressive, self-examining faith community that isn’t afraid of action and change.
But it’s not the church that most lapsed Catholics remember, full of Latin words and intimidating sexless women, dark booths and aching knees, nor is it the church of many practicing Catholics. I thankfully haven’t heard anyone quoting certain decontextualized passages of Leviticus, but in other parishes I’ve heard prayers for aborted fetuses instead of prayers for compassion and grace for women facing tough decisions, read theological works that claimed only men should be priests to better reflect Jesus while simultaneously claiming that the divine has no gender, and I even once heard a priest utter the ridiculous phrase “postmodern decadence.”
And likewise, my faith and how I do Catholicism probably looks a little different from how people would assume I would do Catholicism. Coming to it as a 30-year-old, learning the teachings with a fully formed critical mind and with adult concerns and questions, is a markedly different experience than receiving it in childhood as a truth. I consciously made the decision to accept the inherent conflicts that are bound to show up when you have a 2000 year old institution. I also feel empowered enough to try resolving those conflicts from within the faith, within my community.
But that’s the faith speaking generally to refer to the church, not my own personal faith, which might be where I differ the most from cradle Catholics and others who were raised with the faith they follow as an adult. I can’t say for sure, since I don’t stand in front of church doors waiting to ask churchgoers very personal questions about their spiritual life, but I’m guessing I differ. Somewhere in the RCIA process, I was asked what being a Christian would mean if tomorrow we found out that Jesus didn’t exist, or he wasn’t divine, or if any foundational ideas were proven wrong beyond a doubt. This isn’t a hypothetical question, either. As someone who has struggled with the actual ~faith~ aspect which requires a suspension of empirical evidence, this is a practical question. For me faith isn’t blind, or stupid, or simple. Faith is hard. Being someone in an era of widespread literacy and public education and easy access to information, someone who values facts and knowledge, who reads scientific research and who likes reasonable explanations, faith is the antithesis, requiring me to accept impossible ideas without seeing the mechanism, to step into the unknown and the unknowable. Faith requires you to accept the very real possibility that you might be completely and utterly wrong. To accept the risk of being a fool. Or worse. People in the past have lost more than their pride in defense of beliefs they can’t prove.
And so, I constantly struggle with personal faith. In practice, I view myself as an existentialist Catholic. My husband describes himself this way too, as well as some other adult converts I’ve met who work in academia. If J.C. wasn’t divine, didn’t exist, if there’s no afterlife, if God doesn’t care about humans, even if God didn’t exist which is the one single thing of which I’m absolutely certain – there are still truths in Christianity. Love. Compassion. Dignity for the poor. Using what little time you have on Earth and in this consciousness to make somebody else’s time a little better. If God doesn’t exist, then these really are the only truths we have. Without a God to dispense justice or to comfort or offer grace, it becomes that much more essential that we offer them to each other and we fight for justice on the one battlefield we know we have.
Of course, I often fail miserably at these things, as humans do. I’m not writing this to give the impression that I always get it right in execution. (Cue the famous Catholic guilt.) What I get from being part of a faith community, especially the particular brand of Catholicism I’ve found, is it answers that question of what it all means if the foundation is wrong. If it’s wrong, I’m a fool, but I’m still doing the right thing, or at least attempting to. I say “at least” as though the effort alone matters and it’s all going to be okay in the end, but in a world with no God it’s not all okay. If the foundation is wrong, then there’s no God to clean up the mess you’ve left behind in the wake of your good intentions.
At the same time, attempting and failing is still doing something. I see how in some expressions of Christianity, particularly in Protestant expressions that rely solely on faith as the redemptive component instead of a combination of faith and action, God can be reduced in the popular mind to this parent role, this figure that makes it all better, and it can easily engender complacency. God will handle it all. This, of course, isn’t to say it happens in all Protestant expressions, or even any denomination in particular, but it’s one of the major theological differences between Catholicism and Protestantism and why the church split in the first place. And when I started going to Catholic services in my community I quickly noticed that the homilies, unlike the feel-good sermons I’d heard many times in rural Pennsylvania, shook me up, made me uncomfortable, caused me to examine how I could do a better job. If my priests are going out and getting arrested to prevent a family from being split up, I should be willing to do the same, and I should be doing it now. Thoughts and prayers and entreaties to God aren’t going to stop injustice. But we can, even in the absence of God.
If my prayers aren’t being heard and the divine isn’t interceding after all, it’s still helping me to relieve a burden and to proceed with a clearer, more focused mind. If the soul-stirrings I sometimes feel are not, as I believe, the result of momentary contact with the divine, proven to me by the fact that I’ve been wired to feel that strange and spectacular stirring in the first place, if it really is simply neurons firing off in a regular biological process, it’s still wonderful that those feelings exist. If there is no afterlife where suffering dissipates and we will somehow be one with God (which is as far as I’ve been able to articulate my thoughts on the afterlife), then we will simply cease to exist and won’t be around to be sad about it. And then we have to turn to each other for relief.
Which is how I try to Catholic anyway. Live as if there is no God.