Category Archives: religion

How I Catholic

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.

I’m Liberal, I’m Religious, I’m Here.

I got a subscription to The Atlantic in the wake of the 2016 election to support high-quality independent journalism and all that, and though I love reading things in print, the magazines have been sitting under my coffee table until the last week or so when I decided to play catch-up. And, as inevitably happens lately when I start consuming media, the newly religious part of me heaved a long, exasperated sigh at yet another mischaracterization. And, not for the first time, I decided to reach out and write something. Is this going to be a thing forever? I think this is going to be a thing forever.

I just read Peter Beinhart’s “Breaking Faith” article in the April 2017 issue, and I wanted to comment. Beinhart seems preoccupied with voter “discontent,” so much so that he seems to ignore where the presidential candidates stood on the basic political spectrum. Republicans presented a far-right candidate in 2016, one whose rhetoric did happen to clash against the messages of love, acceptance, and forgiveness that are preached weekly from many pulpits in the U.S. Hillary Clinton was just left enough of center to get Millennial liberals like me begrudgingly on board, but Bernie Sanders’ politics represented the changes that we really wanted to see – the changes that the Democratic party has been too afraid to put forward, and that the party didn’t have to risk putting forward in 2016 when the opposition was so far to the right. We didn’t necessarily agree with his Sanders’ populist rhetoric, but we wanted his policies.

And so did liberal faith communities, like the Catholic church I recently joined. You don’t hear much about these faith communities – and certainly, positing the appeal of organized religion to “the values of hierarchy, authority, and tradition” only marginalize these voices further – but they exist, and their social teachings align more with Sanders’ vision of America than with any other vision that was presented by candidates in 2016. For many in my faith community, our discontent doesn’t stem from personal economic loss, or from anxiety over the erosion of some construct of tradition. Instead, our discontent comes from the presence of income disparity, poverty, homophobia, racism, sexism, Islamophobia, lack of access to health services, and other injustices that continue to exist in this country, injustices that are in direct contrast with our most important value: love. Sanders seemed the most committed of all the candidates to the eradication of injustice and thus to the spread of love.

Sanders is a revolutionary voice, but he’s not the only one. Pope Francis is another controversial, outspoken leader working towards equality. You’d probably find a correlation between Catholics who strongly support Pope Francis and those who strongly support Sanders. And didn’t that Jesus guy hold some pretty radical beliefs about equality, too?

I want people to know that I exist, that “liberal” and “religious” are not diametrically opposed, and in my opinion shouldn’t be opposed. That my journey to faith made me more liberal. That my faith is completely intertwined with every aspect of my life, like my work, my economic decisions, even my politics. Especially my politics.

The religious right does not have a monopoly on religion, but the use of the term “religious right” in liberal-leaning circles has essentially made “religious” a synonym for “right.” Or for “textual literalist,” or “traditionalist,” or “anti-abortion,” or “anti-gay marriage,” or a number of other things that do not describe me or my views, or the views of many of those in my faith community.

My community includes health professionals who are happy about the availability of reliable birth control in high-poverty countries, and parents who are fighting for their LGBT sons and daughters to be not only acknowledged, but expressly welcomed by church hierarchy. My priest openly speaks about how the Church needs to start including women and gave an impassioned homily about it on Mother’s Day. My husband, who has been reading Dorothy Day and getting interested in the radical-sounding Catholic Worker movement, has recently started identifying himself as a “Catholic leftist” because the term “liberal Catholic” isn’t left-leaning enough for him. This is the left, and it is the religious left. We exist.


As a Christian, I am heartbroken. Being a disciple of Christ means working within oneself to extend compassion and love to all human beings and especially to vulnerable people – in 2016 United States that means refugees, women, religious and ethnic minorities, LGBTQ, mentally ill, the homeless, the undocumented. Being a Christian to me means possessing a responsibility to make this world a better place for all people in it, not just people who are like me. And this country, one that claims so many other followers of Christ and worshipers of the God who is pure love, has spoken out and voted in defense of myopic self-interest at best, and at worst, the opposite of love: hatred, bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia.

That’s how  I updated my Facebook status on Wednesday, the day after the election. Before this week, I’d sign onto Facebook maybe once a month or so. Since Wednesday, though, I’m on it constantly and putting up multiple posts per day, reading news articles people link to and checking their statuses. I’ve been on Facebook more in the past four days than in the past year. The first day or two were posts like mine, which encouraged me to post my own. Saddened that bigotry won. Unbelieving. Angry and fearful for the LGBT and Muslim and Black and Latino people in their lives. I hoped I’d wake up Wednesday morning, Thursday morning, and it would all be a dream and go away. I felt empty inside, like I had lost something very dear to me. And I had: I’d lost my belief that good would prevail in America, and that we as a nation would act in the best interest of everyone who lived here. After the grief (or rather, concurrent with the grief) came posts about how to fight his policies. How to get active in politics, organizations to donate time and money to, petitions for the electoral college to follow the popular vote, rallies and marches and community conversations to attend. I donated to Sierra Club and ACLU and shared my story with Planned Parenthood and urged my Facebook followers to do the same. I attended a peaceful protest last night in New Haven, and read the notes for a community conversation that I missed.

The Facebook conversations are changing now to report violence and hate-filled actions. The friend of a friend, an academic in South Philly, had her car keyed and “it’s our pussy now, bitch” or something like that carved into it. Black students in the area of PA where I get up are being bullied and called names. Teachers’ students have gone from asking if their parents will be deported to reporting classmates telling them that their parents will be deported. Somebody opened fire on a protest in Portland. And Donald Trump is silent on the violence that has been condoned by his speech over the past year and that people feel they can come out and say now that he’s won the election.

I understand how the whole “Make America Great Again” message could have resonated. It’s the same reason folks got swept up in Obama’s “Yes We Can” eight years ago. And I treat it with the same deep skepticism that I did Obama’s 2008 campaign. It’s an empty promise with no real path forward. But anyway, Trump was a break from politics as usual, and I know lots of people voted for him as a protest against Hillary Clinton. And in a normal election, protest votes are usually fine. But you can’t deny the racist, sexist underpinnings of his speech, and I cannot forgive those non-racist, non-sexist Trump voters for implicitly giving the green light to the ones who are spray painting swastikas and saying “you’re next” to brown men and women. Especially since his racist and sexist rhetoric was always 1) illegal or 2) unconstitutional. The young, college educated Republicans I know believe the Constitution is a near-sacred document, but lots of them came out and voted for a candidate that doesn’t seem to give a lick about the Constitution. And who endorses racist practices and sexually assaults women. And is a fascist.

I also can’t forgive myself for not fighting harder than I did. I thought we had this. The “sensible” people I talk most with, and the media I consume, told me they and others were going to come out and vote against Trump. I thought I had done my part by participating in social justice stuff at my church and letting some people know about it, posting my photos of a service trip to Nicaragua and sharing a fundraiser link right before our Syrian refugee family came over in July. I should have talked to my grandmothers about how sweet and polite the kids are, and how the parents are desperate to learn English and find work, and how they have shown immense gratitude and hospitality to me and members of my church. I shouldn’t have worried about appearing holier-than-thou if I talked about it. I should have checked the box for ‘Democrat’ instead of ‘Unaffiliated’ when I registered in March so I could vote in the primaries and get on mailing lists to help make phone calls and canvas my town. I should have tried to talk more with my stepdad about what I encountered in Black neighborhoods in Philly, Chicago, and New Haven. I should have convinced my apolitical mom to go out and vote. I should have pushed people to recognize the racist code underpinning some of the phrases they’ve picked up from the political sphere. I should have checked in with my liberal friends and made sure they were registered to vote.

I didn’t though, and now this election started a fire in me to start fighting back as hard as I can. I need to keep that anger to propel me, because once I start waking up in the morning and I don’t feel that burning inside right away, once I no longer want to shout with my husband about injustice, I still need to keep this fight going. For at least the next four years, and throughout my life. It’s only the last two or three years of my life that I’ve realized the sort of power that I have, that I can be the change I want to see in the world. Now it’s time to stand up and do it.