When I was a little girl I thought there was only one religion, Roman Catholicism. It was the center of our lives: morning prayers, daily mass, nightly prayers, confession on Saturday night, mass on Sunday morning, Lenten season, fasting, no meat on Friday. The list was endless. My dad had even been in the seminary for two years when he was a teenager and his sister was a Benedictine nun. I figured this qualified us as friends of the Pope. Everyone knew the Pope was infallible. That meant he was” incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals”. I looked it up in the Webster Dictionary. When I got older and eating meat on Friday was no longer a sin I wondered what happened to the little old ladies who ate meat on Friday and died on Saturday before they could get to confession. Would the Pope bring them out of hell?
Then there was the Examination of Conscience, guided by a rule book that contained all of the sins, based on the Ten Commandments. The Catholic Religion had its own interpretation of each commandment. All of this I believed without question, even the things that made no sense to me. The Catholic Religion wasn’t supposed to make any sense. It was made up of mysteries and there again Webster was the total authority when he said that a mystery was “a religious truth that one can know only by revelation and cannot fully understand”. We always knew that the Pope was in charge of telling us what was right and what was wrong, what we could believe and what we must not believe. Isn’t that how the shepherd handles his sheep?
When I was thirteen my father entered my bedroom in the middle of the night and raped me as I lay on the bottom bunk with my rosary under my pillow. My father was the Pope in our family and none of his actions or decisions were challenged. My life became a nightmare filled with sexual and physical abuse. I ran away from home at the age of 18, but took my Catholic beliefs with me. It was to prove my undoing.
Soon I was married to an Irish Catholic who was an alcoholic. We had four kids in three years. The doctor told me to stop having babies. I hemorrhaged with each birth because I never allowed my body to heal and he said another one would kill me. The Catholic Church outlawed birth control but I was desperate. I explained my problem to my priest asking if he’d give me permission to use birth control pills. All of my Catholic girl friends were using them. The priest showed me to the door and told me never to come back until I got those sinful ideas out of my head. My husband was angry. No more kids; we have enough. Take the pill. I was torn. Did I want to go to hell? No. Did I want my marriage to fall apart? No. What to do, what to do. I started taking the pill.
It began my descent into a life of unhealthy choices. Obeying the commandments no longer seemed to matter. I was already going to hell so I might as well break them. I stopped praying my daily rosary, stopped going to mass, and stopped going to communion. What difference did it make? The Pope was God and if he said I was going to hell, I was going to hell.
My first marriage ended in divorce; after five years I couldn’t take my husband’s drinking anymore. I married again, this time to his boss. He was not only an alcoholic he was a womanizer, beat me up and I found out years later he sexually abused my two oldest daughters. That marriage ended in divorce too. After that I was a single mom for many years and my confusion about what was right and what was wrong was an unsteady influence in my life.
I began to study other religions, starting with Catholicism. There was a lot they hadn’t told us about the history of the popes and the church in my Religion Class under Father Sudbeck. I discovered that in the early days the popes concentrated on secular power even heading their own armies in struggles for territory. The Catholic Church produced the Spanish Inquisition, one of the most evil times in the history of man. This was a huge shock to me. Some popes were corrupt; some were married; some had mistresses and children. In 1870 the First Vatican Council proclaimed the dogma of papal infallibility. The Catholic Church now had the ultimate in patriarchal power.
I continued my search, going to Protestant services and to a Buddhist Temple. I decided that if I was an alien landing on earth and wanted to see samples of the earthling’s religion and they took me first to a Catholic Church and then to a Buddhist Temple I’d come out shaking my head. What was the difference? I spent years not only reading about other religions but meditating on all of them, finally arriving at my own truths. Eventually I wrote a book called A Common Sense Spiritual Path. In it I wove together everything I had learned about religion. I wrote about how you had the right to choose your own spiritual path and how to do it. I had finally decided that the pope wasn’t God; only God was God. I returned to the church but on my terms, sprinkling common sense into the mysteries, something not allowed in the Catholic Church.
Today when I heard about the priest who molested 200 children at a school for the deaf and dumb in Wisconsin several years ago I was ashamed of my religion, wandering if it was time to walk away again. The New York Times spelled out the culprit:
“Top Vatican officials — including the future Pope Benedict XVI — did not defrock a priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys, even though several American bishops repeatedly warned them that failure to act on the matter could embarrass the church…”
This is our Pope, the man that most of the faithful believe is infallible.
After much reflection I’ve decided that just because there are bad presidents doesn’t mean I can’t be an American. Thus, even if there are bad popes it doesn’t mean I can’t be a Catholic. I’m not a sheep. I’m a shepherd.