I watched Spotlight this afternoon, a film that depicts the story about a team of investigative journalists from The Boston Globe who exposed the horrific years-long sex abuse scandal in Boston by members of the Catholic Church. There is a quote from the film in which a former priest who is helping the team uncover the story says that he is able to separate spirituality from the institution. The quote perfectly articulated my feelings about the church.
I was raised in a small, strongly Catholic community in the middle of the prairies. My grandma and grandpa on my mother’s side were both extremely religious and deeply involved with the Catholic Church. It was not rare for the parish priest to join our family for brunch after Sunday mass. Sisters and monks came by my grandparents’ house regularly for coffee or for evening visits. These people were well-respected, active members of the community. I write about them to illustrate that I understand the deep-seated relationship the clergy may have with members of their community.
My experiences give me an understanding of how, in Boston, the Catholic Church and its clergy members had an impact on the lives of their congregations. It was a privilege for priests to pay visits to family households. Such a privilege, in fact, that even mothers and fathers sometimes denied that there may have been suspicious relationships between their sons or daughters and the priest who was paying special attention to him or her. No one wanted to believe that a servant of God could be responsible for any vile act. And, if families did reach out with concern, they were largely ignored. This is how the toxic perpetuation of child abuse existed within the Catholic Church for so many years.
I am not so foolish as to blame all clergy for the sex abuse scandal, but the sheer number of priests and higher-up officials involved in actively and aggressively covering up the atrocities committed by parish priests is alarming. And the colossal abuse of trust is nauseating.
I have struggled for many years to understand how religion fits into my life. As a child I went to church regularly with my family. I listened to the adults in my family discuss the Sunday homilies. I was even a casual reader and server, but I did not participate willingly. The only part I enjoyed was sitting beside my grandma, who played the organ at many a Sunday mass.
Now that I’m older, I am able to see the beauty in attending church — the music, the history, the sense of belonging. However, there is an underlying, inescapable anger I feel when I attend as an adult, which these days is only in the case of weddings or funerals. How can an institution whose leadership is comprised typically of elderly men possibly represent me — a 26-year-old female? What knowledge does a celibate man have about my life and my story? What right does he have to pass input on my reproductive choices? How can I be part of an organization that discriminates against gay people and the transgendered? Why, in 2015, are females still not allowed to be priests?
I was born and baptized Catholic, but am I still considered Catholic if I believe in heaven, but not in hell? Am I still Catholic if I pick and choose which practices to follow? Am I still Catholic if I have ceased going to church? I’m not sure there are answers to my questions. What I do know is that Catholicism excels at creating shame in individuals, and I struggle with feelings of guilt for not being the right kind of Catholic. But by whose judgment? I’m not sure.
There are many aspects of my Catholic upbringing that continue to guide me. We need to be kind, understanding, forgiving, and to do unto others as we would have done unto us. These concepts are important to my daily life. But I keep wondering, how could an institution that turned a blind eye to the cries of thousands of innocent people who were preyed upon by trusted figures be guided by the same practices?
I suspect I’ll spend most of my life trying to navigate through my thoughts on what it means for me to be Catholic. Meanwhile, the institution is separate from my spirituality.
Janett is a teacher in Saskatoon.