Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Author Anna Quindlen has been in the news lately, promoting a new book called Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake. She recently spoke with NPR's Terry Gross about a wide range of topics she covers in the book, including her recent decision to leave the Catholic Church. She summarized this decision by telling Gross:
The pedophilia scandals, the church's reaction to them, and their constant obsession with gynecology -- taken together at a certain point, it was probably two or three years ago, I said, 'Enough.' Every time I sit in the pew I ratify this behavior, and I'm not going to ratify it anymore.
I'm sure that Quindlen's words resonated with many. She's a gifted writer, and has undoubtedly put words to what others have thought when they make the decision to leave the Catholic Church. Like Quindlen, many people who abandon their Catholic faith still believe in God and still strive to be good, moral people; they choose to leave because they think that they will find these things they desire -- God, freedom, equality -- outside the walls of the Church. Such a move certainly fits in with popular cultural beliefs. Common wisdom states that the Catholic Church is a corrupt organization that places oppressive, unnecessary rules on its members. The way to find freedom, the thinking goes, is to ditch the institution and create a spirituality and moral code that works for you.
To modern ears, this all sounds right. But is it true?
As someone whose faith journey has gone in the opposite direction, I would encourage Quindlen, as well anyone else who has followed her path or is thinking of following it, to consider the following five questions before abandoning the Catholic faith:
1. Are you sure members of the Church hierarchy are worse than anyone else?
When people cite the pedophilia scandals as a key reason for abandoning the Church, I worry that they're setting themselves up for deep disappointment. The fact that priests abused children is an idea so horrific that one can hardly bear to think about it, and the fact that some bishops didn't take action to stop it is almost worse. But the chilling fact -- perhaps so chilling that we don't can't accept it -- is that this is not a problem with Catholic priests and bishops; it's a problem with human nature. A priest is no more likely to abuse a child than a male schoolteacher, and a bishop is no more likely to cover it up than a school administrator.
The problems may have seemed worse within the Church because it is a single, worldwide organization, so it's easy to link all the bad occurrences under one umbrella. But if, for example, all the nondenominational churches on the earth were part of a cohesive worldwide system, you would almost certainly see the same issues at the same rates. Instead of each instance being lost in the anonymity of disconnected communities, when they were all considered together it would seem epidemic.
Other organizations are no more safe for children than the Church -- in fact, based on personal experience, I believe they are now less safe. Thanks to the pervasive stereotypes about Catholicism, people are lured into a false sense of security when dealing with other organizations, and end up adopting the dangerous mentality that "it couldn't happen here."
2. Are you sure your faith life would be better outside of the Church?
Keep in mind that leaving the Catholic Church means leaving the sacraments -- sacraments with real power, which are not available outside of the Church that Jesus founded. If it brings you joy to commune with Jesus spiritually, how much better is it to commune with him physically as well? And how lucky are we to have the sacrament of confession, where you can unload all your burdens, hear the words "you are forgiven," and receive special grace to help you to be the morally upright person you strive to be?
Now, those who are considering leaving the Church may struggle with believing in the supernatural power of the sacraments (in which case I'd recommend checking out these resources). But even if that's the case, within the two-thousand-year-old Church is an unfathomable treasure chest of spiritual wisdom. We have the Rosary as well as all the other time-tested prayers of the Church. Then there are the lives of the saints, countless stories that offer an inexhaustible supply of information and inspiration about how to have a rich spiritual life. And of course we have a worldwide network of monasteries and convents, and all the great religious orders. I suppose it's possible to utilize some of these spiritual resources without being a practicing Catholic, but if you believe that they're good and helpful, why sever them from the source of their wisdom?
3. Are you sure the Church's teachings are wrong?
There is a pervasive sense in modern culture that whatever spiritual tradition places the fewest moral restrictions on its adherents is most likely to be right. This idea might feel good since it appeals to our natural desire for autonomy, and certainly it is accepted as an immutable fact by modern society. And so if a person follows the path of least resistance carved out by our culture, it would be easy to drift away from all these "oppressive" teachings of the Church, without ever pausing to ask:
But are they true?
Let's take just one example: The Church's crazy-unpopular prohibition against contraception. The Church says that it's neither good for individuals nor for society for couples to use artificial birth control. It's understandable that someone's first reaction upon hearing that would be to reject this wildly counter-cultural teaching. I know that when I first heard it, I thought it was one of the most backwards, bizarre ideas I'd ever heard. But when I took a closer look, I was shocked by the wisdom behind this thinking: I realized that contraception doesn't solve the problems its proponents claim it will solve. I discovered that it makes women lose control over their bodies. I thought of the women I've known who have had abortions, and realized that almost every single one of them were using contraception when they conceived. They had been told that it would be just fine to engage in the act that creates babies, even if they were sure they couldn't have a baby. Then, when they saw the two lines on the pregnancy tests, they felt trapped and scared, believing that they had no choices outside of the walls of the local abortion facility.
Living without artificial contraception has its challenges, but it's the only system that gives women real freedom. As with so many other Catholic teachings that seemed crazy at first glance, once I took the time to understand the details of this view, I saw that there was a wealth of wisdom behind it beyond anything I could have imagined. It had seemed crazy simply because our culture has it so wrong, and the Church is the last institution left that's willing to proclaim what's right.
4. Are you sure the Church's doctrines aren't divinely inspired?
In my own conversion to Catholicism I faced serious challenges, including the fact that I was diagnosed with a Deep Vein Thrombosis (blood clot in a major vein) which was caused by a genetic clotting disorder that's exacerbated by pregnancy. My doctors told me I absolutely had to use contraception. It threw me into a crisis where I had to discern how serious I was about this religion, and how much I was really willing to risk to follow it.
Thanks to some wise advice, I realized that the situation was really quite simple: Is this Church guided by God in its teachings or not? If it's not, then there's no reason to listen to anything it says; if it is, then to say that I knew better than the Church was to say that I knew better than God.
When I looked at the unfathomable body of wisdom contained in this organization, considered that it has stood strong while empire after empire has fallen away around it, and saw that it has been unwavering in its core doctrines despite the imperfections of its hierarchy, I simply didn't think that humans could pull this off on their own. Then, when I began to transform my life according to these teachings, I was completely convinced. Following the "rules" of the Church brought an explosion of grace and peace and love into my life, and into my family's lives as well. I became convinced that these teachings are not human-made, but come from Someone who knows us better than we know ourselves.
5. Are you sure we don't need the Church?
At the end of the NPR interview, Quindlen says, "I've never really gotten past that quote from Anne Frank in her diary, where she says that people are really good at heart." I too have always been touched by that quote, and I think it's worth putting some serious thought into. Because if it's true that people are ultimately good at heart...then that means that the staff who worked at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, lining up children in front of the gas chambers, overseeing Anne Frank and her family in slave labor, were good at heart too. How on earth, then, could normal, good people participate in something so evil?
The answer is chillingly simple: Through the power of human rationalization.
To look at the smiling faces of the employees in these pictures of an on-site staff retreat at Auschwitz is to understand that they had all rationalized their behavior. Nobody ever wakes up and says, "I'm going to do something evil today!", not even the staffers at Auschwitz. The only way evil ever works through us is when we convince ourselves that what we're doing is actually good. The most dangerous force in the world is the human capacity for rationalization.
I think that some folks reject the concept of the Church's divinely-inspired moral code because they don't see why it would even be necessary. Why would God even care to institute something like that? Why can't each person just get in touch with the spiritual realm and find what's good and true for him- or herself? The answer to that question can be found in the smiles on the Auschwitz's employees faces.
Though the individual members of the Catholic Church have made plenty of mistakes, sometimes gravely serious ones, its doctrines have always been a bulwark that protects human life. To a healthy American adult this may seem like an insignificant concept, since the only life that is devalued in our time and place is that of the severely disabled, the unborn, and others who literally do not have a voice. But that could change. The zeitgeist could shift, just as it did in Europe in the 1930s, and new groups of people may suddenly be seen as inconvenient and expendable. And one day the life that the Catholic Church stands up for may be your own.