As I’ve said before on this blog, my lifetime goal has been to know what’s true and what’s not. When young, I particularly wanted there to be a God and also for Catholicism to be his one and only religion, but the more I investigated the less likely either seemed. Any reading of the history of the Church reveals horror after horror where millions died because of its unforgivable cruelty. Take the Crusades: the body count is somewhere between one and nine million dead (about half of them Christians, the others being either “heathens” or unlucky bystanders). The Inquisition produced a relatively smaller number of “only” 6,000 deaths (and some experts plump for a much higher figure). Consider also the millennia of witch burnings (“Thou shalt not allow a witch to live,” thunders the Bible). Such atrocities were accomplished not only by Catholic institutions but also by eager Protestants and civil authorities, with everyone devoutly slaying between 60,000 and 100,000 people, mostly women. These are the numbers for deaths, and say nothing about the many more millions who didn’t actually die but were “merely” tortured, persecuted, or abused. Popes from the 800s to the mid-sixteenth century were often outrageously immoral or even criminal. Consider Urban IV (1378–1389), who complained that he didn’t hear enough screaming when Cardinals who had conspired against him were being tortured. You may protest that such obvious villainy passed long ago, but the Church today continues practices that are hard to justify. I myself (and I’ll bet you too) believe in freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of personal choice (how large a family to have, for example—note that Mother Theresa would not permit birth control in INDIA!), equality for all people (including especially women), but the Catholic Church believes in none of these. Even the inquisition continues under the Vatican’s current name: “The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.” Pope Benedict himself was its head before his elevation. In 1986, then Cardinal Ratzinger, he signed his famous “Halloween” letter (so-called because it came out on October 31), explaining the Church’s position on homosexuality, which he called an “intrinsic moral evil,” adding that while no one could endorse gay-bashing, it's understandable how it happens given the natural revulsion of devout people to homosexuality. Google up the letter and read it for yourself. It outraged many Catholics, straight and gay, and more than a few of the latter left the church or, sadly, committed suicide in an agony of religious despair. The current misdeeds of the Church are headline stories, exposing decades of sexual abuse cover-ups all over the globe (such cover-ups themselves are criminal in many jurisdictions). The church’s most recent response is to blame homosexuality (of course).
As a young man, I was further dismayed when my investigations of other religions revealed they were no better at dealing with people outside their faiths. Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, the Protestant denominations, the religions of Asia and Africa, and the hundreds of thousands of other sects that have fought for spiritual domination through millennia, all have ugly histories fraught with deeds most definitely not taught to their adherents. What kind of God would allow all this evil to be done in his name? One wonders what Jesus himself would say if he toured the current Vatican and saw the ostentatious wealth proudly on display (it astonished me when, then a sailor, I visited Rome in 1962). It was all very depressing to contemplate.
Of course I knew that religions—Catholicism a leader among them—engage in many good works, and provide major comfort to their flocks in times of trouble and distress, a very valuable service. That’s praiseworthy, and I praise it. But do we excuse the bad things people do because these same people also have an admirable side?
When I was in college at the University of Maryland in the mid-1960s, my roommate, “Big Al” was a Catholic and we had major discussions about all this. In the spring of 1965 he persuaded me to make my “Easter Duty,” which meant going to confession and then taking communion at mass. It had been years, but I thought that I owed Catholicism another good faith attempt. So the night before I lay in bed and thought about my sins. What inexcusable personal conduct really troubled me? What was I doing that was truly wrong? There was nothing traditionally obvious: I didn’t, for example, steal or commit crimes, and (alas) I had no sex life at all (there’s a long story why not, which I’ll post one day). But the answer that did come to me was that I was being lazy and not devoting myself to my studies, thereby wasting my parents’ money and betraying their trust. I felt horribly guilty viewing my behavior this way; it was all too true. That night I tossed and turned, and couldn’t wait to get to confession and talk to the priest, hoping for guidance as how best to exculpate myself. I knelt down humbly in the confessional and said, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; it’s been two years since my last confession,” and plunged into a detailed explanation of my transgression. When I was done there was a pause, and then the priest asked, “How often do you masturbate?” Without replying, I rose and left the booth.
When I was in law school, my most devout mother (who was always praying to St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes, about her wayward son) persuaded me to give confession one more try. Loving her much, I dutifully went down to the local church and entered the confessional. I told the very young priest who was hearing confessions that day of my past and much of what I’ve detailed above, and ended by saying, “Father, I’m afraid that not only have I lost my faith in Catholicism, but in God as well.” To my surprise he replied with vigor, “You know, the same thing happened to me when I was in the seminary!” Amazed, I asked, “What did you do to recover your faith?” He answered, “I prayed and prayed and prayed, and it worked! Eventually I believed again!” Sadly I told him that while I was grateful for his candor I was also certain that copious prayer was not part of my future. He graciously wished me well, and Catholicism and I parted company forever.
“Update: Urban Meyer and the NON-Christian Buckeye Football Team,” August 24, 2012
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013