Sunday, June 08, 2008

2007 - Leaving the Catholic Church

In May of 2007, approximately a year and a few weeks ago, I stopped going to Mass at our local Catholic church. Although I had attended Mass all my life, on that particular day, my last day at Mass, I sat in my usual pew at church and said to myself, "This can't be right." I have not been back to that church or any other church since then.

I was what some call a "cradle Catholic." That is, I was born into a Catholic family and received all the proper sacraments from birth through adulthood. My father came from a long line of Irish Catholics and my mother descended from French Catholics. As a child, I attended Saint Matthew the Apostle School in River Ridge, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. I attended Mass with my family every Sunday at Saint Matthew the Apostle Church, where I served as an Altar Boy from about 5th grade to 8th grade.

My entire community was Catholic. My friends, neighbors, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents and almost everyone else I knew was Catholic. My mother's brother was ordained a priest the same year I was born, and one of her sisters became a nun. Years ago I remember reading a statistic that New Orleans was something like ninety percent Catholic. I don't know if that's true, but I can tell you that the Catholic rituals and feast days are so well understood that even the non-Catholics are raised vicariously in the Catholic faith. I always received holy cards and rosaries as birthday presents.

I believe we had a special fascination for the rituals of the Church. The smell of the incense is so ingrained in me from my years of attending Mass, and serving as an Altar Boy, that I can recall it at will. Many people I know still feel some nostalgia for the Latin Mass. It was mysterious. We felt humbled in the presence of God, which I still believe is the right attitude. But, we also believed that God was a judging deity who sent people to Heaven or Hell based on their behavior on Earth, and that the Catholic church was the One True Church. These became my points of departure from the Church.

My journey away from the Catholic church began as early as 1976, the year in which I enlisted in the Army and reported for basic training at Fort Knox, Kentucky. During these first days of Army induction you are marched around from place to place, getting uniforms and haircuts, filling out lots of paperwork, and receiving classes on subjects like how to brush your teeth.

One of the stops we made was to a small wooden building where we were to receive our "dog tags," two small pieces of aluminum on which your name, social security number and religious preference are stamped. This is so they know what kind of minister to summon to your side when you are dying on the battlefield. We stood in four ranks facing a sergeant with a clipboard. Starting with the first rank, we went man by man and called out our last name and religious preference to the sergeant. If you had no preference you were supposed to say "No Preference." So what you heard was something like "Anderson, Methodist" and "Martinez, Catholic" and so on. I of course said "Branley, Catholic."

My platoon turned out to be about one-third Catholic, and smaller percentages of Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Buddhist, several Jews and many No Preferences. I was struck by the number of non-Catholics and was reminded of my lesson growing up that the Catholic church was the One True Church. What about all the non-Catholics in the world? If in a sampling of about thirty basic trainees there are only ten who are Catholic and twenty who are something else or nothing else, it seemed to me at the time that there were an awful lot of non-Catholics in the world.

Another thing I noticed during Army basic training was that the chapels were non-denominational. That is, there would be an 8 am service for one faith, followed by a 9:30 for another faith, and so on, all in the same building. My mother was horrified by this. On Saturdays there were Jewish services, and the faiths that had smaller representations met in meeting rooms here and there. The Army, from my point of view, went to great lengths to accommodate all of the different religions that were present. There were chaplains for every religion you could think of. Later, when I was stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C., I even met a Muslim chaplain who ministered to a small community of Muslim soldiers.

Outside of the Army I came in contact with people from many other traditions, such as Mennonites and Quakers. I was astonished by the wide variety of religious practices in the United States, not to mention all of the other countries in the world. In Korea I met many Buddhists and Catholics. As I gave this matter of different religions a lot of thought, I tried to imagine growing up in, say, a non-Christian family, and being the son of non-Christian parents, and believing all of your life that you were doing the right thing, faith wise, because your family had been in the same faith for many generations. What happens when you die? Do you face God and find out that you were the "wrong religion" all that time?

My answer: No. I decided after many years that it can't be true that there is only One True Church of any kind. That simply can't be the way God works. If so, which church should it be? Why one and not another? More importantly, how could God send people to Hell for living good lives but having had the misfortune of being born into the "wrong" religion? No. My gut feeling is that it can't be. And what about the No Preferences, people who do not affiliate with any organized religion? If they lead a good life on Earth, shouldn't they receive a greater reward than someone who goes to church every Sunday but then embezzles money from his or her employer during the week?

I thought about these things for many years as I continued to remain in the Catholic church. I gradually came to the conclusion that being a member of a faith is a cultural thing as much as it is a religious thing. When your siblings and parents and cousins and childhood friends are all practicing the same faith, it becomes part of your culture. For Catholics it means Christenings and First Communions and Confirmations and Catholic weddings and funerals. It means praying to Saint Christopher and saying Hail Marys and getting ashes on Ash Wednesday and going to Confession. When you grow up steeped in a faith it becomes part of your identity, and feels like it is ingrained in you as permanently as your skin or your blood. It is a real attachment that cannot be broken easily.

I probably would have been okay with regarding the church as a cultural thing and leaving it at that. After all, there was probably no harm in it, and it gave me a connection to my past. However, my father died in 2000 and my mother in 2005, and suddenly, for the first time in my life, I felt free to choose. Instead of following a religious practice chosen for me by my parents, I could decide for myself.

Another turning point was the scandal involving Catholic priests abusing children. This was shocking to me and a lot of other people. And here's the kicker: even while the Church was paying out huge monetary settlements and was finally forced to move abusive priests out of the ministry, I heard priests and other Catholics criticizing those who "attacked" the Church. I began to suspect that the Catholic church isn't really about nourishing my spirit, it is about preserving the Catholic church. I believe the Church's number one goal throughout its entire history has been to preserve the Church.

About a year and a half ago, Pope Benedict visited Mexico and I read articles about how the Church was dismayed at all of the praying that was going on outside the auspices of the Church. Imagine that! People out there praying! Without any help from the Church! It was a threat to the Church and could not be condoned.

And so we come to that day a year ago when I decided enough was enough. I wish I could recall exactly what the sermon had been, or which gospel had been read. I only remember working up the courage to say, "This is the last Mass I will attend."

I discussed it with members of my immediate family and explained that I could no longer attend Mass, but they could do as they wished. At first we were going to try a different denomination, and in fact my wife attended a service at our local Congregational church. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that probably all organized religions have an innate tendency to regard themselves as keepers of the faith, the way to salvation, whether it is true or not. The more I see rigidity and hardened minds in a religion of any kind, the more convinced I am that they haven't found the way. They are victims of a mindset that has been handed down to them for generations and is so ingrained they don't even know that it's really just a mindset and has nothing to do with spiritual nourishment.

Ultimately, the priests in my youth had it right: God lives in all of us. We have only to look inside to see it. God is not a thing, not a judging deity, not a him or her, not a ruler or king or divine being of any kind. God is simply who we are when we are not trying to be something else or somebody else. If we look inside for answers, instead of trying to seek salvation externally, then we will find God. No one on the planet can do it for you, no priest or rabbi or imam or minister or doctor of theology or monk, or a bishop or even the pope. All of those people are humans just like us, and the best that they can do is set an example for us by living spiritually and not by attempting to control large segments of the population through rigid doctrines and mandates.

For almost a year after my "last Mass," I didn't think about spiritual matters. I wanted some separation. I needed to travel some miles with the church in my rear view mirror, so to speak. Then, several months ago, I happen to mention my transition to a friend, Ric Kuhlbars, who had been a chaplain in the Army. We were stationed in Korea together and have kept in touch. One thing that has always impressed me about Army chaplains is that they never know who they will minister to, so they learn to look past specific religions and focus on the spiritual needs of people in a non-denominational way. Ric is now involved in helping soldiers recover from combat-related trauma. He recommended that I become familiar with the Tao Te Ching.

The Tao (loosely pronounced Dao De Jing) is a set of eighty-one verses written 2,500 years ago by the Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu. It is amazingly relevant to our lives today in the 21st century. The concepts are puzzling at first, but have tremendous depth and power once you think about them. There are many translations of the Tao, and many books written about it. The one I started with was "Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life," by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer. He presents the eighty-one verses along with an essay about each verse. I was hooked. I later found a pocket-sized translation of the Tao by Stephen Mitchell that I carry with me and read whenever I can.

Here I will repeat the 8th verse of the Tao Te Ching from the Stephen Mitchell translation:

The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content with the low places that people
Thus it is like the Tao.

In dwelling, live close to the ground.
In thinking, keep to the simple.
In conflict, be fair and generous.
In governing, don't try to control.
In work, do what you enjoy.
In family life, be completely present.

When you are content to be simply yourself
and don't compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.

This resonates very strongly with me. After I had read the Tao a few times I thanked my chaplain friend for recommending it to me and I told him what a great help it had been in my transition. He then recommended a second book, "The Power of Now," by Eckhart Tolle. Wow. It blew me away. Tolle's compelling message is about living completely in the present moment, and contains many linkages to the Tao, and the teachings of Buddha and even the teachings of Jesus Christ.

And so, a year and a few weeks later, I have no regrets. Today I feel as though I have a better understanding of my spiritual self than I have ever had in my life. Furthermore, that understanding deepens with each passing day. The activities of my life are experienced more fully and completely. I notice a positive change in my relations with my wife and children, and in my feelings about work and commuting and all of the routine things we deal with in our daily lives. I also have more creative energy to apply to music and writing.

I don't wish to give the impression that the world's religions are wrong, or that what I am describing here is right for everyone. My only goal in sharing this tale is to help some reader who may be going through a similar transition and may benefit from hearing about my experiences.

Here are some links related to this essay:

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life, by Dr. Wayne W. Dyer

Tao Te Ching, by Stephen Mitchell

The Power of Now, by Eckhart Tolle

A New Earth, by Eckhart Tolle (I did not specifically mention this book in my essay but it is very good and follows naturally from The Power of Now.)

Project: SoldierHelp, by Colonel Ric Kuhlbars, U.S. Army, retired


Labels: , , , , ,


At 6:17 PM, Anonymous John S said...

I enjoyed reading about your experiences and thoughts on leaving the Catholic Church. I agree that any church is rife with human failings and prone to teachings that are for self-preservation and not for religous beliefs. I have long believed that each religion is a cultural expression of the search for God and the only true path is one we find ourselves.

At 5:16 PM, Blogger islander said...

Wow, I like your comment, especially the last part: "...each religion is a cultural expression of the search for God and the only true path is one we find ourselves." That sums it up nicely. Thanks for posting.

Bill B.

At 8:52 PM, Blogger About Me: said...

Great to see that you broke free and followed your heart! Thanks for leaving your comments on my EHow article.

My blogg is
if you are interested..

At 10:37 AM, Blogger islander said...

I'll check it out. Thanks for commenting.


At 9:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing you journey. I too have left the church about four months ago. My husband and I have been married 24years and raised our children Catholic. My husband quit going to mass about 6years before me. He was tired of the churches laws and how they served the church not human beings. It took me a while to really understand what he was feeling. He was married for a short time before we met and the church of course does not recognize our validate our marriage. Therefore, I,nor he, were allowed to take communion or any other sacraments. It wasn't until one day I sat in church next to one of our daughters and the priest stated in his homily that the ticket to heaven was through the eucharist and we should pray for those who do not recieve. My heart sunk, and my daughter age 17 cried all the way home. She could not believe that we would not be joined in heaven someday. Why was I serving a church that made me and my family feel like bad people and less christian because we were following the laws of the church? It was then I decided that my fate was in Gods hands, not the churches. I still feel very lost. But I have tried other churches and I have not made a connection. I will definitely read your recommendations. Thank you.

At 8:14 PM, Blogger islander said...

Thank you for sharing your story. It's a struggle to go your own way, but it suits me just fine.

Take care.


At 11:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this. I too am/was a cradle Catholic and right now am in the midst of a "crisis of belief", though it doesn't feel like a crisis as much as freedom to admit that I don't believe and really haven't ever believed in all of the religious mumbo jumbo. Wow. The sticky part for me is that I have two children who have been baptized, and I promised to raise them Catholic. I'm totally fine with my husband taking them to church (or not, he's kind of lazy), but I will then be breaking a promise. I just don't believe in "it." Spirituality and energy? yes. A God that lives "out there" and watches us? No. Jesus as divine? Not really that either. It's just like, all of a sudden, none of it matters. And it feels really good to admit it.
Thanks again!

At 9:27 PM, Blogger islander said...

Wow, that's a great story. It about sums it up for me. I think spirituality is extremely important, but the idea of a judgmental deity who sends people to heaven or hell just doesn't have a ring of truth to me. I think it was made up by humans for the purpose of controlling other humans. In any case, that whole concept is not spiritually nourishing. Thanks for writing.

At 10:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your story is just like my journey. This has be coming one me for sometime. Like you, one day it just hit me. This is not right. I too have thought about joining another religion, but again, it's just like another club that I just don't want to belong to. I will need to read the suggested books. I am still in the searching phase, and have not quite settled in a comfortable place. I just know inside of myself that this is not right.

At 9:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I understand all of you. I am not a "cradle" catholic. I was born into a baptist family which is pretty much an oxymoron. I figuared out one day that I did not want to be a baptist just because my parents were. There were so many faiths available. Methodist, Church of Christ, Lutheran, ect.. I saw these churches taught different things, and I thought how is that so? I began to study the Christian faith in depth. Before then I had never heard of the Catholic Church. As I read history I witnessed the birthing of the church in Rome after Jesus's death. For 1500 years there was only one church which was the Catholic church. History is amazing and proves much. The catholic church represents one half of Christianity while Protestants represent the other. Protestants are all Christian churches not Catholic. For those thinking of leaving the church please reconsider. The Catholic Church is the largest charitable organization on the planet. It has taught and helped for 2000 years. The church laws do not slacken on changing society. They are the original Christian value. Protestant religions may be easier, but it is about what is right

At 7:04 AM, Anonymous Mike D said...

i also left the catholic church, both my parents were irish catholic and i was raised cradle catholic with all the sacraments. i left over scriptural issues, marian worship, kneeling before statues and offering prayers, purgatory and indulgences to name a few. also like you the pedophile sex scandal just embarrassed me where once my irish catholic roots were a source pride soon became a source of embarrassment. i couldn't stand being in a church where NOT ONE BISHOP NOT ONE did the right thing and turned over a child rapist out of the tens of thousands of cases worldwide, that IMO is a very corrupt leadership. i left christianity altogether though because as another poster stated for 1500 years there was only one church. it existed before the new testament was even compiled and if that church (main tree) is completely rotten and man-made, logically all branches off that tree must be too. it would be nice to join a protestant denomination that flexes and fits my ideas of god and morality but what's the point of that?

At 8:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for sharing this. I'm beginning my journey of leaving the Church and "coming out" to my family about it. It is very hard---I grew up in a very strictly Catholic, Irish family. But like you, I have long questioned the idea that any religion can speak for God. And, like you, I was pushed over the cliff with the Church's handling of the child sex abuse scandal. I finally decided to leave when it dawned on me that the Church cared more about its reputation than the safety and innocence of its children.

But what do I know... I'm just a woman. :)

At 11:23 AM, Blogger islander said...

I am happy to report that as of February 2011 I have stuck to my path and have no regrets. I find that yoga and piano playing are the most spiritually satisfying things that I do. Good luck on your journey.

- Bill

At 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read your story with interest. I agree that one's faith should not be blind acceptance of tradition.

I cannot, however, accept your premise that "God is simply who we are when we are not trying to be something else or somebody else." Not to say we cannot find Him inside us (I recommend "Mere Christianity" by C.S. Lewis, who starts the book by introspection), but it was nothing inside me that created the universe. No, that aspect of God is not found in humans, although we were created in His image (whatever our "cradle religion.") No, there is no perfect religion, be it Catholicism or Baptist or Islam. But there is a perfect Man, Jesus Christ, who was God in the flesh, and who is the only remedy for sin in mankind among all the world's religions.

At 11:28 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is now Feb. 2015. Your beautiful post is still a light in a great cacophany. I have been in and out of the church for several years, and whenever I am "in" I am deeply troubled. I feel so much more at peace at one with my understanding and experience of "God" outside the church. The problem is having so many friends and connections in the church... the embarrassment and shame of admitting to them that I'm not one of their Secret Chosen Club any more. Maybe never truly was. I feel free, heavy, seeking release from The Burden of Self-Righteousness. Thank you for your post.


Post a Comment

<< Home