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Confessions Of A Bad Catholic

My first reconciliation was a disaster.

If you don’t come from an aggressively Mexican-Catholic family, reconciliation might be a foreign concept. But at age 7, my first reconciliation, or confession, was a big milestone. In Religion Education on Wednesday afternoons, we practiced trial runs, during which we’d take turns being the priest and the confessor, practicing the Hail Mary and Act of Contrition with the kind of diligence only 7-year-olds can muster (read: I ran around the church lobby and tried to drink some Holy Water. Oh, the sacrilege).

When doomsday approached, I was painfully nervous. Even as a kid, the concept of imparting all my childish sins (lying to mom, mercilessly bullying my younger sister, etc.) to a strange old man in a dress seemed terrifying. When the time came to relay my sins, I was so anxious about the whole thing that I completely forgot the list of wrongdoings I had compiled in my head.

So I lied.

Naturally, I compensated quite creatively, using Harry Potter characters to make up a fictional laundry list of awful things I had supposedly done. My blatant false and vaguely witchcraft-themed confessional shocked the poor man so much that he let me off with a Hail Mary and a disturbed look.

That was the first of my many falling-outs with Catholicism.

When I was growing up, the Catholic faith reminded me of the goody-two shoes in class who told on her classmates’ bad behavior. She was always there, judgmental comment ready, itching to turn you into the powers that be. You’re sneaking out the window? That’s a sin. Lying to your parents? Think of the consequences to your actions! As you grow up, and your misdeeds get more and more serious, there she is, in the back of your head: You’re going to Hell.

God, shut up Catholicism! You’re such a buzzkill! I just want to drink the beer I snagged from my parents and hid in my sock drawer without you lecturing me.

It was around high school that religion turned into more of a nuisance than a comfort for me. That’s when I started disagreeing with the social doctrines of the Catholic Church. All my religion teachers basically considered me a demon because I would raise my hand high in class and ask the sort of questions that made everyone uncomfortable.

“How can homosexuality be a sin if God tells us to love everyone?”

“Do you think the officials of the church contribute to the patriarchal system in our society?”

Then there was the worst one: “Are you sure about this whole God thing?”

In retrospect, being such a jerk about the whole thing was not the proper way to express my religious doubts. Do not be a walking migraine and bring up abortion debates or capital punishment to your poor, bemused high school teachers. Putting them on the spot regarding some of the most difficult theological questions you can ask yourself is not the move.

For inquisitive, argumentative people, whose political affiliations lean socially liberal, religion can be a sure source of conflict. Mixing organized religion with liberal intellectuals is like putting a Tyrannosaurus Rex and a golden retriever puppy together and saying, “Now, play nice!”

But for some reason, many still identify as Catholic. Not in an “every Sunday in the pews” devotee, sort of way. On forms, we check “Roman Catholic” without a second thought. On Ash Wednesday, we go to church and receive smoky crosses dutifully. We wear pastels to Easter Sunday, and bow our heads with the congregation, even if we feel phony. We still wear the gold crosses we got for confirmation—whether it’s out of duty or sentimentality is anyone’s guess. We are the “Bad Catholics,” the Boo Radleys of organized religion.

So why do people do it? Why do people still consider themselves a Catholic or a Christian even though they’re not on board with so many of the fundamental aspects of not only Catholicism, but religion in general?

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Maybe over the years it has become part of someone’s identifier in the same way “female” or “brunette” have. Maybe there’s a sort of childish solace in repeating these ritualistic actions of Mass and Reconciliation. As much as the world changes and breaks and shatters, church always seems to be consistent, doesn’t it?

Being a Bad Catholic can also make you extremely envious of all the real believers, the people who can put their qualms and questions aside and have actual faith in something, even without tangible evidence it exists. Bad Catholics aren’t like that. Something in the fundamental chemistry of our brains, we’re missing something that determines our ability to believe. There’s too much doubt, or pessimism, or brashness there.

Maybe there’s a part of us all that craves the idea of faith, and for that reason we hang onto the tangible—to the gold cross and the ashes.

This is a risky thing to write about. There is a reason we don’t mention religion at dinner parties: religion brings up fervor in humanity that goes virtually unrivaled. When answers to these questions of ultimate concern don’t align, the results can be catastrophic. It is one of the most controlled subjects at BC. We are so concerned about being “safe” or politically correct that, outside of theology classes, all we hear are often blase, cookiecutter responses.

“I’m Christian, but I’m not practicing.”

“Church isn’t really my thing.”

We don’t bother with, “Actually, I’ve had a complicated relationship with the idea of God since I was a small child, and somehow, I have certain culturally Christian aspects ingrained into my view of the world.” Maybe if we had honest, raw conversations about these things outside the classroom, if we confessed how we really see the world, things could be different.

But the reality is too complicated, too difficult.

Featured Image by Francisco Ruela / Heights Graphic

March 22, 2015