Our Catholic Legacy: We Were Raised Not To Question

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My purpose in writing this blog is to work out how and why I became the person I am, instead of the person I wanted to be and was born to be. My purpose is also to share this journey with you, because as a woman raised Catholic, it’s your story too.

Every once in a while, I come across a piece of information that causes part of our story to snap into focus. Reading Arlie Russell Hochschild’s book Strangers in Their Own Land, I came across information that caused just such a snap.

Hochschild describes the efforts of the California Waste Management Board (CWMB) to figure out where to build a waste-to-energy plant, which would burn garbage and turn the resulting heat into electricity. It’s not easy to convince communities to accept waste-to-energy plants,  because of the health risks from the pollution they emit. They also tie up traffic, because they depend on an endless stream of garbage trucks delivering trash. They stink, and they're noisy. They reduce property values, and provide few jobs. Who wants such a facility in their community?

CWMB knew it wouldn’t be easy to find a site for their plant, so they hired a consultant to help them figure out where to build it. The consultant conducted a study, and based on the results concluded that the best way to get a community to accept a waste-to-energy plant was not to butt heads with the local citizenry, or to try to convince them that the plant was actually good for their community, or at least not harmful. Rather, the study advised that CWMB “find a citizenry unlikely to resist.”

Who might that citizenry be? The consultant listed “characteristics of ‘the least resistant personality profile’”, and toward the top of that list were these two characteristics:

  • Catholic
  • Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism

Finding Catholic on the list was, at first, startling. Nobody likes to think their cultural background makes them a patsy for corporations looking for compliant, unresistant groups to exploit. But on reflection, it makes perfect sense. Catholicism is based on convincing its members not to question. To follow, not to lead. We are taught from the time we’re infants that we are sheep and priests are our shepherds, and that this relationship isn’t optional. Without priests, without the church, we cannot have direct communion with God. We also cannot have our sins forgiven, and so will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Without the church, we can't have a connection with the divine, here on earth and in heaven.

Even in today’s world, with its emphasis on personal empowerment, individual freedom and self-determination, Catholics are still taught that they need to be led. That the fate of their souls depends on accepting their role as sheep. 

To resist requires that one has the capacity to question the status quo and imagine a different outcome. But Catholics are not raised to question how things are. Imagining a different outcome, questioning the status quo - this is not something good sheep do.

And what about the other bullet point - Uninvolved in social issues, and without a culture of activism? Initially, that doesn’t sound like Catholics. Fighting poverty is a famous Catholic cause, as is fighting to overturn Roe v. Wade. But while there are many Catholics who donate time and money to these causes, they are causes the church specifically endorses, and advocates for.

A culture of activism requires that people see injustice in all its forms and step forward to fight it. The culture for Catholics, who are taught to obey, is not about seeing injustice. It’s about seeing injustice where church leadership identifies the social justice causes the church has decided are in alignment with its goals.

When it comes to teaching its members to think for themselves, to question the status quo and to aid causes they believe are important and relevant, well, no. This is specifically not what the church teaches. We were taught that we were soldiers for Christ, but really we were trained to be soldiers for the church, to do what we were told, to believe what we were taught to believe and think what we were taught to think. To respect the chain of command that puts the church always between us and God.

As justification, we were told we belonged not only to the religion that was the right one, that could get us into heaven, but also to a church that had the greatest integrity and moral authority, from the pope on down through the bishops and priests. In case we had any doubts about trusting the church’s leadership, we could rest easy. We were being led by a group of holy men who were in direct connection with God. What could go wrong?

As it turns out, lots. Church leadership has often put its own agenda before protecting and caring for its fellow human beings. And as we’ve come to find out, it has even chosen to shelter pedophile priests rather than protect little Catholic children*.

This journey to understand what happened to us as women raised Catholic has been a series of doors that have each revealed a part of the story. This part is critical because it explains how beliefs about ourselves as women were so very deeply planted.

Not only were we taught that as women we were to be like submissive, silent, virginal Mary and not like seductive, headstrong Eve. Not only were we taught that our roles were to get married and have children, and to be companions for our husbands. Not only were we taught that God wanted us to be of service to anyone in need, but only in ways sanctioned by the church. We were also taught not to question what we were being taught. We were God’s sheep, and God had appointed the church to tell us what to do and what to think. It was our job to accept, to obey, and not to question.

Looking in from the outside, it is so deep and so creepy. How could parents send their children off to be taught to do as they were told? To obey the priest without question? To not think critically about what they were being taught?

And how could any organization that does this to children be held in such high regard?

From the inside, from the perspective of being a little girl going off to parochial school each day or to CCD classes each week, learning Bible stories, memorizing the catechism, feeling so special and so holy when we received our first communion and our confirmation – it all seemed so normal. Nobody was questioning or doubting. This was our culture, this is what happened to our parents, and to their parents. Generations upon generations of people, being taught not to think and not to question.

And for thousands of years, it mostly worked. There were always those who questioned and refused to obey, but they were easily taken care of. The church called them heretics and witches, and imprisoned, tortured and killed them. Aside from those outliers, Catholics did what they were told to do, and thought what they were told to think.

We are so very lucky to live now and not then. I will not be tortured or burned at the stake for writing this blog, and you will not suffer the same fate for reading it. We are finally free enough to think for ourselves, to ask questions, and to figure out what happened to us.



*Here are a few historical examples:

Pope Pius XII’s failure to challenge Nazi Germany about its Final Solution despite his knowledge of Germany’s program for exterminating Europe’s Jewish population  https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/10/the-holocaust-and-the-catholic-church/305061/

Church leadership’s preference for maintaining the segregated status quo in the South during and after the civil rights movement, resisting efforts from outside the church, and from within its own ranks, to desegregate its churches and stand for desegregation in the South http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-1086

The church’s complicity in the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and its sheltering of priests and nuns who actively participated in the killings  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/08/catholic-church-apologise-failure-rwanda-genocide-vatican

Scores of Catholic priests worldwide preyed on children, while a cabal of senior church officials covered up their crimes https://www.amazon.com/Betrayal-Catholic-findings-investigation-Spotlight/dp/0316271535/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1517417140&sr=1-1&keywords=spotlight