Catholicism and My Search for Infallibility

Some readers have asked that I write more about my experiences with Catholicism, what drew me to it and why I left. So I thought I’d write about the first thing that made me question Catholicism.

The Catholic Church claims infallibility. This made sense to me when I was leaving a sort of fundamentalist evangelicalism, as I had just realized that the Bible was not, as I had been taught growing up, infallible, at least in any literal or straightforward sense. The Catholic Church says that the Bible contains Truth but need not be factually true in every detail, and that I could live with. What worried me in this new understanding of the Bible, though, was the lack of some bottom line. If we couldn’t take the Bible at face value, how were we to decide what was right and what wasn’t? How were we to avoid simply picking and choosing? The Catholic Church had an answer: it had passed down true doctrine and traditions from the apostles and was authorized by God to promote this truth. This was very appealing.

What first bothered me, to be perfectly honest, was the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality. Birth control: sin. Masturbation: sin. Non-procreative sex: sin. This started to seem a lot like an attempt to control people’s personal lives, and it began to feel all too similar to some of what I’d been taught growing up, to my sexual repression and my belief that having an extremely large family, with pregnancy after pregnancy, was my role as a woman. What in the world could be wrong with a loving married couple engaging in oral sex, or with a loving, married couple deciding that three children was all they could properly care for and therefore having a vasectomy or tubal ligation? The Catholic Church does allow for natural family planning, but even this seemed contradictory. If birth control is wrong because sex is supposed to always be inherently procreative, isn’t intentionally having sex only when the wife isn’t fertile, well, cheating?

One thing that had attracted me to the Catholic Church in the first place was its teachings on social justice. I loved that the Catholic Church cared deeply about improving people’s lives in the here and now, about seeing that people have food, water, and health care. I loved having a faith that cared more about helping people than about converting them. But I began to see that in the Catholic Church social justice takes a backseat to controlling sex. How could the Catholic Church discourage condom use in Africa and watch while millions died of AIDS? How could the Catholic Bishops in the U.S. care more about trying to end women’s birth control health insurance coverage than about organizing to support universal health care for all? Did controlling people’s sexual lives matter more than feeding the poor, bringing medicine to the sick, and housing the destitute?

The church I had found so beautiful started to fall apart for me on these points, and since it claimed infallibility, if I couldn’t trust it here how could I trust it at all? My belief in the infallibility of the Bible fell apart when I found that a literal reading of Genesis doesn’t stack up with science or archaeology; my belief in the infallibility of the Catholic Church fell apart when I found that it’s teachings on sexuality just did not make sense.

I could have kept trusting the Catholic Church anyway; I could have told myself that even if it made no sense it was still true because the church was infallible. But then, I could have done the same thing before, and trusted that young earth creationism was correct even though scientific evidence is completely against it, and that my father knew what was right for me even though what he said no longer made sense. But I didn’t, because, well, that’s how I roll. I ask questions and I use my brain. If someone tells me to shut up and turn off my brain, that’s my cue to run the heck away.

And so, little by little, I left the Catholic Church. My questions got bigger and bigger, ballooning from “but how can oral sex in marriage be wrong?” to “but how could God be three persons and one person?” and “but how is killing an innocent man for the wrongs of the guilty ‘just’?”

I’ve given up my quest for infallibility. I suppose after leaving the Catholic Church I could have looked for another source for infallibility, but honestly, I’m now okay without having an infallible source of truth. Perhaps it’s maturity or maybe it’s just cynicism, but I’ve given up my search for infallibility because I don’t think it exists. Books aren’t infallible, parents aren’t infallible, governments aren’t infallible, and religious organizations aren’t infallible. And you know what? That’s okay. In some ways, life is more interesting this way.

A reader once asked me why so many fundamentalists or evangelicals who become atheists or agnostics seem to go through a Catholic (or Episcopalian, or Orthodox, etc) phase. I think part of the answer (I’ll write more on other parts later) is the quest for infallibility. Fundamentalism and evangelicalism seem to value infallibility and concrete answers above all else while many mainline Protestants are more comfortable with questions and not knowing. So for a fundamentalist or evangelical suddenly disillusioned about his or her own belief, a denomination that claims infallibility and direct ties to the teachings of the apostles is extremely appealing. They later leave these churches because they find that their claim to infallibility is just as shaky as the fundamentalist or evangelical claim. And since they were able to take the leap and leave the religious teachings they were raised in for a whole new religious world, taking that leap a second time for very much the same reasons is a ready and waiting option. Of course this is just my analysis made up on the spot based on my experiences and the experiences of friends. An actual study of this process would be interesting!

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01641970264436339191 dulce de leche

    I really enjoy reading through your journey. I have the same things that I appreciate about the Catholic church and the same areas that disturb me. And off topic, but I am so impressed at the way you are able to post so frequently and still have all of your posts be so very worth reading. Thank you for your strong, intelligent and lovely voice!

  • Nathaniel

    "If birth control is wrong because sex is supposed to always be inherently procreative, isn't intentionally having sex only when the wife isn't fertile, well, cheating? "The answer is that with NFP, there is always still a small chance of pregnancy. Thus even with NFP, you still always have the possibility of pregnancy looming.There is a reason for the saying: "What do you call couples who use NFP? Parents."

  • Anonymous

    I grewp up in a very catholic country but frotuantely in a pretty atheistic family, so even if my parents didn't tell God didn't exist per se (and my gradma tried to teach me to pray) I ended up being an atheist tat says that she can't prove scientifically that no superior controller of the universe exists but se doesn't believe it does. Anway, what I wanted to say it is that even I wasn't an atheist I couldn't believe in the infallibility of the Pope when he says things like condoms don't protect against AIDS because virus are too small… *facepalms* T_T The only good thing of living in a catholic country is that I've learnt plenty of nice religious jokes over the years :)

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    It's really interesting to hear you talk about your view of the Catholic Church coming out of Protestant fundamentalism. The Christian culture you describe is almost nonexistent where I grew up so I didn't have much personal familiarity with it as a kid, but the Catholic Church was a major force and the local diocese was quite conservative (I remember there being a scandal over a headmaster of a local Catholic school, who was removed from his post for allowing students to form a Gay-Straight Alliance). I had a lot of gay friends when I was in high school (because I did musical theater lol) and I remember witnessing their pain as they came to terms with who they were and were, all of a sudden, at odds with an organization that they had felt sheltered by their whole lives. It made me so angry to see. It's difficult to imagine how the Church could have ever seemed like a haven from controlling, repressive religion to so many people but when you describe it as you do, it makes more sense. From what I've witnessed, a lot of Catholics "on the ground"–many nuns, some priests, and plenty of the laity–often genuinely are all about social justice and many who devote their lives to helping the poor break the Church's rules about educating about and distributing birth control, LGBT issues etc. and just hope not to get caught. It's further up the hierarchy, where the people have no actual contact with "the real world" where it all falls apart. Hierarchy is usually just a bad idea…"If birth control is wrong because sex is supposed to always be inherently procreative, isn't intentionally having sex only when the wife isn't fertile, well, cheating?"I completely agree. I don't get this either. Who cares if it's a pill, a barrier, or just a clever way to outsmart biology? It's actively trying not to get pregnant either way, so shouldn't it be all bad? The pro-NFP, anti-everything-else people seem to defend their point-of-view by saying that because NFP takes a lot of self-control, and often a sacrifice of pleasure, that this makes it fundamentally different and "better." Which honestly seems to me to be the latent anti-sexuality attitude rearing its head again. Basically "Sex is dirty and needs to be justified by baby-making, so if you're going to take away the baby-making, you at least ought to suffer a little." It doesn't matter how many times the Church preaches that procreative sex within marriage is wonderful and amazing. You just can't spend that much time and energy focusing on all the other situations in which sex is supposedly deviant without that negativity seeping into your view of sex in general. At least that's what I think.

  • http://wonderingwanderingthoughts.blogspot.com OneSmallStep

    **If birth control is wrong because sex is supposed to always be inherently procreative, isn't intentionally having sex only when the wife isn't fertile, well, cheating? **I forgot where I read this, but a blog somewhere made the argument that NFP is still anti-women and using pregnancy as a punishment. The fertile times are when women have the highest desire for sex, and yet the Catholic church has set up a system where the only way a woman can satisfy that desire if she in turn is willing be be pregnant and give birth. Ergo, a pregnancy is still used as a punishment for women enjoying sex.

  • http://www.thedrantherlair.com quietpanther

    Between my disillusionment with fundamentalist Christianity and my rejection of religion altogether, I too considered Catholicism. I was intrigued, when I began actually researching some of their (official) positions on doctrine, to discover that penance, eucharist, indulgences, their view of Mary, etc. were not the sacrilegious practices Protestantism had always warned against, but rather were full of beauty and (dare I say) grace. I personally love ritual, and the beauty and complexity of Catholicism attracted me strongly.Of course, if I had become a Catholic, I would have to be one who dissented with the church's views on birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and infallibility of the Pope. I never did end up going that route, though, so situation avoided.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Quietpanther – I said that the desire for infallibility is I think one reason so many go from fundamentalism to Catholicism, but you hit the nail on the head on another reason, and one that I will write about at some point, because I sure felt this one too: "I personally love ritual, and the beauty and complexity of Catholicism attracted me strongly."Coming from the bareness that is fundamentalism, Catholicism appears incredibly beautiful and rich.

  • Nathaniel

    Oh man, I just had a terrible thought. Off topic, but I feel compelled to share.Given what I have read about the Pearl's despicable teachings on child rearing, one part struck me: The bit about how the only acceptable emotion is happiness, and how their children were beaten until they acted happy, means the Pearls literally follow this motto: The beatings will continue until morale improves.

  • Anna

    "I personally love ritual, and the beauty and complexity of Catholicism attracted me strongly."100% agree. I got so tired of the fundamentalist "it's not a religion, it's a relationship" stuff where everything was supposed to be so spontaneous (even though the prayers still always sounded the same) that I felt really attracted to the honesty involved in structure and ritual. I went Methodist rather than Catholic but I still love the pews, hymn books and structured prayer. Like I could relax into the ritual rather than stressing about whether my worship was REALLY from the heart.Also, Libby Anne–don't know if you've ever heard of Dan Savage (if not, he's a very outspoken gay activist who was raised Catholic) but you might really enjoy his thoughts on his Catholic mother and the different ways they dealt with realizing the church was wrong about a lot of things: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/379/return-to-the-scene-of-the-crime

  • Anonymous

    Your blog is awesome. Keep writing :D

  • Anothermous

    "The answer is that with NFP, there is always still a small chance of pregnancy. Thus even with NFP, you still always have the possibility of pregnancy looming."LOL. No, there's not. If the woman is not ovulating, there is a zero percent chance of pregnancy.I should know. My mother can point to the exact dates I and all my siblings were conceived. My wife and I went a year (BEFORE marriage!) using NFP as our only form of birth control, and we spaced three years between our two children using NFP.The only reason you get pregnant if you're using NFP is if you're doing it wrong.

  • http://pathofthebeagle.com/ lspencer777

    >> …why [do] so many fundamentalists or evangelicals who become atheists or agnostics seem to go through a Catholic (or Episcopalian, or Orthodox, etc) phase. I think part of the answer (I'll write more on other parts later) is the quest for infallibility.When I flirted with Catholicism many years ago, it was in the midst of wrestling hard with my evangelical faith. Catholicism was appealing because I would finally be able to RELAX. They would tell me what to believe and I would just go along. So much easier than having to decide which Bible verses still applied today, whether evolution was true, etc., etc., etc.So yes, the lure of infallibility was part of it. And what made the lure so powerful for me was that I could claim to be right without having to do any work!

  • Nathaniel

    Even if you do NFP completely by the book, there is still about a 10% chance of pregancy. 25% with typical, i.e. ordinary human use. http://www.americanpregnancy.org/preventingpregnancy/fertilityawarenessNFP.html

  • http://scintillator.wordpress.com/ scintillator

    Not all women have perfectly regular cycles, Anothermous, making ovulation less predictable. Also sperm can live in the uterus for a surprisingly long time, so even if you have sex on a non-fertile day, if an ovum is released a day or two after, you can get pregnant.I'm glad NFP worked for you and your wife, but as a method it has a pretty high failure rate.

  • Anothermous

    That's why FAM/NFP has you take a break for three or four days on both sides of ovulation. If one's cycle is irregular, this should be taken into account when planning sex.I guess I'm trying to say that if you're very cautious with FAM, you're very unlikely to get pregnant.Backing down a little from my previous hyperbole, I'd also point out that all birth control methods have a nonzero probability of failure, so even if you use a condom you're still accepting that (what, 2%? .2%) chance of pregnancy, so it shouldn't be regarded as an attempt to thwart God's plan for sex any more than FAM.

  • Nathaniel

    And I think if you're very cautious with FAM, that's something like 50-60% of the time that you can't have sex. Which I think is part of the point.And note we're not the ones claiming that birth control somehow subverts the will of a omnipotent being. They are, and yet somehow claiming the NFP doesn't.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    "And I think if you're very cautious with FAM, that's something like 50-60% of the time that you can't have sex. Which I think is part of the point."Yep, the Catholic Church's solution for everything: Have sex less (you filthy, out-of-control sex addicts, you!).Not that I don't think fertility awareness ought to be taught. It's certainly the cheapest form of birth control and something to consider, especially for women who have health risks for hormonal birth control, or just don't tolerate it well. (Although if I were to use it, I would just use it in conjunction with condoms during the fertile period.) But for the Church to argue that it's some how different from any other form of birth control is ridiculous and the support for this position seems to basically come down to "It's a lot less fun*, therefore it's morally superior."*at least, as the Church wants you to practice it

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01129798215861959184 TheDudeDiogenes

    "The quest for infallibility" is a struggle I know well. Indeed, I would say it's what brought me back to my Catholic upbringing after flirting with Pentecostalism for a time. Of course, getting a degree in theology and learning Church teachings and history in depth convinced me that no institution with which I so vehemently disagreed could be divinely inspired, much less guided infallibly.

  • http://amielou31.livejournal.com/ amielou31

    As a Catholic convert, I very much appreciate this post. :)I would add to the other thoughts here about why liberal Catholics do not leave the church, that there are a number of complex reasons. Post-Vatican II American Catholicism has tended to teach about the supremacy of conscience. That is that we must follow our own conscience which has been formed by the faith in many areas. There is dogma, doctrine, and then there are just practices. Not everything taught by the church is infallible. In fact, few things are. I think many Protestants have the notion that when the Pope chooses a pair of shoes in the morning, the shoes and the wearing of them become infallible. Not so. He must choose to speak infallibly and it is something done with deep consideration and in rarity. As church members we have free will and informed consciences to make our own choices. Additionally, most liberal Catholics find great solace and great support in the church's rich teachings on social justice which are, at their core, very progressive in matters like labor, poverty, wages, and human dignity. Finally, having married into a large Polish Catholic family, I have learned that the cultural ties to the church are very powerful. My husband's family as a whole, him included, are deeply tied to the rhythm of the church calendar, the rituals of the church to mark the milestones of life, and the connection that the church provides to their ancestry. In many places, parishes very much reflect the cultural/ethnic ancestry of the community and the ties to that are very deep. People don't easily walk away from those ties.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03820077215682328240 boomSLANG

    "People don't easily walk away from those ties."Never mind the promise of an eternal life of sheer, unadulterated bliss = /

  • http://amielou31.livejournal.com/ amielou31

    Honestly, most cradle Catholics I know –and you don't graduate from Catholic high school, teach in Catholic school, and marry into a huge Catholic family without meeting a fairly large sample size of cradle Catholics–are not fixated on the afterlife in the way that Evangelical Protestants often are. It is rarely a topic of discussion. The Catholics I know who are serious about the faith are much more concerned with how they live in terms of ethics than with talking about the afterlife. And the ties that statement was referring to were the cultural, ethnic ties. I've been in Catholic churches in the middle of the rural midwest that still have Polish or Czech or other languages on stain-glassed windows and other things in the church. It is part of ethnic identification for those communities whose ancestors were immigrants in the 19th Century. And I can't figure out what the point of your comment is anyway. Apparently to mock me, my family and my experiences? That's charming.

  • waterfall

    Your posts are very thought provoking and well written. I have learned alot by reading about your journey. I am a Catholic and when you said you were going to write this post because people were asking I had to answer with a big "yes" that's me.You said, "If birth control is wrong because sex is supposed to always be inherently procreative, isn't intentionally having sex only when the wife isn't fertile, well, cheating?" YES!!! I agree completely. Those who are zealous about this teaching will tell you to read the usual "superstars" in the movement such as Christopher West, Janet Smith and Scott and Kimberly Hahn. Then they will tell you to keep trusting and submit to the teaching by obedience if you still do not accept it and then they will tell you you are going to hell if you do not follow it. That includes any women who have had life threatening pregnancies. I've never accepted or known this God who demands a women whose life is at risk thru childbirth be open to having a baby every time she has sex.The "sola scripture" become "sola magisterium" and it is just another versus of fundamentalism.I have many troubles with the church but I do find the Divine and the presence of God in the Church in the ritual, tradition, liturgical seasons and the sacraments. I have had to think long and hard about why I stay.Thanks so much for writing and thoughtfully sharing where you have been and where you are heading.

  • Anonymous

    Exactly, rarely does the Pope call upon his infallibility to make a statement. It has to be official.

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