How the Catholic Church Made Me a Progressive

I grew up in an evangelical bubble. When I left this bubble to attend college, I found my beliefs challenged. When my evangelical beliefs began slipping through my fingers, I grasped for something to hold onto. I found that in Catholicism. When I first converted I was extremely conservative in addition to being very fervent and devout. I read the early church fathers and the catechism, Catholic apologetic books and the lives of the saints. Of course, this didn’t last. All this is to preface the fact that a young woman I knew during the period I spent as a Catholic recently sent me a message. She had noticed something I posted affirming gay rights on facebook and wanted to know when I went from being socially conservative to socially liberal. As introspective as I tend to be, I had never asked myself that particular question. And so I thought about it. And you know what I realized? It was my time as a Catholic to did that to me.

As an evangelical Christian, I devoted all of my energy toward winning converts. I believed that our present life pales in comparison to the eternity we will spend in heaven. I also believed that only those who prayed “the sinners prayer” would be go to heaven while everyone else would go to hell. It’s not that I cared nothing for improving people’s lives in the present, but rather that doing so seemed insignificant compared saving souls from an eternity spent in hell. In contrast to this, the Catholic Church has a strong tradition of social justice. Just as I found the ritual of the Catholic Church appealing after the bare-bones evangelicalism of my youth and teen years, even so I soon found the Catholic Church’s focus on social justice enticing after the the-soul-is-all-that-matters evangelicalism of that same period. It was like water poured on parched ground.

In addition, as a Catholic I began to widen my circle. For one thing, I began to see Catholics in Latin America, Africa, and around the globe as part of my family. There was something amazing about feeling that sort of oneness and belonging. Sure, as an evangelical I had seen myself as part of “the body of Christ,” but the evangelicalism I had belonged to was fraught with doctrinal splits. There was something amazing about knowing that I could go to a Catholic church in the next town, the next state, or even across the globe, and still hear the same mass and read the same catechism. I felt part of one great united body of humanity in a way I hadn’t as an evangelical.

I also became fascinated by the ecumenical tradition of Catholicism, which has developed since Vatican II. Vatican II stated that “many elements of sanctification and truth are found outside [the church's] visible confines. Since these are gifts belonging to the Church of Christ, they are forces impelling towards Catholic unity.” Every time the words “This is the cup of my blood, the blood of the new and everlasting covenant. It will be shed for you and for all, so that sins may be forgiven” were recited in the mass, I felt a deep connection with all of humanity and a rejection of the exclusivity of the evangelicalism of my youth. One of my favorite parts of the catechism was number 847, which states that “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.” Catholic ecumenism spoke to me and I stopped sorting the world into “saved” and “damned.”

Catholicism allowed me to turn away from myself and away from the idea that I had a monopoly on truth, meaning, and beauty, and to fully embrace others in a way I never truly had as an evangelical. Catholicism gave me a passion for bettering people’s lives in the here and now and led me to set aside my focus on life after death. Catholicism gave me a passion for social justice, for the environment, and for progressive political goals like universal healthcare and an improved social safety net. Catholicism introduced me to the beauty of a society of interdependent individuals.

Everyone’s journey was different, and for some Catholicism only closes off and boxes in. In my case, though, Catholicism served as the catalyst for me to open up, positively transforming the way I viewed the world.

But there was one little problem. Once I’d gotten started I couldn’t stop. I wrote this in a post almost exactly a year ago:

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?

I left the Catholic Church for theological reasons, but if I am honest with myself that was not all. I had also already begun to become disillusioned. The Catholic Church’s focus on social justice had inspired me, but it began to feel that the Church was holding me back from fully realizing the very inspiration it had given me. The seed the Catholic Church planted in me had grown such that the I no longer fit in the Church. It was not just theological doubts that thrust me out of Catholicism. It was also love.

The young woman who knew me as a Catholic was prompted by a status update in support of marriage equality when she asked how I had become a liberal. The thing is, once Catholic teachings had inspired me to widen my circle and embrace humanity, once they loosened the “saved” and “damned” boxes I had sorted the world into, I couldn’t well limit my circle and shut my arms to my gay friends and colleagues. Once I had opened my arms and my heart, I could not close them. It was Catholicism, with its emphasis on social justice and ecumenism, that served as the catalyst for my transition from social conservative to a social progressive. And when the full results of that transition manifested themselves in me, I no longer felt that I had a home in the Catholic Church.

I have often likened my journey to that of a caterpillar-turned-butterfly. That’s why my blog’s header features a picture of a butterfly. I spent the beginning of my life moving along the ground, looking down unaware of the beauty that was above. I then entered a period of transition, a chrysalis, before being born anew as a butterfly, free as the wind. In some sense, Catholicism was that chrysalis. Within its protective bounds I changed, I transformed, I remade myself, and then I found that it had stopped feeling protective and comforting and had started feeling constricting. Having transformed within it from a caterpillar to a butterfly, I broke out and flew free.

Interestingly enough, I’ve read a number of blog posts by progressive Christians discussing something similar. Rachel Held Evans argues that she is a feminist because of Jesus, and John Shore states that Jesus’ words in the gospels left him no room but to support gay rights. In other words, I am not the only one to be so carried away by Christianity’s messages of social justice, equality, and love as to become religiously heterodox. And indeed, religious conservatives have become so alarmed at this trend as to fight back by attacking the Christian commandment to love itself, arguing that love “waters everything down.” I find this fascinating.

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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.

  • jose

    The church began a program to get back in touch with the poor and the oppressed, the worker priests. We had them here during the Franco years. They would work at a plant or as builders and offer people some consolation. It didn’t last long because more and more worker priests became too leftist for the church’s preferences and they would just abandon the doctrine of the church. Suffice it to say while a growing number of worker priests kept getting relocated for stirring up trouble, the head of the church was in bed with Franco condemning democracy, communism and fornication. The contrast is clear.

    You’ve had something similar in America with the nuns issue, their problems with the vatican. I guess when you own your own nation and spend your days in a giant palace that smells like incense, you get detached.

    • Paula G V aka Yukimi

      I loved that we had anarchist nuns in those times ^__^

      • Noelle

        The Nuns of Anarchy would make a good band name.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    IT’s hard for me to understand why would any person need Christianity of any other religion to get the seed for caring for other people (although it is a very beneficial effect) because I’ve always felt people (and animals, the Earth, …) deserve it even in my most cynical moments of abhorring certain human acts. I’ll simply add it to the list of things I can’t understand because I’ve always been liberal and never religious XP

    • Libby Anne

      Oh I don’t think people “need” Christianity or any other religion to get that seed. It’s just that Catholicism happens to be where I got that seed. I could have gotten it from somewhere else, it didn’t have to be Catholicism or religion. It’s just that for me it was.

  • Christine

    Did you hear the uproar in the US when the Pope released his letter condemning capitalism? (Yes, I’m aware that there was more to it than that). A lot of the conservative Catholics in the US reacted by looking at what kind of letter it was, and seeing how seriously they had to take it. A lot of liberal Catholics enjoyed the fact that they were no longer the only “cafeteria Catholics” (picking and choosing which teachings they liked). From the analyses I read of the reactions, it’s only in North America that conservative/liberal lines up the way it does – the whole idea of being pro-social justice while being anti-gay marriage, anti-abortion anti-pre-marital sex is just plain conservative elsewhere.

    • Steve

      Social justice was championed by some European conservatives in the 19th century? The world’s first mandatory health insurance law? That was Otto von Bismarck. Not anyone you’d accuse of being a socialist or even a particularly nice guy.

      • Didaktylos

        Well in the case of Bismarck, what became known as “State Socialism” was all done with the intent of maximising the Second Reich’s military strength.

  • Lana

    OMG I know what you mean about getting tired of doing good for conversion reasons. Funny, I do work overseas, and know a LOT a LOT of missionaries, but very few of the missionaries I know are involved in converting people. Mostly they just like helping people, but they have to pretend on paper that they are converting people so the churches will support them. I am in the process of fleshing some of that out on my blog.

  • Rach

    I left Catholicism for similar reasons myself. I live in a predominantly Catholic country, was raised Catholic and attended a convent-run secondary school. There was a massive emphasis on social justice there and in the 6 years I was there I developed a strong passion for social justice, eventually coming to the conclusion that, apart from my misgivings about the theology, true social justice couldn’t be achieved if I followed the beliefs of the Catholic church. I learned so much during that time about feminism and equality and helping others and I began to realise I couldn’t be a part of an organisation whose values didn’t fully support this. Many others who were heavily involved in social justice activities in the school came to the same realisation. I’m glad I can take something positive from my time as a Catholic, but apply it without the hypocrisy of those who taught it to me.

    • Maria Lima

      I have the same experience: a Catholic country, 14 years (from kindergaten to my last year in school) of Catholic school, and, in my experience , the Catholic Church was all about social justice, helping those in need, serving. But I soon came to the conclusion that the priests and nuns that thought this way where not representative of the Church hierarchy, and watched as most of them were removed or ostracized. I eventually became an atheist, not because the morals I’ve seen in the Catholic church did not seem good at the time but mostly because the whole god idea stopped making sense. Nonetheless, I have to acknowlegde that there are pretty good, brave people working for the benefit of others in this community. One movie that reflects this face of the Catholic church, specially in Latin America, and that I strongly recommend for those who are interested in the subject is 2011 White Elephant by Pablo Tropero.

  • Lizzy

    I can relate. Although I grew up evangelical myself, it’s wasn’t as fundamentalist. I often tell people that growing up Christian is why I’m so liberal. I was taught that God was loving, the Jesus was kind to the poor and the sick, that we should offer our assistance to the down-trodden, and then I grew up. I couldn’t reconcile my passion for social justice, which was born out of my religious faith, with the reality of conservative Christian politics. I started asking questions and the whole house of cards collapsed. I still carry a keychain that I got a a women’s meeting when I was just out of high school that has my favorite Bible verse, something that still resonates with me: “Let all that you do be done in love.” -1 Corinthians 16:14

  • Kacy

    A similar thing happened to me. I moved towards Cardinal Bernardin’s Consistent Life Ethic approach, which taught me to value the life issues involved in poverty, war, and the death penalty. I could no longer take the myopic approach of the pro-life movement because they were in bed with Republicans, who clearly didn’t consider other life issues that were just as important to me. I slowly moved towards a more pro-choice view, as I saw the Catholic Church excommunicate the nine year old girl in Brazil who had an abortion to save her life and the nun in Arizona, who was excommunicated for authorizing a life-saving abortion.

    When it came to gay marriage, I strongly supported marriage equality, but I squared it with my Catholic believes by make the distinction between civil marriages and sacramental marriages. It would take a few years before realizing that this view was its own form of bigotry.

    • abra1

      I’ve been struggling through this same evolution for many years and read something recently about how Catholics actually support gay marriage and civil unions at a slightly higher rate than than other groups because of a sacramental understanding of the world… I wish I could find it… obviously not what the hierarchy wants.

      I was fortunate, I think, to have grown up in a very V-II household and parish in a mission diocese (very little focus on divisive issues) and have long had trouble reconciling that with the Church’s **current** positions on said divisive issues. I have fallen away from the Church not because I found my own parish wanting in terms of social justice. It is very progressive and inclusive — the only things that stand out as barriers are no women priests or gay marriage though you can’t do that in my state anyway and LGBT individuals are very welcome otherwise — and is a constant thorn in my (different) archdiocese’s side, which is hypothesized to sort of religious gerrymandering (herd all the liberal Catholics into one ultra-liberal parish to keep them from infecting others). But I couldn’t continue to participate in the larger organization because of the certain betrayal of the pastoral calling (not just their actions regarding child sex abuse, the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and the status of women but their WAY of presenting is at our-way-or-the-highway).

      I just can’t decide if the hierarchy is betraying the Church’s social justice mission or if I want a Church that never is to be.

    • Christine

      Kacy – do you mind explaining to me the process of how you came to see the distinction as bigoted? I have a similar split (it’s a large part of why I think the church opposing gay marriage to be theologically stupid – marriage as defined by the church was very different from the civil definition even before the civil definition included same-sex couples). It’s always nice to have extra information to incorporate into examining my viewpoints, because if all the information comes from me, self-examination isn’t particularly useful.

      I understand that even if I think I have a lack of hierarchy I could still be discriminatory in my thoughts, but I don’t actually see a lot of correlation between the two, other than a commitment to partnership (and the sappy bits, but those are secondary anyhow).

      • abra1

        I will take a stab, Christine. The Church asserts that one purpose of marriage is procreation yet does not refuse the sacrament to couples who know they are unable to procreate (technically, if they are unwilling, they will be refused but I think that is often a mutual decision if the couple is upfront with their unwillingness).

        Though all couples promise to accept children lovingly and willing, the Church still grants the sacrament to couples who marry after menopause (I was just at one of those weddings last month) or when they otherwise know they are infertile (sterilized – though there is pressure to consider having this reversed if possible, illness, etc.).

        So that means that the only reason to deny homosexual couples who otherwise meet the Church’s requirements for sacramental marriage (at least 1 of the couple a practicing Catholic and otherwise in good standing, both baptized, having done proper premarital counseling) is because the Church holds that homosexual acts are “inherently disordered” because it cannot result in procreation (see above: heterosexual acts cannot in procreation they are not likewise considered “inherently disordered”).

        Thus, the only reason to deny sacramental marriage to gay couples is the bigotry of viewing homosexuality as “inherently disordered” though the Church tries to claim a “love the sinner, hate the sin” distinction that says that homosexuality is not sinful but extramarital sex is — and because gay marriage is prohibited, all homosexual sex is.

        The opposition to gay civil marriage/unions is totally unjustifiable. The Church has not otherwise attempted to assert similar limitations on heterosexual marriage based on its own restrictions — there is no movement to make it impossible, or at least more difficult, for divorced people to remarry or require extensive pre-marital counseling and waiting periods, etc. In other words, the Church has made very limited attempts to shape civil marriage to match sacramental marriage requirements and the only truly visible and divisive one is regarding homosexuality.

      • Christine

        Ah, I had read it as simply differentiating between civil marriages and sacramental ones was the form of bigotry.

      • Kacy

        Abra1 explains it well.

        As for my own realization, I likened it to the Church allowing women to work in any job in the civil realm, yet withholding the priesthood from them simply for having a vagina instead of a penis. They give their own rationale for this–Christ is male, and the priest represents Christ; ergo the priest must be male–but I find this ultimately unsatisfactory.

        The comparison to marriage equality in the civil realm should now be obvious. LGBTQ couples could (and hopefully soon) marry, start families, adopt children, etc. in larger society, but not in the Catholic Church. Catholic adoption agencies have said that they would rather shut their doors than be forced to adopt children to gay couples. They may prioritize Catholic families over non-Catholics, but they still let non-Catholic families adopt children–not so for same-sex families.

        So while applying the distinction between sacramental and civil marriages to same-sex couples sounds nice and tidy, on a practical level it results in real pain and real bigotry.

  • perfectnumber628

    This is really interesting- thanks for sharing your story, and how your transformation has been motivated by love and justice. At the end of this post you mentioned Christians who became more progressive precisely because of the bible’s teachings on love, and that’s my story too. I recently wrote about how I changed my position and I now support gay rights: How “hate the sin and love the sinner” led me to quit “hating the sin and loving the sinner”

  • Ryan

    “All this is to preface the fact that a young woman I knew during the period I spent as a Catholic recently sent me a message. She had noticed something I posted affirming gay rights on facebook and wanted to know when I went from being socially conservative to socially liberal.”

    Personally, I would answer that by saying that I took a hard look at the world around me, and realized that intellectually, ethically and emotionally, I needed to shed self-absorbed childish thinking and simply grow up.

    • Frank

      How does someone go from socially conservative to socially liberal? Deny the Word of God.

      • Karen

        Well, deny your interpretation of it, at least.

      • Lara

        Hi Frank! I see you commenting all the time at Tony Jones’ blog and here you are at Libby Anne’s blog too. I love both of them very much. I’m so curious as to why do you spend so much time on blogs you so adamantly disagree with?

  • Karen

    Good to hear so many other voices validating my experience! I was raised by a conservative Catholic mother and conservative Lutheran father. Did first through twelfth grades at Catholic schools, though, taught by liberal nuns in a liberal city. I learned a LOT of social justice along with my ABCs. My high school was especially big on social justice, and actively encouraged its students to go out and DO something.

    I had a long road to atheism from my upbringing, and I have some very serious issues with the Catholic church in particular. But I still send a support check once a year to that high school’s scholarship fund. I figure the world needs as many social justice advocates as it can get, and the nuns are still doing a damn good job of producing them.

  • Ted Seeber

    It is too bad you limited your radical progressiveness so much, and failed to learn the redemptive power of suffering. The trading of love for lust inherent in homosexuality, the crazy idea that condoms prevent aids instead of spreading both immorality and aids, the inherent hatred and bigotry against the unfit in feminism, all speaks to limiting progressiveness to parochial problems.

    • machintelligence

      Ted, you need to use sarcasm tags, or people might think you believe that stuff.

  • Angelle

    Jesus was a liberal. Definitely. What you say is so true. Raised Catholics, my husband and I broke away from the church more and more until he is now an atheist while I am…a believer. A follower of Jesus’ example, though I’m sure no church would own me (maybe Episcopalians? UUs?). Anyway, my mother always said about my husband that he is at once an atheist and the best “Christian” she knows. How wonderful that you can find usefulness in varying philosophies but not be bound by them. Wisdom and goodness are found when we look.

    • Christine

      You’d be welcomed at my husband’s (Mennonite) church, I know that. (Admittedly, there’s at least one fairly active attendee who isn’t even a Christian, but that’s a large part of how I know they’d accept you.)

      There’s a lot of atheists that I have more in common with than I do with a lot of Christians.

  • kalimsaki

    Be certain of this, that the highest aim of creation and its most important result is belief in God. The most exalted rank in humanity and its highest degree is the knowledge of God contained within belief in God. The most radiant happiness and sweetest bounty for jinn and human beings is the love of God contained within the knowledge of God. And the purest joy for the human spirit and the sheerest delight for man’s heart is the rapture of the spirit contained within the love of God. Yes, all true happiness, pure joy, sweet bounties, and untroubled pleasure lie in knowledge of God and love of God; they cannot exist without them.
    The person who knows and loves God Almighty may receive endless bounties, happiness, lights, and mysteries. While the one who does not truly know and love him is afflicted spiritually and materially b y endless misery, pain, and fears. Even if such an impotent, miserable person owned the whole world, it would be worth nothing for him, for it would seem to him that he was living a fruitless life among the vagrant human race in a wretched world without owner or protector. Everyone may understand just how forlorn and baffled is man among the aimless human race in this bewildering fleeting world if he does not know his Owner, if he does not discover his Master. But if he does discover and know Him, he will seek refuge in His mercy and will rely on His power. The desolate world will turn into a place of recreation and pleasure, it will become a place of trade for the hereafter.

    From Risalei Nur collection by Said Nursi.

    • machintelligence


      Even if such an impotent, miserable person owned the whole world, it would be worth nothing for him, for it would seem to him that he was living a fruitless life among the vagrant human race in a wretched world without owner or protector.

      Not necessarily.

      Out of the night that covers me,
      Black as the pit from pole to pole,
      I thank whatever gods may be
      For my unconquerable soul.

      In the fell clutch of circumstance
      I have not winced nor cried aloud.
      Under the bludgeonings of chance
      My head is bloody, but unbowed.

      Beyond this place of wrath and tears
      Looms but the Horror of the shade,
      And yet the menace of the years
      Finds and shall find me unafraid.

      It matters not how strait the gate,
      How charged with punishments the scroll.
      I am the master of my fate:
      I am the captain of my soul.

      William Ernest Henley (1849–1903)

      Some of us value our independence and will admit no owner — real or imaginary.

      • kalimsaki

        Thank you for your reply:

        Brother, if you wish for a discussion of resurrection and the hereafter in simple and common language, in a straightforward style, then listen to the following comparison, together with my own soul.
        please read the rest in this link:

      • machintelligence

        You are quite welcome. Unfortunately religions are not in the business of selling resurrection and everlasting life. They are in fact selling the promise of everlasting life. There is no evidence whatsoever that they can deliver on this promise. I need no delusions to make me feel better.

  • Carys Birch

    Libby Anne, I love your blog because it makes me feel so much less alone. In a world where my Facebook feed daily contains all my family and friends being… well… American Fundigelicals, with all that entails (the big four: anti-marriage equality, anti-abortion, anti-environmentalist, anti-evolution, plus a few), it’s just SO reassuring to know that I am not the only person in the world for whom Catholicism was a door leading out. Out of Fundigelicalism, and ultimately out of Christianity entirely.

    Thank you.

  • Bill S

    “While the one who does not truly know and love him is afflicted spiritually and materially by endless misery, pain, and fears.”

    And you know this because….

  • Ed

    For those that are religious, like Catholicism but not the church of Rome, “google” independent sacramental movement.

  • Danielle

    I also made my leftward shift while I was still a genuine believer. For me, it came pretty easy, because my mother has always been a liberal Christian. She grew up in the southern baptist church before it got taken over by the moral majority in the 70s and 80s. My super Republican phase lasted from about age 15-19 and it was a spiritual experience that led me to value social justice. As a teenager, I was obsessed with Ayn Rand and because I was somewhat a “gifted” kid with social anxiety, I had a bit of a superiority complex. Over time, I began “repenting” of pride and selfishness that had led me to value such rugged individualism. That’s when I began to view Christian redemption more in terms of bringing social justice to the world. It was several years later that I started to realize that the christianity itself might not be necessary.

  • Rachel R

    Holy crap! I could have written this post myself! I’m not kidding. The only thing I’m still passionately ‘conservative’ about (though I think that is totally the wrong adjective) is being pro-life. I have always seen it as an issue of love. Plus, when I was 22, I was a single (never wed) woman with a choice to make. I didn’t think my child was a choice, I believed my child to be its own person, just temporarily housed within my body for a time. I had and kept my child, who is now thing I ever did and he’s very happy being alive.

    However, like you, it was my move from conservative Protestant evangelicalism to (initially) conservative practicing Catholic that after 10 years has left me here: pro life, politically Libertarian, theologically progressive and spiritually homeless. I studied like you did, but after 10 years I just kind of woke up to the Church controlling everyone’s sexuality and as such thwarting many avenues to help attain social justice. It came down to LOVE for me, as well. I wonder how many other people (especially converts with evangelical backgrounds) go thru this. I said to my husband that Catholicism absolutely did this to me. Without a doubt. Thanks for writing this.

    • Rachel R

      I just read more of your blog. I guess I can see now how the pendulum h as swung in the opposite direction for you. I came from conservative evangelicalism but not Quiverfull/Patriarchy. I was just a Presbyterian. I was definitely influenced in the early my early days as new mom by some legalistic craziness ala Mary Pride, and did read the Quiverfull book. But I have always been too feisty a chick to get into that stuff full bore. But legalism didn’t leave me totally unscathed. I threw out all my records and CDs, when I was about 24 (I’m now 47). It still makes me want to vomit all over. But at least I was spared an abusive marriage and/or living in the QF/P cult. YIKES! Within months of throwing out my records I came to my senses, and now own all of it on iTunes. :-D