Catholicism and My Search for Infallibility

Catholicism and My Search for Infallibility November 18, 2011

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!

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