Editor’s Note: Instead of responding directly to the questions I posed, this Roman Catholic seminary grad addresses her experiences with doubt in free form. In my opinion, it’s somewhat reminiscent of Catholic mystics — and quite refreshing to see this style applied to earthly reality instead of divine imagining.
Doubt – It’s the constant companion of all believers. It starts as a twinge, a subtle discomfort, a bruise that has yet to rush to the surface. Believers, particularly of the Catholic variety, have a long history with doubt, having spent much time and ink divesting themselves of their dark nights, plagued by the absence of god. They are lonely, scared and empty, desperately seeking to re-establish their connection with the divine.
Knowledge helped me break this cycle — knowledge gained by studying theology in a Catholic seminary. I had doubts previously, but they were boxed in by catechism and simple fear of the unknown. When you are reared to think of your faith and its leaders as infallible, dissent is a scary thing. Eventually, learning eased that fear, giving me power to articulate new ideas and rekindle some old ones. This very slow and laborious process resulted in my ability to imagine a world different from the one I had been told existed — a world more magical, not because of a subjective mystical experience, but because of the exhilaration of knowing.
Beliefs try to masquerade as facts, claiming and asserting authority through the institution of their immutable mores. Belief is a way of thinking that contravenes knowledge and denies reality all the while requiring its adherents to capitulate to their thinking and quell dissent.
I spoke recently with a friend from seminary about her doubts. She has left church work and moved on to a new career. Her predicament is tough, as both her parents and her husband work in the church. Despite leaving her job, she must still attend church every week and suffer through the religious instruction of her child. She spoke at length of her disdain for the church and its patriarchy.
I too know the second-class status of being a Catholic woman. I became increasingly aware of my uncomfortable proximity to the egotistical phallus that is the Catholic patriarchy. I would not concede my value or dignity as a person by retaining my membership in the church.
In my friend’s story and in the stories of my peers in The Clergy Project, I have observed a pattern in the transition out of faith; one that I think is being lived by clergy everywhere. Specifically, it’s the conflict between the morals and values that the church espouses and the internal morality of the individual. Once this schism is identified, it is very difficult to ignore.
The church claims moral superiority, which is used as a means to achieve its end of continued relevance and sustainability. But for individuals and morality, things can seem and in many ways are more cut and dry. Individuals know, unless they are psychopaths, the difference between right and wrong. But for institutions, the difference between right and wrong is more fluid. In the institution of the church, immoral things can be deemed acceptable if they support the church’s end game.
I think about the trend pointed out in Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind in which clergy become more politically and socially liberal as their religious beliefs fade. I’ve noticed this among Clergy Project members as well. It’s an enormous transformation that should be discussed and studied more. Non-believing clergy could have simply turned into Ayn Rand, but what happened instead is that they shelved or rejected outright the moral teachings of their religious communities in favor of becoming their own moral guides.
In my case, my views on central Catholic teachings changed. The church says that women cannot be priests and participating in the ordination of a woman is an automatic excommunication. It also says that abortion is always an evil. But these moral positions serve the church’s end, not the individual’s. Women priests would sully the apostolic tradition of a male-only priesthood and fewer babies would mean fewer potential Catholics. My moral compass on both these issues moved and evolved from accepting church teaching to instead seeing both women clerics and birth control/abortion as moral goods.
I wish there was more openness in seminary and ministry to explore these issues. One step would be to stop talking about doubt as the dark night of the soul and instead embrace it as a spark of inspiration, an articulation of individuality and a passion for knowing.
Bio: Catherine Dunphy – A humanist, atheist and former Roman Catholic chaplain, she is a member of the Clergy Project and former Executive Director. Catherine is a humanist celebrant and communications/PR professional, who is currently writing a book about the founding of the Project and her experience of losing her faith as a religious leader.