I’m going to try to keep this short and sweet, because I don’t know that it requires a lot of explanation and other people have already told stories similar to this one many times over. Sure, it’s my story this time, but that doesn’t necessarily make it more interesting for you to read. Anyway, on with the show.
I was raised in a “Catholic” household. I use sarcastic air-quotes here because my home was not a stereotypical Catholic home, and thus it’s almost unfair to classify it as such. My father is a cradle Presbyterian (though he’s been practicing Catholicism for the last twenty-something years) and my mother is a cradle Catholic. I was always carted to church growing up, and I attended Sunday school classes, but that was the extent of it. No prayers at home (save for the occasional grace before meals, when we remembered). No rosaries or Bible readings. And certainly no discussions about faith, God, or the Catholic Church. I went to public school and spent my time on other pursuits. My knowledge of religion came from weekly Masses, and nowhere else.
As I got older, I became interested in learning more about Jesus and all that rigmarole. When I was about twelve, I attended a weeklong summer service trip in a nearby town and worked with an impoverished migrant population. This adventure taught me how to feel the presence of God. Doing good things for others made me happy and satisfied; I attributed this emotion to the Holy Spirit and its invigorating presence in my soul. After that trip, hanging with the youth group in middle and high school seemed natural. I attended Catholic conventions and rallies. I became a leader in my church community. I was often the only person in my family who wanted to go to church, and as soon as I was able to drive I generally flew solo on Sunday morning. But none of that bothered me: I was sure that I was doing the right thing, and any doubts I had about my faith I attributed to my lack of a firm Catholic upbringing. Surely I’d know all the answers, if only I had the time to study/had had them drilled into my head from the beginning!
High school graduation arrived, and with it came a college acceptance letter. I attended a public liberal arts university, and on my first day there I sought out the Newman Ministry on campus. It was a thriving community, filled with firm believers who were knowledgeable in all areas of the faith. I was among people my own age who shared my beliefs. I’d at last found a place that I could call home! I dove eagerly into every activity they could throw at me, attending retreats and other functions with great regularity. I learned new things about the Church; my first experience with Adoration (the Catholic practice of displaying and worshipping the “Body of Christ”, in the form of a communion wafer of course) took place during that initial year, and I learned many new things about Catholic morality (for example, I had no idea that there were “degrees” of sin, i.e. mortal and venial). Again, I found no reason to doubt or wonder at why I believed what I believed, or whether it was all true and worth following. People I thought were cool were telling it to me. That was good enough. I was among believers. I knew very few people of other religions, and no atheists. My main friend group consisted of Catholics and other Christians. Why would I ask any questions in that kind of environment?
Well, all right, perhaps I should be a bit more generous, because I wasn’t entirely without questions. I took an introductory course in the philosophy of religion (incidentally, my professor is extremely well-known in the field; I’ve seen his work cited in my textbooks and on some of the atheist blogs I’ve read) and came out with more questions than answers. Why did it seem like every argument for God ended in a heap of fractured logic, while every argument against God led to, if nothing else, the idea that disbelief was at least reasonable?
Another incident that planted small seeds of doubt was a series of classes I took with the Ministry. They were extracurricular and student-run, so their accuracy with regard to Catholic doctrine is somewhat questionable, but I have no reason to think that my teacher (a fellow student) misled her pupils deliberately. She taught us to the best of her ability with all the materials she had access too. The classes were on the Theology of the Body (ToB), which, in short, is a series of teachings that explain the divine purpose of human sexuality. I attended these courses and listened to her words with increasing unease; I felt utterly unprepared as I discovered how strict the boundaries were. I’m sure you’re aware of the basics: birth control is wrong, pre-marital sex is wrong, etc. etc. Catholicism 101, right? Well, this class explained why the Church taught against these acts. And the reasoning behind many of the tenets was, as far as I could tell, shaky at best and downright contradictory at worst.
I hope you’ll pardon a brief anecdote on that topic. One of the inconsistencies that bothered me the most was this one: ToB proclaimed that love needed to be given Freely, Fully, Faithfully, and Fruitfully, or it was not “real” love, but instead some kind of twisted perversion of love, one which God could not bless. This was all explained in great detail, but the thing that struck me was the claim that having sex without being married or while using birth control was denying one of those F’s (Fully and Fruitfully, respectively). Furthermore, if I were to commit such an act, doing so would be tantamount to lying, because what I’m doing when I have sex under these conditions (unmarried, with birth control) is saying through my action, “I want to give myself to you… but not my whole self.” Thus, although my act of engaging in sex indicates that I wish to give everything I have to my partner (which is why I’m having sex in the first place), this is impossible while the conditions are being met, and thus I am being untruthful in my actions. My body is saying one thing, but my heart is saying another. Basically, I am lying with my body, and lying is a sin.
Counter this with a point made much later in the sequence (perhaps to help keep people from noticing the logical discrepancy?): many of the teachings of ToB are not in line with the beliefs of American society. Pre-marital sex, birth control, and so on are all widely accepted in our country today. And thus, convincing oneself that these things are wrong, for reasons that required a month of classes to explain, is a tough task. How were we told to go about it, you ask? One of the keys was—and I wish desperately that I could quote the documents I was given on this subject, but I have lost them over the years—to act as if you believe in the rules laid out by ToB, despite having doubts in your heart. Does this sound like anything I’ve already mentioned? Isn’t it the case that doing this would fall into the category of lying with your body? I’ll make it perfectly clear, if I can: In the example I gave earlier, the sin was that I did something with my body that my heart was not in agreement with. Yet when I’m trying to live my life under these new rules, I’m supposed to do something with my body that my heart is not in agreement with!
Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. That’s what it boils down to. But enough of my digression; let’s return to the topic at hand.
I shrugged off all these worries; surely they meant little to me, a true believer. I couldn’t have my faith questioned. I was too deeply involved in that community. On the Ministry’s “Search” retreat in the winter of my first year, I had a spiritual experience unlike anything I’d been through before. I honestly believed that God was sending me guidance, that I could somehow “sense” his presence. I knew what I had to do, though how I knew it I could not explain. I made some changes in my lifestyle: I joined the choir, read the Bible more often, and stopped fooling around with my girlfriend (a move that, as you can likely imagine, was met with a fair bit of displeasure in both the literal and figurative senses). Although these changes were difficult, I did my best to stick by them. And I found fulfillment in carrying out God’s wishes.
For a while, I was happy in my faith. During the summer, I ended up breaking things off with that girlfriend I mentioned (though not for any religious reasons), and consequently started my second year on shaky footing. But luckily I had the Ministry to turn to, and I found solace and comfort in that community. The school year came and went. No major turning points, just a greater level of involvement in Ministry activities. In the spring I interviewed with and was selected for a paid position within the Ministry in the following school year—I was set to be a Retreat Planner, along with another student who I’ll call Blair. My involvement had reached its highest point. I’d never felt so in tune with Christ or the Church, and I anxiously awaited my opportunity to give others the kind of experience that had brought me closer to God just twelve short months prior. I was on fire with God’s love. The Holy Spirit imbued me with purpose and zeal. Nothing could stop me.
And surprisingly, nothing did. No one came forward to say, “Dale, you’re nuts. Here’s why you shouldn’t be a believer.” Nothing terrible happened in my life: no deaths, no personal losses or tragedies, no arguments or broken promises. Sure, I screwed up a couple of relationships over the next year or so. But there wasn’t a devastating loss or a sudden realization. There was simply nothing.
And in the end, nothing was exactly the problem.
Next time: Part two of three!