As the last beads clattered to the sidewalks in New Orleans in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, millions of Catholics woke up and began their forty-day celebration of Lent. It’s one of the holiest times for the Church, shaped by fasting and introspection with the goal of making oneself- and thus the world- a better place in which to live. Normally, it’s my favourite season of the Church’s calendar; in the parish in my hometown, we participated in the Rice Bowl and stuffed our little cardboard box with at least one quarter per person for every meal we ate. In this way, Lent was symbolic of everything I loved (and continue to love) about Catholicism. As time goes on, however, and especially as I continue to carve a piece of liberalism out of the terrifyingly bigoted town in which I live, I find myself increasingly disenchanted by the aspects of my religion that chafe at my sensibilities.
This isn’t to say that being Catholic and a feminist has been easy until now. As with everyone else who holds seemingly conflicting beliefs, a solid chunk of my adult life has been spent navigating the discrepancies between the two opposing groups that hold different pieces of my values. Neurologically speaking, children start being able to hold conflicting beliefs around the time they turn ten; I tend to believe that this has become biologically necessary for humans because simply living in a social setting requires us to be able to do that, for better or worse. Whoever and wherever we are, we will always encounter circumstances that require compromise, tolerance, or some other means of coping with polar opposites.
As an American Go Girl, part of the reason the notion of conflict has become so salient has been the way my country’s political discourse has (d)evolved over the last ten years. The United States loves to proclaim itself a “melting pot” of ideologies, cultures, and experiences, but as has become increasingly obvious to me in the last few years, “melting pot” is a kind way of saying “assimilation.” The resulting tone of politics, whether in debates, editorials, or press releases, has been very focused on an Us and a Them. Sometimes this is accomplished respectfully, but more often than not things degrade into name-calling and a shouting match. Even when things appear respectful, the undertone is one of disgust and fear- as was the case at my perhaps-former church here in town a few weeks ago. After the priest distributed petitions for us to mail to our state representatives, proclaiming that same-sex marriage is an abomination and goes against the will of the people of Colorado, I went home and wrote emails to both the Church and the Diocese explaining how that was inappropriate and wrong. What I received in return were emails that politely explained that I was wrong and that, because this is the view of the Church, there’s nothing for me to be upset about. I haven’t gone back since.
As important as my faith is to me, and as much as I consider it an integral part of who I am, I’m currently questioning the association between the values that I believe are Catholic (community connection, advocacy, giving unto others without hesitation) and the Catholic Church that runs rampant through my country’s politics and media. As the U.S. Interfaith Alliance posted a wonderful request for respect from politicians when discussing matters of faith- as part of the country’s current Us vs. Them stance is rooted in a Christianity vs. Everyone Else belief structure- I grieved that none of the faith groups represented in the signatures were Catholic. I will never use the label “recovering Catholic,” which I find extremely offensive, but I begin to wonder at what point conflicting values (or, in this case, labels) are so diametrically opposed that they can no longer be contained within the same soul.
The way I see it, I’m not the only one trying to cope with increasingly challenging belief structures. I never have been, of course- the assimilation discourse of the United States means that generation after generation of people coming from other countries have had to navigate between a desire to fit in and a desire to remain true to their origins, for example- but I think more and more people who have never been put in that position before suddenly are. Travelers who want to respect the cultures they encounter often find themselves troubled by the beliefs they meet abroad (sex-segregated social settings, anyone?). Being an American comes with some wonderful perks that all people should have, such as a theoretical voice in politics; it also means, though, having to answer for the role America has played in suppressing the rights of people in other countries from running their own governments. These are just examples, mind you; this certainly isn’t an American-only or an international-only problem. I think, however, that the more we strive for full human rights and an equality-based global platform, the more we will find ourselves questioning the ways in which our values cause conflict for ourselves and for others.
For Catholics, Lent is a time of soul-searching and change. The world, faith aside, is in flux. What new directions we move in, as challenging as they may be, are up to us.
This article also appears on Not Another Wave.