The Longest Hour of My Life, Or: a Confirmed Heretic Goes Back to Church

roman popeI recently decided to return to the Catholic Church over a decade of avoidance.  I had quit over a combination of disagreement with dogma, disgust at its sexism, and disappointment in the way it handled my need for spiritual help at a very painful period in my life.  I visited other churches in the interim (and almost joined the Unitarians), but never committed to any.  And let’s be honest, sleeping in on a Sunday morning seems to do me more good than most things, including listening to some man interpreting the Gospel and telling me how to live my life—especially when he has no idea what it means to be a woman in this (or any other) society.

It has been a rough transition back, though. Not because I’ve forgotten the prayers or the songs or the order of standing sitting kneeling—that stuff is ingrained from 12 years of Catholic school and years of being a good, practicing Catholic.  No, what has been difficult to stomach (besides the obvious horrendous sex abuse scandals which should make most of Church leadership burn in Hell) is the retrogression to pre-Vatican II High Mass BALONEY.

Let’s start with the singing.  As in, there’s waaaay too much of it.  I’m sorry, I don’t need to sing the Gloria.  It was perfectly fine when we all just said it.  I also don’t need to sing Kyrie eleison.  HELLO, we’re in America at an English-speaking Mass, let’s just say “Lord have mercy.” You know who sings a great Kyrie? The chorus on Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame.  Aside from that? I don’t want to hear those words.  It’s pretentious AF to speak in Latin.

And since when is the Responsorial Psalm always sung? That’s pretentious too.  And, when the choral leader has a thready, weak voice, the Psalm is excruciating.  Ok, fine, we can sing “Lamb of God” and “Holy Holy Holy” once in a while (we used to do that sometimes back in the day) but the rest of it is so unnecessary—particularly when I’ve got an operatic ex-nun with a frightening vibrato sitting behind me and a mother of four ahead of me who thinks singing the harmonies—loudly—on every song is her raison d’être.

And if that’s not bad enough, why does the priest have to sing his bits?  It was perfectly fine when the priest just spoke the Mystery of Faith and whatever else he had to say to consecrate the Host.  In fact, I used to say it along with him in my head.  Now he sings and my brain shuts down.

Next, don’t get me started on the diaconate. I know why the Church has brought back deacons as a thing:  because seminaries are empty, and there aren’t enough priests to go around, and deacons can pretty much do what priests can—and they can be married while they do it.  But the last thing I need to see is another old gray headed white man on the altar.  At least at my current Church, all the deacon does is read the Gospel, tells us to offer each other the sign of peace, and reads the Church petitions.  But I know at some Churches, deacons think they are the Second Coming and pretty much take care of the whole Mass, with the exception of consecrating the Hosts.

Here’s an idea:  if you won’t ordain women priests, at least ordain women deacons.  There is absolutely NO REASON women can’t be deacons—except that certain Church leaders are afraid that once we go back to women deacons (like we had in the Early Church, before patriarchy took over), that will pave the way—horrors!—for women priests.  And Goddess help the Catholic Church if women could serve and minister to the parish without it somehow rending the fabric of the universe and releasing Pandora’s chaos into the world.  Phyllis Zagano’s article in US Catholic Faith in Real Life discusses why the diaconate should be restored for women—it’s absolutely worth reading.  (I will come back to the issue of women in power in a little bit.)

Now, let’s talk about the Nicene Creed.  We’ve said it the same way since like the 300s.  Why, all of the sudden, is it full of pretentious Latinate flourishes?  The point of the creed was to affirm as a community our belief in the Church. (If we wanted a personal affirmation of faith, we’d say the Apostle’s Creed, like we do when we pray the Rosary.) The language of the earlier Nicene Creed was plain and understandable and it worked just fine for 1700 years.  Ok, so 40 years-ish, since Catholics had all been saying the 1975 ecumenical version (though I always said the 1979 Episcopal version, which took out the sexist “For us men…” and just left it as “For us…”)

Old Nicene Creed:                                          New Creed w/ Unnecessary Additions

We believe in one God,                                  I believe…
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is seen and unseen.                     of all things visible and invisible

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,         I believe…
the only Son of God,                                       the Only Begotten Son of God
eternally begotten of the Father,                 born of the Father before all ages
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
one in Being with the Father.                      consubstantial with the Father
Through him all things were made.
For us men and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he was born of the Virgin Mary,                  was incarnate of the Virgin Mary
and became man.
For our sake he was crucified under

Pontius Pilate;
he suffered, died, and was buried.                  he suffered death and was buried
On the third day he rose again                        and rose again on the third day
in fulfilment with the Scriptures;                    in accordance with the Scriptures
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge

the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord,        I believe in the Holy Spirit…

the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is                    who with the Father and son is adored

worshipped and glorified.                                 and glorified
He has spoken through the Prophets.             who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and                I believe in one holy catholic…

apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the            I confess one Baptism…

forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,      and I look forward to the resurrection…
and the life of the world to come. Amen.

What’s really being said here and why do I hate the “new” Nicene Creed?  Let’s unpack these changes:

  1. I object to changing the creed from a community affirmation to a personal affirmation.  What is this—a reflection of Apple electronics’ influence on society?  First the iPod, and now the iCreed?  No thanks.
  2. And why change “seen and unseen” to “visible and invisible”? They mean the same thing but the change adds four extra unnecessary syllables to the line.
  3. “Born of the Father…” I’m pretty sure that this is a biological impossibility, even for God.
  4. “Consubstantial with the Father” and “was incarnate of the Virgin Mary…” Why?  This kind of verbiage is unnecessarily wordy and pretentious.  The way we said it before was FINE.
  5. “On the third say he rose again” becomes “and rose again on the third day.” What does the inversion do to our understanding of the meaning?    It’s a pointless change for change’s sake.
  6. “Worshipped and glorified” becomes “adored and glorified.” I guess adored offers some kind of deeper intensity? No, of course not.
  7. Why do I have to “confess one Baptism”? What is there to confess?  Acknowledging one Baptism suggests that a person recognizes that she will always remain a baptized Catholic, no matter what she does.  I don’t feel like I need to confess. It’s not a shameful thing to “acknowledge” my baptism.
  8. “Look for”/ “Look forward to”… Again, there’s no change in meaning.

Ok, I hear my five readers shouting, “JC, if the new version is essentially the same as the previous version, why are you making a big deal out of it?”  The answer, my five dear, dear readers is, why change what isn’t broken?

To me, it seems that dicking around with the Nicene Creed is smoke and mirrors work, when what should be changed in the Church (such as:  ordaining women priests or allowing married priests; eliminating hierarchies that allow sexual and fiscal malfeasance to go unremarked; returning to social justice as a focus, particularly the elimination of world poverty; recognizing the importance of contraceptives to be allowed, especially women in dangerous domestic situations or for whom childbirth poses danger—as well as for women who just can’t or don’t want to support an unplanned child; etc.) continues without any kind of self-analysis or reflection.  This is the problem with a Church that is run by men, most of whom have never had sex.  You can’t have empathy when you discount fully 50% of your congregation and their experiences as women.

And see, here is the crux of my complaint—which is why I left in the first place:  the absolute unwillingness for the Catholic Church hierarchy to allow women to serve the Church in meaningful ways.  One could say, Well, what about nuns?  They hold positions of power… Yes, this is true.  But there are numerous instances of nuns being progressive in their beliefs and in their ministry and get shot down for it.  See here, here, and here for examples.

It’s time for significant change in the Catholic Church.  It’s like what I tell my creative writing students:  changing a few words here and there in a poem, or story, or screenplay is a cosmetic change; what is needed is revision:  a true re-seeing of creative work.  Changing words in the Nicene Creed (and having the congregation singing most of the Mass) is a cosmetic change—it doesn’t change the fundamental underpinnings of Catholic doctrine.  What is needed is revision—radical change at the Church’s very core, in terms of its teachings, its focus, and its relevance.  To wit:

  1. The smashing of outmoded male-dominated Church hierarchy, including embracing greater inclusion of people at all levels of ministerial service and socio-economic status, especially women, and restoring the women’s diaconate (if not outright ordaining women to the priesthood);
  2. More targeted social justice work, including a greater emphasis on defeating poverty in the world (true Liberation Theology) and the ending of gun violence in the U.S. and elsewhere (which should be considered a right-to-life issue), as well as making a serious shift away from adhering to conservative (and/or political) doctrine, particularly in conservative states;
  3. Accepting technologies and medical procedures that are good for humanity, especially women’s health issues; and rejecting Humana vitae as the sole issue the Church values. See Al Jazeera’s story Young, Poor, and Pregnant: Teen Mums in the Philippines, and tell me how the Catholic Church isn’t complicit in perpetrating evil against women and girls.
  4. Willingness to acknowledge failures of the past and a commitment to not repeating them in the future. I get it:  the Catholic Church is 2000 years old, and kind of set in its ways.  But congregations and the Church as a whole are meant to grow and adapt and exchange old beliefs for new ones.  For instance, German Catholics (and other Christians) supported Nazism during Hitler’s rise to power.  In the intervening years, the Church recognized this support contributed to genocide and was wrong, and they repudiated such beliefs (not in time to save the Jews, but still…).  So there is precedent for change.  A Church is supposed to improve the lives of its members while they live, and help ensure spiritual redemption in death.  It should not be so concerned with entrenched doctrinal sedentariness that it is incapable flexibility and growing with the times.  It needs to recognize that life in 2019 is substantially different from life in 29-ish A.D. when Jesus died—and take that into account when making decisions that affect its members.

*****

I’ve been saying all this to my Mom—when we debrief about Mass on Sundays—how annoying I’m finding Church because of its joyful slide into Latinate backwardness and how aggravating it is to see it continue to be set in its ways (as well as how obnoxious I find the endless singing and the changes in the Creed).  I think I may have scandalized her a little when I told her that Mass is the longest hour of my life (although she laughed). She probably wonders why I’m going back.  I wonder that too.

Except—I do want a spiritual home—and, once a Catholic, always a Catholic (let me pause here to remind myself to “confess one Baptism”—*cough gag cough*).  But it’s hard.  What drew me away from Catholicism still persists—and, like the rest of our society, politics, and government—the Church has tacked so far right-wing that it is hard for me to see how I can fit.  It has no understanding nor appreciation of women beyond dinky Marian worship—while millions of women across the world suffer under oppressive regimes and oppressive marriages that seek to deny women autonomy over their own bodies.  I wonder where the progressive leaning Church has gone (the changes wrought by Vatican II), and why it thinks going back to its roots (but not the Early Church roots, which was more egalitarian towards women) is the way to hold onto its relevance.

I’m conflicted.

Maybe the only way for an American woman to be a Catholic is to be the dreaded “Cafeteria” Catholic, who picks and choses which doctrines to follow.  In that sense, I suppose I’ve always been such.  But it seems to me that the Church could do a lot to improve its record with women if it started recognizing women as more than their wombs, AND it could improve its own position in the world if it would truly follow the path of Jesus—who was a feminist and, frankly, a communist—by committing itself to social justice and improving the lives of those with the greatest need—that is, remembering Matthew 25:40-45:  “Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me.”

*****

It just occurred to me that my renewed interest in the Church might have something to do with almost-but-not-quite drowning in the riptide and the two almost-but-not-quite car accidents that I managed to avoid (one in November and another in December).  I hadn’t thought of that before, but I wonder about it now.  Maybe God—and the Goddess, because I believe in her too—wanted me back.  That’s fine.  I’m back.  And maybe what I need to do is to find my place in the Church by helping it become what it could be, if it would embrace revision—even perhaps, revolution.  I don’t know what that will look like yet.  I do know I’ll be sitting in the fifth pew on the left side of the nave on Sunday morning because you have to start somewhere.

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