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Shedding my Catholic guilt

Anna Rawhiti-Connell grapples to reconcile her history as part of a church which offered ritual and comfort, but is currently cloaked in guilt 

Catholic guilt is a funny thing. Even after 20 years of not being a practising Catholic, I am still prone to lugging guilt around with me like a handbag no one has cleaned out for years. I feel guilty about things I did in primary school. I feel guilty about procrastinating on writing this column. I feel guilty that my procrastination means my husband is having to make dinner while I write.

Guilt is not exclusively a Catholic emotion. It is often said that the Jews invented it and the Catholics perfected it. Still, when I feel guilty, I sometimes grasp onto the cultural trope of Catholic guilt as a convenient excuse for feeling the way I do and doing nothing about it.

Guilt and shame are close cousins and while I don’t think I feel guilty about being Catholic, I would say I feel some shame. Especially at the moment as more horrific sexual abuse cases come to light. I have no personal culpability, but I feel enough shame about having been part of a tainted institution to have spent the last 20 years pre-emptively running the Church down in front of atheist or agnostic friends.

I have denied its value or role in my life many more times than the permissible three you’re allowed as a Catholic. I have done this to avoid anyone thinking I share any values with a Church that still thinks sex between two men is a sin, that women cannot be priests and that abortion is not a woman’s choice. A church that has been reluctant to accept accountability for the sexual abuse crimes committed by the clergy. A Church that simply moved known abusers out of one parish and into another for years.

I found myself inside an almost Catholic church for the first time in a long time last Christmas Eve. We went to a carol service at St. Paul’s Chapel in New York. St Paul's is an Episcopal church, (technically Anglican but it’s really liberal and enlightened Catholicism without the Pope). We went for the carols and planned to leave after they’d finished but ended up staying for the full Mass. My husband looked increasingly shell-shocked as the Mass went on. I hadn’t been to Mass with someone so unfamiliar with it before and hadn’t factored in how deeply weird the body and blood, the frocks, the incense and the Gregorian Amens would be to him.

I felt incredibly sad sitting inside St Paul's that night in New York as I observed the regular parishioners embracing and wishing each other a ‘Happy Christmas’ having enjoyed a rousing homily filled with messages of love, kindness and social justice. I felt angry that my own church hadn’t evolved fast enough to hang onto people like me.

To me it was ritual and comfort. I still know the Mass backwards. It reminded me of going to church every Sunday with my family. Mass was an occasion in our family. I never wore jeans to church and my brothers’ matching bowl cuts were neatly combed. We were always running late, and my brothers and I would fight in the back of our Mazda station wagon on the drive there while Mum and Dad held onto their last nerve. Once we finally filed in, we took our place in the same pews each week - the ‘late Connells’, instantly recognised amongst our tight-knit and supportive parish community.

When we talk about going to church now as a family, we talk about the sense of community. We talk about having to wait for an hour outside, sometimes playing on the Jesus-with-one-hand statue, while our parents caught up with friends. We talk about the moment that often broke the long silences between my parents and I as we exchanged a handshake and a ‘peace be with you’ though gritted teeth. We talk about the wonderful priests who embodied the concept of pastoral care and have since left the church to marry or live a quiet life with their same sex partner. We talk about the quiet, the solace, the time we had for reflection on our own lives.

I felt incredibly sad sitting inside St Paul's that night in New York as I observed the regular parishioners embracing and wishing each other a ‘Happy Christmas’ having enjoyed a rousing homily filled with messages of love, kindness and social justice. I felt angry that my own church hadn’t evolved fast enough to hang onto people like me. I was full of rage that unlike the Episcopal Church, the Catholic Church had not embraced the LGBTQI community with open arms or allowed women to become priests or clergy to marry. Tears welled up thinking about the boys I went to school with whose lives were ruined by the Catholic priest and brother in my own parish who sexually abused them as altar boys and students. I mourned my own loss of solace, spirituality and community and I mourned the loss of mighty and caring people who left the priesthood and other spiritual leadership roles because the Church couldn’t accept who they were or what they wanted. 

Despite Pope Francis’ words of remorse, inclusiveness and love, the Catholic Church remains in denial about the role its doctrine plays in destroying lives and driving people away.

The Catholic Church is currently cloaked in guilt. Culpability for the crimes of its clergy lie both with the individuals found guilty but also with the institution that created the conditions. Despite Pope Francis’ words of remorse, inclusiveness and love, the Catholic Church remains in denial about the role its doctrine plays in destroying lives and driving people away. Doctrine designed to protect the Church’s assets, power and theocratic influence.

It remains steadfastly adherent to prohibitive, irrelevant and discriminatory canon law while wearing the guilt for the sins of those shaped by the institution on its sleeve. But what use is guilt if not to create remorse and change? Guilt on its own is a wasted emotion. It offers no forward propulsion. I have learned that the hard way myself over the last few years. I’ve spent some time with my own guilt and now try and adhere to the old ‘accept what you can’t change, change what you can’ mantra. It is time for the Church to do the same - move past guilt and onto change.

For all the years I have spent denying its value, I still think the idea of a place where you can find community, forgiveness, a moral compass, care and comfort has merit. Maybe more so now than ever. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church won’t be that place for me and many others until it acknowledges that its true virtues and value are being swallowed by rules that prioritise wealth and power over love and kindness.

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