I engage in a correspondence with a number of old high school friends. We attended Central Catholic High School in San Antonio together in the early sixties, and I would like to deposit this recent letter of mine here as well. It is about the journey of faith and the struggle I have had being a Catholic. It is my hope that others engaged in the same struggle may find it of some interest.

Here is the letter:

Today, I heard the Ireland has ended its embassy to the Vatican, and I’m moved to respond. Over the past 10 years, Ireland has gone from being in its heart a Catholic country to being a secular one. This change has, in large part, been due to the appalling scandals of abuse that have been uncovered in the Irish church, and the poverty of spirit that church leaders have shown in their response to them.

I haven’t fallen away from the Church, but rather have entered into a profound struggle with myself over the Church. The idea that it is failing on an institutional level horrifies me beyond words. For most of my life, the Church has been deeply essential. I’ve had many strange experiences, but contextually, I have had them not only as a human being but as a Catholic. At one point I participated in a confidential colloquy about what the Church would do if extraterrestrial beings actually showed up.

While qualifying my thoughts with the central notion that this is not a very likely event–whether they have somehow managed to get here or, more likely, have not–I took the position that the Church should take the moral lead in making certain that they were legally recognized as human and extended human rights.

All the while, though I continued to struggle not with my faith but with my faith in the Church. Of course, I know its history well, and therefore know that we are living in a period of exceptionally good popes who are facing exceptionally hard times. I have wondered if perhaps the Lord, in watching over the Church, has not sent men like the last seven popes because He understood the difficulties that the Church would be facing. For example, Pius XII managed to preserve the integrity of the institutional Church through the rigors of the Nazi occupation of Italy–an amazing feat, but one that cost both him and the Church dearly. People forget that he was completely surrounded by Nazis after Kesselring arrived in Italy. He was helpless before them. Of course, he had to make concessions, and some of them were not attractive ones. But the Vatican was not looted, most of its priests were not shot or transported, and, in the end, the institution did not end up with blood on its hands. An amazing feat of statesmanship.

Similarly, I am deeply concerned about the issue of pederasty and how it has affected the Church. I am not so certain that the trial that has been held in the press has had an entirely fair outcome, any more than Pope Pius has been judged fairly. There is a powerful novel out now called Faith by Jennifer Haigh. It is written from the viewpoint of a woman whose brother, a priest, is accused of pederasty. You might consider reading it, so I will not describe details of the plot, except that the book makes a moving and powerful case that many of the accused have hardly been granted a fair hearing, and that a lot of money has been tendered on very little evidence by bishops desperate to extricate themselves from a catastrophic scandal.

I am not saying that none of it happened. Far from it, what has provably happened is truly atrocious, and the Church’s response to it has been inept, to say the least. But I really wonder if the scandal is as deep as it has been portrayed. The Church has been tried and convicted in the press, and I have always found the press to be a poor jury and a dangerously hasty hangman. However, what has been proved is so atrocious that it has led me to think that the institution itself has failed fundamentally. My kids would never dream of sending their children to Catholic school, as I believe I have commented in this correspondence before, and that grieves me. I can understand it, though.

But where does this leave one’s faith? I will die a Catholic, but not a believer. My wife distinguishes between uncritically believing something that cannot be proved and having faith, and I think she’s right. For me, faith is a matter of bearing my doubt and continuing on anyway. I have deep personal reasons for this. Every night, give or take, at about eleven, I have meditated for half an hour or so, then ended my day with a decade of the Rosary. And yet, I don’t know that I ‘believe’ any of it. I do have faith, though, in the immense organ note of tradition that sounds down the ages, of mass after mass from the Last Supper onward, and in the extraordinary beauty of our simple prayers, that have been with us now across the whole magnificent adventure of western civilization, drawing us back, again and again, to the mystery out of which our most successful of all human cultures was born.

It goes deeper than that, though. Every so often I feel–or think I feel–a lonely, immeasurably kind and alert presence that I sense is God flowing in human experience, and in my own small life, too. I sense an innocence that is quite appalling in its immensity and surprising in its simplicity. It inspires in me a deeply protective instinct, which in turn draws me to my own moral center: am I doing anything in my life to disappoint that innocence?

For me, what is good about the Church is that it offers a refuge for those of us who seek to engage in the moral struggle that is always on offer to human beings, to somehow reconcile ourselves in conscience with the institutional Church despite its current moral failures and its dark past. In the end, I find myself coming through all my struggles to about the same place that Evelyn Waugh arrived at in the conclusion of Brideshead Revisited: that the storms of the Flyte family had actually been animated by a hidden need: that the chapel at Brideshead not be deconsecrated.

If our generation of Catholics has anything to give to the Church of the future, it is our clear embrace of its present failure, but also our refusal to turn away from what is always on offer within its mysterious heart: the sacrament that it has carried across the millennia, and expects to carry to the end of time. No matter our doubts, we must not let it be deconsecrated.

And yet, I wonder: does the sacrament even exist? How can I know? Soon, the Advent Candle will be lit. In it’s glow, I will find a little respite from my doubts. As I join in the celebration of the season, though, there will return to mind knowledge of how many Gods men have loved and love now. Why is Christ any more true than Krishna, or Mary than Kali?

When I go to Mass, I will remember the ritual of Mithra from which it took its form, and Tertullian’s desperate assertion that Satan had gone back in time to plant the Mithraic ritual, in order to cause Christians to doubt. I will doubt. But I will not stop returning to faith, and the faith. Not because I don’t want to. I quit all the time. But then the loneliness of mortal life draws me back to the comfort of the pews.

Incidentally, if you think that the present scandals are the worst thing ever to happen to the Church, do pick up a good history. Over its long life, it has committed many a sin and terrible. And yet, there has not been a single day passing in two thousand years without there being, somewhere, somebody saying mass.

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  1. Is he in the host? really?!
    Is he in the host? really?! It must be a mystery. As a nominal catholic I need to get back!, not intellectually but by faith I think it can only work that way!

  2. Your letter gave me pause on
    Your letter gave me pause on several levels, Whitley. As ever you are painfully honest about your ambivalence toward the institution of the church as opposed to the numinous aspects of religious experience and I thank you and admire you for it. That being said, I’m afraid I cannot share even your tentative acceptance of the need for ‘faith’ in a Catholic context. Here’s why:
    I attended Catholic schools from 1951 to 1963. Those were years of the Latin rubric when one could walk into any Catholic Church in the world and be able to participate actively in the Mass. There was a commonality of experience that was remarkable and psychologically very powerful in the Latin Mass. Vatican II – which had been called by Pope John XXIII, the best Pope in history in my view – proceeded to trivialise the entire enterprise with the result that the church became more conservative whilst appearing to ‘liberalise’. As a girl of 17 in 1963, the Church’s position on questions like divorce and contraception mattered to me. I had a great-aunt who, as a nun-theologian, had been invited to the colloquies on the religious orders and the modernisation of the nun’s habits – a bit of window dressing that was a major insult to her expertise in Canon Law. Nuns were not permitted to use the term “Doctor” as male theologians did and although she wrote her dissertation – in Latin and Greek – she was not permitted to attend the graduation ceremony. I felt this injustice keenly.! Nuns – albeit few in number because of the lack of access to higher education once in the Order – who managed to be accepted into doctoral programmes worked as hard as any priest or layman who studied Theology but the nuns would never receive the recognition they deserved. How petty! But that was just the beginning. Vatican II was a disaster for women. No change on contraception, divorce, or remarriage if one did divorce. Divorce was automatic grounds for excommunication for whichever spouse initiated the proceeding. The direction of Vatican II veered sharply right on Pope John’s death and it has never recovered. Perhaps I am less inclined to be forgiving toward the Church because I am a woman and the Church has systematically oppressed females as a kind of sub-species of Catholic. Do I miss Midnight Mass (in Latin) on Christmas Eve? Sometimes. I miss my favourite Christmas hymns and playing the big pipe organ that was the only thing of beauty in the gymnasium that was to be a temporary church and was still in use 30 years later. My experience of the church was permanently off-putting. I cannot go into a Catholic church except as a tourist who loves Gothic architecture. I know more than I wished to about the history of the papacy and every Council ever held. I’ve read the most esteemed theologians of more liberal bent like Kung and Schillebeecks, Congar and Fox, and much earlier in life – Teilhard. Their thanks has been to be treated like modern day Galileos – by the current pope in particular. For me the last straw is the sex scandal. If I had ever been tempted to sit in a pew other than as a convenient place to rest after a lot of walking, the betrayal of children for decades on end would be enough to ensure I would never go back. Perhaps it is my status as a perpetual ‘outsider’ that makes it easier for me to remain outside the fold. My extraordinary out of body experiences confirmed for me that consciousness is not dependent upon a ‘host body’ and that is sufficient for me to face the prospect of death with spiritual equanimity. I acknowledge that Christian mythology inspired some of the greatest art, architecture, music and philosophy ever conceived by humans and life in the ‘West’ has been much richer for it. But I feel the balance tilted in the direction of secular values of pomp and power, wealth and authoritarianism, sexism and racism that are still current. When I feel in need of spiritual sustenance I seek out a favourite tree or visit a nature reserve here in South Africa where I can spend hours watching the innocent just being themselves: elephant, rhino, giraffe, zebra, lion, cheetah, warthogs, bush babies and even crocodiles get on with their lives in blissful ignorance of the vagaries of the human world. They are my litany, my rosary and my mass and when I have absorbed some of their energy, I go back to trying to make my tiny corner of this planet a more harmonious place. I guess that is my Basilca. If I had been -as my father had wished – born a Catholic male perhaps I would see things differently. I might even be able to identify with a male god, something I find totally impossible in this lifetime. A gender neutral ‘god’ might make a difference – the Universe/s would fit the bill.

  3. Whitley, you have written
    Whitley, you have written this beautifully and I consider this ‘INSIGHT’ a real keeper. For me you have described the human condition. The church has provided a place of comfort in times of need and a place of joy in the best of times. It is a place where people can reach out to one other. I also believe it is in the nature of most people to be giving and compassionate. In other words, churches and the like have served as a great social setting; we are social beings attached to routine. I believe there is a deep part of us whether we understand it completely or not that knows we are a part of something majestic that I call God. I still consider myself a Catholic although I am non-practicing. I also believe the church (all religions) will always be here is some form but I also think times are changing, we all need to recognize change and the coming upgrade in consciousness/enlightenment that will change how all of us view faith, the church and spirituality. We are so much more then what we believe ourselves to be. (ONLY MY OPINION).


    Where Everybody Knows Your Name (Cheers Theme)

    Be glad there’s one place in the world…..
    Where everybody knows your name,
    And they’re always glad you came;
    You want to go where people know,
    People are all the same;
    You want to go where everybody knows your name.

  4. I am also a life time
    I am also a life time catholic. I stopped going back in the early 1970’s when they introduced the horrible hootnanny guitar mass and got rid of the beautiful uplifting Latin version. My sister and I were in our early 20’s and were completely turned off and stopped going. My mother died just this last August, 2011 and I am once again going to mass with my 90 year old father to make sure he doesn’t fall. I am a very spiritual person but not particularly religious and find the whole mass a boring, strange concoction of hymns I have never heard of because I suspect they are coming from Protestant sources. And I find the whole mortal sin thing appalling, that is if you don’t go to mass you’ve committed a mortal sin. So I guess my sister and I will be going to hell with Ted Bundy and Hitler. Ha, ha!!! Now my deceased mother was a convert, that is she joined the church back in 1948 when she married our daddy. She always had a wink and sly take on things we would tell her that was happening at our catholic grade school and high school. When Marilyn Monroe died I remember the nun telling us that she died because she didn’t wear enough clothes!!! I told my mother this and she laughed and laughed and called the poor nun a name. My mother made sure I had a secular childhood and let me join the Brownies and Girl Scouts. And the nuns were aghast!!! We were supposed to join the Catholic Daughters of American not the Girl Scouts. My mom stood her ground. Thanks mom for making me the spiritual person that I am today and not a religious robot!!!

  5. I was never able to hold on
    I was never able to hold on even to that much of Catholicism as Whitley writes about in the latest “Insight”. My faith has become the interest and actions of my conscious life in becoming the most mindful and compassionate, loving being I can be.

    The following paragraph of Whitley’s would be another way I would put how I feel about it:

    “Every so often I feel–or think I feel–a lonely, immeasurably kind and alert presence that I sense is God flowing in human experience, and in my own small life, too. I sense an innocence that is quite appalling in its immensity and surprising in its simplicity. It inspires in me a deeply protective instinct, which in turn draws me to my own moral center: am I doing anything in my life to disappoint that innocence?”

  6. Living as you did in New
    Living as you did in New York, you may have chanced to visit The Cloisters. There is a certain set of stairs worn down by the feet of monks faithful in practice. Such is religion – to walk in the steps of other times, and the careful wearing down of stone.

    Merry Christmas, queli

  7. I have been struggling with
    I have been struggling with my faith, also. As someone who has been “taken” since before
    age three (and I am now in my 60’s) it is difficult to reconcile how God would allow this to go on. Where does He/She come into play with the others. Are they the same-or connected, or at odds? I have a very deep, non denominational faith in something greater
    than myself but at times it is very difficult.

  8. I think religion is a thing
    I think religion is a thing of the past. If there is something to believe in I think it will be more like what the Master of the key describes:
    “All are responsible for all” is a powerfull message.

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