Three years ago when I announced to my family that I had followed my Latin American husband’s lead and converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, my intellectual-atheist brother immediately proclaimed that I had joined “the Evil Empire”. The jokes and ridicule have never stopped coming. Just yesterday he sent me the Epicurean paradox and asked how my priest and I intend to explain it. (“When there is evil in the world, how can God be good?” – To put it simply).
My family and friends’ reactions to my conversion have ranged from disgust to pity, to a mysterious type of curiosity: “So, do you hate gay people now?” “Are you going to have lots of children then?” And of course: “Has your priest ever abused anyone?” Really?
As it happened, I didn’t have a big moment where I was “called” to the Church, there was no white dove fluttering down on my shoulders, whispering the word of the Lord in my ear. I was as much a Protestant hater as the next person. And my decision to go into the RCIA course (after which you decide to either walk away or receive Holy Communion and join) was initially a fact-finding mission because I knew that my husband wanted our children to go to a Catholic school.
I expected to find a cliquey, self-absorbed group of elderly nuns and priests handing out rules I was supposed to live by. I expected to be met with blind denial of the child abuse scandal that was raging at the time, and I definitely expected no discussion of the Catholic “absolutes” regarding homosexuality, contraception and celibacy for men in the cloth.
But what I found was humility and an honest willingness to debate how the Church and its doctrines fit into the modern world. At one of the first meetings the priest in session asked: “No contraception? Is it really doable? Do people really live by it?” Rather than preaching blind acceptance, we were invited to examine the historical and philosophical reasoning behind the traditions, and it all made so much more sense.
What struck me most was that nobody purported to hold the truth about anything. Catholics have been accused of a sense of dogmatic holiness that puts everyone who is not in the fold to shame. What I found was a group of people who know that they constantly fail at reaching the high standards they set for themselves, but who try their best.
Yes, this clashes blatantly with recent developments in the Church. The speculations surrounding the Pope’s resignation coupled with Cardinal O’Brien’s admission of sexual misconduct all add to the longstanding indignation against the Church.
But the Catholic Church is much more than this, and it is in my opinion widely and deliberately misunderstood. We all need an enemy, and the Church lends itself so easily to that role.
But I think it’s a testament to the humility of the Catholic community that it hasn’t mobilised in a violent defence of itself. Instead it has bowed its head in recognition of its sins and is constantly reflecting on how it can do better.
TS Eliot once wrote: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.” If any religion can make us do that, I think we are doing OK.