“A reminder that Catholics should not support LGBTQ ‘Pride Month’ events held in June. They promote a culture and encourage activities that are contrary to Catholic faith and morals. They are especially harmful to children.”
Thomas Tobin, Bishop of Rhode Island , on Twitter, June 1, 2019
I was a good Catholic boy, obedient and devout. Everyone thought I would become a priest, including me. Brainy and subservient, I would follow in the footsteps of my Franciscan uncles. But then I developed qualities anathema to the Catholic Church: curiosity and independence. So I eschewed the priestly life, and the security that the Church offers men like me became shackles of sin and shame, which I’ve spent the last fifty years unraveling. I can distill my evolution to four distinct moments in time, landmarks of my personal liberation. Doubt steered me away from the priesthood. Arrogance prompted me to leave the Church. Scandal triggered my rejection of the institution. And now Thomas Tobin’s judgmental—and blatantly false—tweet incites my personal rejection into public action. It is time to make this Church: history.
A new year of CCD (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine), which is a solemn name for teenage Sunday School. I am fourteen, eager beyond reason. Our teacher, Peter Stravinsky, a Diocesan Seminarian, is only five or six years older than me. He begins our instruction by extolling how a call to religious vocation is superior to all others. I wonder, perhaps, whether a doctor, a dentist, a farmer, even an architect, might make important contributions to the world; that the superior calling for each of us is the one that best suits our skills. I raise my hand and suggest this. I am shut down immediately and not called upon again. Peter’s surety, his superiority, is absolute. It also becomes the seed of my own doubt. I know, right then, that I will never be a priest, though I remain a steady practitioner of the faith.
I am getting married! My fiancé is not Catholic. However, she agrees to be married by one of my uncle-priests. Our pre-Cana lessons are condensed into a weekend retreat: workshops, seminars, congregate meals, and communication-building sessions from dawn past midnight. Since Lisa doesn’t plan to convert, we are targeted as a ‘problem couple’. Men in black shadow us the entire weekend.
We survive the cultish proceedings, marriage plan intact. Then meet with my college chaplain to seal the deal. Father Moran explains that, as the true Catholic, I am required to sign a paper stating that I will raise our children in the faith. When I question this policy, the bearded Jesuit says, “No one can ever know how you raise your children. Just sign the paper.”
I always figured I would raise my children Catholic. But in that instant I realize how poorly my Church treats my chosen wife; what little faith their contract places in me, or in us. I am also shocked by my pastor’s moral shrift. I refuse to sign. I stop going to mass. The Catholic Church played me like a numbers game, gambling on bagging Lisa, or at least my unborn children. Instead, the Church lost me.
Morning after morning The Boston Globe headline captures my eye. The sexual abuse by priests within the Archdiocese of Boston pollutes the news. People are appalled by the fallen vows and cover-ups, the abuse of young children, the abuse of power itself. I am less surprised. Any babe weaned on Catholicism knows that the Church is not a democracy; it doesn’t pretend to equate all humans. Priests are God’s intermediaries; they are better than the rest of us. The Church will never turn them out for something insignificant as diddling little boys.
I absorb the clerical abuse story, but try not to let it absorb me, until one morning when the headline proclaims a fresh rash of predatory behavior. I stop dead still. I stare at the newsprint. I begin to sweat. Was I abused?
I have no conscious memory of anything untoward during those sacred moments as an altar boy, after mass, in the sacristy, washing Father’s cruets, kneeling before him for his blessing, feeling the whiskey warmth of his breath on my tender shoulders. I am closer to God, through him. Still… If a priest ever touched me, I would have taken it as a special blessing. If a priest asked me to touch him, I would have considered it holy intervention. And if a priest told me this was our private secret, I would have felt our bond more deeply blessed.
I don’t believe I was ever abused. But I know for sure, that I would have interpreted the touch, the pain, as a spiritual experience. I would have accorded it the same sanctity as the confessional; I would have concealed it beyond that hallowed chamber.
That was the moment I stopped simply being a lapsed Catholic. I became anti-Catholic. I stopped calling the religious in my family ‘Father’ and ‘Sister’. I called them ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle,’ like all the rest. When they lectured me about my failing marriage, I lashed back, “You know nothing of marriage.” When they called out my sin of being an openly gay man, I replied, “This is how god made me.” When they chided me for sending my children to an urban public school, I shot back, “My children will be exposed to the full rage of life, not the propaganda of the Catholic Church.”
The last mass I ever attended was my mother’s funeral. She remained Catholic ‘til the end, though I eulogized that her most generous gift was to love and support five children, all of whom left the Catholic Church. There’s a quirky logic to my generation abandoning the flock, as the Church abandoned us in kind. When my parents divorced after thirty-two years, my mother’s shame was so great that she spent a considerable sum to have her marriage annulled. At the Vatican, for a price, any lie can be scrubbed true. This good Catholic boy, whom everyone thought would one day become a priest, became a certified bastard.
I don’t know why Thomas Tobin’s ugly, hurtful tweet triggered such a strong response in me. The Church has hurled hundreds, thousands, of judgmental directives to bring me to heel. But his is the one that made me understand that it is not enough to doubt, to leave, and to reject the Church. I must oppose it. I must help others oppose it. If the highest official in Rhode Island’s Catholic Church can spew such lies, I have a greater moral responsibility: to shout the truth back at him.
Before I came out I suffered depression and anxiety vomiting. I steered clear of ‘men who made me nervous.’ I knew the evil that nature planted within me; even though it took thirty-eight years to even utter its name. Too often, I weighed the relative weight of complementary sins. Ending my life would free me of homosexuality. Twice, the desire for extinction held sway, and though I am successful in many things, apparently suicide is not one of them.
At my tenth high school reunion, an old friend told me, “Of all the angry young men I know, you are the angriest.”
When I finally came out. I had long ago stopped going to mass. Now I stopped going to therapy, I stopped seeing friends from my previous life, I stopped being married. I also stopped being angry. I had nothing except the responsibility to raise two children, whose immediate needs saved me from drowning in emptiness. Always a latent learner, I started reading about others like me, I went to discussion groups, I sang in the chorus. By the time I finally kissed another man, all the shame had drained out of me. It was as pure and delectable as a kiss should be.
I became more patient, with my children, with my clients, with my fellow humans, even with myself. In fact, I became more patient with everyone. Except priests. My only insight into PTSD occurs when I encounter a Roman Collar. My heart speeds, my temperature rises, anger zooms. He might as well be wearing a Swastika armband or Klan hood; a Roman collar triggers that much wrath in me.
Which brings me back to Thomas Tobin’s tweet, posted twenty-five years after Boston’s clergy abuse scandal, two thousand years after a clever group of manipulators twisted Jesus’ message of human charity into a platform for power and privilege. Tobin’s hateful words make me realize that the Catholic Church will not change. The few who hold the power and the money will not loose their grip. Whatever good the Church may have done in the past is clouded by its inability to clean its own house, and its unwillingness to embrace and celebrate the variety of human conditions. Since the Church will not change, we must destroy it.
After Tobin’s tweet, hundreds of well-intentioned Rhode Islanders proclaimed that he does not speak for the Church, that the church is the community of God, that the Church can be reformed by working for change from within. I have three words for these good folks: You are wrong. Thomas Tobin is the appointed head of the Catholic Church in Rhode Island. When he speaks, he speaks for the Church.
If you sit in a pew at mass, you are affirming Thomas Tobin’s view. If you open your mouth to receive communion, you are abetting a bigoted Church that controls people through shame. And if you–god forbid–put even one dime in that collection basket, you are supporting an institution premised that a select few are better than all the rest of us, a church that will never capitulate that imbalance.
Bringing down the Roman Catholic Church will not be easy, but it isn’t all that hard either. The largest spiritual institution in the world has no army; it controls only a tiny parcel of land. The church will fall apart when we simply stop participating. Catholicism’s Catch-22 is that, although not a democracy, it is more dependent on direct participation than any nation state. The church cannot force you to attend; it cannot tax your tithe; you can leave without becoming a refugee.
The Church will not fall quickly; it’s richer than Midas and can sputter on for decades without further contributions. But if we stop listening to Thomas Tobin’s bilious lies, we make him impotent. If we scratch Pope Francis’ inspirational words to reveal he hasn’t instigated any real change, we expose him for what he really is: a clever spin master.
The more difficult aspect of bringing down the Church is: what will we have in its stead? We need faith. We need community. We need each other. How will we come together to create that, without the Church’s guiding hand? Without its mystery and satisfaction? Being churchless is lonely; I know this firsthand. But the true cross we have to bear is not trying to reform a church that will not change: it is to create a church that nourishes our spirit through love rather than edict.
The Awkward Pose’s byline is ‘Seeking balance in a world of opposing tension.’ I strive to acknowledge, even understand, all perspectives. But each of us has triggers that propel beyond moderation, and I do not maintain a balanced perspective on the Catholic Church, especially with regards to how it treats gays. The Catholic Church did more damage to me than any single person or influence in my life. Being an out gay man is the singular most positive step I ever took. I could not be my highest and best self until I threw aside the shackles of shame the Church piled on me. I am not interested in appeasing the Catholic Church. I want it gone. I want every Catholic to throw off whatever chains the Church uses to imprison them, and experience the wonder of a world liberated from this heinous institution.
The images in this post are from Sacred Heart Church, once a large parish in my neighborhood. It has closed its school and holds only two Sunday masses.