Recovering Catholic Ethos and Practice

By Kate Daley-Bailey

My family’s religious affiliation is best described as ‘recovering Catholic.’ While we often say this in jest, I find it compelling that although we may be disillusioned with the papal abuses, restrictive doctrines on women in the priesthood, birth control methods, and various other concerns, my family members who have broken with the church still often identify as Catholic.  I think of my Catholicism like some Jews describe their Judaism. Judaism is often described as a religion and a culture… and while many people associate Judaism with the purely religious aspects, Jews who no longer practice the religious prescriptions of their religion may still identify as Jewish.  My family often gravitates toward other Catholics, recovering or those still within the Church.  We might be done with the Catholic Church but we refuse to give up Catholicism.

My sisters were both raised in Catholic schools and our family was greatly involved in our local Catholic Church.  My father had actually broken off his engagement with my mother to become a priest.  His stint in seminary was short and soon he realized he could be a good Catholic, be married, and have children.  He later became a federal prosecutor and worked tirelessly to cleanse the judicial system of corrupt judges.  He took my sisters to mass every morning before school.  The local nuns and priests were much like an extended family to us. When our family went to see Star Wars, we had a least one nun in tow.  My father spent hours debating philosophy with the parish priests, gave a great deal of his salary to the Catholic Church, and he truly believed in the letter of the law, which often frustrated my mother who is more pragmatic in nature.  My family sometimes jokes that he was an uber-Catholic… or as the comedian Jim Gaffigan calls it ‘a shi’ite Catholic.’ Along with this rigid and yet often compassionate view of the world came a somewhat simplistic theodicy: God was good, God demanded that you be good, and God rewarded and protected you if you were good.

This theodicy pretty much held… that is until my father died tragically in a plane crash and my mother was left to raise three young girls (14, 10, and 4) on her own.  I believe many of my father’s Catholic friends who had subscribed to a similar theodicy were very shaken by my father’s untimely death.  My mother is a petite, beautiful, unassuming woman… but she is tough as nails underneath.  She had to be to survive the financial and emotional fallout which crashed down upon her after my father’s death.  Much of the community rose to the occasion. We were inundated with condolences and letters of support.  My mother once told me that so many people had showed up to the funeral that people were standing in the back of the church… all waiting to pay their respect to my father.

My sisters’ reactions were understandable… their anger and grief engendered within them a rebellion.  The theodicy of ‘If you are good, God will protect you” was shattered and there was no way to put it back together.  Over the years, both of my sisters (although no longer officially part of the Catholic Church) in some ways still identify with Catholicism.  My oldest sister, an artist, fills her home with various shrines to saints and ancestors and saints’ images manifest in almost all of her artwork.  She is extremely compassionate and careful… something that comes across in her work.  Everything she touches becomes beautiful and magical.  Much of her work (which involves tedious bead work and hours of prepping materials and the construction of the designs themselves) conjures up a world in which the theodicy mentioned above is alive… there is much light and much darkness but goodness always prevails.  There is still wonder in her world… and still hope despite the darkness.

My other sister internalized much of the trauma of my father’s death.  Her anger manifested itself in detachment: For many years she was not really ‘there.’  Her return to the world has been painful for her… but this all the more highlights her tenacious will to see goodness in the world.  She constantly invests in her betterment… physically, socially, emotionally, and spiritually.  Her practice is not dogmatic or burdensome… but rather focused on pragmatism and meaning.  In her practice, I see great empathy for others who are withdrawn as she once was.  

My mother perhaps represents all of these qualities… a combination of the recovering Catholic ethos and the pragmatic practice of betterment and compassion.  Her grievances against the church are justifiable and her critiques of the Church are often linked to the hypocrisy she sees in the men who run the Church in the name of God, who do not know the suffering of a widow, have never had to soothe a grieving child, or feed, cloth, and house her children without an income.  My family is still recovering… and in some ways we are still Catholic. We do not tithe, go to confession, or care what the Pope says… we are not part of the Catholic Church but we refuse to give up the part of ourselves that is Catholic.

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