By Mary Lynn Murphy
I was a “Cradle Catholic” . . . born, raised, fully sacramentalized, and educated in the Roman Catholic tradition from kindergarten through college.
I am one of those (perhaps few?) former Catholics with entirely fond memories of my Catholic upbringing in South Minneapolis, circa 1950. Admittedly, during that era, the Sisters of St. Joseph could scare the living daylights out of us when they got riled up. But to me, they seemed to be generally fair if we “minded our Ps and Qs.” They managed to efficiently educate overflowing classrooms of 50 students, in settings that felt safe and were frequently fun! Make no mistake about it, the sisters threw the greatest Christmas parties of all time! There were decorated Christmas trees and Advent wreaths hung with ribbons and candles. Advent calendars trimmed the window panes, full of promise and hidden surprises, set off by hand made paper snow flakes of varying sizes. There were Secret Santas, gobs of candy, and Christmas carolling until our throats became hoarse. The sisters pulled out all of the stops to celebrate the highly anticipated “birth of the dear baby Jesus.”
And there were other things to love . . . the comforting prayers and rituals, the sense of community; the girls’ basketball team, coached by beloved Fr. Burns!; the music, ( I ADORED choir and chant!); the mysteriousness; the sisters’ clear sense of justice that hooked me to the plight of society’s underdogs. And of course, my mother was a dyed in the wool Irish Catholic, so I probably absorbed her affection for all things Catholic by the time I could walk or talk. Even now, grade school days are the hoarded treasures of long ago memories.
By high school, though, despite enjoying a fairly sophisticated women’s educational environment (Convent of the Visitation), Catholic admonishments regarding sexuality took on a disturbing light. The birth control ban wreaked havoc in the lives of my parents and other Catholic families. (My outspoken father never hesitated to speak volumes about that and related topics!) Like my father, I was not a lover of authority in the first place, and Church authoritarianism began to grate on me at exactly that time. But I remained dutiful until college – when I began to take my first hesitant steps beyond the Church door.
I attended a Sacred Heart college, and The Madames of the Sacred Heart were brilliant and lovely women. My Theology Professor, Mr. Herrigas, was likewise a brilliant and lovely man, but I just didn’t believe him when he apologetically conceded that indeed, Roman Catholicism must be viewed as the only legitimate path to eternal life. He was a sharp young guy who must have choked on such concepts, but intellectual freedom never struck me as a strong feature of Catholicism, so I took it with a grain of salt, and moved happily through my college years.
It was just that all of that heady stuff seemed irrelevant to the galvanizing opportunities my college provided to engage social justice and community service in the 1960s. Thursday nights were spent in South Chicago, connecting with activist families of the civil rights movement, and in tutoring grade school kids. Sundays were spent with special needs poverty kids. It was a time when change felt possible, and gave us all hope. Over time, the Mass and all of the Moral Theology/Philosophy conversations simply lost meaning for me in an ambiguous day-to-day world, while activism was something I could get a hold of.
Then the Women’s Movement materialized, and my Catholic outlook dimmed another watt or two. While in truth, the “Sexual Revolution” looked like fool’s gold to me, the equal rights message I perceived in it was right up my alley, but at odds with what I was hearing at church. Meanwhile, my Catholic professors railed against the likes of Betty Friedan, while I gradually embraced her revolutionary point of view. One notable Moral Philosophy assignment was to write an essay about her ground breaking book. The mandatory topic, incredibly, was “Why the Feminine Mystique would lead to the downfall of American society”!
One step followed the other until I found myself slip-sliding away from the whole spectrum of Catholic thought. In truth, mine might have been a tenuous Church connection to begin with, because as an adult, I never recall any discernible sense of “belonging” to the faith communities I encountered. Rather than feeling inspired by compulsory giving programs, pancake breakfasts, and interminable sermons steeped in judgment, I felt disturbed and disappointed. Whatever happened to the “least of our brethren”? Was it really all just about “sexual sin?” Sunday mornings at the park, or along the river, felt much more uplifting. (I remember attending more than a few uproarious Sunday morning “Church services” in parks along the river with college friends and relatives, while our parents trooped off to earlier Masses. Those are some of my fondest Sunday memories!)
My nebulous Catholicity continued for the next several years until, by some mysterious alchemy, I was appointed, as a young mother in my mid 30s, to Archbishop Roach’s Urban Affairs Commission. This appointment may have been the result of my affiliation with the Women’s Institute for Social Change, a respected, though slightly radical group at that much more radical time in history. Regardless, one thing led to another, and years later, during more conservative times, I wound up on the board of Cretin-Derham Hall ( in the early 90s) where my children went to high school. The opportunity to be a progressive public voice appealed to me. So I continued to loosely define myself as Catholic . . . a Catholic, like most others I knew, who did as they pleased about birth control, Mass attendance, etc.
Unfortunately, like so many other self described feminists at that time, I acquiesced in the face of Church sexism toward women. It wasn’t until years later, when I realized that I had a gay offspring , that I “tuned in” much more closely to the Church’s teachings on the status of women and homosexuality. Church language and policies related to homosexuality actually startled me. They seemed consciously and intentionally cruel. It was then that my instinct for social justice transitioned into flat out activism. I launched headlong into gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) support work with the secular organization PFLAG, and eventually with the Catholic Pastoral Committee on Sexual Minorities (CPCSM). That work sustained me, and has, I hope, made some identifiable changes in church and society. But I became increasingly impatient with and disgusted by unrelenting Church homophobia. The description of “exiled Catholic” began to feel more appropriate for me.
Even that title seemed a bit chummy as our new archbishop, John Nienstedt, swung into gear about a year ago. I was surprisingly unprepared for his emotionally detached righteousness in regard to Catholicity in general and homosexuality in particular. Knowing that he was probably dispatched by Rome to diffuse our activist community should have toughened me, but it didn’t. The specter of this man as the future of the local Doctrinal Church began to settle in my bones. Any affiliation with him and his Church-sanctioned language began to feel like marriage to an abusive husband for a person like me, an activist for gay rights.
The last straw came in September, at the John Ireland Speaker Series at St. Thomas University which featured the “Scholar in Residence” at the St Paul Seminary. The speaker disgorged an hour’s worth of what I considered to be right wing demagoguery with regard to human sexuality. Her comparison of gay relationships to heterosexual incest was appalling to me. Astonishingly, the woman was warmly received by a large crowd of religious, lay persons and students. It dawned on me then that as a Seminary dignitary, this woman represents not just the present, but the near future of academia in Catholic higher education. It also became clear to me that as a feminist and an activist in the secular GLBT support community, any affiliation with the word Catholic, as it is commonly understood in regard to Church treatment of women and gays, undermines my credibility and integrity.
Today it is hard for anyone to deny that the train is leaving the station with regard to women and gays in contemporary America. And I am on that train. For me there will be no more debating medieval churchly mindsets about the evils of homosexuality, female ordination, or reproductive freedom – which will be an enormous relief . In all honesty, at least in terms of my adult years, I concede that my love of Church may have dissipated long ago, through a steady process of disillusionment. I may have hung around just to say NO to its policies. (Part of my activism has been to role model resistance when I believe it is called for.) Oddly, even my devout, non activist mother drifted slowly away over the years. She was detached from religion by the time she lay dying at age 53. “I’m square with God,” she told me. “No need for the priests.”
Beyond that, I have lost hope for any kind of productive or functional relationship between the pastoral and the doctrinal Church in my life time, though I credit those who choose to stay and persistently question. They take the incremental approach to change, and some day they may very well succeed. They honor themselves and their communities with the path they have chosen. My path, however, is diverging. I have decided to officially move on, to the delight of my immediate family! I will continue to seek and express spirituality in the alternative places I always have – in the parks, along the rivers, among friends and fellow activists. And I will be at peace with my final status as “non Catholic.” Some may call that “falling away.” But for me, it feels like growing up.