In the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, author Donna Frietas has begun a series of blog posts under the title “The Stubborn Catholic,” which propose to tackle the moral quandary of staying in the Church despite the revelations of systemic rape, betrayal and abuse committed by priests and their higher-ups. (I hope they’ll also get around to discussing misogyny, homophobia, opposition to contraception and other shortcomings of the Church.) In the first post “On why I am (still) here“, Freitas reveals:
So here it is: For over two years I was stalked by a Catholic priest. I recognize that I am not a “typical victim” in the sense that I am (was) a girl and, in my case, I was not sexually assaulted.
But as with other victims I know what it is like to have my faith in the priesthood terribly violated, and for that violation to nearly destroy me….And, like other victims, when out of desperation I finally told on him, the Catholic officials’ response (or lack of one) to my begging and pleading to make his behavior stop was to prioritize only my silence. I know what it is like to sit in a room with powerful people who want nothing more than for you to disappear, to shut up, who could care less for your safety, your sanity, your well-being. I also know the fear of speaking up to my very core. I still feel that shame and fear. I feel it right now as I type these words. I know the exhaustion of living in the aftermath of this experience and trying to move forward from it without any place to put all that feeling, all that anger. I know what it is like to never have anyone say, “I’m sorry about what happened to you.”
And yet, she is still a practicing Roman Catholic. Why?
The reasons I love Catholicism–its priests and nuns, its rituals and culture–far outweigh this one hateful part of my past. My faith and place in this tradition is much bigger than one single priest and some terrible church officials. It transcends victimization and unspent anger.
My Catholic faith is so much more. It is my family, my friends, my professional life as a theologian and scholar of religion. It’s the way I mark time during the week and the year and the food I cook depending on the holiday. It is a childhood and a lifetime of experience. It is all over my writing.
I am more than this one scar, even though, like me, it is a stubborn scar. It simply won’t go away.
From this broader sense of Catholic identity I wish to discuss many things–yes, the scandal as it unfolds yet again, but eventually to move on from here to other topics. I will begin from my experience and from there hope to reach beyond my particular story and place in the Catholic tradition to that of others, too, who have stuck around like me. I look forward to the conversations. I hope you do, too.
…I will write this blog from a place of hope because I am hopeful–in the possibility of healing and moving forward on a personal level, but on a communal one, too. I have hope that my Church will some day begin to heal these gaping wounds, which will turn to scars and fade with the years, even though they will never disappear–nor should they. But the hope and healing starts from modest places–from telling the stories of ordinary Catholics who have suffered, who, like me, are still here, from shifting our attention from the clamor about the hierarchy, the pope, the Vatican, to the ordinary folk, the ordinary lay people, priests, and nuns, too, who make the Catholic Church what it really is. The Catholic Church is not all hierarchy. Thank God.
I hope she’s right about the healing and solace of people coming together. But Freitas is fooling herself if she thinks the Catholic Church is not all hierarchy. The Catholic Church is and has always been all about hierarchy; that is precisely what distinguishes it from other Christian denominations. The authoritarian abuses and corruption of the Catholic hierarchy have always existed; they sparked the Protestant Reformation almost 500 years ago. In that backlash, Reformers rejected the Papacy and democratized Christianity by doing away with the notion that priests were somehow closer to God than the people they served. Because of them, Freitas could easily reject the Church’s hierarchy and still be a practicing Christian; Catholicism is far from the only game in town.
I’ve always believed that if you belong to one of the Abrahamic religions, you automatically enter into a (sometimes dicey) bargain with the Patriarchy. Christianity, Judaism and Islam are patriarchial and—to varying degrees—authoritarian religions, with all the potential for disaster you’d expect. But the good news is that you can comparison-shop. The Jewish denomination I belong to is fully egalitarian and performs gay marriages. My sister’s Methodist congregation in Chicago has a giant banner outside their church proclaiming “Jesus Was Radically Inclusive.” Freitas, however, is reluctant to comparison-shop, and feels invested in the Church despite her experiences. I have several devoutly Catholic friends who are similarly entrenched, even as they abhor the institutional Church.
The “On Faith” commenters did not treat Freitas kindly. Even the less rant-y ones were sharp in their criticism. For example:
You have no influence on church policy. As long as you continue to sit in the pew and drop your money in the basket, it’s not that you don’t matter, it that you are actively condoning and enabling abusers to flourish.
What do y’all think? Does Freitas’s argument make sense to you? Does her unwillingness to quit the Church constitute some kind of Stockholm Syndrome? Or is she simply making her version of the bargain that most of us who practice organized religion make?