I've been told it's a beautiful thing to pass down the faith to the younger generation, to teach them the ways of salvation and to love God but for some of us, being raised by religious parents had a darker side. I won't doubt for a moment that my mother meant well or that she tried her best. However, when you're told that we can draw people into the Church by our example: for instance, our inner peace and happiness we find in God but all you got from a religious upbringing was scruples, fear, and chronic guilt, it's pretty clear something was done wrong. We're not supposed to be miserable. After some self-reflection, it's clear that my devotion is more a sense of obligation than anything else, doing good out of fear of hell more than out of love for God. What kind of devotion is that? It's not a spirit that gets one canonized. I believe it's a valid intention but it's not ideal. In the past, I have written about spiritual abuse and today I wish to encourage other young Catholics who have been on the receiving end of religiously-motivated abuse to separate the actions of an individual from the Church itself and not to lose the faith.
I don't blame the Church for what happened. Life got crazy at home when my mother developed a religious mania and began to run our house like a dictatorship, ultimately uprooting us (six children aged seven through seventeen) from Rhode Island and moving us across the country to Kansas in a trailer. I don't blame the Church or even the SSPX for my mother's death threats, invasion of privacy (e.g. reading diaries, looking through sketch books, going through drawers etc.), guilt tripping, verbal abuse (I don't care if she didn't mean it, you never rub it in your kids' faces that you didn't abort them!), and self-righteousness. No saint insists that she is God's finger. Surely, there are good Catholic parents and young people who came out of their upbringing without any problems. Not every large family with adorable well-dressed and well-behaved children needed fear and violence behind closed doors to get those results. Abuse in all forms goes contrary to the commandments and it can draw young impressionable souls away.
Especially when it was mostly psychological, can be difficult to acknowledge that a religious person was even abusive because truth and sin are in a sense mixed. (They don't mix!) Meaning a good end is gained by evil and unjustifiable means. For instance, I agree with my mother telling us to save sex for marriage. I don't agree with her using death threats to make sure we listened. Whether she meant to beat any of us to death for sins of impurity or not, no good Catholic parent threatens their children. I agree with wearing your best on Sunday. However, shouting at a daughter for wearing yellow floral-print and forgetting to put on dress shoes (because she was rushed out the door) and proceeding to beat her with her own flip flops is pride. Being vigilant on who your children associate with is prudent, being an impossible-to-please judgmental prig is something else. Monitoring certain activities (especially when it comes to minors and the internet) is also prudent. Spying on your children, searching their rooms, and damaging their property is a toxic move. There was no trust in the dictatorship... and we weren't even bad kids. Maybe we turned out alright because we had strict rules, or maybe it was chance. How many other youths with strict parents who brought them to church, enrolled them in religious-based education, and did their best as parents, have gone off the rails? How much is owed to parents? How much do we owe the grace of God? How much of it is on us?
Now onto the answer: Why do I still practice my faith though it's associated with bad experiences? Why do I encourage others to do the same? Well, as I said before, it's not the fault of the church. My mother was an individual who chose to abuse her authority. Instilling good morals is no excuse or justification for psychological and emotional abuse. I know that there are young people who have experienced worse forms of abuse (i.e. physical or sexual) but the religion you are brought up in was not the real reason for your abuse, regardless of the form it took, whether the scars are psychological or physical. Abusers and enablers may use it as a tool to bind our consciences and keep us quiet (as I have said in previous articles, nothing strikes fear into the hearts of well-meaning people than the possibility of angering God). They may convince us that we're hell-bound, or that we are pleasing God by doing as they say regardless of their hypocrisy. Question them and you question God, or so they have you think, but they are not God. Abusers are human, subject to the same commandments, the same church laws, and the same judgement in the end. Our abusers sinned and someday they will have to answer to God for what they said and did. Christ never abused anyone who crossed His path and He did not judge. To the woman caught in adultery, he said "Go and sin no more." He was without sin and could have stoned her, but He gave her a second chance. How different is that from "If you lose your virginity, I'll beat you to death"? What my mother said was not Christ-like, it was Phariseical! Yes, my mother was and still is religious, but so were the Pharisees. Pharisees were nothing like Christ, and that's the whole point of being a Christian, to be like Christ. Being Christian/Catholic does not automatically mean one has good morals. Even if someone in the Church sins, whether layperson or clergy, Christ stays the same. People sin, but the Church's laws and commandaments remain the same and God is still watching.
Another reason why I still practice is because it's simply been drilled in. It is tempting to think that I'd be happier if I left, to live without scruple-inducing rules but then I must remember that being Catholic isn't all about following a list of rules. Any Pharisee can follow the rules. That was the way some of us were taught and breaking out of that mentality is difficult. As a matter of fact, I worry about how I can ever impart the Faith to the next generation and teach my own children (if I ever have any) to love God if I still struggle to see Him as a loving Father and not as someone waiting to strike me dead for my sins. I know fear works, I know guilt trips work, but despite going to church on holy days and following all of the rules, I am aware that I am missing something. I should not be practicing only because I'm afraid of going to hell, I should be practicing because I love God and owe Him thanks for my life and chance at salvation.
I still practice because I believe that the Catholic church and its sacraments are the only way to salvation. Mere mortals and their sins should not turn us away from salvation. God is infinitely stonger than any abuser, even if they may hold power in this life. The challenge, though, is waiting for God's good time to either allow them the grace to repent or punish them if they refuse to. To us humans, it does seem as if He is taking a long time ... that is because God exists outside of time so a long wait for us is just a moment for Him but I digress. I would also like to add that it is by the grace of God that I have not succumbed to the temptations of leaving or hating the Church over my mother's psychological abuse. It is up to me, though, to work on unlearning the lies, relearning the truth, and strenghening my devotion, making it whole.
It is a crying shame that young people sometimes leave the Faith because of religiously-motivated abuse, poor example, and hypocrisy from parents or other authority figures. My heart does go out to those who have survived toxic people and dangerous situations, especially those who experienced much worse trauma. I say work to distance yourselves from the people who hurt you and those who twist our religion to fit their own plans. It is not gossip to expose abusers either. Whatever solutions you take, keep the Faith. God does not change.