As regular readers of this blog will have probably registered at one stage or another, I spent nine years of my life as a member of the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church. When I left it a quarter of a century ago, I was a priest. In fact, my ordination, coming as it did only a year before I quit the whole enterprise, was probably the main reason why my leaving was not accompanied by any official blessing or assistance. Looking back now, I have a lot more understanding for my superiors than I had at the time; the then provincial reasoning that there was no way he could support a decision to abandon something I had spent eight years seriously preparing for only a year later. I know that he was very upset and felt personally betrayed, something I can also completely understand today, and so – despite personal understanding for my situation – was unable to take a position which could be seen as being supportive of my move. He may also have entertained some hopes that, by upping the ante, he might exert some pressure on me to reconsider my decision.
It wasn’t going to happen. I was in love. It was wonderful, rapturous, incomparable with any other alternative and if choosing that meant breaking radically with everything and everyone else, then that was the way it would have to be. After a very difficult summer, which involved negotiations with my religious superiors and breaking the news to my parents, family and friends, in September 1986 I left the monastery in Rome where I had been living for two years and set off for a new life in Germany.
This is all a long time ago now and much has happened since then. Although my departure from the Order and the priesthood has never been formally regularised, today I have a warm informal relationship with the Irish Province of the Dominicans – I often visit the priory in Dublin in which I lived for six years, and am greeted with hospitality and friendship by most of those I knew all those years ago who happen to be around when I drop by. I have a network of friends composed of both present and ex-members of the order, which the development of the internet has done a wonderful amount to support. And, perhaps most importantly, I have learned to cherish my memories of all that I experienced during my nine years in the Order, to integrate that roller-coaster period of my life as a young man into the dynamic unity of all that I have experienced and done and thought and felt which is my identity.
My own intellectual and spiritual journey has continued since then, leading me finally to a position of non-belief – a position formally described as “weak atheism.” This means that I personally do not believe there is a God but that I do not rule out the possibility that “God” may, in fact, exist, however I have not up to now encountered an argument which has been able to convince me. (This is not quite the same as agnosticism which is, strictly speaking, the personal suspension of judgement concerning God’s existence.) There is quite some discussion about the precise definition of particular positions in circles which concern themselves with such things but I don’t want to go into that here. At any rate, my development has led me far from my Catholic roots.
Logically then I should be supremely indifferent about what goes on within the Catholic Church. After all, I do not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, who was crucified to redeem humanity from sin and rose from the dead as a sign of God’s reconciliation with us. I cannot accept the claim of the Roman Catholic Church to be the certain repository of truth regarding God and his/her dealings with the world and how humans should consequently think, act and behave in order to concur with his/her wishes/commandments. Yet I repeatedly find that this attitude of indifference escapes me.
There’s an old pejorative Irish saying about people of simple rural origins which says, “You can take the man out of the bog, but you can’t take the bog out of the man.” I was born and brought up a Catholic and the Church and its traditions and teachings were vastly formative and normative for the first half of my life. Ironically perhaps, an attitude of defining my views in contradiction to church teachings – antithetical reaction – was something which characterised me much more strongly in my last years as an official church member than it has since. Neither do I belong to that group of non-believers who automatically classify religion and theology as hopelessly obscurant mumbo-jumbo.
I know, seen from some points of view this is inconsistent. Still, even if it is, well, consistency can be overvalued! J More seriously, I believe that our deepest opinions and views of life, even when they have been tempered and refined in the smithy of rational examination, are decisions we make with our whole person, which is much more than just our intellect.
Furthermore, in our world, religious beliefs and the theological reflection which results from them are formative for the attitudes of billions of people. There are different levels on which a non-believer like myself can engage with this, and they are not always mutually exclusive. One can take a position of adversarial engagement; debating critically with faith-based opponents. This attitude is often necessary when those with faith-based views attempt to impose conclusions based on such positions on society at large – gay marriage is one example of such situations, or the teaching of evolution in schools, or the right of religiously based judicial structures to supersede general societal ones.
Or one can take the position that much thinking about what it means to be human – much profound thinking of deep insight – takes place within a religious/theological framework. Simply because this thinking takes place within a general framework which one personally cannot accept does not mean that it is without value. I have become increasingly convinced in recent years that all theology is fundamentally anthropology and that when religious people talk about God, they are nearly always saying at least as much about what they understand human nature to be.
At any rate, what’s going on within the Catholic Church does continue to engage me. Far too often in recent years this has only served to provoke the reaction, “Thank God (in whom I don’t believe) that I no longer have anything to do with that horrible, despicable, corrupt, exploitative organisation!” But even when I experience such feelings, I know that they are not the whole truth. For I spent nine years as a member of the Irish Province of the Order of Preachers (as the Dominicans are formally known) without ever being aware of sexual abuse of children – and there are men whom I thought I knew who have since been convicted of it. There was certainly quite a lot of sex, both of the hetero- and homosexual varieties – but it was always between consenting adults. While some were certainly hypocritical about relationships in which they were involved, most of those whom I knew also suffered deeply because of the complications and contradictions and many accepted the consequences, either painfully putting an end to relationships or leaving the order in order to pursue them honestly and openly.
For every priest pursuing a fetishist power-trip, involving an make-up world of faux asexuality, artificial ritualism in place of living liturgy, neo-traditional hierarchical structures, profound misogynism disguised as Mariology and a rejection of any honest, open dialogue with a wider world full of wonderful people, concepts and ideas, there is another dedicated man busting his ass to try to help the people he is working with, giving them consolation, support and hope within the community of faith they share. The difference between them is that the second ones I’ve described aren’t playing the career game, aren’t being promoted to positions of power because a) they’re not interested and b) are regarded with suspicion by a centralised power clique because their attitudes tend to be more open and less dogmatic.
This second group is also becoming smaller. Many have given up over the past decades and the number of young men prepared to follow them has been decreasing for years. Celibacy is only one of the major issues responsible.
In describing my own personal story, I explained that it was my love for a woman which finally led to me leaving the order and giving up my priesthood. This is true, as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. For in the years preceding my de facto break with the Catholic Church, I had been becoming more and more uncomfortable with the direction it had been taking since the end of the 70s. This tendency – away from openness, dialogue and courage – has been growing ever since. But this is just one theme among a number I hope to address occasionally here in this blog in the future.
For that reason I’ve numbered the title of this post. Despite the fact that I no longer believe, despite the fact that twenty five years have gone by, there is still a part of me that cares about what is going on in the Catholic Church. Maybe because it is still such a potent force in the world – for good, but also for suffering. Maybe because I don’t think it’s enough to simply dismiss it as a hopelessly outdated organisation of mass superstition, irretrievably dominated by ignorant, developmentally stunted power freaks, who reject most of the modern world and enjoy dressing up in archaic robes. Or maybe because there’s some truth in the old saying, Once a Catholic always a Catholic.
On reflection though, perhaps it’s more like the feelings one has for an old girlfriend, years after you broke up with her, an ex-girlfriend you see has been making something of a mess of things. The old injuries are long forgotten, you’ve gone on with your life, are quite happy with the way things are and have no interest in starting anything again. But still you can be concerned about her and – should the occasion arise – you would drink a cup of coffee, maybe even have a meal with her and tell her a few home truths. Because, at some level, you still care about her and treasure the good memories of your time together.
Not that she’d listen, if my experience is anything to go by. But the chances that she would are considerably greater than that anyone who matters in the Catholic Church would read this anyway…
Still, when has futility ever stopped me doing anything?
Pictures retrieved from