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A Clean Break

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Many years ago I stopped being a Roman Catholic. I couldn't tell you the exact date and time. There was not a morning I can recall when I woke up and said, "Yesterday I was Catholic, today I'm not." The transformation took place over a period of time, several decades really. These days I attend a large Methodist church, although if someone asked me, I don't suppose I'm Methodist exactly, either. However, the church I attend does have a woman pastor and assistant pastor, as well as a male assistant pastor. In my conference in North Carolina, the bishop is also a woman.

I was never sexually abused by any clergy member as a Catholic, and I knew many priests and nuns who were people of compassion and integrity. But recent headlines have brought up a lot of old issues and feelings that, in general, I had laid to rest. Issues like women's ordination. According to news reports, the issue of women's ordination was not on the docket at the recent convocation of American cardinals in Rome, "because (not ordaining women) is an article of faith."

Imagine that. Cardinal Law shuffled known child molesters from parish to parish in states across the country, but still considers women outside the field of legitimate candidates for the priesthood.

When I tried years ago to debate this issue with my mother, she asked, "You want to be a priest?" No, I don't, nor a minister. But that's beside the point. My own integrity will not allow me to be in a church that would exclude me from its power structure or a call from God, not because of moral terpitude but because my chromosomes are XX -- a Church that seems to prefer retaining known pedophiles to ordaining women.

My children were both born at Iowa Lutheran Hospital. When I was recuperating from having my first C-Section, my sister called to ask me why I didn't have my son at the nice Catholic Hospital just around the corner. I told her it was because the Lutheran hospital was where my doctor, a devout Jew, practiced medicine. That was only partly true. I wanted to be in a non-Catholic hospital in order to feel that I had a degree of control over any decisions concerning my body and the outcome of my labor and delivery. After I delivered my second son by Cesarean, I opted for a tubal ligation right then and there on the delivery table. I wouldn't have been able to do that at a Catholic hospital in 1980.

I vividly remember my formative years before the Second Vatican Council, when it was sinful for women to enter a church without their heads covered, or to go beyond the altar railing without express permission from the priest. It was a mortal sin to break a fast before taking communion in the morning, as was eating meat on Friday. As for sex, you could be damned straight to eternal separation from God just for thinking about it, let alone doing it, no matter if it was with another person or solo. As I got older, I had to weigh the pros and cons of birth control. As a teenager, I remember a priest saying that birth control was, and always would be, intrinsically evil, and if the church ever sanctioned it, he would leave both the priesthood and the Church.

Many of these attitudes have changed, of course, as well as some of those concerning divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, and priestly celibacy. But deep down, the Catholic hierarchy is still, as Maureen Dowd put it, a boys' club, entrenched in its own Old World ideology. Though contraception and a pro-choice viewpoint on abortion may be tolerated, especially by American Catholics, the official line is still drawn by the Pope against both of these. And there, in the word "tolerated," lies the heart of my dissent.

The present church may "tolerate" certain opinions, but it still doesn't consider them as morally valid as the traditional values it's preached for centuries, regardless of how dearly you may hold them to your own conscience. I may think that the ban on married priests and female clergy is morally reprehensible, but as long as I remain Catholic, that opinion is considered second-rate theology. I may feel that the earth and the environment is better off without my having a dozen children, and that the rhythm method is unreliable and a burden to a marriage, but it's still the only birth control sanctioned by the Vatican. The reason? Artificial contraception is against natural law. Then it would follow that penicillin, Prozac, and even C-sections are immoral because they most certainly interfere with the "natural" progression of events. And I have yet to see a Catholic ban on fertility treatments , which often lead to multiple pregnancies and spontaneous abortion, or early birth and neonatal death.

Because I was raised Catholic, it took a long time for me to admit that, if I didn't believe what Catholics believe, I must not be Catholic anymore, and I wasn't doing myself or the Church any good by staying in it. If you weren't raised in a Catholic family, you can't know the difficulty that lies in leaving a Church that claims that it's the only way to salvation. If you were shown the truth at an early age, and then left, Hoo boy! look out.

You became one of "them," a "fallen away" Catholic, doomed to the lowest rung of the inferno.

I'm not looking for the Catholic Church to change its attitude toward women in my lifetime. There are those who may to choose to hang in there, waiting and hoping for change. There are some of us who have come to realize that you don't have to wait for the Church to approve a decision before you make it, and you can still find a deep sense of spirituality and moral affirmation.

Yes, there is spiritual life outside of Catholicism, even if someone has told you differently. The present Church is no less repressive to women than it has been over the last 2,000 years. A couple of weeks ago, Cardinal Law stated that he was going to "brush away" any suggestion that he resign because of his complicity in retaining known sex offenders as parish priests. Some of us feel that we have been just as "brushed away" by those who purport to have all the power over our spiritual lives, and we've chosen to leave. It is finally a clean break. I don't regret it. I have found a separate peace. *

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