Women and Catholicism

Coming to a New Understanding

Anthropology 149: Women, Religion, and Society: A Cross-cultural Perspective
Prof. Annapurna Devi Pandey
Copyright © 1997 B. Collie Collier


This paper is dedicated to all the women who took time out from their busy schedules to respond to my requests for help in my research for this paper. Because privacy is an issue, I cannot name and thank you all individually. Nevertheless I'd like to take this moment to publicly express my gratitude for your assistance. Not only could I not have written this paper without you, but my spiritual and intellectual horizons have been opened up due to your kind, thoughtful insights. I hope you will feel your words have been used respectfully. You have all been both correspondent and teacher for me.

Thank you.



This paper was originally going to be fairly straightforward. I had in my childhood received extensive exposure to the Catholic Church, in spite of being raised Protestant. As I'd grown older, I'd come to question many of the articles of faith I'd been taught, both Catholic and Protestant, and I'd researched the early Christian church in an attempt to better understand certain deeply held beliefs of the modern Christian churches. This had led to my growing personal disillusionment with Christianity and Catholicism in particular, mostly due to the rather patriarchal attitudes about women it proudly claimed. However, there was still a puzzling question in my mind: if Christianity was so patriarchal and so dismissively oppressive towards women - why did women stay in the Christian faith? What did they see in it? Were they missing the message it was dinning into everyone's heads about how inferior women were? Or was I just smarter, or more clear-sighted?

As can be seen by the above, I had a fairly straightforward conception of my own correctness right from the start of this project. This can be further demonstrated by my attempts at "objectivity" and "scientific detachment" as I planned out how I would gather information. I would confine myself to the Catholic religion as it was, to my way of thinking, far more clearly patriarchal and monolithic than Protestantism. As far as the form the study would take, I quote from my mid-term prospectus:

I shall be talking to about six women. Hopefully I can find three that are still Catholic and three that have left the church. Once I have done so, I will apply a contrast and comparison to their approaches and responses to see what, if any, similarities and differences there are amongst them. Perhaps this will show some interesting commonalties or themes amongst the religious approaches the women take towards life. ... I will be trying to keep from influencing the women I'm speaking with. It is their views I'm interested in portraying, after all, not my own.

Needless to say, this light-hearted certainty on my part did not stand up to my meeting with reality. About the only thing I can say in my own defense is that I managed (through some fortunate accident) to keep my own prejudices from showing too strongly in my questionnaire, which ended up, in my opinion, as a fairly good list of questions (see Appendix A).

My a priori beliefs were challenged at every point. I arrogantly expected a certain straightforwardness or simplicity in the answers I would get, and I naively assumed that once one had 'come to one's senses' in regards to the patriarchal homogeneity of the Catholic church, so to speak, one would leave and never look back. And yet as soon as I started talking to real individuals, I immediately started learning things I'd not known and never suspected. One woman had left the Catholic church, but then returned to it later in life - and she knew things about the Church I'd not been taught. One woman pointed out that the Catholic church not only wasn't monolithic, but couldn't be, due to its world-spanning size. One woman viewed Catholicism more as a mode of living one's day-to-day life (similar to how Judaism is occasionally viewed) rather than as a religion demanding slavish and faithful adherence. One woman considered herself a practicing Catholic, but believed she had the religious duty to pick and chose what was the best and most correct way in which to live, rather than letting the Catholic church decide her conscience for her.

The actual face-to-face interviews were startling also. I'd intended to keep pretty much silent, and let the person I was interviewing do most of the talking as they answered the list of questions I handed them. However, I quickly realized that this was not going to work. Indeed, the very first person I taped wanted to find out what I thought as well as tell me what she thought. Furthermore, all three taped interviews started out with the speaker wanting to tell me a personal story, incident or belief that had strongly shaped them in their religious growth. One of them brought several books that had been influential in her life to the interview with her, and I found it fascinating and personally eye-opening that while she considered herself a Catholic, she could also find inspiration in (as a single example) the Tao te Ching.

Ultimately, all of the taped interviews became long, rambling, mutual discussions, where the questionnaire became more of a suggestion than a guideline. The questionnaires themselves were cheerfully dissected on occasion, with one correspondent curiously wanting to know what had inspired me to ask some of these questions, and several others who had left the Catholic Church deciding to answer the questions for still-practicing Catholics, mostly because they thought it would be interesting. Finally, I was personally touched to have about half my respondents actually thank me for giving them the opportunity to be a part of my research, since they'd very much enjoyed having the chance to think their religious beliefs through for themselves.

As can be seen in just this small selection of incidents, the real and individual variations I was shown exploded my initial expectations of homogeneity and lack of thought necessary to be a participant in the Catholic Church. Therefore, with a somewhat shamefaced admission of my own initial prejudices going into the study, I'd like to explore a little more fully some of those assumptions, and how they were overturned by my research. In conclusion I'd like to review (hopefully a little more clear-sightedly this time) my personal beliefs on women and spirituality, as informed by my respondents.

"The Catholic Church Is Static And Monolithic"

This is quite possibly the wildest (and most personally embarrassing) assumption I started out with... and the most easily shattered. Logic alone should have told me this was an impossible situation. As one correspondent pointed out:

I think what disturbs me the most is that, on the whole, Catholicism is not a disagreeable religion. It is when the members of the Church and Catholic communities make their own narrow-minded, intolerant, non-loving interpretations of God's will and Jesus' teachings that I grow angry.

Obviously for this situation to be considered unpleasant and non-normative, the opposite must also exist. The reality of oppositional situations, based on individual interpretations, within one organization (the Church) demonstrates to me the Church's non-static and heterogeneous nature. Individuals come and go; thus with the passage of time there will be changes. Opposites suggest disagreements; where there is disagreement monolithy is disputed.

Another example of changes possible due to individuals concerns something another correspondent related. Apparently her church's youth group was 'something your parents sent you to, or you were forced to go to.' Then a new youth leader was assigned to her church, and suddenly the youth group dynamic changed; it became vital and interesting, a meeting worth going to. Individual passages from the Bible would be read and discussed and pondered over, as deeper meanings and understandings were sought. Questions were not only asked but welcomed... and if the youth leader didn't know the answers they would go ask the priest. The priest couldn't always answer the questions, but tended to fall back on a view of God as merciful, and as the Bible as written by fallible (if divinely inspired) men. Thus, simply by changing youth leaders, a new perspective on religion is introduced. How could the Catholic Church be a static entity with such changes possible within it?

Indeed, the very first person I interviewed was very well educated on the ever-changing history of the Church. Through her I learned the doctrine of the Pope's infallibility dates only from 1870. She also informed me that the Catholic Church already had married clergy. Protestant priests are allowed to marry; in a particular sect of Protestantism there are sometimes conversions to Catholicism. Those married priests are allowed to keep their wives after conversion. As my respondent put it, she believes the rules on clerical celibacy will be lifted in her lifetime. She spoke approvingly of Vatican Two, and her hopes that these much needed changes would slowly continue to percolate throughout the Church. She also knew there had been a time when women taught in the early Church as co-equal apostles with the men. She was guardedly optimistic about the possibility of women one day again being recognized as clergy-members. She does not believe it will happen in her lifetime... but perhaps in the next generation.

Talking with this respondent revealed to me a Catholic Church that is slow to change, due to its traditionalist leanings and its somewhat reclusive leadership... but she did not see a Church that was frozen in time, or metaphorically engraved in stone. To her the Church will change because it must... in order to keep up with and continue to be of use to its constituency.

Another respondent put the situation regarding the homogeneity of the Catholic Church into a very clear light for me; her comment was, "The Catholic Church is a fable." She went on to explain this by noting the very size of the Catholic Church, and its cross-cultural reach. Obviously the Catholic response to the problems facing a Polish peasant woman is going to be radically different to the response given to an American middle class woman. As another respondent wrote:

In the United States, I think Catholic women have it pretty good, especially in recent years. Although one line is preached from the pulpit, in reality many American priests are very sympathetic to women and women's issues. I think this is less true in Europe, and totally reversed from the situation in third world countries.

Her final statement on this issue was pragmatically eye-opening for me: "This is probably the case for all faiths."

Indeed, as one respondent observed, in America alone there is a wide variety of responses as to how the Church should be maintained. As an example, whether there are exclusively male, or male and female alter-boys (alter-persons?) depended on the views of the individual priests and bishops. The priests themselves demonstrate a wide variety of attitudes on how to most properly perform their duties and roles. One respondent mentioned that her priest had taken a vow of poverty. He tended towards rather ragged and well-used attire as a consequence, although recently he'd been gifted with a large amount of clothing from his congregation. Apparently they'd decided he shouldn't look so shabby anymore. Another respondent related what I found a rather sad story:

My parents were very devout before they got married. My father was divorced from a wife who left him (he was married very young) and wanted to get an annulment for [his] marriage to my mom to be part of the church. The priest asked my parents for a couple hundred dollars for "paperwork" for the annulment, and they did not have the money. To this day, my mother, as well as my father, can not partake officially in the catholic church and it all boils down to money. They are not allowed to have the eucharist [sic].

A third correspondent mentioned how, subsequent to a suicide attempt, she sought some emotional and spiritual guidance from a Catholic clergyman that had been in to visit her in the hospital. He refused to see her; his justification in the message she was given was that he did not have the time for her now that she was out of intensive care.

In these examples we see both attempts to be more Christ-like, and a distressing spiritual poverty on the part of three separate members of the Catholic clergy. How then could such an over-arching organization claim or be assigned the status of monolithy?

"To Be A Catholic You Must Unquestioningly Accept The Dogma"

Dogma: "a doctrine or body of doctrines concerning faith or morals formally stated and authoritatively proclaimed by a church." --fr. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.)

This second assumption I made based on several other things I believed. Firstly, I did not feel a priest was necessary to commune with the deific, whom- or what-ever it might be. Secondly, I did not believe the Catholic Church teaching I'd read which stated women were in essence second class citizens in the eyes of God (if their status could be considered even that high). I concluded therefore that someone who believed this must have been taught it from childhood and blindly accepted it, on faith. Thus my above assumption can be broken down into two subcategories of prejudice that should be dealt with as separate issues.

"You cannot think for yourself if you are a Catholic"

I found it very hard to type the above statement in... yet honesty compels me to do so. Much though it embarrasses me to admit it, there was an aspect of this viewpoint in my attitudes on women who remained in the Catholic Church. I could not have been more wrong. As one correspondent noted when asked how she saw her job as a spiritual leader/practitioner:

To look at teachings presented to me and try to make the best out of them that I can. I don't have to agree with everything, but I do have to listen on the off chance that there may be very valid reasons for what is being taught.

She later noted:

The rules were made by humans, and humans are fallible, even if they claim to be divinely inspired. Once it passes through a human filter, you have to take into account that person's background as well as the history of the culture/institution promoting the teaching.

These are not the words of someone who refuses to think. Most hearteningly, the opinion expressed is not unique. Again and again I was told that self-reflection was a necessary and integral part of true Catholicism and real faith. Over and over I found that for Catholic women the issue of blind faith simply was not relevant and did not arise.

"Good" is defined in my own terms. It is based on some Catholic teachings, but does not follow all of the teachings. The task is to pick what you believe in, and then follow through with those beliefs. ... My philosophy is that if I follow through with my beliefs (whatever God there is) will appreciate and accept that. I pick and choose what I want to believe in. I have faith that it's okay to do that. It's the breaking of my own stated beliefs that would cause problems. ... If I do something that [is] against the church's teachings, but [the teaching is one] I don't actually believe in, then I don't think it's in error and don't feel wrong about it. ... Find the parts that you can believe in and follow through.

And again, when asked about her spiritual job, another correspondent noted, "I see my spiritual responsibility as helping others, being supportive, offering advice, helping complete a job. Being there when they need help." She says nothing about unquestioning faith. Indeed, when asked if the dogma of the spiritual leaders of the Church should be followed, she wrote,

I think the teachings of Jesus need to be read first and then the thoughts of Thomas Aquinas, Paul, the popes, etc. considered hand in hand with what Jesus taught. Weigh them and judge their worth. See how they interact with what Jesus taught. ... I don't agree with the Catholic ruling on birth control or women as priest etc. I think that God must get frustrated with us sometimes that we can be such poor listeners and we forget that most basic tenets of treating each other with love and equality [sic].

Her writings clearly demonstrated her commitment to careful, critical consideration of one's religious beliefs and actions. I suspect she, like another of my correspondents, sees Catholicism to be as much a way of living and treating those around you, as a religion. As she later noted:

[T]here are people you meet in life and you realize that they are some of the truly good-hearted people. Those who just help out no matter what. They are always there. And when you get to know them, you just think, they care. That is what I remember the most about growing up in the Catholic faith is meeting those people along the way who really wanted to help people. ... I have seen women who are very strong in my faith leading lives that I would like to emulate. ... who set such a strong example that I think everyone tries to emulate or at least capture a small part of their energy and apply it toward life [sic].

Indeed, it seems that to my correspondent thoughtful reflection within one's religion is an integral part of true, Catholic faith, to the extent that she notes a lack of faith as follows: "We have become a nation eager to condemn, but loathe to act."

Thus I concluded my previous beliefs on blind faith and lack of thought were not a necessary part of Catholicism, as I'd previously, erroneously concluded. But what of other aspects of Catholicism? Was not the Pope supposed to be the infallible Word of God made manifest on Earth for our edification? Did not the Bible contain many verses that demonstrated women's secondary status? How did my correspondents see the "trappings" of Catholicism?

I was flabbergasted at my responses. Not a single respondent claimed to believe in the infallibility of the Pope... and yet, before I could mentally point and say 'aha!' I was again jarred out of my complacent beliefs. Concerning the Pope, one correspondent thoughtfully noted, "I consider the Pope a man who is focused on trying to hear God's word. But sometimes I think that the sounds of the world threaten to drown out God's voice." Concerning the Bible there was another surprising comparability of belief amongst my various correspondents:

"I believe the Bible is full of stories that impart morals. It was written in a different time and has different tones than it would today."

"I see it as a human expression of perhaps divine influence, translated and retranslated many times and subject to interpretation. [The religious teachings are] a matter of how things are interpreted by whoever happens to have the most power at the time..."

"I think that the Bible is the closest thing we have. ... for the most part it is accurate to the spirit of God's words. ... but it must also be interpreted. God is not a lawyer and didn't outline things in 500-page briefs. God framed things in concepts, man embellishes

Different correspondents phrased it slightly differently, of course, but I believe they were all trying to express a similar theme.

It is true there are people in the Catholic Church who wish to be told what to do and how to live their lives. However, there are similarly behaving people in every religion I know of. One has only to look at the recent suicides of the entire "Heaven's Gate" church to realize this is not a characteristic unique to the Catholic Church. Furthermore, whenever this sort of didactic attitude was presented as dogma, I frequently found the women so dictated to simply left the Church. If there was no answer to their questions and no interests in their needs, they would seek elsewhere for enlightenment. As one respondent noted:

Worship is definitely not a concept I'm comfortable with. Or obeying. I like to question, to debate, to weigh issues and examine all possibilities, and I feel that Catholicism really tries to restrict free thought and "customization" of the religion. ... In Catholic grammar school I would often ask questions about God, Jesus, the Ten Commandments, the Bible, and the Church, and was always given the same answer: that we are not to question, we are only to believe and obey. How can I believe what I cannot understand? And how can I understand when I cannot ask questions?

She later added,

I feel that the Catholic Church's teachings should be construed as a set of moral and spiritual guidelines, not laws. The teachings have not adapted to the changes in society as well as they could have, and some are no longer applicable.

Indeed, all of my formerly Catholic respondents demonstrated this need to question, to understand, rather than to simply blindly accept on faith. Interestingly, they almost all ended up spending some time exploring Wiccan beliefs... but again, before I could mentally point and say 'aha!' to myself I discovered that even in this there were individual variations for individual needs. One stayed strongly with Wicca, while another seems to view it as more of a stepping stone on her path of discovery:

I have taken on a very scientific view of religion and have somehow incorporated that into Wicca. I see many of the things in wicca as being metaphorical (i.e. God and Goddess) and I am not sure if I believe in any sort of God. ... I feel that religion loses its hold on me the more I grow intellectually [sic].

Another considers herself a Catholic, but differentiates between a "practicing" or religious Catholic, and what she does, which is to live what are Catholic guidelines for a moral life even as she feels more strongly drawn to Wiccan religious beliefs. One found even Wicca too limiting, and preferred to come up with her own, personal moral code;

I have dabbled in Wicca, but dropped that after a time because I felt that strictly maintained ritualism was stressed more than I felt was necessary. I guess I'm still shopping around. Or that I've made up my own religion.

The common theme or attraction Wicca had for these women seemed to be its tolerance... the acceptance of questions, as well as its women-friendly teachings. As one respondent noted,

I see my faith as being less rigid than others. ... it is not organized as is the Catholic faith. There is no monetary benefit. ...[its c]entral message is: be your own person. ... Women in Wicca are equal.

She later wrote:

My current faith allows me to ask questions. There is not guilt or shame. It is more enjoyable tha[n] Cath. in that there is a more optimistic view of life and living. It allows you to live. Cath. excludes many important issues, the rules of the church are antiquated, and you are not allowed to question anything, which to me can only lead to ignorance. ... I chose this faith because it is unorganized. I have a problem with organized religion, in general [sic].

Or as another respondent put it,

My mother often says: "You do not need to understand to have faith." So I guess I do not have faith, because there are many things that I do not understand. ... I expect a great deal of myself and others, and I sometimes think that Catholicism provides an easy out for the lax faithful.

Thus I came to the conclusion, from talking to my correspondents, that the Catholic Church could not be seen as unitarily demanding a complete and blind faith. True, there were individual cases where this was so, but this could not be considered a theological pillar of the Church's beliefs, since not everyone had gone through this experience. Furthermore, in all such cases my respondents chose to leave the Church rather than be stifled - which says to me that a sincere attempt to understand was made by the women. Also, it was apparent to me that leaving the Catholic Church was not a frivolous or careless step for them - in every case they continued to attempt to seek out understanding. Interestingly enough, one of my correspondents ended up returning to the Church later in her life. That particular correspondent was the one who first clearly demonstrated to me another fallacious belief I'd held, namely:

"Women are seen by the Catholic Church as being naturally inferior to men"

The mental corollary I'd held with this was that women also could hold no positions of power or responsibility within the Catholic Church, as a consequence of this belief. Again, I found the answers of my correspondents sometimes agreed with this assessment... but just as frequently I found myself feeling I had not examined the points of view of others closely enough. True, there are aspects of the Catholic Church that are shockingly narrow-minded and patriarchally reactionary, and they are not ignored or misunderstood, as these two correspondents point out:

"I see women as being repressed in most faiths, particularly in Catholicism which is very patriarchal. ... the Cath. religion is very anti-feminist in my opinion -- very traditional and I don't like that [sic]."

"In other faiths (save Wicca, Paganism, and some Protestant sects) I would say that women's status is very low."

Nevertheless there appears to be a growing ground-swell of opinion that would seem to be changing the Church, attempting to influence it from within. One respondent put it in this fashion: they may have put a wall in front of her, but that does not mean she cannot go around it. Another thoughtfully replied to my question about the perceived status of women in the Catholic Church as follows,

I think the status of women in all the religious faiths greatly reflect their status in society. Some are repressed, some are just accepted, and some are treated as true equals.

And most personally startling was the following:

I feel that women have the most important status of our faith. They are entrusted with raising our youth. It is up to women to teach our youth what is expected. Women impart love and forgiveness as part of this teaching. Children need to know that God is as forgiving and loving as their mother. It's important for children to learn to talk with others, admit their faults and responsibilities, and improve themselves. ... I've never been taught anything about woman submitting to man, as man submits to God. In fact, I've been taught the exact opposite.

Well, I thought, so much for my original belief that in the Catholic Church women were being universally seen as subordinate to men. Still, what of women not being able to hold positions of power and authority within the Catholic Church? That's pretty unarguable, after all... how will my respondents answer that?

I should have known better. Once again, my expectations fell short of the truths of real life, as experienced by practicing Catholic women. I spoke extensively with one woman about her position as the music director in her church. As she noted, she spends most of the sermon within about 5 feet of the priest. The parishioners, looking up at the altar, see their spiritual leaders standing there side by side; a man and a woman.

Furthermore, as the person in charge of selection of music she is given complete freedom of choice. She sees this as a chance to expose her fellow church-members to a wide variety of different cultural expressions of faith. Thus she has some jazz, some classical pieces, some African-American songs, other types of music as well. To her, this position is one of great responsibility. Consider: words in sermons can become droning, misunderstood, or extensively intellectual and difficult to follow. Music, on the other hand, speaks in a sometimes more direct fashion, straight to the soul. Thus what she chooses will have a direct impact and influence on the spiritual advancement of the people of her church. Under such circumstances, how could one say she has a position of no authority within her church? She is helping others to grow within their faith. There is no greater responsibility, in her eyes.

I asked her how she felt about women in the clergy. She admitted that it was true that women cannot currently enter the priesthood. Nevertheless, as she pointed out, due to the current shortage of priests in American there are places where nuns are the spiritual leaders of their flocks. A priest may be necessary to administer some of the Catholic rites, but most of the rites are administered by the nun who actually lives there - and it is to the nun that the people turn for spiritual enlightenment. As my correspondent noted, in the eyes of the people of that town there would be no difference between a priest and the nun who led their church. Furthermore she saw this as an empowering situation; as the Church became more dependent on its women there'd be more demand for women to be ordained as priests.

This empowered attitude about women was shared by other correspondents within the Catholic Church, although there were interesting variations on how the situation was perceived. As one correspondent wrote:

I'm not bothered by the fact that women cannot be ordained as priests. I say who would want to be a priest. What is their role that is so desirous?

Others simply felt that the Church had yet to open its eyes and see how important women were to it. A single example: one correspondent explained to me that it was women doing most of the proselytizing that brought new members into the fold. There seemed to be two reasons this was so. Firstly, the women were following an inner calling, one that the Catholic Church didn't really have a whole lot of say over. Secondly, the priests were just getting to be too rare for missionary work any more - they were desperately needed to administer rites to the faithful. Thus a new generation was becoming Catholic - a generation with an expectation of women being in positions of authority, of viewing women in a positive and respectful light.

So I realized that, contrary to my expectations, women are leading, are administering rites and participating in the Catholic rituals, sometimes simply because they can and are needed, sometimes because they feel they must. This led me to my final (and hopefully least arrogant) assumption:

"The Rites Of The Catholic Church Have Become Meaningless Ritual"

As a student in various Catholic schools I've suffered through some pretty darn uninspired masses. I've seen young girls squabbling before First Communion (which is supposed to be a very significant religious ceremony in the Catholic Church) over who has the prettiest new dress. I've seen godparents proudly announcing their godchild's Easter gift was the most impressive in the family that year, rather than helping the child realize the enormous religious significance of the rituals and symbols of Easter Sunday. I'm not so naive as to assume this is unique to Catholicism. Nevertheless it did seem to me that many of the rituals of the Catholic Church seemed to have lost their meaning to the parishioners hastily gabbling out a set number of rote Hail Marys as penance for some infraction.

However, as one of my correspondents thoughtfully pointed out, we all seek 'god' in our own way, and we all take our own paths towards that 'god.' For some it is the beauty of a sunset; for others artistic creation; yet others find it in a church or temple. What is important is that we pursue our own individual versions of 'god,' not that we slavishly follow a particular ritual or path. Ritual is there to assist one in meditation or preparation of the mind; it is the means, not the ends.

It was fascinating to me to have her use an example which was personally illuminating. As she pointed out, horse-back riding was where I found and claimed my particular spirit, where my personal soul or deity could be found. It was just myself and a large, friendly mammal to carry me effortlessly into the countryside, where I could find inner peace in my contemplation of the horse, the team the horse and I made, and the lovely scenery around me. And wasn't a powerful part of this experience the ritual that led up to the actual ride? True, sometimes I did not look forward to pulling on my boots, hiking out to catch the horse, cleaning and grooming it, tacking it up [putting on the saddle and bridle]... but by the time I finally got out and was riding, didn't I somehow feel more 'right,' more in tune with the world around me? And conversely, wasn't the ritual of returning to the barn, untacking the horse, picking out its hooves and washing it down, a similarly slow but satisfying return to the concerns of the real world?

It was, oddly enough, this seemingly insignificant anecdote that most clearly illuminated religion to me. Ritual is individually significant, and takes an infinite number of forms. Its purpose is nothing more than to prepare your mind, your self to find your own personal spirituality. Spirituality, religion, creed, call it what you will... it is the individuated, distinctive, sometimes unconscious quest for some sort of meaning that is peculiar to you and you alone. If your quest allows you to find meaning with others in a religious community, that is a good thing... but if your path leads you to a faith of only one, it is in no manner or form any less significant than a church of millions.

I'd like to take a moment to share some of my correspondents' beliefs, as discrete, specific expressions of their own unique journeys and discoveries,

I personally see religion as a different way of looking at what is ultimately the same thing. I have the sense of something 'bigger' than me that can point me towards the answers if I ask the questions the right way. ... [one of the central messages of my faith is] the idea of charity -- you should give of yourself not only to save somebody else, but because that somebody else is in some ways you yourself.
* * * * *
I believe that it is each and every person's duty to behave in a morally responsible way, respecting all human, plant and animal life. ... I believe that you get exactly what you give: kindness, love, civility, compassion, and generosity will all be returned to you. I believe that we are all responsible for our own actions.... I don't expect that I can change the world with my beliefs, but I would like to be an example to those around me. ... My philosophy would be: self-reliance, preservation of individual integrity, common sense, ability and/or willingness to see more than one side of issues. ... I chose my beliefs because they emphasize the strength and goodness capable of an individual. I do not pretend to be better than anyone else - I merely want to be as good as I can be ... responsible, respectful, tolerant, open-minded, compassionate, intelligent (regardless of IQ), and clear sighted.
* * * * *
I think the idea of being your brother's keeper is not just something you paraphrase as just being responsible for another's actions. Instead I think it is the idea that it takes us all, working in concert, helping each other, keeping watch over each other and growing together to bring about a better life. ... I think faith pushes us to try harder to do better. To reach a higher level and in doing so lift all of us up. ... if we reach up God will grab us by the forearms and pulls us up another rung closer to that perfection. But you have to reach. ... faith, knowledge and love is a precious gift and that if you have it in any religion, you should consider yourself blessed many times over.
* * * * *
"God" is an accepting and understanding being. ... you are allowed to make errors, and if you decide these things are truly in error, then try to fix them. ... [my faith] gives me the tools I need to love myself and others. It helped me learn how to communicate with others when I was troubled, wronged, or happy. It gives me peace.


In closing I'd have to say that I learned a great deal about myself whilst writing this paper, as well as individual variations within an institution I'd previously regarded as homogenous. I would like to clearly state here that by no means do I now feel the Catholic Church is the one true way or answer, nor do I feel my correspondents should all turn to it for all their answers to their pressing spiritual questions and needs. Nevertheless, I do feel there is a richness and complexity, both to the individuals to whom I spoke as well as the Catholic Church, that I had not previously realized.

I still do not believe the Catholic Church is for me. However, I can now better understand why it 'is' or 'is not' for others - without shallowly assuming they either have finally come to their senses, or must not yet have truly considered what it is they are espousing. Furthermore, through talking to my correspondents I now have a greater appreciation for the role of faith and belief in one's life, and the individual expressions that need for ritual and spirituality may take.

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