Thursday, June 3, 2021

How to leave the Catholic Church

I've been intrigued by Steve Skojec's last few posts. I disagree with him on most things, to be sure, but where it comes to the Legion of Christ and the traditionalist movement, he gets it. Both groups are high demand and abusive, and he knows that personally.

He certainly sounds to me like he's thinking of leaving the church altogether. In general, I approve: it's not just fringe movements that can be abusive, and as long as you're in the church, you're always going to find more of those anyway. But I also worry a little bit for him. A life inside the church doesn't prepare you very well for a life outside. If he goes dashing outside the church without rethinking a heck of a lot of first principles, he'll run after the next nutty person he sees who promises him the complete ideological purity that attracted him into his first two cults.

That's true of anybody who leaves a church, so I thought I'd write a little how-to guide.

How to Leave the Church

1. Stand up from the pew

2. Go through the doors, they're at the back

3. Run and don't stop

I kid, I kid. It isn't hard to leave the church, once you've made up your mind it's the right thing to do. You simply stop showing up, and if they call you, tell them nobody by that name lives at your number anymore. It's not like leaving the Mormons. They really aren't going to try to stop you. They will, of course, insist that you are  still Catholic, per canon law, and count you in any numbers they keep track of. But you can leave them counting those beans, because you're not there anymore.

But what do you do next?

1. Take a break from religion.

You know how, when you get out of a bad relationship, any subsequent relationship looks so good by comparison? "Wow," an abuse survivor raves to her friends, "he doesn't beat me at all! I had no idea guys could be this good!" And the friends look at the guy and are like . . . "Okay but he still forgot your birthday and expects you to clean up after him, are you sure this isn't a rebound?"

If Steve jumps ship straight into Orthodoxy (as I suspect he will, the trad-to-Orthodox pipeline is well traveled) he'll be so amazed it isn't as toxic as a traditionalist parish that he'll boast about it to anyone who will listen. But that doesn't mean it will be healthy. With a long break (months, maybe a year) without going to church at all, he'll be better able to weigh whether a new church is actually bringing goodness into his life or simply less badness.

Of course you can still pray during this break time, study theology, call yourself a Christian. But a person needs to decompress a little from church. I think the enforced decompression of the pandemic has gotten a lot of people realizing how little they were getting from their churches, how perfectly capable they are of worshiping at home. The churches they return to will be the ones that actually offer something other than obligation.

2. Dig down to first principles. 

Steve sees something wrong with the church, which should be adequate proof he has a moral code apart from the church. If you can judge the church and find it wanting, then there's something in you that knows right and wrong apart from the church telling you so. What is that compass telling you?

Steve knows it's wrong for the priest not to baptize his child. But why? Is it because of the first principle "Nobody says no to me, Steve Skojec"? Probably it's more some sense of fairness. The feeling that everyone deserves to get the things they absolutely need. How could Steve extend that outward to more things? If his child deserves baptism, do all children deserve food? What does it mean to deserve something, and how can we obtain for everyone what they deserve?

I highly recommend reading some moral philosophy, or, if you're not up to homework, watching The Good Place. You don't have to have a perfectly spelled-out moral philosophy, but it's good to have some general principles to guide you.

3. No, further down than that.

It's too easy to become exactly the same brand of person you were before, sans church membership. To keep the same politics, the same biases, the same ingroup. People like Jordan Peterson, whom Steve Skojec likes so much, promise to let you do that. Here's a non-religious defense for all the same things you thought before!

The world does not need more repackaged, atheist patriarchy, homophobia, or hierarchies. You don't need to do evo-psych to work out why the same moral code you had before is scientific. It doesn't actually work that way. It's like when Aquinas tried to make Aristotle prove the church was right about everything. If the church is wrong about some things, what else could it be wrong about? Maybe it was wrong about gay marriage, or monarchy.

It's easier to keep mostly the same opinions you had before. If the church taught you to be constantly afraid, constantly angry, about "how the world is going," it will be hard to change your point of view. But Steve believes, as I believe, that one has a responsibility to know the truth. What if all of that was fear tactics? What if the way you vote, the things you promote, or the condemnations you've pronounced have done harm? Reconsider everything. 

Take your time. You don't have to have it all worked out right away. Catholics will demand, "So are you contracepting now? What do you think about abortion?" It's okay to say, "I'm still working all that out." In fact, that's almost the only answer you can say that won't get you attacked with either, "Here's why you're wrong," or "If you agree with the church on that, you should just be Catholic again!"

4. Don't look backwards

You know how Lot's wife was turned to a pillar of salt for looking over her shoulder? That's a terrible story, the bible is messed up. Anyway, there's an impulse after leaving the church to keep obsessing over it. You study the theology you already know, in order to reassure yourself that you weren't making up the problems. You keep talking with Catholic people, maybe arguing with them to get some kind of closure, a point where they admit you did the right thing by leaving. (You will not get this.) You can even make an entire living, like Rod Dreher does, out of criticizing the church you're no longer a part of.

It's one thing to do this for a little while. Maybe it's even healthy. But if it's been a year and you're still mostly surrounded by Catholics, reading Catholic blogs, coming up with ever more airtight refutations of Catholic teaching . . . it might be time to move on a little bit. That history is always going to be a part of you; you don't have to pretend otherwise. But it can be like picking at a scab a little bit. Leaving the church is painful, and constantly putting yourself back into that mindset keeps that pain going. 

Find some non-Catholic friends, both ex-Catholics and never-Catholics. (The former get you so well. The latter remind you that you have to have something else to talk about besides that.) Have new interests and hobbies. Get, eventually, to a point where having been Catholic is just one thing about you. (I'm not going to claim I'm fully there.)

5. Replace those things that actually helped you.

When I first left the church, I tried to replace all of it: the prayers, the holidays, the songs. The church was just such a big part of my life, I felt like I needed all of that. These days I don't do so much of that. Many of the things I used to do, I found I didn't really need, so they fell by the wayside.

You have to ask yourself, what have you been relying on the church for? For good reason,* the church doesn't encourage you to think about what you're getting out of it, but it's very likely you did get something out of it. A way to self-improvement, some daily or weekly meditative time, a coping mechanism for anxiety, an opportunity to do charitable work, a community of like-minded people. Where can you get those things? It doesn't have to all be in the same place.

(*it's because if you actually kept a tally, you'd see you give much more than you get, and very often you get nothing)

There's one thing, though, that you shouldn't replace. Don't replace one all-inclusive, package vacation to truth with another. The church claimed to have all truth so you never needed to go elsewhere. Don't find some other organization or guru and eat up everything they say. Don't fall for ideologies that claim to explain everything. Everything is not privilege vs. oppression. Everything is not order vs. chaos. Everything is complicated. Listen to a variety of people, read different sources, keep thinking.

The church taught you to doubt yourself and seek an outside arbiter of truth. It's not wrong that your reason is fallible. But if your reason is fallible at finding the truth, it's even worse at picking authorities that can find the truth for you. Everyone else's reason is fallible too. The best safety measure against all of that is to double-check other people's claims of truth against your own reason.

6. Heal emotionally.

When you're newly out of the church, you're recovering from two traumas. One of them is leaving the church, and the other is the time you spent in it. Depending on how it went for you, those may be more or less severe.

Your time in the church might have loaded you down with:

  • Terror of hell
  • Conviction that you are not a good person
  • Fear of the outside world
  • Guilt for small things
  • Fear of enjoying yourself in any way, and guilt when you do
  • Sexual dysfunction or shame
These aren't things that will leave you all at once. As a result, when you leave the church you may find yourself feeling worse at first. You might have rationally worked out that there is no hell, but when it's 1 am and you can't sleep, you might still feel afraid of it. This isn't a sign that you did the wrong thing necessarily; it's just that you were taught to be afraid of certain things and that lesson went deeper than reason.

Meanwhile, leaving the church can cause problems like:
  • Social rejection by your community
  • Existential angst or fear
  • Worry about doing the right thing
  • Grief at losing God
  • Panic that this life might be all there is
  • Regret at how you've spent your life this far
I hit many of these things very hard. I worried all the time that one of my children would die and it would be my fault and they wouldn't go to heaven because there wasn't one. I cried because Jesus had been my best friend. I lay awake at night because I was afraid I would go to sleep and not wake up, and never have a chance to do anything different with my life.

You see why it's so tempting to jump into the first religion or ideology that presents a soothing answer. I'm not saying you shouldn't, at some point, find one. But it should be after you've done a little healing on these things, so you're not just trying to fill a church-shaped hole.

I can't get you through any of this with a blog post. It takes time and emotional processing. It might take therapy. But I will tell you it gets better. You're living each day without whatever pain the church was causing--which, as you go on, you'll realize was more than you thought. And you find new ways to cope with the different pains of human existence, things the church once answered for you.

I hope that helps.


ficino4ml said...

Sheila, this is amazing. What you wrote is hugely relevant to very many people, and ex-evangelicals as well as ex-Catholics. Do you mind if I post links on some other blogs? Your contribution deserves a big audience!

I have heard of a few tradies (sp?) who became Orthodox, but I didn't realize it is a thing. I'm chuckling at the stuff I observed about the Greek Orthodox church around NYC and at things friends told me. Those βρώμικοι παππάδες! (dirty priests). Like, one who stole my friend's jewelry... it goes on and on.

The night I realized that I had a choice between affirming the love that my first boyfriend and I discovered we had, versus remaining faithful to Catholic teaching, I felt that I was choosing to say either yes or no to life. I thought of the line in the movie, The Devil's Playground, where an old priest tells the young character, "a whole life is a long time to be unhappy." But I wept as I thought I could never pray the Rosary again.

From my perspective now, though -- so glad to be out of the cult. And your lists of things the church loaded us down with, and things we face when leaving, is so true.

All best, and again, all best for your move.

Sheila said...

Yes, definitely share it as much as you like. I hope it can help someone.

I want to reply more to the rest of what you said, but I made a comment to my husband about traddies becoming Orthodox and he had a lot to say about that! Tomorrow I'll tell you a bit about that, it's a whooooole thing.

Sheila said...

Basically, a lot of trads are drawn to the Orthodox Church because they see it as more conservative/ more liturgically pure than the Catholic Church. And it's true that without a pope, you have nobody to change the teachings. They seem in many ways to be much closer to the church fathers.

But that actually puts off trads in the long run because trads aren't traditional as in the early church. They're traditional as in Trent. They worship Trent (believing, of course, that it was just a codification of things the church believed from the beginning, which imo isn't true) and the Orthodox Church never had anything like Trent. The rigidity/ scrupulosity/ policing of everything that trads do doesn't fit in well in Orthodox circles. The Orthodox aren't even "right" of the Catholic Church! The axes are just entirely different.

The Orthodox are also very diverse. Some congregations are ethnic enclaves where nobody cares that much about the religious part. Some are overrun with Catholic converts. Some are doing Old Country cosplay from a hundred years ago. In the US, each ethnic church answers to a different patriarch, even if they're in the same area. So the average trad checking out his local Orthodox church might experience anything from "finally the real bleeding edge of conservative Christianity I've been looking for" to "oh my god this is like all the parishes I've hated all my life, only in a language I can't understand."

In short, I don't believe Orthodoxy is the solution for trads unless they deeply rethink what they are looking for. Sacraments, liturgy, maybe a friendly married priest going "oh yeah we can baptize ya whenever?" Sure, you can get that. Perfect purity, right dogma, hardcore fasting, lax people kept out? No, you won't find it there.

Sheila said...

Incidentally my husband was very enthused about the Orthodox lack of sacramental gatekeeping. Like, after the amount of red tape you have to go through to get a child their first communion, it's amazing to go there and see all the kids receive whenever their parents decide they're capable of behaving properly.

But our actual experience is that they wouldn't receive him into the church until we had an Orthodox marriage ceremony. I was furious about it. First off because we had been married over ten years and it felt like the world's biggest sham. And second because I have religious trauma and did NOT want to be forced through a religious ceremony that means nothing to me. They tried to make me kiss a Bible and instead I burst into tears. It was awful. So I really don't buy the "less sacramental gatekeeping" thing. Just like at a Catholic church, you're at the mercy of whatever priest you get.

ficino4ml said...

So fascinating. OMG the memories your stories bring back.

In college I was a pretty frothing at the mouth Calvinist. From our Calvinist mentor I imbibed the maxim, "A dogmatic Christ founded a dogmatic church." I was gung ho. Bring on the dogmas!

You can guess where this led when I met up with Orthodox and Catholic students in grad school. Suddenly I was faced with other systems of dogma that predated the Reformation. To make a long story short, I wound up fearing that the Reformers were the ones in error, esp. that the sola scriptura principle couldn't satisfy its own requirements.

I came down to thinking the truth was in some sort of sacerdotal church. The Anglicans just didn't seem to cut it, especially with the old difficulties over Anglican orders.

Some students I knew converted from Protestantism to Orthodoxy. They went to an English language parish that met in a Russian cathedral in NYC. I went to the liturgy once. There were about six old women standing in the vast nave (? not sure if that's the right word for that style of structure) and a priest intoning the liturgy in Old Church Slavonic. Over to the side was a chapel filled to the brim with English speakers waiting for their liturgy to start. Some were praying "Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mmmeeerrrcccyyy" over and over, and I thought they almost might as well have been praying "in tongues." When the English language liturgy started I thought it was beautiful and exotic and all...

Eventually I became Catholic not Orthodox because of the need for a living authority that can adjudicate questions, dovetailing with the primacy of the Bishop of Rome. Some side issues were the ethnic splits within Orthodoxy. As you wrote above, some people seemed to identify Orthodoxy with their nation. One fellow student, who converted, told us with a laugh that after her conversion, one of the old ladies was telling another one, "Now that Pat has become Russian ..."

Having many Greek American friends I have heard many stories that cash out as: another human group like most human groups.

I'm guessing most trad Catholics who become Orthodox join an English-language parish within the OCA. I doubt too many become, say, Greek Orthodox. You pretty much have to be Greek or married to someone Greek to fit in there.

Sheila said...

Funny, John actually does go to a Greek Orthodox church. He found it more "normal" and less traditionalist than the Russians. Bonus, after church there's often spanikopita or baklava or soup!

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