Posted by: L. E. Barnes | May 20, 2012

Tell the Truth in Love

A couple of days ago, our local newspaper ran a letter to the editor that quickly caught my attention. Written by a former Catholic, he was responding to another person’s letter that had appeared in the paper a little over a week earlier. His missive is as follows:

I did very much appreciate Ann Harrington’s May 9 letter “Catholic Church acting as judge.” Her experiences mirror mine; that church indeed accepts only Rome’s interpretation of any question that may affect faith or morals. This encompasses a very large part of living, including politics, governing and law, and pits the Bible against the Vatican as God’s word.

I was raised in a devout Catholic family, which included priests and nuns. I was sent off to a Catholic military academy in the fifth grade. We students lived with the nuns 24/7 in a strict religious regimen, which included posture. We sat at attention, knees together, hands folded in prayerful attitude on desk tops.

Any deviation of this “devout attitude” was met with immediate, serious whacking with a steel-rimmed hairbrush wielded by our “homeroom monster.” Our sole priest, who delivered the sacraments, was avoided at all costs.

High school was another boarding school ruled by an order of priests and brothers who required immediate discipline. Several of them preferred boys and we learned how to avoid a private counsel session with them. Religion was poured into us by messages from the Vatican. The Bible was not studied.

I entered service and got exposed to members of other faiths; curiosity led me to crack the Bible. I could not find my church there. I did find an abiding interest.

I was stationed in Puerto Rico when I finally broke with the church during the Kennedy campaign. The bishops of San Juan and Ponce declared that anyone who did not vote Democratic would be excommunicated. I publicly challenged them in the paper, writing they could do their thing but they should give up their American citizenship. These two Irish-American priests did their excommunication thing. I am still waiting for them to give up on America.

I have never written a letter to the editor, but after reading the above rant, I felt a response was called for.

Those of you who know me or are familiar with my little blog here will know that I am not a cradle Catholic. My religious path, much like my educational and career paths, has taken me places I never expected to go. I grew up a charismatic evangelical, wandered the wastelands of agnosticism for several years, and finally came into the Catholic Church in 2007. Having taken courses in church history in college, I was well aware that the Catholic Church had a checkered history. (Of course, the same holds true for not only other branches of Christianity but all religious faiths–and all governments, institutions, and other organizations, for that matter.) In addition, I had heard countless stories of ex-Catholics who all too glad to talk about their bad experiences with the Catholic Church–from those who claim they weren’t truly “saved” until they turned to evangelicalism or fundamentalism, to those who endured various forms of abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy or religious.

The bottom line is that I didn’t approach the Church with any illusions that it was a picture-perfect organization. Being made up of fallible people, the Church has unfortunately had its share of bad members, both laity and clergy. However, these things did not deter me from becoming Catholic. Rather, I confidently entered what I knew was Christ’s mystical body that has endured for nearly two millenia, spreading the gospel, serving the needy, providing education, and performing countless other good works. It has also produced countless works of art and literature and music, hospitals, charitable organizations, and institutions of higher learning. And those who delight in pointing at Catholics who were responsible for grave moral failures often seem to gloss over the army of saints who have come from its ranks.

So, how to respond to this fellow’s vilification of the Church? I’ll admit to feeling both compassionate and irked. Compassionate, because he’s speaking out of his hurt and bitterness. I’ll be the first to agree that many of the priests and religious he encountered during his upbringing, especially at the Catholic schools he attended, failed him and his fellow students horribly. They not only failed to teach him the faith adequately (I mean, how can any school that calls itself Catholic not include the Bible in its instruction?), but they utterly failed to demonstrate Christian love or provide pastoral care (i.e., the abusive priests). And how those bishops in Puerto Rico had the audacity–and were able to get away with–commanding the people in their dioceses to vote Democratic, under threat of excommunication, is absolutely beyond me.

So yes, I’m deeply sorry that he had such terrible experiences. At the same time, however, I feel somewhat irked with ex-Catholics like him who bash the Church. I see them making two huge errors. First, he seems to assume that because he had bad experiences with the Church, the Church as a whole is therefore bad and all Catholics should jump ship and look elsewhere for their spiritual needs. (Granted, this seems to be a mistake that most people make regarding many things. That is, if they have good experiences with something, they think everyone else should embrace it. Whereas if they have bad experiences with something, they think everyone else should avoid it like the plague.) Such overgeneralizing overlooks the fact that for every disgruntled ex-Catholic, there are plenty of Catholics, both converts and cradle Catholics, who absolutely love the Church and are so glad to be a part of it. And whereas the gentleman who wrote the above letter had the misfortune of having been surrounded by a number of bad priests and religious, many other Catholics will readily share about how they’ve been richly blessed by the priests and religious they’ve encountered during their lives.

Second, when I hear people insist that the Catholic Church’s teachings conflict with the Bible, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That ludicrous accusation has been addressed and refuted over and over. (But again, we see how those responsible for this fellow’s religious education failed to instruct him adequately in the faith.)

Of course, I always want to bear in mind the New Testament’s admonition to tell the truth in a spirit of love. So I’d like to hear from my fellow Catholics out there: How would you respond to such a person?



  1. The Church continues to reap the bad fruit of a catechetical process that has yet to effectively connect Catholicism to the Bible.

    • I’m afraid you’re right. That’s probably a big reason why so many Catholics are misled into thinking that Catholicism doesn’t square with the Bible and are thus easy targets for conversion by well-meaning but misguided Protestants and other groups.

  2. I second what kkollwitz said.

  3. I’m with kkollwitz. There is so much to say. This man is a little older than I and was victimized by the boarding schools he was sent to. But within that milieu there must have been a few religious and priests who were good and holy and tried to teach the children to have a deep relationship with God. I am sorry for his bad experience. And bishops need to exercise their teaching office and leave politics to the laity! We have had a succession of bad bishops in the Church for well over 50 years now as far as the USA goes. Now I am seeing positive changes and pray that we will see more Dolans and Chaputs, Slatterys and Burkes.

    • I agree. May the Lord bless us with revival and grant us holy leadership!

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