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A dirty little girl, her head hanging in shame

(This essay was originally published on September 19, 2010. It was reprinted at RichardDawkins.net and excerpted at The Daily Dish)

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I cannot remember a time before I knew I was a Catholic. I knew it just as clearly as I knew that I was a girl, or that I had brown eyes. These traits were inherited, fixed, unchangeable. It took me a few years to understand that I hadn’t actually been born Catholic, and many more years after that to realize that Catholicism was optional.

Why did it take me until I was sixteen years old to figure out something so obvious? Simple: Catholic childhood religious indoctrination is chillingly effective. Its most powerful weapons are guilt and the fear of a literal hell. When a child is taught that the simple act of doubting or questioning any of the Church’s teachings is a sin, and that even the tiniest of sins can result in an eternity spent in a literal hell, they quickly learn to suppress those doubts and to feel intense shame, guilt, and fear when they fail to do so.

Think for a second about how cruel that is. To ensure that the Catholic mind virus is passed down through the generations, the Church is willing to crush children’s curiosity and to stifle or completely destroy their ability to think critically.

Then there is the guilt. According to Catholic teaching, humans are born sinners and cannot help but continue to sin throughout their lives. The only way for a Catholic to atone for these sins is to confess them to a priest, do the required penance, and be absolved. As a child, I obsessively recorded in a little notebook anything that I had said or done that could possibly be considered sinful. Then, when the time came for confession, I would recite this list to the priest, my head hanging in shame, my cheeks burning. I’d do my penance and be absolved. For a fleeting, blissful moment, I would feel light and pure and holy. But soon I would sin again, the guilt would return, the little notebook would be filled up with a record of my indiscretions, and I would return to the confessional and repeat the process over and over again.

Although I left Catholicism fifteen years ago, on occasion I still catch myself wondering what I need to do in order to rid myself of the guilt, shame, and feeling of dirtiness that, in one form or another, is almost always my companion. I sometimes find myself feeling frustrated: why, I wonder, can’t someone just tell me what penance to do? I obviously no longer think in terms of sin or feel the need to go to the confessional, but the desire for absolution remains, like an itch that cannot be scratched.

Who can deny that this is a form of child abuse? The mere act of writing this is making my hands shake and my stomach churn with anxiety. Fifteen years ago, I made the choice to leave Catholicism, something that, among the family and community I grew up in, just isn’t done. This choice was, without a doubt, the best and most liberating choice that I have ever made. However, I do not have a choice when it comes to the ever-present guilt, shame, and anxiety that resulted from my childhood religious indoctrination, and which, to varying degrees of intensity, will always be with me.

The Catholic Church loathes children. Loathes them. To the Church, children are Catholics first and humans second, and the lifelong trauma caused by childhood indoctrination is mere collateral damage in the Church’s battle against the outside world. As is so often the case, the Church unashamedly places their own interests above all other concerns, including the welfare (physical, emotional, and mental) of children. And an organization that despises and preys upon its weakest and most vulnerable members (who haven’t even chosen to be members) is undoubtably a force of great evil in the world.

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19 Comments Post a comment
  1. A sad story. How does one reply to such bitterness, anger and confusion.
    I wonder at the community and family environment you were brought up in. I wonder if somewhere along the way you forgot to actually get to know Jesus Christ Himself.

    Indoctrination? No. You might as well say that any kind of discipline by ones parents is indoctrination of a kind. Of course kids will believe pretty much anything. Would you have prefered to have been brought up believing or knowing nothing at all, an entirely sterile intellectual environment? Perhaps, and if so then you truly have been abused.

    We all have to grow up and we all make choices in life, leave the nest and leave many of the paths we were set upon by our elders. I know many ex Catholics and none of them I know feel rejected by their families or the local priest simply for being lapsed…

    My own Catholic upbringing was the opposite to yours, although I hated boarding school but this was not the fault of the Priests (Josephites) or church who looked after us and disciplined us. I did not like going to confession and still don’t – rarely go at all now. I was taught that forgiveness is an internal thing between yourself and Jesus, that confession was not mandatory but helpful, I agree.

    I am happy to be a part of the church founded by Peter the rock who was given the key by Christ. I am always deeply moved by taking the wine and bread and being part of the last supper with Christ. I do not feel this is because I have been indoctrinated in any way but rather because I have returned to believe and understand in a deeper way.

    It is the most compassionate and loving religion, full of feast days song and wine. The rituals of the Catholic Church make absolute sense and reflect the gospels. It is a religion that people leave and return to – quite freely in my experience. It is an intelligent religion, it does however require effort and thought like anything worthwhile in life.

    I have not always found it easy to be a Catholic let alone a good Christian.

    Yes I do feel that God will judge me for this one day. It was Christ himself who said that we would not normaly be able to enter heaven at all but that with God all things are possible, if you believe He died for your sins what more glorious thing is there – the hope of eternal life. Why you have a problem with original sin I do not know. We are all aware of our sinful nature, this is not a label that the church has given you out of sheer spite.

    At school I was hit with a stick on and off but did not resent this, the punishments were fair – if strict by todays standards. I have no doubts at all that they toughened us up for later life. I can honestly say I was never abused nor do I consider being hit abuse. The priests laughed with us and played with us, they taught us strictly and one or two of them I hated. I grew up.

    The abuse came later with more modern punishments initiated by the Quakers. Yes, human nature is flawed and so any human structure such as the Holy Church is far from perfect but Holy it is, just as you are Miranda, we all have that spark. You have just lost your way like we all do at times.

    May God bless you and keep you, there is no shame in Christ only forgiveness.

    March 23, 2013
  2. BVazquez #

    God the Father, Jesus his Son, His Kingdom, His forgiveness, He, His, mankind, Peter…etc etc.
    I left Catholicism behind years ago too. I feel the same way that the author does about my Catholic childhood and guilt. I also hated how everything was about men. Why does God have to have male genitals, I thought? I was made to feel ashamed about sex and my gender. Why can’t I be an altar girl or a woman a priest? It’s so clearly a man-made system. Women are an afterthought, we have two role models: a virgin mother or a prostitute. No thanks.

    March 24, 2013
  3. Hello BVazquez.
    The Catholic church follows Christ. Christ taught us the Our Father. Sorry, God is apparently male. The MALE priest represents the Father figure in ritual – for obvious reasons. Aint life tough and unfair!
    Hang on a minute though, Mary was Mother to God (Christ) so there is something women can be really proud of!
    There is nothing to stop you being an altar girl at all or a nun or simply doing Christ’s work in your community, not quite sure what your problem is really.
    I have no idea if God has a penis – probably not something that needs to be given too much thought.
    May I suggest that you were not actually ‘made’ to feel ashamed at all, you have simply been indoctrinated by the God haters and anti religious, feminist, politically correct brigade. You have also failed to use any common sense I am sorry to say.
    Shame comes to us all, or should do – if you are truly Human – it’s actually very healthy and helps you grow up.

    March 25, 2013
  4. Im a cradle catholic female too…….and if I wasn’t …..i would have converted to it by now. Love Catholicism……and have 7 little catholic children. Sorry….but i don’t have any time for your self pity. Seems a hobby with some people. They probably dine out on it.

    March 25, 2013
    • Well said

      March 26, 2013
    • I don’t pity myself. I do, however, pity your children. There’s no such thing as a “Catholic child”. Your children are “children of Catholic parents”, not “Catholic children”. They, like all children, deserve both a childhood free from emotionally abusive religious indoctrination and the opportunity to choose their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) for themselves.

      March 26, 2013
      • Perhaps you should not be a parent, you would be worrying all the time and reading books on how to be the perfect parent!

        It seems you want your children to grow up as completely empty vessels, free of any teaching of right or wrong, or any parent influences at all; God or indeed anything beyond what can be experienced and felt in your immediate environment – leave them to learn – or not – later in life. This is the only way to avoid any thought that you just might have brainwashed them with any of your own ideas or influences… A sort of anything goes mentality to education.

        I suggest this is called abuse by neglect. It also assumes that your children are so stupid and insecure that they will not be able to make up their own minds about things as they become adults.

        What EXACTLY would YOUR perfect model for bringing up a child be? I would be interested to know.

        March 27, 2013
  5. It’s funny to me how all the posts from Catholics talk about forgiveness and grace, but wrap it all up in passive-agressive attacks:

    “May I suggest that you were not actually ‘made’ to feel ashamed at all, you have simply been indoctrinated by the God haters and anti religious, feminist, politically correct brigade. You have also failed to use any common sense I am sorry to say.”

    “Sorry….but i don’t have any time for your self pity. Seems a hobby with some people. They probably dine out on it.”

    Seems like an awful lot of pride in there.

    cast out the beam in thine own eye, judge not lest ye be judged. Funny how that only seems to be a part of Catholicism when convenient.

    March 25, 2013
    • Mr Welch

      Again, ‘may I suggest’ ( I hope this is a soft and polite enough intro for you), that this is not pride but irritation creeping in, quite understandable and a very human trait.

      Funny how anti catholics (I suspect you are anti by the tone) will so often eventually quote from the very sources they love to sneer at. You make a good point however and I will do my best not to sound too proud. I also do not judge you but only your words, you will no doubt be pleased to note.

      Passive aggressive ‘defence’ I will accept, it is high time we became as aggressive in defence as our aggressors are in attack.

      The church is very much under attack at the moment. Little of it is genuine, much of it is ignorant, even more of it is simply hatred. I am indeed proud of my faith. However I am not a priest, nor am I without faults, moving on…

      Christianity would not have come as far as it has without some pretty forceful speakers.

      One person was actually put to death on a cross because people did not like what He said. Many more were put to death in rather more horrible ways – great way of stifling belief and opinion!

      Most of them were also variously accused of blasphemy and treason; trouble makers etc. Hated for appearing to judge others by the very way they tried to lived their lives. People do not like those who do not fit in.

      The trend to silence those with conscience or faith these days – the ‘traditionalists’ those who ‘refuse to modernise or move with the times’ – is less aggressive than say the days prior to Constantine but very, very insidious. It seeks to label Christians or dissenters of vociferous minority groups with ‘phobias’ or ‘bigotry and hypocricy, thus hoping to prevent any further awkward dialogue.

      If you don’t like the sauna take a plunge.

      March 26, 2013
  6. So Tom says that God is male — fair enough, I suppose. But it requires a MALE priest to represent Him. The priest could be bald or have hair, could be tall or short, could be black or white or whatever, could even be gay or straight, and yet, the IMPORTANT thing is that the priest be male. All the variety of humankind, and the Catholic God thinks the MOST IMPORTANT THING is that the priest is male?

    I guess someone should have mentioned to Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Noadiah, Isaiah’s wife, Elizabeth, Anna, and Philip’s daughters that only men should speak for God.

    March 25, 2013
    • I do not claim to speak for God nor does the Catholic church with regards ordination of women priests. We are of course not sure at all what God thinks about women priests or Homosexual priests or any other kind of male priest – let alone female… We can best guess however based on what evidence is available in the Gospels.

      It is important to understand what the Mass – the ritual of the service as laid out since Christ, is trying to achieve.

      To me it is all about continuity and the priest representing Christ, the authority of The Father. It is the Father who forgives, the Son of God who died… not the Mother, however much we may have prefered a mum to a dad.

      This is so especially when it comes to the high point of the Mass which is the celebration of the Eucharist – doing what Christ did at the last supper ‘This is my body – and this is my blood which will be given up for you, do this in memory of me ….’ The ritual is all we have left (in a physical sense) and the closer to the truth of scripture we can celebrate the better – in my view.

      There has always been roles for women in the church and in scripture, as you rightly mention and we have many female saints however these females have not sought to change the status quo for largely political reasons, as they did not think this was a priority and did not wish to tear the foundations of the ancient church apart.

      Many people (no idea what the stats are) feel that the traditional Father figure and representation of Jesus Christ is all important in the Mass and anyone should be able to understand why.

      The Pope may one day be female but once again I think this would be absurd as Peter was male.

      If this eventually changes and the Catholic church do ‘modernise’ I think this would be tragic. I fear it is indeed likely to happen.

      I suspect this to happen as the Father figure and the traditional family structure is further eroded by aggressive secularism, the list is growing: gay rights, human rights, humanists, atheists, left wing liberal media… and of course politicians eager to please.

      March 26, 2013
      • Tom, you seem intelligent, but, if your goal is to persuade non-Catholics to agree with your stance, keep in mind that non-Catholics will always (understandably) dismiss arguments based upon Church doctrine, in the same way that you’d dismiss arguments based upon Islamic doctrine: in both cases, only those who share the same beliefs and have the same faith will be persuaded by an argument based on those beliefs and their accompanying doctrine. I don’t presume to know your goal here, but, if you are attempting to persuade non-Catholics to agree with you, keep in mind that you’re not preaching to the choir.

        March 27, 2013
        • Thanks, very flattered. No one is forcing you to dismiss any argument.

          I am not preaching and you have failed to address my points or questions in a rational manner. I had hoped you might be rather more objective and less emotive.

          My aim is to debate (it’s fun), to put forward my own feelings and thoughts and to challenge extraordinary levels of ignorance regarding my religion. I have rather too much time on my hands at the moment – not healthy I know.

          You are quite simply wrong. Non Catholics will not always dismiss arguments as you may like to think. Not all non-catholics ‘think’ – or don’t think – in the same way that you do, or don’t.

          Great thinkers like CS Lewis re-imbraced Christianity. There are many converts out there. Muslims converting to Catholicism and vice versa, in short people are thinking – they are on a path. Your path seems to have hit a dead end.

          I would not presume to try to convert anyone I am far too stupid and not worthy of such a task.

          You seem to assume that people are very very stupid and that you are the only one who is capable of rational thought. You must stop assuming that all Catholics are brain washed idiots.

          Lastly, what exactly is YOUR goal my dear and who are you addressing here in your blog, why have you set up this blog exactly?

          Were you expecting lots of fan mail? Perhaps you should consider filtering or deleting the commentators you dislike, there might be very young people reading this and one would not wish to influence them unduly.

          March 27, 2013
          • Tim Atkinson #

            Miranda obviously hit pretty much smack on the bullseye here, judging by the reaction it has provoked. Keep it up, Miranda.

            May 4, 2013
  7. RDW #

    Welcome to the Tom Venour Show !! With Special Guest, Miranda Celeste Hale !!!

    March 28, 2013
  8. Padraig #

    Tom Venour fails to understand the basic fact that mere assertion is not proof.

    April 21, 2013
    • Winston Smith #

      I’m afraid that sound and logical arguments come second place to pre-determined conclusions.

      April 24, 2013

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Child abuse and Catholic indoctrination: on being ‘kindling wood for Hell’ « miranda celeste hale
  2. Catholicism’s rhetoric of suffering | miranda celeste hale

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