I’m a Catholic. Well, sort of. I disagree with the Church on many (read: most) sociopolitical issues, but Catholicism is my spiritual inheritance, whether I like it or not.
I haven’t been to Mass in a long time, first because of the COVID-19 pandemic and then because the Church’s stance on the 2020 American presidential election just… disgusted me. It still disgusts me, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to reconcile my politics with the faith in which I was raised. It isn’t just that, though.
I’m also autistic.
I grew up in a small New England town and attended our local parish— Mass and CCD (Catholic Sunday school) every weekend, and on Holy Days of Obligation. It’s just what we did in my family. My parents weren’t religious fanatic or anything, and they had no idea I was autistic. I cannot really fault them for it, but non-fanatical things cannot be said of our priest, and it definitely cannot be said of the kind-of/sort-of nun who was in charge of religious education.
On the subject of religion, I remain mostly ambivalent. I’m not here to tell anyone that it’s inherently good or bad, nor am I trying to speak for anyone other than myself—autistic or otherwise—but for me, my religious upbringing was traumatic, and it had devastating consequences that reverberate to this day and cause me no small amount of psychic and emotional pain. Some people find acceptance, healing, solace, etc. through their faith, including some dear friends of mine, and honestly… I envy them.
When I was very small, I believed that God loved all of His children. That’s what my mom taught me—I didn’t have to worry about eternal damnation because I was a good person—but around the time I started middle school, things changed. A new priest arrived, and he was, well, extreme. He was a real throwback, an old-school, traditional hellfire-and-brimstone style Catholic, and when he came along, God ceased to be a kind, loving father figure in the sky.
There were so many contradictions: God really did love all of His children, but for some incomprehensible reason, He allowed most of them to burn in hell for the rest of forever. Just those who displeased Him, though—you know, any kind non-Catholics were doomed because “there is no salvation outside the One True Faith.” Or, say you were a good Catholic who slept late one Sunday morning, missed Mass, and got into a fatal car crash the very next day. Yeah, that one little misstep means that you, my friend, are beyond saving.
I was beginning to learn that you were pretty much screwed no matter what you did, and while I started to question what I was being taught, I knew I was bad for daring to ask these questions. But how was it possible that I, a lowly, sinning human, could have more compassion than God Almighty? I mean, seriously—I wouldn’t let good people rot in hell for being imperfect!
I am deeply, deeply ashamed of this, but I became a raging homophobe and a militant pro-lifer. I had to be that way if I didn’t want to go to hell, right?
I said my prayers every night before bed—even the Act of Contrition, because I was such a terrible sinner—and I even began to learn Latin (if you don’t know, Latin is to Catholics what Hebrew is to Jews, or it was until the mid-20th century) because I just knew that God wouldn’t send me to the Lake of Fire if I used the language in which the Mass was intended to be said. The Reverend Father even thought I could have the makings of a religious sister.
All I knew was that I had to be perfect. No slip-ups allowed.
LGBTQ+ folks can go to heaven, I was told, but only if they live a life of celibacy. Only if they don’t give in to their “perverse” nature. Anyone who has an abortion, for any reason, has a one-way ticket to hell (I’ll never forget the plastic fetuses that were distributed to parishioners to remind us that abortion is always murder).
Animals do not have souls and therefore cannot go to heaven. If you engage in any kind of sexual activity before you are married—and non-Catholic marriages don’t count—you would never be permitted to pass the pearly gates, and sex within the sanctity of marriage absolutely must be for purposes of procreation, missionary only.
You’d better not masturbate, unless you want to make the Blessed Mother turn her head and weep. In health class at the public school, they told us that sex and masturbation are normal and healthy, and when one of my classmates informed our religious ed. instructor of this, she stared at him through her little round glasses and said, “It is. But it’s a sin.”
Before Easter every year, this same instructor would bring actual whips, which she would crack loudly while graphically describing the torture that Jesus endured at the hands of the Roman guards, and she had an honest-to-goodness crown of thorns—I kid you not.
The point of this was to illustrate that if Jesus could willingly suffer such a terrible fate, we spoiled children could certainly give up ice cream or video games for the somber season of Lent.
In eighth grade, we learned all about demonic possession and were told to watch The Exorcist so we would recognize the signs should the devil decide to claim us as his own. They told us we shouldn’t hang out with non-Catholic Christians, lest they taint us with their faulty theology, and that we shouldn’t attend World Youth Day in Toronto—even though the Pope himself would be there, because we’d be mingling with Protestant kids.
Instead, we should pray for them just as hard as we pray for the non-Christians of the world. Alas, the whole you’ll-go-to-heaven-as-long-as-you’re-a-good-person stuff went out the window—even an atheist (gasp!) can be a good person, and everybody knows that atheists are not walking the Path of Righteousness.
The Sunday after 9/11, our priest railed against “Hillary Clinton the Abortion Queen” and told us that the terrorist attacks were all our fault because we didn’t pray the Rosary enough. We didn’t wear hair shirts or self-flagellate like the saints of old, or like the Children of Fatima, so all those innocent people, they got what was coming to them.
When the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami took the lives of who-knows how many people, we were informed that they brought it all on themselves by their failure to convert.
Remember, I was a still a highly impressionable teenager—a teenager whose autism would go undiagnosed for another decade or so. Autistic people are notorious for taking everything literally. Not all of us do, of course, but I tend to be very literal (for instance, I don’t always understand jokes or pick up on sarcasm). So, I am an autistic person, literal enough on my own, and I was taught to take my religion literally, from Bible verses to the unforgiving missives of the Baltimore Catechism.
That, my friends, is a recipe for disaster.
For me, hell was no metaphorical concept. That priest’s interpretation of Scripture was the only interpretation, and I should never have the audacity to wonder if maybe, just maybe, my CCD teachers had it wrong. Who was I to question Church doctrine that went back a good 2000 years?
I believed on some level that God gave me a brain because he intended for me to think, but that… that was just the devil whispering in my ear, so I tried my best not to think too much.
This was all in the late 1990s and early 2000s, so I should not have been able to relate to Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes, but I did. Oh, how I understood what McCourt was talking about.
By the time I was confirmed at the age of sixteen, I had serious qualms about the things they were telling me. I just couldn’t accept it. Surely, if God exists, He loves all of us, regardless of how we choose to connect with Him (or Her, or Them, or It).
Even nonbelievers don’t deserve to burn. I was fast becoming a lapsed Catholic, and then I went off to one of those liberal institutions of indoctrination (indoctrination… how ironic): college.
I met all kinds of different people from all different walks of life—even LGBTQ+ people—and I learned what I had always suspected: they weren’t bad or wrong. Like anyone else, they just wanted to live their lives and be happy.
I took philosophy classes and studied various world religions, and I learned about many worldviews and political theories. I learned that asking questions was a good thing, which flew directly in the face of my Catholic education. Nobody told me what to think. Rather, they showed me how to think for myself—something I had never really done before.
My qualms grew ever deeper, and I stopped going to church because I straight-up could no longer buy into the things I was hearing there. I was now officially a lapsed Catholic, so I could no longer hope to attain salvation.
I knew The Way, The Truth, and The Life, but I was choosing to leave it behind, which made me a much bigger sinner than all the people in the world who didn’t know any better.
I stayed away from church for around fifteen years, but for me, Catholicism is like an inoperable brain tumor—it isn’t going anywhere, and it’s a part of me for better or for worse. After the deaths of my beloved grandparents, I began longing for the comfort of faith, for the reassurance that maybe I would someday see Grams and Gramps again, so I tried to go back.
I experimented with other religions, but I could never shake the fear that Catholicism really was the only way, so I went crawling back. I thought maybe a more “liberal ” parish was the answer to my prayers, as it were, and at first, I felt pretty good about it. Oh, I knew I didn’t fit in. Dorothy Day notwithstanding, you can’t be a leftist and a Catholic, and everybody knows it.
I tried to reason that Christ Himself was something of a revolutionary. I tried to tell myself that I was following in His footsteps with my “radical compassion” for humanity, but then came the day I sat in an un-cushioned, uncomfortable pew, staring bullets at one of the deacons as he hailed the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as “our chance to overturn Roe v. Wade (regardless of your stance on this particular issue, criminalizing abortion is not going to stop it from happening—it’s just going to stop it from happening safely).
I winced every time this particular deacon took the pulpit because it reminded me too much of my childhood in the Church. His sermons had a tendency to rub salt in my wounds. I say “wounds” because they never healed well enough to be called “scars.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic began, Catholics received the okay to stay home from church, so I… stayed home.
And then came 2020. Election season.
I was told that I could not call myself a Catholic unless I voted for Donald Trump, the “pro-life” candidate (never mind that Trump’s every other stance goes against every good thing that Jesus Christ ever taught), and I lost my mind.
No, I lost my faith.
That is, I lost my Catholicism. I still believe in God, or in something greater than myself, and I still yearn to see my grandparents again, but I know there is no place in the Catholic Church for the likes of me.
I’ll never fit in, no matter how hard I try. I think too much. I’ve thought about finding a religion that makes sense to me, but that old devil on my shoulder never fails to remind me that it’s pointless, that I am taking the highway to hell—unless I repent.
Logic and common sense tell me that I’m not going to go to hell because I am a good person, but that nagging devil… he never shuts his mouth.
You don’t have to be autistic to be messed up by a harsh, unbending religious education—if I asked some of my neurotypical former classmates, I’m sure they’d say the same—but for me, those two “isms” (autism and Catholicism) were/are a terrible combination. I will never outrun my fear of devils, pitchforks, and fire. I can tell myself until I’m blue in the face that, in my story, Catholicism was weaponized, that it was a form of social control and mental manipulation.
The God of my childhood is both petty and cruel (“love me perfectly, don’t ask questions, and obey all the rules unless you want to face the forever flames,”), and that doesn’t jive with me. I can’t view the Divine as evil. The way I understand it, religion and spirituality should be about peace and love. That’s the way it should be—if I attend a religious service, I want to feel uplifted, not fearful and enraged.
The saddest part of all is that, even now, I’m a spiritual seeker. I feel like I’ve been robbed of my faith, my religious and cultural heritage, but I still long to find God. I am desperate for something out there to give a really good explanation for why the world is so effed up. Why do terrible things happen? Is there any rhyme or reason to it all?
I hope so.
I hope there is a Divine Architect somewhere out there, but deep inside, I think I will always live in terror of the Puppeteer who jerks me around like a marionette.
There is no surgeon in the world who could remove this brain tumor.