Laura Goode | Longreads | January 2017 | 23 minutes (5,818 words)

In the last formal confession I remember having delivered, I sat face-to-face in the room with a priest: the confessional booth and screen, while useful for dramatic staging in mob cinema, has mostly fallen out of the contemporary Catholic architecture. I was 10 or 12, and mostly absorbed the time with meditations on curse words and disobedience to my mother, too skittish to relieve myself of what I knew to be my more impure concerns, those having to do with other people’s private parts. There was nothing remarkable about this last confession, except for my discomfort with its blocking: why did God suppose that I, a young girl, facing this elder male stranger alone, would feel safe enough to truly unburden myself, or to be relieved by such an unburdening? After this event, I gratefully allied myself with my father’s discomfort with the sacrament—he has always felt a license to improvise within the choreography of the sacraments that my more faithful mother eschews—and I would not confess.

I was a senior in high school in suburban Minneapolis in 2002, when The Boston Globe published the sea-changing evidence of rampant sex abuse, and institutional harboring of abusers, within the Catholic church. One shudders to imagine a readier justification to depart from one’s own native faith, and the fact that it arrived in my defiant throes of late adolescence only accelerated my exit out the papal door. Catholicism was guilty of cloaking the wolf, so I would no longer call myself a Catholic. I traipsed off to college prepared to locate and adopt a more unimpeachable moral code, as convinced as any other 18-year-old that I was in possession of some sacred and unique ethical ambition absent from my parents.

Tellingly, since relieving myself of the formal sacrament of reconciliation, I have pursued no dialectical gesture more compulsively than the informal “confession.” Especially in those tender, feckless years that begin adulthood, I have always apprenticed myself to my own peccadillos, constantly working them over in thought, diary and conversation; I am constantly forcing myself to think, write, or speak at least some of the feelings and behaviors that disturb me the most. I am the partygoer forever in pursuit of the inappropriate comment everyone else is thinking. I am the stranger who will tell you the secret she’s never told anyone else; I can keep any secret but my own. Sometimes I inflect it with humor, sometimes rue; here, candor, there, shock value. I fetishize the intimacy of revelation between unlikely interlocutors. I am no evangelist, but O! paradox enamors me.

Even still, I find a fine and vital distinction between the act of confession and the act of disclosure, and it was in the decade or so that I did not call myself a Catholic that I began to chafe at how often the descriptor “confessional” was applied to women writers. To confess is to unburden oneself of sin with remorseful intent: I have done wrong and will not again; I am sorry; I seek forgiveness. Not at all incidentally, in its classical Catholic sense, a confession is also made exclusively to a man. And because the act of confession predicates remorse, the term “confessional writer” as it is colloquially used is at best inaccurate, and at worst overtly judgmental. To call a writer “confessional” is to connote that she is ashamed of herself, or should be. To call a writer “confessional” is to shame her before reading her. So when I position myself “against confession,” I mean that no woman should be made a confessor without her consent.

But the etymology of “confession” richens beyond remorse. Late Middle English: from Old French confesser, from Latin confessus, past participle of confiteri, “acknowledge,” from con- (expressing intensive force) + fateri, “declare, avow.” An intense acknowledgement. A forceful declaration. Also confession of faith: a statement setting out essential religious doctrine.

During my postadolescent tenure as an ex-Catholic—what I now like to refer to as my “wandering in the desert” years—I was thirsty in my quest to reconstitute a moral architecture for myself. In college I apprenticed myself to the feminist and anti-racist canon, savoring its secular slant: so much revelation seemed to follow the abandonment of Commandments, and also lots of sex.

It interests me that confession encloses both negative and positive value in its duality as a catalogue of sins and a statement of faith. The latter falls closer to my own imperative. But here, gender and hierarchy exact trickery: upon whom is conferred the authority to compose not just a roster of sins, but a statement of faith? Who feels appointed to expand discrete self-examination into broad moral reckoning? Who feels called to reckon? From whom does our cultural audience accept the composition of thought and language as reckoning, as doctrine? And who, after all that, is left behind, alone in a room with a strange old man, to unburden herself of trivial, venial confessions?

* * *

When I was 5 and 6 and 7, my mother and I found ourselves at loggerheads over my penchant for reading during Mass. I couldn’t accept the prospect of sitting quietly for an hour in any context and not reading. She thought reading in church was disrespectful to the priest, and probably also to God. Finally, we arrived at a compromise: I would be allowed to read religious texts only. She went to St. Patrick’s Guild and bought me a children’s series on the lives of the saints. These pocket-sized biographies of the martyrs and mystics came to fascinate me, and to coalesce into a network of divine interrelation that fascinated me even more: hagiography is God’s own Wikipedia, and I disappeared happily down its rabbit hole while ignoring a multitude of priests.

During my postadolescent tenure as an ex-Catholic—what I now like to refer to as my “wandering in the desert” years—I was thirsty in my quest to reconstitute a moral architecture for myself. In college I apprenticed myself to the feminist and anti-racist canon, savoring its secular slant: so much revelation seemed to follow the abandonment of Commandments, and also lots of sex. Adrienne Rich and James Baldwin joined St. Joan of Arc and St. Augustine in my personal canon, and over time Judith Butler, Audre Lorde, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Gayatri Spivak, Maggie Nelson, Carolyn Heilbrun, Virginia Woolf, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, and Arundhati Roy would further expand it. What happened in college was that I fell in wild, life-altering love with intersectional feminism—including the women writers once dismissed as confessional—though I was only on the precipice of knowing how to name that ethic.

But amid such godless intellectual fervor, I found myself uncertain where to place my passion for Mary McCarthy, for Graham Greene, for The Sopranos, for Dorothy Day, Mary Karr, and Sor Juana de la Cruz: would they belong to my old, Catholicized devotional reading, or to my new scholarship of the secular? I see now, so clearly, how even when I claimed to go without faith, my approach to learning remained intrinsically Catholic: I was always amassing another hagiography, another moral iconography, another cadence of beatitudes. A secular catechism is catechism all the same. No iconoclasm can exist without icons.

* * *

It feels important to note that for many of the wandering in the desert years, I actually felt like a wanderer. I moved from Minnesota to New York for college, where I felt constantly like an interloper, a rube, or as fellow transplant Scott Fitzgerald once put it, “subtly unadaptable to Eastern life.” I discovered both that American literature was filled with accounts of the young seeker from the provinces, and that many people considered my upbringing provincial. I broke myself of my buoyant Midwestern accent, expanded my black wardrobe, and blushed with pleasure whenever anyone mistook me for a native New Yorker; despite these efforts, I could never slake my natural predilection for small talk. I wrote pissed-off poems about Eve and slept in on Sundays. I did the things a young woman with no curfew in a limitlessly enormous city can do. I misidentified freedom as not thinking anything I did really counted, not yet.

I can’t say that I don’t believe in religious apostasy or conversion, but I do know that for a person raised so Catholic that until my middle teens I didn’t even know how to pronounce the word “Episcopal,” native religion is adhesive, pervasive, down in the soil. I find religious heritage to be as revealing and essential as is national citizenship, regional origin, or native language.

What Gatsby or anyone who’s advanced a false version of themselves knows is that the better you get at it, the worse you feel. It’s the dread in your gut when one of your friends poorly imitates your impression of your parents’ accent. It’s vomiting into a trashcan with last night’s heels slung over your shoulder and thinking, Well, you didn’t want to be a Good Girl anymore, did you, guess you got your wish. It’s not being sorry, exactly, but still feeling lost, still feeling fourteen shades of shame, fear, and anguish, and no longer having stations into which to place them—no stations, of course, but stacks and stacks of composition notebooks.

* * *

While writing this essay, I say to my longtime therapist, a Jew with a Buddhist mode of discussion—a practitioner of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, which amounts, largely, to Be Curious, Not Judgmental—that I think I began my ongoing reconciliation with Catholicism in my mid-20s. She reminds me that I tattooed my arm with the Dies Irae, a 15th-century poem adapted from the book of Revelation, when I was just 23, still heavy in the throes of my brawling New York period: Liber scriptus proferetur, In quo totum continetur, Unde mundus judicetur. The written book will be brought forth, in which all is contained, from which the world will be judged.

I resist casual conversation about this tattoo because when I translate the Latin most people raise their eyebrows and say “Dark.” To avoid this reaction, when asked what it means, I usually toss off an “Oh, who can remember?” In ten years only one person has ever been able to translate the Latin without help. I like the privacy of the language gap.

What I love about this passage of the Dies Irae isn’t its darkness, or not only its darkness. It’s how it highlights that Judeo-Christian morality is, at its essence, textual. We judge the world by the book; all of us is contained in that book. Or, if we urge our devotion hard enough, we can contain all our curiosity about the world in a book brought forth by our questions. The Book of Life is both written and yet to be written: a living thing.

Well, yes, I concede the point to my therapist. But I found this translation of the Dies Irae in an Iris Murdoch novel, The Bell.

* * *

I can’t say that I don’t believe in religious apostasy or conversion, but I do know that for a person raised so Catholic that until my middle teens I didn’t even know how to pronounce the word “Episcopal,” native religion is adhesive, pervasive, down in the soil. I find religious heritage to be as revealing and essential as is national citizenship, regional origin, or native language. Or more: among many Catholics in America, religion has persisted where language, place, and names have dissolved. Because my mother is Italian and my father Irish, even in the years when I did not consider myself a Catholic, I have always described myself, with some humor, as “ethnically Catholic.”

My ideological quarrels with the Vatican as imperialist patriarchy are many, and Catholicism sometimes feels to me like an ill-behaved neighbor child I am inexplicably unwilling to dismiss. But I also see my Catholicism as a cultural inheritance, an ethnicity, and, in its American enclave, a vestige of immigrant identity. A family thing. In this way, I could no more shrug off my Catholicism than I could my whiteness: even if I choose to call myself a “lapsed Catholic,” a “former Catholic,” a “skeptic Catholic,” a “radical Catholic,” or a “feminist Catholic,” the common descriptor remains. Catholicism, in my experience, seems stubbornly destined to hybridize itself with whatever else I may choose. It’s right there in my name: my middle name is Elizabeth, after the sainted mother of John the Baptist, who, like my own mother, thought herself barren until late middle age.

So in my stormy return, in my later 20s, to calling myself a Catholic, I acknowledge my family history. I acknowledge my commitment to changing institutions from within, to belonging as the bedrock of transformation. I acknowledge my basic faith in God—a divine, genderless parent—and in the truth that we are, each of us, divinely equal and equally divine. I engage with God in an attempt to do my own deep moral reckoning. I reckon with God, and with the church in which I was baptized, reconciled, confirmed, and married, because I know I contain some statements of faith.

* * *

If I reach back in memory for the lightbulb moment that illuminated the intersection of Catholicism and social justice for me, the face I see in the flash belongs to S. S was my boss at a multi-ethnic, social-justice-oriented journalism nonprofit containing so many programs and objectives that I still don’t know how to summarize its mission. Well, I do: its mission was to amplify unheard voices: from the streets, from the system, across barriers of language, nation, race, and status. I was 24 when I was hired as the organization’s Communications Director, my first job out of school, enabling my move from New York to San Francisco.

There were a lot of firsts at that job. The first time I was consistently a racial minority in my everyday life. The first time I taught writing inside a maximum-security prison. The first time the majority of my organizational superiors were people of color. The first time I ate weekday lunches at a table where five different languages might be spoken at once, and where the items disrobed from Tupperware boggled in their fragrant variety. And, in S, the first white woman I’d ever known to be both a political radical and a practicing Catholic: the newsroom’s own Dorothy Day.

In my experience of her, S was brilliant, alarmingly disorganized, a little messiah-complexed, and more committed to serving underserved people than anyone I’d ever known. She was an Oscar-winning MacArthur Genius who scarcely had time for those titles, who allocated all of herself, at every kind of expense, to the undocumented, incarcerated, marginalized, mistreated, and ignored. She was a white anti-racist activist who was deeply suspicious of White Feminism and neo-liberalism. The radical unions I observed at this organization and in S set off a series of internal combustions that continue in me now; in my blindingly white upbringing and education, I don’t know how else I could have been as radicalized as I was in the two particular mid-20s years that I spent writing and organizing around intersectionality and social justice in that crucible.

It is truly boring to me that contemporary, colloquial American liberalism—especially white American liberalism—has opted to divorce itself from religion to the extent that it has. By religion I mean not the religious institution, organized religion, a politician’s church attendance record, or really any previous indoctrination, but what I will call earnest religious feeling: an engagement with the mysteries of faith, a basic acceptance of the presence of the divine.

It was there that I began to understand the theoretical, academic feminism that had captivated me in college was part of a larger and more vital constellation of social justice. Entering feminism, for me, had reflected an acknowledgment that there were public and private sins that had been committed against me for which neither my church nor my country had accounted. Entering a broader vision of social justice reflected an acknowledgment that there were sins I had committed—things I had done and things I had failed to do—against others for which neither I nor my church, let alone my country, had accounted. In S, I saw radical Catholicism and intersectional feminism as distinct, but overlapping, moral entities. I saw what radical Catholic service could look like, hewn in an empathy, compassion, and devotion no sacrament, sermon, or syllabus had ever shown me.

* * *

Around the time I became engaged to my husband at age 26, my questioning of the premise of my own ex-Catholicism seemed to intensify. The Catholic identity was one he and I had never had to explain to each other: my affianced was a guy named Patrick from Boston, for Christ’s sake. He’d collected all the CCD Wednesdays and laps around the sacramental track that I had, plus a high school education with the Xaverian brothers. I spent my first Christmas with his family bonding with his Aunt Mae over our favorite saints as she rattled off the names of every parish in greater Boston she had ever attended.

As we calculated it, the decision to have a Catholic wedding was 1) a strategic appeasement to both of our parents, who were so delighted by not having to argue the point that we earned ample political capital for all other wedding-related decisions, 2) a gesture toward our shared cultural history, and, by far the most surprising to me, 3) a personal statement of faith in the divine union. I was astonished to discover that the act of presenting our commitment to God, as well as to our friends and family, meant something to me. We chose the church where my parents were married, and where I performed my sacraments of first (and last) confession and confirmation.

While no one could possibly have been more surprised than I was at my decision to marry in the Catholic church, many of my friends—especially those of my white friends at several generations’ remove from migration—failed to conceal their bafflement. (“You guys are going to have a mass? There’s going to be a priest? Has this priest read your book?!”) It interested me to notice that my friends of color, or those closer to a migration in their family histories, seemed to have much less difficulty understanding this decision than did my “white” friends. These friends didn’t seem to struggle to understand why a community of faith might be an aid to sustenance, or why respect for one’s family might embed itself in the decision to marry. Those of my kin who had lived ethnicity apart from America’s default WASPiness seemed, more intuitively, to understand why I might want to belong to something cultural, traditional, communal; to place my stake in that history.

I realized—at age 27, while engaged to a man—that I had to tell my mother that I was a little gay.

If many of my friends had no idea what to do with my act of faith, the priest who married us may have been equally confused. He regarded our answers to the most basic questions with suspicion. Where do you live? San Francisco; together in sin. What will your new name be? Why, the very one I have now, Father! I managed to convince the church’s musical director that my choice of procession music—Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”—was sufficiently liturgical, but when the priest warmly requested a copy of my novel, Sister Mischief—which includes lesbian sex, promiscuous F-bombing, and a scene once described as an instruction manual on how to smoke weed—for the parish library, I thought it most prudent to decline.

These paradoxes of my cultural, religious, and regional identity seemed to collude with one another: the preparations for my big fat Catholic wedding managed to make me feel both disdained for my faith and insufficient in my faithfulness. In contemplating this time, I gained the ability to articulate to myself how often I was irritated by the common condescensions of American liberalism. It was not my own persistently liberal political orientation that confounded me, but how often I heard terms like “flyover states” and “rednecks” and “Christian idiots” used by people who claimed to favor radical pluralism and indiscriminate compassion. Though my own political objectives include the abolition of the prison system, free and legal contraception and abortion, complete amnesty for all new Americans, and the inimitable separation of church and state, I cannot help but agree with the conservative assertion that too many American liberals are in favor of free speech until the mention of God.

In other words, it is truly boring to me that contemporary, colloquial American liberalism—especially white American liberalism—has opted to divorce itself from religion to the extent that it has. By religion I mean not the religious institution, organized religion, a politician’s church attendance record, or really any previous indoctrination, but what I will call earnest religious feeling: an engagement with the mysteries of faith, a basic acceptance of the presence of the divine. I don’t think it’s wrong, or unjustifiable, for liberalism to divest itself of religion, nor do I mean to suggest that there are not many liberals among the faithful. I mean that I think it’s lazy not to acknowledge the possibility of the presence of faith in intelligent people. Faith is not solely the provenance of the dumb and the desperate, and I have always resented those who imply otherwise.

* * *

I published the lesbian novel just three months before my Catholic wedding. It’s not explicitly autobiographical in plot, but I did come by its queerness honestly, and had no plans to treat it any other way in the public discussion. I felt unexpectedly protective of my mother; I didn’t want her to read anything in an author interview that I hadn’t told her myself. I realized—at age 27, while engaged to a man—that I had to tell my mother that I was a little gay.

I waited until she had a drink and her feet up on the porch.

“Ma,” I said, “I’ve had sex with women.”

She grimaced. She sipped. “I wish I were surprised.” My mother was born in Fargo, North Dakota in 1943, and will be goddamned before she ever calls herself a feminist.

She took another sip. “So,” I saw her move from disgust to curiosity, “anyone I know?”

I gave up a few names. She moved again from curiosity to relief. “Oh! She’s pretty!”

When a woman reveals a secret to another woman, daughter to mother, we don’t call it confession. We call it confidence.

* * *

When the first recorded memoirist, St. Augustine, writes in Confessions, “men go abroad to admire the heights of mountains, the mighty waves of the sea, the broad tides of rivers, the compass of the ocean, and the circuits of the stars, yet pass over the mystery of themselves without a thought,” I believe him. But the confidence women place in one another, by contrast, is full of this mystery. Confidences and even confessions between women are not only for airing our sins, but for savoring our self-preservations—for articulating the deceptions enacted and complexities endured to conduct our daily double lives as public and private agents. Mutual confidence between those surviving under the patriarchy is qualitatively different, and freer, than confession to the patriarch. This kind of confidence is where I have found the succor that confession could never afford me, and I have found it both in Catholic women like my mother and in the arms of the women, Catholic and not, the revelation of whose embraces almost shocked her.

* * *

Rather than confession, I see the writer’s project as one of disclosure. To disclose is to tell a secret to anyone without any intrinsic intent outside the telling. If confession is Catholic, disclosure feels more Buddhist; disclosure is an invitation to be present with another person’s secret life, secret self, and it’s best shared warm at a family table, with judgment left to cool in the kitchen. The ability to exist on both sides of an intimacy in disclosure necessarily has to separate itself from hierarchy of any kind: there is no absolution in disclosure because no party involved has the authority to absolve. The only redemption available is revelation itself.

It seems no coincidence to me that the best stories are those told without self-judgment, without intrusive self-loathing, without apparent remorse. Laying absolution aside for narrative purposes also appeals to me because the vocabulary of absolution is confused, contradictory, and inconclusive. To forgive: to stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw, or mistake; to cancel a debt. To atone: to make amends or reparation. From the Middle English: at one. Penance: voluntary self-punishment inflicted as an outward expression of repentance for having done wrong. It may very well be inevitable that a writer has done wrongs which animate the humanity she transmutes in writing. It is not at all inevitable that she is sorry for them, or that her audience has the authority to assume that she should be.

Disclosure clears room for doubt, which to me is the final heart of faith. The book of Matthew records the doubt Jesus felt in the garden of Gethsemane:

Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”

Jesus confessed twice in Gethsemane: first to Peter (“My soul is very sorrowful”), and then to God (“if it be possible, let this cup pass from me”). But he had not sinned; sorrow is not a sin, nor, I think are we to understand, is doubt. It is evidenced that Jesus found the strength to continue simply by saying his worst thought out loud.

How can I describe the way it felt to hold a newborn in my arms as I watched Michael Brown bleed, die and lay unattended for four hours in Ferguson?

I have sometimes wondered if Catholics misunderstand, or misdirect, the value of confession. We place a talismanic power in the hands of a strange old man to relieve us of our moral burden. But maybe it’s just the talking that relieves us.

* * *

The lodestone of Christianity—the mortal figure of Christ crucified on the cross—is stricken with brutality and grooved in martyrdom. The bedrock of the Gospel is first the birth of a son, then his sacrifice for the world. The mystery of motherhood was the first of my own experiences that I saw intricately reflected in the scriptural tapestry.

How can I describe the way it felt to give birth to a son in 2014? If the deconstruction of my privilege and clarification of my political call to action had been the primary spiritual projects of my latter 20s, they had left me vulnerable to transformation. I felt that transformation burgeoning with the life inside me, then felt that life burst out of me in its miracle of blood and water, and I was forever changed.

How can I describe the extreme vulnerability of a mother’s love for her child? I understood, if only theoretically, before I became a mother that my love for my child would transform me. I could never have known how that love would transform my relationship to every person. My son connects me to all children. My motherhood connects me to all mothers. After birth, my son was every son, and I was every mother, and we belonged to that sacred and infinite network as much as we belonged to each other. We live the relationship that forms the bedrock of the Gospel.

What if no woman should be made a confessor without her consent, but I am also truly sorry for what I’ve done or failed to do, for how I’ve fallen short? What if disclosure is sometimes an act of remorse, revision, guilt, or intention? What if I have been overly consumed with the venial?

How can I describe the way it felt to hold a newborn in my arms as I watched Michael Brown bleed, die and lay unattended for four hours in Ferguson? I was tethered to feeding a child every two hours and I was tethered to Twitter: I saw the Kwik Trip burn, I saw the reporters arrested in McDonald’s, I saw the grand jury fail to indict Officer Darren Wilson. And then I watched 12-year-old Tamir Rice die in Cleveland. And then I watched Freddie Gray die in Baltimore. Eric Garner. Sandra Bland. And then it was Jamar Clark, in my hometown of Minneapolis. And then it was Mario Woods, just a few miles from me in San Francisco, just a few more miles from Oscar Grant, the first son I’d ever seen die on Twitter, in Oakland. The Book of Life itself in a billion anguished tweets: the life of Michael Brown is also at the bedrock of the Gospel.

Because I am an only child and a Catholic, prior to becoming a parent, I believe I would have understood these men and women to be my brothers and sisters, felt their murders in that sororal nerve. That distance, however proximal, now seems a luxury to me: I envy the seer who could have felt herself that sister. Her pain is great but it is not the pain of a mother. Motherhood has made me conceive of America as one giant, unending Pietà.

Much is made about God loving the world so much that He sacrificed His only son for him, but I sometimes wonder if God, being God, could truly be capable of feeling the mortal pain of a parent losing a child. I sometimes wonder if the sacrifice of mothers of slain children is greater than God’s. I sometimes wonder if the church wrongly sanitizes those mothers’ pain by abstracting it to God. Then I think of Mary, the BVM, and of how it is actually her work that forms the bedrock of the Gospel.

How can excruciation be both opponent and intensifier to faith? How can I articulate the way the miracle of birth more fully illuminated America’s horror to me, or the way that horror illuminated birth’s miracle? I had had so many awakenings before Ferguson, but none had felt this way: That’s my son out there. That I had failed him, just months after meeting him.

* * *

These are the statements of faith, and of doubt as faith’s synecdoche, that I daven when the mystery overwhelms my ability to reckon with it.

Dorothy Day, my favorite Catholic, from her memoir The Long Loneliness:

Why was so much done in remedying evil instead of avoiding it in the first place? Where were the saints to try to change the social order, not just to minister to slaves, but to do away with slavery?

James Baldwin, “Letter from a Region in My Mind”:

It is not too much to say that whoever wishes to become a truly moral human being (and let us not ask whether or not this is possible; I think we must believe that it is possible) must first divorce himself from all the prohibitions, crimes, and hypocrisies of the Christian church. If the concept of God has any validity or any use, it can only be to make us larger, freer, and more loving. If God cannot do this, then it is time we got rid of Him.

Audre Lorde, “Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference”:

Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying.

César Chavez:

Once social change begins it cannot be reversed. You cannot uneducate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.

Sister Joan Chittister:

I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.

Father Gregory Boyle:

The answer really is kinship. Everybody’s so exhausted by kind of the tenor of the polarity right now in our country. And the division is the opposite of God, frankly. I always think of Dives with Lazarus. Dives is in hell not because he’s rich but because he kind of refused to be in relationship with Lazarus, that that parable is not about bank accounts and heaven. It’s really about us. And so what’s on Jesus’ mind, he says, that all may be one. And that’s kind of where we need to inch our way closer, that we imagine a circle of compassion, then we imagine nobody’s standing outside that circle. God created, if you will, an otherness so that we would dedicate our lives to a union with each other.

* * *

In pursuit of radical unions everywhere, I have come to recognize no intermediary between my consciousness and the divine’s: no veil of modesty, no appointed dignitary, no crosshatched confessional screen. Because of this, I have sometimes—with, immediately, the attendant Catholic guilt—wondered if I am actually a closet Protestant. I could be Protestant because I prefer a direct prayer to an intermediated one. I could be Buddhist because I prefer disclosure to confession. I could be Jewish because I prefer atonement to forgiveness, or because I love the word “davening.”

But if I have forsaken confession for disclosure, for davening, for confidence, where, then, am I to place the part of my sorrow that is remorseful—for my own ignorance, for cowardice, for a bloodstained comfort that only being tethered to a news feed and a newborn at the same time could have stripped from me? What if no woman should be made a confessor without her consent, but I am also truly sorry for what I’ve done or failed to do, for how I’ve fallen short? What if disclosure is sometimes an act of remorse, revision, guilt, or intention? What if I have been overly consumed with the venial? What if I am always in pursuit of a statement of faith and only in possession of my own contradictory, imperfect thoughts? What if I were, at least some of the time, full of remorse and chasing absolution?

* * *

The radical Catholicism I aspire to, much like the America I aspire to, is more aspiration than institution. It is a utopic Catholicism, a theoretical Catholicism, a radical, anti-patriarchal pursuit of social justice as Jesus modeled it. It is a divine imperative that makes us larger, freer, and more loving. It is, to a certain extent, an epistle from a region of my own mind. It is quick to remember who Jesus was: a dark-skinned, Jewish, homeless community organizer, ally to the accused, the unhoused, the scorned. Born to a teen mother where the animals slept.

My ongoing attempt to reconcile my radical Catholic ethos with the Catholic institution as it currently exists is hardly tidy, or complete. The truth is I’m not overly fond of priests. The truth is that my wish—which I freely acknowledge as part fantasy—is for a Catholic ethos liberated from all institutional centrifuge. The truth is the papal institution of Catholicism is reliant not only on patriarchy, but on colonialism, expansionism, and hegemony: evangelism as a means of expanding capital. The truth is I am deeply, spiritually insulted that in my native faith, women are not considered close enough to God to be considered His direct emissaries. The truth is that the organization of earnest religious feeling into a colonialist patriarchy is not a premise I accept. So in my reckoning, I seek to defy the Church and honor God as I understand Her.

Suddenly I wonder: would I ever confess again? What would it take to make me a new confessor? And just as suddenly, the answer: certainly I would confess again. To a woman.

* * *

Laura Goode is the author of the novel Sister Mischief (Candlewick Press, 2011) and the collection of poems Become a Name (Fathom Books, 2016). She’s also the co-writer and producer of the film Farah Goes Bang (premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, 2013). Subscribe to her occasional newsletter here.

Editor: Sari Botton