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A Shout Out to "Recovering Catholics"

The Catholic Church is a big and diverse tent. Find your own crowd within it.

Key points

  • "Recovering Catholics" often experience a great deal of anger and upset with the Catholic Church, and many do not find another spiritual home.
  • With over one billion members, the Church contains many different people and perspectives. Finding a niche can continue your spiritual growth.
  • Holding onto anger at the Church isn't healthy for your body, mind, or soul.

There are a lot of "Recovering Catholics" out there... a lot! I bump into them constantly given the nature of my professional life. I'm going out on a limb with this blog post by suggesting to them...consider coming on back.

Recovering Catholics generally experience a great deal of anger and upset with the Catholic Church and especially with the Church hierarchy. They often point to an experience or set of experiences as a child where they felt rejected, overly criticized and judged, and perhaps even abused by a priest or by a nun. Many report that they have a great deal of guilt over lots of things and typically blame the Church for it. Many have horror stories to tell. I have plenty myself and have heard many as a psychologist as well as an engaged Catholic.

Recovering Catholics also point to hot button issues in the Church, such as the clergy sexual abuse scandals (which have often dominated the news) and the official Church positions on abortion, contraception use, homosexuality, divorce, masturbation, premarital sex, and a host of other typically sexual ethics issues (which also often dominate press reports about the Church).

Often they talk with disdain of the Church hierarchy frequently referring to bishops, cardinals, and popes as being out of touch, hypocritical, old, celibate white men who don't know much about the real world.

However, I often see, in addition to all the anger and upset, a good deal of sadness in their faces.

Tragically, many of these Recovering Catholics haven't found a suitable spiritual home in their adulthood. They have left the Church but often have not found someplace else to go for religious and spiritual growth and engagement. Many are spiritually homeless. Sure, some have found their way to other religious or spiritual traditions. I see a lot of Episcopals who were once Catholics, for example. Yet most of the Recovering Catholics I encounter have not found a spiritual or religious home, rejecting it all out of hand.

I find this troubling for a variety of reasons but one important one is that they have not benefited from many of the positive elements of spirituality and religion (within or outside of the Catholic tradition) that I have discussed in previous blog posts as well as in several recent books (perhaps most notably my 2009 book, Spiritual Practices in Psychotherapy and my 2010 book, Contemplative Practices in Action).

So, to Recovering Catholics may I offer the following six points for your consideration and reflection?

1. Sure, there is a lot to complain about regarding the Catholic Church. You can't have a 2,000-year-old institution that currently includes over a billion members without plenty of challenging issues that are embarrassing, unflattering, and even horrific. But it is important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The behavior of particular clergy (including Church leaders) doesn't represent the whole. Additionally, policies and procedures that come out of the Vatican may or may not sit well with you. They probably don't sit well with many other people including many Catholic laypeople and clergy too. The Church really isn't just what comes out of the Vatican or even Church leaders' offices. As the late Boston politician Tip O'Neil used to say, "all politics are local...." perhaps that is true for the Church too....it's all local.

2. The Church is a very big tent with over a billion members and with many different perspectives and people in it. Some are highly conservative while others are very liberal. Some agree with Church teachings on hot button issues while others do not at all. This is true of priests and nuns too. The diocesan clergy often are different from the Jesuits or the Dominicans, or the Franciscans. Each has their own charism and there is a great deal of variability within each subset of the Church as well. In fact, about two-thirds of Catholics in the world today live below the equator. The Church in Latin America looks very different than the one in Africa or Vietnam, or in Rome. The Church includes not only those who trouble us but the Mother Teresas, Dorothy Days, Bishop Oscar Romeros of the world too. May I suggest that you find your part of the tent to hang out in and look towards those you might admire in the Church rather than those you don't?

3. The Church is like a very big family. Some parts of the family drive you crazy and some parts you just love. Try to make your way to the part of the family that you love most. Avoid the parts of the family that you don't want anything to do with. Sometimes Church leadership makes decisions that you don't agree with. That's true for Americans and other political leaders too. It might frustrate or anger you but they don't represent everyone.

4. How you were raised or what kind of experience you had as a child isn't necessarily relevant for today. Sorry, but get over it. A lot of people will say, "The way I was raised..." However, the way we were raised doesn't translate into what is right for you or anyone today. If you were raised to eat fruits and vegetables from a can (as I was when I was young), you don't have to still do it as an adult. I was raised to believe that a summer tan was "healthy" and that smoking was good for you since it "calms the nerves." Well, I obviously don't believe these views today. The experience you may have had as a child doesn't have to be relevant for today or replicated as an adult. What happened in 1950 or 1960 or 1970, for example, doesn't mean that it is still true now.

5. Perhaps, most importantly, try not to neglect the spiritual benefits that come from the religious and spiritual traditions. Even if you choose not to return to the Catholic Church (although you might if you can find your proper place in it) perhaps the Spirit is alive even when the Church (or particular people in it) has let you down.

6. Finally, be mindful of the anger. Many Recovering Catholics hold a lot of anger and rage..a lot! There is plenty of quality research indicating that chronic anger isn't healthy for your body, mind, and soul. In fact, your cardiovascular health, as well as relationship with others, can be compromised a great deal. Letting go of the anger that you experience and working towards forgiveness and some degree of reconciliation would likely serve you well. Research supports this too.

So, Recovering Catholics... consider coming on back. Adequately attending to your spiritual needs may actually be possible in the Church that you left long ago. You may just need to find your particular corner in it.

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