I knew a long time ago I would have to build myself as a different kind of Catholic -- one who was concerned more with my study, work, and interpretation of scripture than what some man behind a pulpit on a Sunday morning told me I should think.
I knew this because I am a gay Catholic.
We Catholics learned a lot about our church recently -- and I use the term "learned" loosely, considering that horrific pedophilia by members of the priesthood has been a matter of assumption and public knowledge for quite some time.
I never felt being gay and being Catholic were mutually exclusive. There were certainly outspoken priests who wanted to alienate me as a gay woman of faith, but I've never felt the implicit shame some clergy members tried to instill in me. That was until the recent revelations, and the shame wasn't as a result of my sexuality.
The issue of systemic sex abuse by priests, followed by a cover-up, gained international attention once again when former Washington, D.C., Archbishop Theodore McCarrick resigned from the College of Cardinals due to accusations that he had abused children, seminarians, and young priests, despite warnings about him to various Catholic officials, including allegedly the Vatican itself. He was elevated to the prestigious rank of cardinal even though these complaints had been made years prior.
With the current revelations released in a detailed report by a Pennsylvania grand jury, it became clear that the very public scandal of sex abuse in the priesthood could no longer be defined as a problem with a handful of "bad eggs," as high-ranking members in the Catholic Church were now alleged to have been complicit in the cover-up.
The recent scandal involved a staggering 300 priests implicated in abusing 1,000 victims, a number that could well be an underestimation.
The church, its followers, and certainly its critics suffer no qualms about labeling the atrocities a Pennsylvania-specific problem. What this "new" scandal has done, however, is to point to an existing problem of cover-up, even in the era of Pope Francis, who has garnered acclaim for his subtle and relative support of arguably liberal causes like immigration and LGBT rights.
But his liberalism should be taken with a grain of salt, considering the low bar that has been set on such issues by his predecessors. We have to continue to ask when he knew, what he knew, and what that means for the future of the church.
These actions have been so egregious and this scandal, this horror so systemic that there is no longer a distinction between Catholicism as a religion and the horrors that our leaders committed. Catholicism as a religion is forever tainted. Catholicism as a faith, however, must not be.
I've been asked in the past how I reconcile being Catholic and gay. I turn that question back on those who now feel they can no longer exist in a faith so tainted. Or, more specifically, I turn my answer back on them. Being Catholic and being associated with this church and its dogmatic irrationalities are mutually exclusive. I know that the Jesus I follow was, at his core, a teacher. He taught about love and charity and kindness. He did not teach his believers to listen to the Vatican -- the stand-alone country that boasts more gold than good.
At this point, anyone outside the Catholic faith would reasonably wonder why anyone with a conscience -- especially a gay woman -- would continue to call herself Catholic. The conundrum reminds me of when I first came out and was asked to reconcile being Catholic and gay. I learned a long time ago that the principles of charity, love, and kindness were ones that I wanted to carry with me. I take pride in being Italian-American, and the Catholic Church has a lot to do with that identity. I like the ritual of the Catholic service -- that you can go to a Catholic Mass even in a language you barely speak (as I did for a year when I studied abroad in Austria) and know exactly what's happening at any given moment. I love the history and the beauty of our cathedrals. I love the smell of incense and the comforting sprinkle of holy water.
I also know the pain of learning many years later that a beloved priest I grew up with was a pedophile, and how being pious, kind, and "Catholic" was irrelevant. He was an abuser, and I could no longer respect him as a leader in my church.
The ongoing scandals are a struggle that the church may not survive. And quite frankly, many of us now are saying, "Good riddance." But to Catholics who are straight, who until now, perhaps, haven't been forced to reconcile the dichotomy of evil in the pulpit and what they believe, I implore you to follow the lead of your gay brethren.
What these men do and say cannot take your faith.
What these men do and say cannot take your spirit.
What these men do and say cannot take your family.
They cannot take from us what is in us, what we feel, and what we believe.
They have already taken enough.
I am a Catholic. I am not my church.
ANNIE HOLLENBECK is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, currently living in Salt Lake City. Follow her on Twitter @AnnieBeckComedy.