I was in the seventh grade, squirming and sweating from the top of my ill-advised middle part down to the pinched toes in my church shoes. I hadn’t sat down across from the priest in that little room and “forgive-me-father-for-I-have-sinned” since my ceremonial first confession in second grade. It was easy when I was seven. I told the priest that I had been mean to my brother and sometimes missed a week of mass, and he sent me on my way with a few Hail Mary’s and a clean new soul. I didn’t have any real sins then.
But now, according to the paper shaking in my clammy hands, I did. It was a list of common sins that my youth group leader had given us to inspire our confessions. Apparently, the commandment “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife” meant more than I thought it did. Apparently, thou also shalt not have sexual thoughts, kiss passionately, watch pornography, masturbate, engage in oral sex, premarital sex, or sex with a same-gendered partner, use birth control or contraception, or worst of all, get an abortion.
When I entered the confessional, I was shaking. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t say it. To verbalize that I had had sexual thoughts, to say it out loud in front of a grown man and God himself, was just too shameful. So I thought my confession as hard as I could. God was all-knowing, after all; he would hear me. But because I didn’t verbalize my sin, I’m still not officially forgiven. This matters in the eyes of the church, and, for a long time, it mattered to me too.
From conversations I’ve had with Catholic friends, I know that this is not a unique experience. These rules have a way of getting into your head and staying there, even when you thought you were intellectually beyond believing them outright. Grappling with the Catholic faith, teachings, and belief system seems to be the consequence for almost everyone who grew up in a religious environment. In a sect known for its strict sexual rules, this experience inevitably overlaps with that of exploring and growing into one’s sexuality—a messy business in and of itself. There are individual stories embedded in that messiness, and I wanted to chart commonalities and recognize differences between my own personal experiences and those of an admittedly limited set of Catholic and ex-Catholic college students.
Their names are Flora*, Olivia*, and Mae. Flora goes to Colorado College, while Olivia and Mae are close friends from my hometown who attend other universities. Though our involvement with the church growing up differed slightly, a dissonance between ideology and emotion seems to run as a common thread across our experiences. It’s easy to feel uncomfortable with the strictness of Catholic sexual rules, but very difficult, especially as a middle or high schooler, to reflect on one’s own internalization of them. Flora described an experience of “feeling guilty without knowing why” whenever she thought or acted sexually. She realized that she “couldn’t trust” this feeling, so she tried not to let it impact her actions. But that wasn’t easy. As Flora put it, the Catholic doctrine is “beautifully written to the point of being really persuasive.” It required work and considerable stress for her to realize that “it is not actually more beautiful to abstain [from sex] or deny yourself.”
I never went to Catholic school; I never received these strict messages from my parents. As a straight, cisgender female in a loving and liberal home, I got a watered-down, minimally oppressive version of Catholic sexual education. But even that impacted me, filling my adolescent sexual world with guilt, shame, and anxiety—and guilt, shame, and anxiety about feeling that guilt, shame, and anxiety.
It wasn’t that I feared going to hell; I wasn’t sure I even believed in hell. These feelings stemmed from my most basic desire to live as a good person, or at least my idea of one. My youth group leaders, who I deeply admired, framed abstinence as a form of the utmost respect for your body, your partner’s body, and God Himself. If you didn’t actively suppress sexual urges, you were physically and emotionally degrading yourself and the people you cared about most. In an appendix outlining the Church’s sexual rules, the Global Catholic Network uses terms such as “self-abuse” to describe masturbation and “infanticide” to characterize abortion and contraception. In their words, “When [LGBTQ+ persons] engage in homosexual activity, they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent.” This language carries a heavy emotional and moral charge that is used to justify its oppressive and homophobic implications. In the eyes of the church, sexual intercourse is divinely designed to produce life; any activity that diverts from that goal is an attack upon the sanctity of life itself.
Even as a malleable middle-schooler, I didn’t fully buy into these teachings. I believed, based on my own moral leanings and those of my parents, that homosexuality wasn’t sinful, that rights to contraception and abortion protected women, that people had sex because they wanted to and because it felt good—not just to have kids. But these ideas felt very far away from my personal experience. I wasn’t queer, I wasn’t pregnant, and I certainly wasn’t having sex.
It would be a cop-out and, quite frankly, an insult to my overall adolescent awkwardness to say that the Church was the only reason I didn’t date much in high school. Rather, the internal logic of abstinence and suppression worked in tandem with glossy media representations of women and relationships to unconsciously confirm my teenage growing pains and insecurities surrounding intimacy. Not only was I physically unworthy, according to the media, but I was told by a church I cared about that if I acted on society’s demands to be sexy, I was morally unworthy.
Thus, even though I wasn’t sexually active, I still experienced an unexplained feeling of guilt, an unconscious moral twisting of the stomach, whenever I made out or masturbated or watched porn or let my mind wander. Exploring my own sexuality made me feel immoral, so I simply didn’t. In the name of being careful and safe and good, I became the poster child of a repressed Catholic teenager.
Unlike me, Olivia negotiated this guilt in the tumultuous world of high school dating, using it to strictly regulate the sexual terms of her relationships. We grew up together and attended the same church and schools since we were 7, so her interview echoed countless high school conversations questioning whether we truly had to wait for marriage. “I wasn’t comfortable doing more than kissing a boy for forever,” she said, explaining that she later decided that “everything but sex” was OK. This internal moral struggle came to a head when she finally had sex with her boyfriend. However, in Olivia’s words, “I didn’t regret it because I really loved him.”
It was a big deal for Olivia to love someone enough to be intimate with them. All three of the women I interviewed confirmed this sentiment; in their eyes (and the eyes of the Church), sex was placed on a pedestal. The idea of waiting until marriage elevates the act of intercourse by insisting that it belongs in a special institutional moment and purpose. Mae received this message from her Catholic school’s health curriculum (rather transparently called “wait training”). Though her family’s religion “bored and annoyed” her from an early age, and she described the class as somewhat laughable, she still came away with a lasting idea that sex was supposed to be special.
All of my interviewees paused when I asked what messages about sex they received at home, because it wasn’t talked about in any of our families. The importance of sex was therefore compounded by its hush-hushedness, its mystery—both within and outside of the Church.
However, when Flora and Olivia violated sexual mores and their families found out, these buried conversations were brought rather explosively to the surface. The first time sex was discussed in Flora’s home was when she lost her virginity at 15 and her mother discovered Plan B in her bedroom. Her parents not only denounced the fact that she had had premarital sex—saying that they themselves (conservative adult converts to the church) “regretted not waiting”—but also criticized her use of contraception. Whereas my youth group leaders’ logic about abstinence (or at least their rhetoric) had revolved around the sanctity of life, Flora’s parents played on the emotional and connective value of sex. They told her that the “union was more complete without a barrier.”
When Flora took communion at church that Sunday without first confessing her “sin” (a big no-no in the church), her mother was extremely upset, telling her that she was no longer allowed to attend mass with the family. This experience had a profound emotional effect on Flora, even though it didn’t deter her future sexual action. She described sobbing during a face-to-face confession with her priest and reflected, “I knew that what I did was wrong because of the way other people were treating me, but I had no real understanding of why it was a harmful thing to have done.”
Olivia described a similar conversation with her older brother after she started using birth control. He told her that he didn’t respect her decision and that abstinence was the only moral way to prevent pregnancy. Olivia remembers him citing biblical research as though it were fact, saying that he was “very worried about the direction [she] was going in.” He “was forcing [these lessons] on me in a way my family had never done before,” she said, in a way that implied that he “wanted to teach me, and wanted me to know what was true.” Olivia was extremely upset by her brother’s views, and the aggression and presumed objectivity with which he presented them. She believes that this still unresolved fight has put a significant rift in their otherwise close and loving relationship.
Flora, who identifies as gay, feels profoundly separated from her family because of their ideas of homosexuality. From our respective youth groups, Flora and I both received the message that non-heterosexual thoughts aren’t inherently damning, but that acting on those urges is. In the eyes of the church, the union between a homosexual couple isn’t real—it can never be validated by the Catholic institution, or by God. Therefore, though their sexual urges may be unconscious or inherent, all LGBTQ+ persons (though the church only acknowledges the existence of cisgendered people who identify as gay) are doomed to a life of suppression and unhappiness. Flora described herself as “super susceptible” to these ideas in middle school and early high school, taking them as “God’s decree.” Though she didn’t feel that her desires were wrong, she feared a world in which she wasn’t allowed to be happy—a world in which she couldn’t experience a “legitimate” union with a person she loved.
While the church’s logic is technically one of patronizing pity (“they were born this way, after all”), Flora characterized her father’s attitudes, expressed in conversations about homosexuality in general, as outright “homophobic and hateful.” When she resisted these views, a catastrophic fight ensued, in which her father was physically and verbally aggressive. This has not only irreparably damaged Flora’s relationship with her father but has also created an environment in which she does not feel safe to come out to her family “until [she] can be financially independent.” To come to terms with her sexuality, she had to grapple with both moral concerns and deep family conflict and divisions.
Mae, who also identifies as queer, was raised by a much more liberal single mother and grandmother. Though her grandma was “Catholic as fuck,” she did not express any hateful ideas about homosexuality. However, Mae was always very aware that those views existed, both in the church and in the outside world. At 10 years old, Mae asked her grandma what she thought about gay people. Her grandma said she felt “bad for what they had to go through in society.” Mae never came out to her grandmother, not for any fear of judgement, but because she “didn’t want her to worry” about her physical and emotional safety in an oppressive world. Though she never bought into the church’s teachings about homosexuality, Mae’s coming-out process was complicated by the awareness that these mores created a hostile environment. She said, “I never thought that I would go to hell for being gay, but I was in an environment where gay people were not treated well. I didn’t want to be gay because I didn’t want to deal with judgment or being treated poorly.”
Being a teenager and exploring one’s sexuality and identity, often for the first time, is a wobbly, unstable business that can be further complicated by oppressive religious ideologies. However, grappling with a faith-based identity did not stop there, not for me or anyone I interviewed. If anything, the highly sexualized and liberal world of college, isolated from the religious environments in which we grew up, made it even more complicated.
Personally, I didn’t even realize the effects that these mores had on me until I got to CC, where everyone seemed to be having sex all the time without a shred of the moral panic I had experienced in high school. Obviously, teenage repression and guilt is not the worst of the scars that the Catholic church has left on its children, not by a long shot. But I’m ashamed to say that recognizing the church’s complicity in the abuse and oppression of others hadn’t impacted my religious practices before college. I was horrified, but also distanced, from these injustices. What ultimately led me to stop going to mass was the personal realization that the church’s ideologies had impacted me, too. I have always defined my religious identity through a negotiation between what I believed on a sociopolitical level and what I believed spiritually. Only when I realized that the church had harmed me, even in its own small way, did I finally decide that its harm to others was something I couldn’t reconcile.
But I still identify as Catholic, even though I don’t currently practice. So does Flora, and so does Olivia (Mae never really did). It was the religion of our families, of our growing-up, even if we never completely agreed with it intellectually. And we all hold many aspects of Catholicism dear. I still believe in God. I still believe that sex and intimacy are special and important. I still draw comfort and home and happiness from the rituals and community of church. Catholic sexual education messed us all up, in ways both disparate and eerily similar, and it has harmed and confused countless others around the world. But it’s complicated, and it will continue to be complicated for a long time to come. Flora summed up this sense of nostalgia and moral melancholy: “Sometimes I feel like something is missing, and I know what’s missing. I should go to mass ... But I don’t know if the church is going to change for a long time, or even if it could, without becoming a different church.”
*Names have been changed for privacy.
Bad Issue | December 2018