Are we Catholic?

Something like half the population in our area says they’re Catholic. It’s a mix of conservative to liberal (I’m talking lifestyle, not politics) and devout to casual or non-practicing. My parents both grew up Catholic with five siblings each. The prior owners of our house are Catholic and had thirteen kids and we’ve run into several other large families nearby. I understand why people assume that we’re Catholic.

The answer was a resounding “no.” Read that carefully: “was.”

My parents left the church when they were teenagers. I grew up in an agnostic household and we rarely discussed religion. My brother and I weren’t baptized. I had very little idea what people actually believed, why they went to church, or what the bible says. The extent of my exposure was weddings, funerals, and a strange week playing for a conservative Baptist orchestra camp in high school because they were short on bassists. Occasionally teens from the same local Baptist church followed me through the parking lot after school trying to give me pamphlets or their vacation bible school van would drive through our quiet neighborhood blaring something or other. I didn’t really listen. If that was religion, I wanted no part of it.

Years later in grad school I met Jeff. He grew up Presbyterian. He hadn’t attended church in decades besides as a professional organist. As such, he knew a bunch about the churches and their rituals. His late friend Michael was also a Catholic theologian and they spent countless hours discussing theology. I learned more about religion from Jeff in the last few years than I did in my entire childhood. Still, we didn’t consider religion or a church as important elements in our lives.

Again, “didn’t.” Let’s keep going.

Jeff’s older sons had bad experiences in public school. That will play into our educational choices, but I want to focus for now on the social environment. Son #1 wasn’t very social at school and tended to follow Jeff’s advice. Son #2 was much more social, so he had the added influence of peers. Since Jeff’s family was just him and his boys after his divorce (split custody with Jeff’s ex-wife) and they didn’t attend church or another group activity, school became one of son #2’s main communities. It was not a good one. Jeff’s assessment is that most of the pain and suffering related to son #2’s missteps could have been avoided with a solid community, like a church, with a solid moral foundation.

As for my part, IVF unintentionally gave us a large family. Large families are getting more rare in American society and especially in the college town where we lived. I felt isolated as a new parent among college students and even more isolated as I came to see all of the frozen embryos as my children. The cerebral view is that they’re clumps of cells. My heart says they are more than that. In our new hometown people are more welcoming to large families, but they’re still not the norm. I wanted to find people who understood the why and the how of having a bunch of kids and a community for my family. I grew up with a bunch of uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents. My kids won’t have that. They have four cousins, three uncles, three aunts, and two grandmas. No grandpas since both are deceased.

Jeff and I tried a variety of churches before we moved and never found a good fit. After we moved, we looked at the nearby churches. We saw Presbyterian, Episcopal, a bunch of Lutheran, Orthodox of various nationalities, and a smattering of other denominations. Most of them, though, are Catholic. The Catholic churches also have the best community outside of a single parish because of the hierarchy from Rome on down to the parish level. It looked like the best fit for our growing family.

Yet our kids resulted from IVF. The Catholic Church is officially against IVF because the children are viewed as made, not begotten, and often embryos are discarded in the process. To the first issue, the church officially takes issue with anything that divorces procreation from sex within marriage. To the second issue, discarded embryos are seen as aborted, i.e. murdered, since life begins at conception. (You can read Donum Vitae for a fuller account of the Church’s stance and Dignitas Personae for some updates) On the flip side, every child is a blessing. Whenever someone brings up Catholicism, especially if they themselves are Catholic, I wonder how they reconcile my many IVF children with the church’s statement against IVF. Do they disagree with the church or see our choices as wrong, or are they unfamiliar with the church’s stance?

I am much more open about how our children were conceived that Jeff tends to be, for better or for worse. So far no one has outright commented on it, but I have had some conversations stall when I say they’re all IVF babies. As I understand it in the Latin Catholic Church, our choices can only be sinful if we make them willingly, consciously, and with full knowledge that they are considered wrong in the eyes of the Church. I suppose we’d be cleared of official sin then since we did not know that the Church considered it a sin and we were not Catholic. Still, I can’t say that I wouldn’t make the same choice again knowing the official stance. This is a major hang up I’ve had with joining a church.

Now for the twist. We are in the process of joining a Byzantine/Eastern rite Catholic church. The service is much like an Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy. The congregation is pleasantly folksy. I grew up mostly with family and my parents didn’t really socialize outside of the family, so this is unfamiliar territory to possibly gain a non-biological family. We’ve been attending since last fall and I still feel lost much of the time. I also feel very welcome.

Now we’re “almost Catholic.”

I’m not sure what that means since I’m still learning a lot about Catholicism and the differences between western and eastern rites. I feel like my life may again be taking a sharp turn in an unexpected direction as Jeff and I implement some more Catholic habits at home and attend church weekly. I don’t understand a lot of what I’m doing as well as I’d like. I also know that there is a lot I don’t know, like how to run a Catholic home in the eastern rite (is that a thing?). Do we need an icon corner? What prayers should we say and when? What is prayer? The bible and church seem so unfamiliar and huge that I feel like it’s almost impossible to gain enough knowledge to feel like I’m not a newbie. I’d love to have some regular bible study time and someone to talk to about what it means in the context of eastern Catholicism. You know, in all of my free time after taking care of six kids under four.

What role has religion played in your life, if any? What’s your main social group?

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