A Letter to My Parish

Can I leave the Catholic Church?

Illustration: A hand holds a tarot-inspired card adorned with a holy figure, as cherubs and clouds surround them both.
Doris Liou

To St. Thomas More Parish in Durham, New Hampshire:

When my grandmother, Hortense, was 36 years old, a doctor found a benign cyst in her uterus. The doctor laid plans to remove it, but Hortense hesitated. She told him that she had a feeling about the cyst, a creeping suspicion that it wasn’t a cyst at all.

The doctor wouldn’t listen. This was 1957, after all, a time when women’s health was ill-understood; when doctors, even more than today, disregarded female wishes, fears, or preferences. He told her the cyst had to come out, and he didn’t investigate further.

Hortense went home and pulled out her prayer cards. She selected the card for her favorite devotional statue: the Infant of Prague, a wooden representation of the baby Christ coated with wax, gold, and diamonds. She repeated a prayer to the Infant of Prague every hour all day, trying to form her suspicions into something concrete or definite. Asking the statue for the knowledge she craved.

By nightfall, she knew. The lump in her womb was not a cyst, but the collection of shifting and moving cells and tissues that would bloom into a baby. That cyst went on to become her third child, my father.

It’s possible, I’ve heard, to excommunicate yourself from the Catholic Church by writing a letter to the parish of your baptism.

Catholicism is woven deeply into the lives of the Cataneos; after all, without the religion, my father and I wouldn’t exist. Before my birth, my parents agreed that Catholicism would also shape me. On June 14, 1989, your priest, Father David, dunked me into a baptismal font at St. Thomas More, and seven years later, my parents enrolled me in Sunday school to prepare for my first Communion.

At age 7, I loved reading books about girls who broke rules: tomboy girls who refused to become ladies, orphan girls who escaped from evil headmistresses. I longed to be one of these plucky heroines, and one way I might have shown that pluck would have been to question your teachings. But two traits coincided to make this impossible. First, I was a hopeless suck-up. I knew that authority figures would praise me for attending my religious education courses every Sunday, and so I did. During my years as an altar server, I sulked if somebody else was lucky enough to carry in the cross.

The second trait was far more insidious. My parents are both deeply anxious people, haunted by baroque and macabre terrors. Whenever the Weather Channel forecast thunderstorms, my dad would sit me in a specific wingchair, which he had determined to be the most lightning-proof place in the house, until the storms passed. Once, on a playground, a child scraped his knee near me. My mom, hissing about the dangers of other people’s blood,  hustled me away from the crying child on the other side of the swingset.

By my first Communion, I too believed that at any moment the world might rend apart at its seams. The rituals of Catholicism quickly became a shield against that possibility. I don’t remember ever really believing in God; this letter, St. Thomas More, is not about my awakening to the existence of the void. In fact, I always believed in the void, and I felt, on some essential level, that incense censers and repetitive prayers would keep that void at bay. I recommend this method for anyone seeking to raise a religious child: Instill her with deep-seated terrors, then hand her a set of tools to keep the terrors away.

I first heard about self-excommunication from my friend Giorgio, a Milanese lapsed Catholic. We were standing before a bank of votive candles in a Protestant cathedral when Gio told me that there’s a groundswell of Italians, fed up with the church’s hierarchies, who have officially departed. No one knows exactly how many have left, but the Italian news agency Adnkronos reported in 2016 that the number might be as high as 50,000.

Gio’s the one who told me that self-excommunication is as easy as writing a letter, but it turns out it’s a bit more complicated than that. According to the Atheist Foundation of Australia, an affiliate member of the global Atheist Alliance International, I can excommunicate myself in one of several ways. I could commit an act of violence against the Pope or desecrate the Eucharist. I could have an abortion and speak about it publicly. But the catch-all method of self-excommunication is detailed in Canon 1364, which covers apostasy, heresy, and schism. In order to self-excommunicate under this canon, I would have to convert to, say, Islam or Buddhism—or as the Atheist Foundation suggests, convince you that I have renounced all religion.

My parents would be so very disappointed after all the work they did to weave Catholicism into my life. Just before Easter this year, my dad mentioned that my mom was at church, performing the Stations of the Cross. “Did you ever do those?” he asked.

“You gave me a Catholic education, remember? Which, by the way, I’m writing an essay about.”

“Oh, great. You know, you’re lucky we raised you Catholic. Lucky! We inoculated you against cults!” This is my father’s long-standing explanation for why he raised me in the religion of our ancestors: the fear that without a belief system, I would be seduced by the Hare Krishna.

But I don’t believe it. I think my parents made this decision out of loyalty to my grandmother, Hortense. She remained invested in Catholicism for her whole life—on her own terms. Early on, she committed a sin when she divorced her first, philandering husband. “I can’t really blame him,” she once told me, pragmatically. “There weren’t many men around during the war, so there were a lot of women after him.” Pushed to the edges of the fold for her choice, Hortense embarked on a life of vigilante Catholicism. She told me that she knew in her heart that her divorce was right, and that God had forgiven her, and so she kept taking Communion despite the strictures against it.

Her religion was interwoven with superstition and magical thinking, the sort of mélange that might have raised the eyebrows of Church authorities had she been born in, say, early modern Europe rather than 20th-century New York. She hung rosary beads on her bedposts and intoned daily prayers to keep her family safe. She balked at the teaching that animals lack immortal souls. “Why would I want to go to heaven if there are no animals there?” she would say. Every October, she took her dogs to the church to have them blessed.

My aunt, a rebellious hippie, wanted nothing to do with religion. When her sons were born in the 1990s, she didn’t baptize them. So my grandmother got her hands on some holy water and baptized them herself in the bathtub. “What was I supposed to do?” she said when she told me this story. “What if something had happened to them?”

For me, she used the same tool that had prevented her from accidentally aborting my dad. When I started driving, she asked my dad to slip an Infant of Prague prayer card into the glove compartment of my secondhand Volvo sedan. When the car died eight years later, two years after we lost Hortense, my dad handed me the card. “Keep this in your wallet, would you?” he said. His tone was nonchalant, but his eyes were hard with worry.

After my grandfather Carmine died in 2007, Hortense started finding coins around the house and decided that his spirit was leaving them for her. She brought this up one Thanksgiving, and my cousin—one of the ones she baptized in the tub when he was a boy, by then a snide film student—laughed derisively and started making fun of her. My grandmother’s hearing was almost gone by then, but she could still read a room. I watched the reproach and sadness shade her dark eyes. I didn’t believe that my grandfather was leaving coins around the house any more than my cousin did, but I still told him to shut the fuck up. “Of course it’s possible,” I said to Hortense.

There was an agreement, then, among me, my dad, and my grandmother—three of a kind, all easy criers, all animal lovers—of we believe this. To deny it, even if you doubted it as I began to in my teenage years, would not just betray faith, but family. When I was 14, I decided I was tired of attending CCD every Monday night, since all my friends either went to temple or nowhere. I told my parents I didn’t want to be confirmed.

“Fine,” my dad said. “You can stop going. But you can call your grandmother to tell her.”

I kept on with CCD.

Many of the people who self-excommunicate do so because they have discovered a militant atheism, or because they’re disgusted by the crimes of your priests. I will admit that for me, neither of these are the most alluring reasons for leaving the church. What I want from a self-excommunication is freedom from the classic Catholic tactic that my dad employed to force my Confirmation: the guilt. The guilt poisons everything. So does the shame. I can usually spot fellow female lapsed Catholics: I find that many of us are simultaneously obsessed with and shocked by the fact that we are all in possession of bodies and sexualities.

For a very long time, I was convinced that I would die a horrible punishing death from sex. Once, when I was 23, I slept with a guy I liked who ghosted shortly afterward. My disappointment spiraled: Surely, his disappearance wouldn’t be my only punishment. I imagined disease riddling my body. As the months passed, I tried to work up the courage for a blood test. I imagined the positive results; I imagined calling my family; I imagined their disappointment. I imagined my body collapsing in on itself; I imagined them weeping over my sickbed. Finally, I dragged myself to the doctor, endured her judgmental speech about my promiscuity, watched the vials fill up with my blood. I moped all weekend. On Monday, instead of going straight to work, I drove my Volvo around Boston for an hour because I couldn’t bear to sit still and wait for judgment. Then, hands shaking, I called the testing hotline. “Clean bill of health!” chirped the woman on the other end. I waited until we hung up before I collapsed crying over the steering wheel.

This is the dark side of my grandmother’s belief that prayers and rosary beads can protect a family: the clear implication that evil thoughts and deeds can accomplish the opposite, that succumbing to the forbidden will destroy you and those around you. Once, during a shame spiral, my dad caught me at a bad moment, and I confided in him. “Oh, I was always the same way,” he said. “It’s a Catholic thing.” As if it were inevitable on a genetic level, like bad eyesight or flat feet.

Maybe, when you’re raised in a Catholic family, it is inevitable. Maybe self-excommunication is the one ritual that would never work for me; maybe it’s not even possible. Even if I desired it—a question I wrestle with still.

My grandmother Hortense was not a powerful woman. She was an orphan, raised in a cold-water flat in New York City by her own grandmother, an immigrant from Alsace-Lorraine. She left school when she was 16 and never went back. She worked at Gimbels and Macy’s for her entire adult life. She and my grandfather raised their three kids in a series of apartment blocks in Yonkers before finally saving enough to buy a house in the city’s leafy northern reaches, a ranch with a small backyard for the dogs, where she lived out her days.

Of course, she had the economic and racial privilege and luck to buy that house. But still, just because she had more power than many people around her doesn’t mean that she was powerful. She wasn’t powerful in comparison to me, that’s for sure: She didn’t have the education, the access to information, the platform for self-expression. She couldn’t Google “womb cyst child,” for example. She loved her animals and her children, and she wanted to give them a good life. Her occult, dusty rosary beads and prayer cards helped her—in her mind, anyway—to do it.

A year after she died, I visited Prague and ventured into the church where the Infant of Prague statue raises two fingers in blessing: a doll in stiff green vestments overshadowed by the gleaming swirls, cupids, and stars of the shrine on which it stands. There’s a photo of me standing awkwardly before the statue, my hair greasy from backpacking, my smile straddling the divide between ironic eagerness and discomfort. How absurd, how odd, how, well, embarrassing, that a girl born in the second-to-last decade of the 20th century should owe her existence to this 16th-century statue. And, really, the story of Hortense and the Infant of Prague only works because of the outcome. It would unravel if she’d been wrong, if she’d refused medical treatment until cancer ate her from the inside out. Or if she had learned that it was a child, but a child she didn’t want. Prayer, like astrology, is a selective way of examining the world, an attempt to make meaning and order and create control where none exists.

But how could I ever decry what Hortense believed? She found power where she could. She remembered that despite the rigid hierarchy of men, this is also a church that venerates a woman, a mother. She wasn’t the only one: I’ve talked to so many other lapsed-Catholic millennials with similar stories about Catholic grandmas who performed similar rites. And even I have never quite lost my childhood belief that the world might rend apart at any time; still, somewhere within me, lies the hope that if I perform a ritual, it will protect me from those inevitable disasters. When I was young I declared I didn’t like the number four. It was my unlucky number. So I stopped doing anything in fours: I wouldn’t take four pieces of candy or four sips of water. I still won’t, decades later. Logically I know that this number has no connection to my luck and safety. But every time I think about breaking my own superstition, something stops me.  Because what if this time? What if, however improbably, I’ve protected myself through my decades-long avoidance of the number four? “Are you religious?” people ask me, and I tell them, “I’m a lapsed Catholic.” Only in my head do I add the word almost.

Is this my excommunication letter? Perhaps I must defer to authority yet again, and let you, the parish of my baptism, decide. Here are the facts. I haven’t attended Catholic mass since my grandmother’s funeral in 2012. I roll my eyes in camaraderie when I meet fellow young women raised in your clutches. I became a journalist and finally learned about the importance of questioning authority. I became a feminist and realized the harm of institutions that cast women as second-best. Last year, as part of my job at a Jewish feminist historical archive, I wrote a series of blog posts calling not just for legal abortion rights, but for an end to social stigma around this medical procedure. As I typed away, I thought, savagely, of how far I’d drifted from my upbringing.

But here is another fact. If you opened my wallet and reached into an inside pocket, your fingers would brush that Infant of Prague prayer card, its colors bleached out, its edges soft A gift to me from Hortense. It’s been in my wallet for four—unlucky four!—years. Every time I must do something that terrifies me, such as flying, or something that should terrify me, such as walking around at night alone, it’s there. I could take it out and throw it away, anytime. But I’m not going to do it today.

Emily Cataneo