What it means to be Catholic

Allison Dolzonek

More stories from Allison Dolzonek

Thoughts on Spring
February 25, 2016

I hope by now, if you have been reading my articles (which you probably have not), you know that I was raised in the oddly charming state of Alabama. If you did not know this, now you do, and you probably want to shout either, “Roll Tide!” or “Run, Forest, run!” And I’ll politely smile while you do.

Growing up Catholic in Alabama, attending Catholic schools, as a young, blossoming, hard-line liberal had its challenges. More times than I can count Mass homilies turned into political speeches, rebuking abortion and contraception, religion classes turned into debates about why homosexuality is a disease, and  my fellow classmates never failed to ask me how I could possibly identify as both a liberal and a Catholic, because apparently the two are mutually exclusive. Now I do not want to say that every Catholic in Alabama is like this and every single Catholic church in Alabama is like this—these are simply some of my experiences.  

But over time, I became hardened to religion and extremely put off by Catholicism. My junior year of high school I quit receiving the Eucharist. And I haven’t since. I struggled so much with my Catholic faith, and I still do, but I am beginning to see the Jesuit light at the end of the tunnel.

This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Social Justice in Washington DC. This was a gathering of over 1,500 Jesuit high schools, colleges, and universities that gathered to discuss issues of social justice, which is inherent within the Catholic faith. At this conference, a variety of hot-button social issues were addressed, including the urgent need for climate control legislation, comprehensive immigration reform, the plight of the women in Southern Appalachia, and the necessity of creating precise and accessible pathways to safety for refugees. I felt like I was home. For probably the first time in over eight years, I did not feel uneasy or reluctant to identify as Catholic, to gladly accept an invitation to go to Mass (which was the best Mass I have ever attended), or, to be frank, to talk about Jesus and God.

When I was in Alabama, I learned that Catholicism was deeply ingrained in right wing politics, and if you identified as anything else, there was minimal space for you inside the walls of the Church. I learned that, in Church teaching, everyone is made in the image and likeness of God, but somehow LGBTQ members were infected. I learned that Jesus forgives, but if you vote for Obama you go to hell (an actual quote from one of my priests). I learned that it is a priest’s’ right to own a gun, but yet women should not have access to birth control and contraception. I learned that pro life meant defending life, but only when the child is still inside the mother’s womb. Because afterwards, healthcare, welfare, and a decent education are too much to ask—and when the child falls back into a system of poverty, well, he should have worked a little harder. You see, in Alabama, I learned that Catholic was synonymous with exclusion.

But here at Le Moyne, I have been challenged to understand the faith differently. And I put off that call for the past three years, because I remembered what I learned in Alabama. But at the Teach-In this past weekend, as a crowd of young people from different countries, backgrounds, races and ethnicities, genders and orientations sang, “We are One Body,” I realized that Catholic really means justice, identifying ourselves within our fellow humans, and most of all, unconditional love.