My son is 17 and like all kids his age, he’s questioning the world around him, including our Catholic faith. In recent years, I’ve lost faith in our faith, and at times it’s been difficult to convey that without jeopardizing his relationship with God, his belief system and his spirituality.
I began to distance myself from the church when my son was in middle school. As a divorced parent, I was always turned off by the church’s strict stance on marriage and divorce, and my pro-choice views also seemed out of step, but the gulf widened when we signed him up to receive the sacrament of confirmation. In order to be confirmed, Catholics must identify a confirmation sponsor, someone other than a parent who will help guide their spiritual journey and serve as an example of how to lead a faith-filled life.
By this time, my son’s father and I had been divorced for years, and my boyfriend, who was also Catholic, had been living with us since my son was 5. He taught him how to ride a bike, attended his plays and activities, and helped raise him. With no other family living in our town, we agreed that he would be my son’s confirmation sponsor and filled out the paperwork, where I was forced to check a box indicating that I was divorced and not remarried.
A few days later, the church program director called to say that my boyfriend couldn’t be my son’s confirmation sponsor. He said we were “living in sin and against the teachings of God.” Holding the phone in my hand, my pulse quickened. I took a deep breath and explained that he was the best example of high morals and good faith than anyone we knew, and we had no other family living in the area. He suggested a friend or neighbor, but my son wasn’t comfortable having someone he wasn’t close to as his sponsor.
My words fell on deaf ears. For the next few days, his father and I worked together to find a replacement. Eventually, a 16-year-old cousin from my ex’s family agreed to be his sponsor. The two had only seen each other twice in their lives, but the cousin was poised to graduate from a Catholic high school and his parents regularly attended mass, so his pastor happily signed the paperwork. The only problem was that he lived in a different state. After several conversations, our church agreed to have his cousin listed as the sponsor in the official certificate and allow my boyfriend to be the proxy.
Just as our family struggled to make sense of how the church would accept a person my son barely knows over someone who is there for him every day, the news was flooded with stories about child sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church. That same year, a report was released stating that a whopping 200,000 minors had been abused by clergy since 1950 — and that was just in France. Another report, this time by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, showed there were 4,200 allegations of abuse made against clergy in 2020 alone. It felt hypocritical to judge us so harshly while turning a blind eye to those immoral acts. It seemed to me that the church was choosing the moral low road while simultaneously refusing to evolve and accept that families have changed. We felt manipulated and singled out in ways I don’t believe God ever intended.
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My son’s confirmation was the last mass I attended. It wasn’t something I planned, so I didn’t make any sort of announcement about it, but over time it became clear to my son that we were no longer attending mass or participating in church activities. Every once in a while, he would ask me about it, and I would explain as honestly as I could that I didn’t feel the same way about the church as I once did, but that it wasn’t just the debacle of confirmation that did it. At this point, he was old enough to know about the reported abuses, the church’s stance on abortion, homosexuality and more. I was clear with him that I still identified as a Catholic, but I was focusing more on my relationship with God than the church itself. I didn’t feel like it was a package deal.
I’d be lying if I said I don’t miss being part of the church community sometimes. I pine for the church I knew as a kid when I belted out songs from the choir chamber and I hadn’t yet realized that the institution was becoming bigger than its teachings.
When my son asked to join a youth group at a church near our new home recently, I agreed to drive him to meetings because I believe his faith journey is different than mine, and he should feel free to make his own choices. I have mixed emotions whenever I pull into the church parking lot to pick him up, and sometimes I fumble to find ways to explain my conflict without jeopardizing his experience. My relationship with God is no longer tied to the church, but my son deserves the time and the space to figure out his.
My relationship with God is no longer tied to the church, but my son deserves the time and the space to figure out his.
“Faith is like a fingerprint, it’s individual to each person,” Tania Paredes, Ph.D., LCSW, a Miami-based family therapist, tells TODAY.com. “Certainly, you can teach faith — in self, in family and a higher power through prayer and worship. But faith and religion are two different constructs.”
She suggests that parents like me who’ve distanced themselves from the church talk to our kids about how we incorporate our beliefs into our daily lives, rather than how we follow every specific doctrine. “Simply state your beliefs, then give children room to explore on their own,” she says.
The most important thing to me is that my son understands that he has choices. It’s possible to abandon the church but hang on to the faith, just as it’s possible to look past the bad and remain committed to the good. Whatever happens, I encourage him to follow the spiritual path that feels right. That may end up being different than mine, and I’m good with that. I’m pretty sure God is, too.