Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Letter to a Former Altar Boy

Dear former altar boy,

You've made it abundantly clear to me that you don't believe what the Catholic Church teaches. In fact, you've stated that you don't even believe in God.

I don't agree with you, but since you obviously want to discuss religion, I'm willing to listen to you. I hope you're willing to listen to me.

But please--please--do not begin our discussion with "I used to be an altar boy." If you start out that way, I will stop listening.


Because it shows me that what you're really trying to do is to forestall any criticism of your opinions. You're trying to impress me with your credentials, rather than engaging in an honest dialog. You're setting youself up as some kind of an authority, when you never got past a child's understanding of the Church.

Do you realize, by the way, just how ridiculous you sound when you claim to speak authoritatively about the Church just because you were an altar boy twenty years ago? That's like claiming you're an expert on the theory of relativity because you won first prize in a science fair in grade school.

I see that falling away from the Church must have been traumatic for you; otherwise, you wouldn't insist on talking to me about the Church. But, I want you to realize that having been an altar boy doesn't make your word the last word on the Church.

Perhaps when you were growing up you were disappointed in the character of an authority figure, such as a priest or your parents. Indeed, you probably had every reason to be disappointed. It's never easy finding out that a role model has serious flaws. But please don't pretend that you're the only person who has ever suffered in this way, because you're not. Others have suffered through the same thing; some have lost their faith too, but others have not. There's more to the Church than what you encountered as an altar boy.

Another possibility is that you never really believed, but were simply brought up in a Catholic family and expected to believe. Once you realized that you really didn't believe, though, you felt bitter that your parents had imposed this religion on you. This is the problem of "cultural Catholicism." What it means is that young people grow up in a residually Catholic culture without ever learning much about the Catholic part of their culture. Many young people who grew up this way leave the Church once they reach adulthood because she never really meant anything to them; they view outgrowing the Church as part of growing up. For most of these people, being an altar boy is just another childhood experience that they all have to go through, and one more reason they dislike their parents.

Whatever the reason you fell away from the Church, though, simply having been an altar boy doesn't make you an expert on religion.

Once you get that into your head, we can begin our discussion. Who knows, we might even come to some kind of better understanding.



P.S. Former altar boy, I know that what I just wrote sounds harsh, and I don't mean to insult you, but please try to understand my position. Lots of journalists, it seems, have been interviewing random guys on the street about the current scandal, and announcing that these guys used to be altar boys but no longer practice their faith, as if that was incontrovertible evidence that the Church is evil. The next time that happens, I'm going to throw my shoe through the screen--but I'd rather not wreck a good TV.
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