Reclaiming Complete Pride and Power as U.S. Catholics

Report from the Catholic Liberation Workshop, January 29-31, 1988

We can be proud of the goodness of all Catholic people. Many aspects of our Catholic heritage are fully human and have helped us, our families, and our community flourish. We deserve to be in touch with the wonderful aspects of our culture and realize this pride is no way a defense of the oppressive patterns that have attached themselves to the institution. We need to understand that any message from the outside that denies our essential goodness as Catholics is oppressive. We can choose any relationship to the Catholic religion and culture that we wish, but to “be” Catholic or to "have been raised Catholic” is something we can be proud of. The oppression trivializes our claiming of this pride. It seeks to ridicule and sensationalize the patterns that have attached themselves to our identity as Catholics. It blames Catholicism and identifies it with the oppressive policies that have been carried out by the institution where it colluded with the class system. The oppression makes us hide our Catholic identities. It obscures the history of our mistreatment, from the earliest persecution and martyrdom to the oppression that met the waves of Catholic immigrant groups as they settled in the United States. In general, the oppression numbs us and denies us identity and pride. Taking on Catholic liberation means connecting with this pride and acting on the reality of our complete power and goodness as Catholics.


Here are some features of the internalized oppression U.S. Catholics tend to carry, along with workable contradictions.

A desire for order, structure, and neatness: One way Catholics hold on to a false sense of safety in the universe is to be continuously “fixing things.” Making things go right. Trying to make the world and ourselves perfect, orderly. In reaction to this compulsive pull to be ordered, many of us have gone to the other end of the pattern. We are exhausted by the struggle to be perfect and give in to chaos and disorder. In a culture in which the educational system and the theology valued purity and cleanliness, many of us experienced harsh treatment and even humiliation because of this piece of internalized oppression.

Contradictions: As a counselor for Catholics on the “perfect” end of the pattern, “shake things up,” change the order or structure. Give directions to be “uncareful,” to risk making mistakes. Provide the balance of attention as terror comes up around this end. For Catholics on the other end, be pleased with us as we share early memories around this struggle.

This life is not for living NOW: This life is not the one that counts. What things are really about is an afterlife. We are here to work, to help others, to sacrifice and suffer. To do the “will of God.”

Contradictions: Celebrate Life! As counselor, model joy about just existing. This is a good life and I’m here to enjoy it!

Feelings about authority, rules, and policy: Catholics tend to either defer or rebel. We get lost in giving up what we think, or else we fight against what feels like imposed authority.

Contradictions: Catholics need to trust our thinking completely. One way to encourage this as counselor is to provide space, complete respect, and confidence in Catholic clients as we lay out our thinking with good attention. Encourage clients to ask questions about early ideas connected with Catholicism. Provide safety and reassurance as confusion and terror come up. Be pleased as the humiliation and harshness around early experiences come up. For people whose material is on the other end, model the direction of being proudly smug about being “right,” having the only right answer. Play lightly with the defensiveness or stubbornness.

Generalized terror: The “existence of hell” and the general requirement for perfection leave Catholics terrified.

Contradictions In order for a client to reclaim a sense of ease outside of terror, the counselor needs to relaxedly assure the client of the reality that there is no hell. The counselor needs to be delighted and pleased as the client asks again and again, “Are you sure? But what if . . . ?”

Feeling guilty, sinful, and bad: Catholics can get preoccupied and immobilized by the feeling that we are not good. Many of us had to struggle against early misinformation about our “human nature.” We feel compulsively responsible on a personal level for the death of Christ. We are driven by the recording “I’m sorry . . . .”

Contradictions: Catholics need to be reminded again and again of our utter, complete innocence and goodness. This is the reality of our natures. Starters are directions like “I am the Immaculate Conception!” “Victoriously, I proclaim my complete innocence and goodness . . .” Just as Jewish Co-Counselors have looked at, and discharged on, the event of the Holocaust, Catholics need to go back and look at the event of the Crucifixion. We need to examine the early memories we have of the Jesus on the Cross. We need to weep away the feelings we had as young ones spending many of our hours looking at Christ on the Cross, the details of the crown of thorns, and so on. We need to look at how these memories made us feel about ourselves. One contradiction a counselor can try is to be Christ. Go back with clients and correct the misinformation they got as young people. As Christ, reassure the clients of our total goodness and innocence. You can also lift off the guilt in lighter or even outrageous ways. Have clients go back to the Crucifixion and use directions such as “Excuse me, but I think there is a mistake going on here.” Counselors can be as light as possible to contradict the guilt.

Internalized criticism and harshness: Internalized criticism and harshness are, again, results of guilt.

Contradictions: Have Catholic clients again and again go back and make the decision to love ourselves completely, to never be hard on ourselves. Throw the abuse on the counselor or anywhere outside of the client, but always model ease, love, cherishing of the human.

Being nice: Being nice is a variation of being good in rigid, terrified ways because we are supposed to.

Contradictions: Being mean, tough. Making tough growling noises. Being physical. This may mean being loud, pushy. Putting ourselves first.

Working hard all the time and struggling: Need I say more?

Contradictions: Working and struggling all the time seem to go on in isolation. Counselors need to get in close, to remind clients they are there, paying attention and willing and able to take over. It is just fine to be close. To relax while counselors take over.

Internalized shame about being Catholic: There are so many rich details to our lives as Catholics that we need to look at in session, but we feel “weird,” ashamed, and humiliated about sharing them. We need to talk about rosaries, prayers, statues. We need to kneel down in session. We need to pray with attention.

Contradictions: Any information and pride counselors can model for Catholics about our heritage serve as contradictions; then provides safety for clients to genuflect and say prayers. Total respect from counselors is important.

Invisibility: Catholics stay behind the scenes, doing the work. If we are visible, it is often for the cause. For many of us this distress is also locked up in our “voices.” Many of us are silent, in the background. We do not put ourselves forward. Part of a Catholic tradition is centered around the idea of silence, prayer, time to think of God. Many parochial schools had harsh restrictions around talking. We were taught to talk in “modulated” tones. We were taught to “suffer in silence.” Some of us were taught to walk with our eyes cast down.

Contradictions: Model, in attitude, posture, and words, being proud of being visible. Since much of the invisibility is trapped in the quiet voices, model “making noise”—being heard. Be visible, vocal, physical, powerful in open ways. Encourage Catholics to share our thinking!

Isolation: We forget to be close because we are focusing on doing the work. If we are close, it is often for others. We are taught a reliance on a private relationship with God, but not to be close to, or rely on, people. We are there for them. Believing we are bad and often feeling guilty, we reinforce the isolation because we feel unworthy of closeness. The isolation is a form of purging ourselves.

Contradictions: Encouragement to be close for ourselves, to put aside the work and just be close. (Counselors may need to be active counselors to have this occur!)

Obligation: A sense of obligation comes directly out of our struggle to be “good,” to do the “right thing,” even if we are not “connected to” that course of action. Obligation directs us to think of the group, to think of others, to clear ourselves out of self and to care for others. It comes from a sense of personal unworthiness.

Contradictions: To know we exist. “I EXIST!” is a good Catholic direction. It is good to rely on people. It is good to need people. It is good to think about ourselves. God would want us to take good care of ourselves. To have relationships where we are safe enough to ask for things, just to be close. Close.

Humiliation: We have heavy messages of self-effacement. We are unworthy. We are imperfect and must acknowledge this unworthiness in order to be close to God. To be too proud is a sin. There was much harshness and humiliation directed towards us. For our own good. Humiliation was considered a step in teaching us the virtue of humility.

Contradictions: To be visible and expose the humiliation. To look at the early messages about feeling good about ourselves. To let ourselves shine. To treasure ourselves. To see our true significance. To think of ourselves in great and good manners.

Chronics around leading: We feel fine doing the behind-the-scenes work, devoting ourselves to the cause while we are isolated. We think we must be perfect. We punish ourselves for not being perfect now as leaders. We feel we must have the word from the outside to go ahead. We’re terrified about being correct. We regard ourselves as insignificant. We feel humiliated.

Contradictions: Decide to be visible and lead. Ask for help. Keep people close. Take risks, make mistakes. Be pleased with ourselves as we lead. See ourselves as significant. Consider bragging, trusting our thinking, leading for ourselves. “Enlightened self-interest.”

Looking at how we feel about other Catholics: Look at early relationships with our Catholic families, friends, nuns, priests, and schoolmates and break the identifications that make being close to Catholics difficult. Cherish our relationships with Catholics now.

Joanne Bray
Melrose, Massachusetts, USA

Last modified: 2014-09-17 18:14:07+00