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I'd rather be in jail

Published April 07. 2012 09:01AM


It's Holy Saturday. My mind goes back half a century to when I was an altar boy in St. Joseph's Parish in Jim Thorpe. Every Saturday night during Lent, the pastor led us in the Stations of the Cross. I was often one of the two altar boys who accompanied him around the walls of the church, stopping (if memory serves) some 13 times to contemplate each of the tortures that were inflicted on Jesus.

Behind our back, in the few occupied pews, old folks mumbled their responses in between the hacking coughs that afflicted them in late winter and early spring. When the service was over, I ran the two blocks home, scared that I'd encounter a demon on my way.

In retrospect, I like to believe those services gave the old parishioners comfort. The popularity of religions down the ages indicates that they tap into profound human needs: to have some control over our often chaotic lives, to hope for some reward for our earthly sufferings, to not just go "poof" when we pass away. TIME Magazine recently reported that, even today, only four percent of polled Americans claim to be atheists or agnostics. A growing number, but still under 20 percent, say they are affiliated with no organized religion.

That's something we Americans have in common with the billion-plus Muslims of the world. While our leaders tend to emphasize American democracy versus Islamic oppression, one could argue equally well that the War on Terror was the last Crusade, pitting the last truly Christian nation in the West against the would-be Caliphate espoused by al Qaeda. The European Union for all practical purposes is a secular state. Uncle Sam carries the torch … or cross, if you prefer.

But what of the younger generation? I can't blame any Catholic kids who abandon their parishes. Here in Philadelphia a monsignor is on trial, charged with criminal conduct for allegedly letting priests, who sexually assaulted children, get away with it. A former Philadelphia bishop, had he not died, would have been forced to testify in the case. These developments are just the latest in a now decades-old scandal that has rocked the American Catholic Church to its very foundation. Peter's Rock has many cracks and fissures. I wonder if it will soon crumble.

I'll let my daughter and co-author, Claire, speak for herself and her generation. But I must tell one story on her. When she was little more than a toddler, her mom and I were watching a film called "Fried Green Tomatoes." At one point in the movie, one of the women asks another, "Well, would you rather go to church or to jail?"

Joanne and I thought Claire was sound asleep beside us. We were startled when her little head popped up and she shouted, "Jail!"


Okay, let me start out by saying that, given the option today, I would most likely choose church over jail. I say most likely because it would depend on the church.

I have nothing against organized religion. At its best, church can be a warm, comforting, supportive community I completely understand that, and I think that's a wonderful thing. But I must admit that I never felt a very personal connection to my church.

Many of today's churches are a far cry from the little neighborhood church of yesteryear, and that sense of camaraderie isn't quite as easy to come by when you live in a city chock full of people you've never met before who duck into church every few weeks or so.

I don't feel bad about it, though I found love and support in other communities, and my parents still managed to bring me up with a strong set of morals and values. In my opinion, whatever works, works.

It's when religion is used as an excuse to deny people of their rights that I do have a problem with it. I don't want to get up on my soapbox, but the fact of the matter is that Christianity doesn't treat anyone nearly as kindly as it treats a white man. It's easy to feel welcome in a religion that has never tried to take away the control you have over your own body, never told you to be subservient, never denied you of your right to love whomever you want to love.

Speaking as a woman, it gets more difficult to stomach every time I come across a new law that further denies me of my right to have a say in what goes on with my body and all in the name of religion. I can't imagine how I'd feel if I were gay to boot.

So I'll happily listen to you wax nostalgic on your childhood as an altar boy. Just don't throw stones because our experiences with religion are fundamentally different.

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