When I was 14, I left the Catholic Church and became an atheist. My departure was mainly due to struggles with the problem of suffering. However, my decision also was influenced by infighting and hypocrisy that I later realized were more due to partisan tensions in the Church than anything else.
Before I left the Church, I was taught that abortion was wrong — something I understood naturally and immediately. As a child, I participated in the March for Life several times; I joined my family in a rally in front of a prison when people we knew were arrested for civil disobedience at a clinic; and I started my own local pro-life chapter when I was 9. Looking back, though, I was largely ignorant of most other social justice issues. When I left the Church and immersed myself in the punk rock culture, however, I began to learn about a fuller spectrum of issues, including racism, immigration, protection of the environment and the humane treatment of animals.
While I don’t subscribe now to everything I used to believe, I am grateful for the thirst for justice I learned in the punk subculture — a thirst, unfortunately, that I did not learn in its completeness in the Church.
Upon my return to the Catholic Church more than a decade later, I compared what I had believed to be true as an atheist to Church teaching. I believed the Holy Spirit guided the Church, so I was ready to give up any of my beliefs that were in contradiction. However, much to my surprise, I discovered that while there were some differences, there were many more similarities. All that was good and true in what I had learned as an atheist punk rocker was right there in the Catechism. Consistency in affirming the dignity of every human person made in the image of God was the foundation of the Church’s response to every modern concern.
Now, as a Daughter of St. Paul — a religious sister tasked with preaching the Gospel using modern media — I regularly speak out online in support of the full spectrum of social justice issues. However, I have noticed that even when I am speaking in union with the Church, I am often out of step with the predominant ecclesial environment in the United States. Upon the death of George Floyd, I was dismayed to see many Catholics, as well as other Christians, respond to his horrific murder with flippant partisan rhetoric. Some immediately diminished his death by comparing it to abortion. Others denied racism was even an issue, dismissing Black Americans’ suffering as well as ubiquitous and apparent structural inequalities in our society that largely impact people of color.
Unfortunately, I have witnessed this kind of deflection from Christians over and over again in my online ministry when it comes to issues perceived to be on the “left.” However, I sometimes wonder if I would be saying similar things if I had not left the Church. Growing up in Ohio and Oklahoma, I cannot remember one homily or teaching that condemned racism. I attended several Catholic schools, numerous youth groups, and summer camps across the country, but the issue never came up. And it should have, especially in Tulsa, where segregation and racism are still very present and where, in 1921, dozens died and mobs of white residents burned down 35 blocks of thriving black-owned businesses.
Sadly, I can honestly say that I learned more about racism in my time as a punk rock atheist than I ever did as a Catholic. And while my personal story is unique to me, unfortunately, my experience’s broad brush strokes are far from rare among Christians in this country. In many congregations, parishes and homes around the United States, a partisan presentation of the faith is ever-present. Either the issues on the “right” are emphasized while those on the “left” are barely mentioned or vice versa. Of course, exceptions exist in the Church landscape, but generally, exceptions are just that. This lack of consistency in affirming the dignity of the human person across partisan issues has led to the tragic and concerning weakening of the Gospel witness in the Areopagus of modern culture.
When Christians do not fight for the full span of social justice issues that impact the dignity of the human person, other voices will fill the vacuum. Take the Black Lives Matter movement, for instance. Many Christians complain that aspects of BLM’s largely secular platform don’t represent Christian values, but we have no one but ourselves to blame for this. A largely secular narrative has taken up the banner against racism that all Christians should have been waving in the first place. This reality, rather than leading us to condemn the BLM movement, should lead us to sincere contrition and to a desire to enact change, in our hearts, in our Church and in our nation.
We need to do better. For, just like me, many young people have left the Church due to the poison of partisanship. They see that we have failed to fight for the fullness of the Gospel and the truth of human dignity from the womb to the tomb and everywhere in between. And they know what that is — hypocrisy. Of course, some readers might wonder, “Didn’t the egregiousness of abortion demand Christians’ attention and focus in these past decades?” And the answer is yes. Most Christians who care about the full spectrum of social justice issues know that abortion is one of the most pressing issues. However, when partisanship forces Christians to choose abortion over racism or any other social justice issue, it should lead us to recognize that the idea of partisanship is broken and we ought to demand better from it.
Unfortunately, instead of recognizing this and fighting for something better, many Christians have become myopic — and that blindness has not helped the unborn so much as it has come at great expense to the credibility of the Gospel in the United States. When we do nothing in the face of clear injustices — or even worse, deny there’s a problem — we drive people from the Faith and into the arms of insufficient secular narratives more likely to lead to angst, rage and division rather than to the justice, righteous anger and unity found in the answer to every injustice and suffering in this world: Jesus Christ.
Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, FSP, is the author of “Memento Mori: Prayers on the Last Things.”