Tuesday, December 20, 2011

arguing in confession

I know, it's not a good idea. I haven't done it in years (and that priest was absolutely stating heresy - bad diocese - long story). But last night at the parish penance service, I interrupted the (very holy and pious) confessor three times.

I know that being humble and keeping my mouth shut (even if the priest misses the point) is a viable option, even a superior one, and generally that's what I do - if the priest misunderstood what I said, or suggests something that logically wouldn't help, or whatever. But I take a different approach with respect to matters infertility-related, and I've actually thought this one through.

There's zero pastoral care training devoted to dealing with infertile parishioners. The evidence of this is available to any Catholic who has had the misfortune to discuss this subject with a priest. If they have any wisdom or insight into how to talk to you about it, they've developed it on their own. I assume, by contrast, that much time is devoted to teaching priests how to deal with those mourning the death of a loved one. (If I'm wrong about that, so much the worse.)

As a consequence, most priests will give you a lightly-baptized version of the same absolute nonsense that any layman will give you if he hears you're infertile. "Have you tried standing on your head?" becomes "Have you visited the local Catholic OB/GYN?" "If it's meant to be, it will be" becomes "God will send you a child when He sees the time is right." "I know a lot of people who thought they'd never have children, and just last year they had their third beautiful baby" becomes...the exact same thing. It's no more helpful from a priest. Actually, it's much less helpful, because while you can write off the idiot at a party as an idiot at a party, you're not supposed to write off your confessor at all. Now we're supporting them, even in this role? No. No, thank you.

So now I take this argument to the correct place theologically whenever I hear error from a priest, because I cannot let the next infertile woman receive the same comments. What if she's in a more vulnerable place than I am? What if she's a new or long-fallen-away Catholic who knows very little theology, and assumes the priest is correct? I have enough issues with God myself, and I'm pretty sure my theology is sound. What if I were trying to work from error because I believed an inept priest? I would guess that the number of Catholics who've left the church (to a greater or lesser degree) as a result of their experience of infertility is huge, and I think the absolute black hole of pastoral wisdom and care is substantially to blame.

So, when the priest told me that God would send me a child when He saw I was ready, I said, "Excuse me, Father, but that's not right. God does not promise anyone a child. Some people will never have a child." Five sentences later, I was interrupting again. "I'm sorry, Father. Yes, I agree that all the barren women in the Bible were blessed with children.* But God is not promising that to me. What He wants is my salvation; my fertility may not be His priority. I cannot assume that I will have a child." When I interrupted him the third time, I told him that it was wrong to tell childless women that they should pray and expect a baby, because it gave them false hope and a false understanding of God. All He is certainly offering (I hope) is an opportunity for each of us to have a holy and meaningful life. And when he asked me, "How old are you?" I didn't even wait for the follow-up comment ("You have lots of time!" I've even gotten this from doctors, who should really know better). While I typically spare priests personal information of this kind, I said, "Twenty-nine, but my eggs are a lot older." And he stopped.

He was, really, a good priest. He told me that my theology was absolutely solid, and he hoped that I really believed what I was saying about what God wanted for my life. (I told him that I know it in my head, but I don't believe it in my heart.) He said that I should pray that God would give me to carry around a great faith, and that all those around me would "become pregnant" with the love of God as a result of my witness. (This metaphor is a little graphic, but English was not his first language, and it might not have sounded odd to his ears.) And he said that priests don't know what to say to childless women because they are afraid of suffering.

This is certainly why laymen say these stupid things - they just want your pain to go away, partly because they're sorry you're suffering, but, I suspect, mostly because they can't bear the compassion your suffering would demand from them. They reject your pain, and they reject you. It's why it hurts us so much to hear. We know their motives are benign in theory, but we also hear the underlying message - "I won't bear this burden with you, even for a five-minute conversation."

For my penance, the priest told me to open the New Testament at random and read the verse I saw. I've heard this condemned as a method of making critical decisions (since it's sort of superstitious). But as a method of prayer, it would be fine, and I was told to, so there you are. Before opening my Bible when I got home, I decided I would examine the verse number before reading it (to keep myself honest), then read the verse, then the surrounding pericope, then the verse again. (I tend toward scrupulosity, so I like to set ground rules so I know when I can stop. Not that there's anything wrong with reading more of the Bible.)

The verse I landed on was Acts 7:57: "But they cried out in a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse."

The whole pericope is Acts 7:54-60: "Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, 'Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.' But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse. When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!' Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them!' Having said this, he fell asleep."

*On this subject, you should really read the article "Childless at Christmas," linked on my sidebar, above right. It's written by a Protestant minister; hence, a focus on the Bible that's more total than Catholics are accustomed to (we'd likely draw on a broader source of examples, not that I can think of any married, childless saints, either). But very well-done, I thought.


  1. I could not agree with you more--there is a sad lack of training for priests on these issues and how to handle them. The ones who "get it" unfortunately are the minority. I think you were spot-on with the points you made, even if you were arguing in the confessional. You hardly ever even hear infertility mentioned in homilies, either. Even in the Catholic church, so open to life, it's not discussed much.

  2. I heart you. Though your beautiful blog topper, followed by the "childless at Christmas" picture made me cry.

    Anyway, thought I'd mention that my very pious, very jolly, loving priest totally surprised me the first time I spoke to him about infertility. He actually said, "Well, God did not promise you a baby..." yes, he said it sheepishly, as if he thought I could possibly jump across the room divider and slug him right there in the confessional (Hey, I hadn't done the Act of Contrition, yet), but still. Blew me away. Thought I'd share.

  3. Whoa, I totally appreciate this post and your intelligent understanding of theology. I find that when a lot of people want something really badly, it screws with their head and that thing becomes an icon to possess. Yes, Christ seeks your salvation first, fertility might not be a part of the equation.

  4. Your post really had me at the edge of my keyboard ... I am so impressed with how you shared with the priest your knowledge and experience of IF, and got him to think through some of the trite responses - and even more stunned at the Bible verse and context. I would like to know what came to you in your prayer over this (if you are inclined to share) - it speaks to me of someone on the forefront of helping others understand something foreign to them, the unwillingness of those people to hear it, and the total abandonment to God and transition to new life. that's a rough read and not a prayerful reflection, but it is what came to me.

    Whew - and I thought I'd be in for some 'light' blog reading!

    Ps. Love your bathroom!!!! I am excited that we are getting a sink and countertop in our upstairs bath soon - no more brushing teeth in the downstairs powder room. hey, my life has to have some excitement :)

  5. I'm glad you spoke up. Those types of statements are not at all helpful. They're not helpful for single people, either.

  6. I've been lurking for a long time, but this post has made me come out of the woodwork. Thank you for correcting your priest. Priests never know how to deal with me when I mention this in the confessional. Hopefully someday I'll have the courage to speak up!

  7. I too have had similar conversations with priests in confession and I've even gone face to face and had them pray over me, etc. I can't count how many times IF has brought me to confession...it's not an easy cross to carry...ever! I think I just got to a point where I don't really talk about it anymore...I may mention something but don't go into detail. Some priests don't know much about this delicate subject. I've done everything they've said to do...literally..to no prevail. I just state "I'm not a mother through God's Holy Will"...and move on.

  8. I'm glad you corrected the priest. I remember the first time or two mentioning IF in confession. I was naive. For some reason I thought that a priest would know better than the average person how to respond. I admit it was easier to hear, "Oh, a year of TTC isn't that long. I bet next time this year you'll have a baby," from a priest than from someone else. After that I learned my lesson. At last year's Advent penance service, I would have given my priest an earful in response to his, "Are you uptight? You just need to relax!" if there hadn't been a long line of people waiting behind me...

  9. I'm so glad you had the conversation you did with your priest. Hopefully he will pass the info along to others (hopefully they talk, somehow). I agree that priests can say the same unhelpful things that other normal people can. Its frustrating.

  10. Se Catherine of Genoa was married and childless. Just thought you should know there is at least one.

    I'm praying for you. Merry Christmas

  11. Glad you spoke frankly with the priest...I'm sure people don't do that much, but it's an important thing for him to hear...and to learn from. Take care!

  12. Thanks for telling us of your conversation. I'm sure he went home thinking.

  13. glad it was you who he said it to because your theology is impeccable. i had a priest tell me about napro too once to which i responded, well, we are nfp teachers. when he went on to tell me that "if i adopt i might get pregnant..." i laughed but seriously wondered how you're supposed to correct him. i'm sure you made him think and hopefully say something more helpful to the next woman.

  14. This post reminded me of something a priest once said to me after I confessed that I was jealous of all my friends who had children (many of whom had more than one child and got married years after my husband and I did). The priest pointed out that kids or no kids, I still had a vocation of love and such a vocation is still important. I can't say that advice magically fixed everything, but it was a very good attitude adjustment.