Confronting contradictions in the Church: Struggles in faith and a question of conscience 

I remember sitting between my fellow Catholic classmates at an evening student mass in my first year at a Jesuit University. The Jesuit offering the mass confidently explained, to us eager young Catholics, that by attending and participating that night, we were showing ourselves to be different from our peers who were forgoing the opportunity to participate in Sunday services. In a way, he told us, we had arrived.

Statistically, he explained, we had passed a certain threshold of no return. He cited studies about young adults, moving away from home and beginning to make decisions for themselves, like those of us who voluntarily choose to stay Catholic and participate actively in Catholic life by attending mass without the pressure and prodding of our Catholic parents. We were the ones to most likely commit to our faith over and over again throughout our adult lives and remain in the Church longterm. 

I remember his sermon feeling like an invitation to congratulate ourselves. We young adults had made the right decision, and our prize was becoming Catholics for life. I felt proud of myself and a much-needed sense of belonging. 

“Roots to call my own” original watercolor by Annemarie Erb Barrett: AEB Art

Throughout the next four years of Jesuit education, I had the opportunity to find community amongst Catholic activists and Catholic Workers, study liberation theology amongst Christian Base Communities in El Salvador, read Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day and, in many ways, find a home in these very niche and radical alternative Catholic communities. 

At the time, I felt confident in my faith and inspired to continue to live out that faith in humility and solidarity after graduation from college as a Franciscan lay missioner in Latin America. 

Years later, I am still discerning how to relate to my faith since my worldview so drastically changed as a result of what I witnessed and experienced as a lay missioner. 

In retrospect, I now realize that moving to Bolivia in 2013, after months of formation to serve as a Franciscan lay missioner, also meant stepping into the reality of the global Catholic Church, a rude awakening from the bubble of Catholic radicalism that I had come to call home. 

I am learning through these experiences that authentic faith is messy and full of struggle.

I went from being surrounded by highly-educated white, Catholic communities in Christian anarchism, anti-imperialism and anti-racism to being just another white missioner in a country with a long, violent and horrific Christian colonial history. 

At the time, this shift was not only unexpected but also deeply disturbing to me. I wondered to myself, how could I have been so naive? 

I had misguidedly believed that my own radical Catholic faith formation and highly intellectual critiques of colonialism might exempt me from embodying white supremacy and colonialism as a lay missioner. I was wrong. 

“Roots to call my own” original watercolor by Annemarie Erb Barrett: AEB Art

Only in a different cultural context could I see more clearly that the combination of my whiteness and my religion were more of a sign of privilege than one of solidarity. 

Being called “hermana” (“sister”) by the Catholic Bolivians who I met meant being placed on a pedestal, when what I consciously intended to do was move down the social ladder. 

Being surrounded by old, white Catholic missionary priests in Bolivia meant being witness to racist and classist jokes when what I consciously desired was to be part of a faith community that challenged that violence. 

My faith was in crisis, confronted by the limits of my own radical beliefs within the reality of the Catholic Church as an institution with immense political power and a horrific colonial legacy. 

I met one Bolivian woman, for example, who explained to me that she was made to learn the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary by Catholic sisters in order to receive donations of rice, sugar and flour and provide for her economically-impoverished family. 

I also witnessed, daily, how Catholic parishes made Bolivians pay money for prayers and intentions. And I’ve learned, firsthand, that these highly-colonial practices are alive and well still today in a global Catholic Church full of contradictions.  

Official list of ‘ofrendas’ for Church services from the Archdiocese of La Paz, Bolivia. Photo found on Facebook

Reckoning with these contradictions caused me to question my religion as a matter of conscience. 

How could I stay true to my faith and call myself Catholic in a context where identifying as Catholic granted me more power, not less? How could I continue to associate with an institution so clearly aligned with the violence of colonialism globally? Now aware of all these contradictions in my conscious, how could I possibly remain part of the institutional Catholic Church and live with integrity? 

Despite the statistics of the well-intentioned Jesuit who predicted that I would be Catholic for life, I eventually chose, as a matter of conscience, to begin to disassociate with the institutional Catholic Church. 

I am learning through these experiences that authentic faith is messy and full of struggle. I had to change how I understood what faith is to come home to myself and live with authenticity and integrity.  

Though I chose to leave the institutional Church, I know many who, confronted with similar questions of conscience, have chosen to stay. I think there is a lot to learn from both decisions and a fruitful dialogue to be had among us. I pray that we may find common ground and come together collectively to reckon with these faith-filled conversations. 

How have you been confronted with contradictions in your own relationship with the global Catholic Church? How has your conscience informed your response? How might we collectively reckon with these contradictions that are so important to our faith lives and our faith communities? 

annemarie barrett

Annemarie Barrett grew up in Minnesota, becoming a dual citizen of the United States and Bolivia after moving, originally as a Franciscan lay missioner, to the South American country in 2013. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and solidarity. She is also learning everyday from the experience of growing up in Western, capitalist culture in the U.S. and becoming an adult in the much more communal culture of the Andean region of Bolivia. Today she lives with her partner and young daughter and works as a watercolor artist, selling prints of her original art online under the name AEB Art.

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