A guest post by MJ Lisbeth
A week and a half ago, my mother passed away.
Although she attended Mass and didn’t eat meat on Fridays during Lent, she was hardly the Catholic version of a “Holy Roller.” She never talked about her concept of God, and of our many conversations, I can’t recall more than a couple that included any talk about our beliefs or even religion. What little she knew of Roman Catholic doctrines, she learned in Catholic schools during the ‘40s and ‘50s. And she knew even less of theology in general, or the Bible itself; even in my generation, Catholics weren’t encouraged to learn about those things for themselves. She often expressed disagreement, or even disdain, for much of what she heard from priests and fellow parishioners. I was only partially joking when, during one of our conversations, I exclaimed that she believed even less than I, an atheist, of what the church teaches.
The real reason she sent my siblings and me to Catholic schools, she said, was that she felt it offered “a better education” than the local public schools—and, on the money my then-blue-collar father was making, secular private schools were out of the question. To me, that is consistent with what she once told me was the main reason she continued to attend mass on Sundays (and on weekdays during times of crisis): “It’s comforting. It’s something that doesn’t change.” In other words, although I don’t doubt that she believed in God and adored Jesus, I think that she saw the church and its educational institutions as things she could depend on when other things in her life changed or failed.
Of course, I do not share my mother’s trust in the church, and not only because I survived sexual abuse from a priest. Other experiences, including my formal education, and my inquisitiveness, would undermine my ability to believe. I think that my mother understood as much, and saw my loss of faith in both the church and in God as more or less inevitable. (As far as I know, she never knew about the abuse.) My mother sometimes talked about what she might have done differently: She would have gotten more education (she didn’t finish high school), developed a career of her own and had her children later than she did. I have to wonder whether her church-going habit would have withstood such changes.
As it was, she began to hold views, and engage in practices that would have been unthinkable in the church of her youth. She was never homophobic or transphobic, but she told me—years before it became a popular view—she thought people should be allowed to marry people of their own gender. She expressed that belief even before I “came out” as transgender and started my own gender affirmation process. Although she didn’t think abortion “is a good thing,” she understood that there are times when it’s better than allowing a child to be born to someone unwilling or unable to be a loving, nurturing parent. Oh, and she had a Do Not Resuscitate order, which was carried out along with her wish to be cremated.
Signing the order to remove my mother’s life support was “the hardest thing I ever had to do,” my father said. But he knew of my mother’s wishes, and he has the same wishes for himself. While he has never declared himself an atheist or agnostic, my father doesn’t have much, if any, more belief in the church, or religion generally, than I have. Nor does one of my brothers, even though he was baptized into another church; something he did, he admits, mainly to be accepted by the family of the woman he married.
My sister-in-law, however, is firm, even adamant, in her religious beliefs. So are my other two siblings, who have remained in the Catholic Church, and their spouses, who were raised by families more devout than ours. Not surprisingly, all of those in-laws and the two still-Catholic siblings disassociated themselves from me as I began my gender-affirming process. As you can imagine, having to deal with them for the first time in many years has been stressful. Just as difficult, though, is having to countenance not only their religiosity, but their smugness about it. They believe that the only way to mourn my mother, or any other deceased, is through expressions of their religiosity, including ostentatious prayers. They do not understand that my way of mourning is more private because, for one thing, I’m simply more introverted and, for another, I care more about the relationship I’ve had with the person I just lost than with any appearance of piety. To them, the fact that I will enter the church only for my mother’s memorial mass—and not for any other ceremonies or prayers—is proof not only of my immorality (why else would I “change” my sex? they ask) but also that I didn’t truly love my mother. In their eyes, only the Godly—which is to say, those who adhere to their religious practices—can truly love anyone; never mind that one sibling and spouse, at least, have constructed their lives to avoid contact with those of different races and economic classes from themselves.
My mother did not approve of their “holier-than-thou” attitude, let alone that they shut me out of their lives. But she still loved them. Likewise, she didn’t always approve of everything I did—including, at first, my turning away from the church and faith altogether—but she loved me. And I love her. That is all we have now; that is all we ever could have, or could have had—whatever else we did or didn’t believe in.