Special Question and Answers from Bishop Spong

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 9 May 2007 0 Comments
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My husband and I really enjoyed "Sins of Scripture." We were

both raised Catholic and now belong to what you so accurately refer to as

the Church Alumni Association. My family consists of Polish immigrants, so

they are what I call "fundamentalist Catholics." Think Irish Catholic...it

is that sort of fervor and dedication to the Church and the belief that the

Catholic Church is the only true Church. The Poles are not different.

We are now facing a dilemma. We did not get married in a

Catholic Church, which you can imagine caused a lot of grief. We have

"lost" some family members as a result, who are no longer speaking to us.

We just had our first baby, and the pressure is on to have him baptized


We have gently told my family that there will be no baptism.

They are beside themselves. It is one thing to deny ourselves the Kingdom

of Heaven they say but to cast our own child into the pit of hell because of

our own sin and stupidity, well, it is unforgivable in their eyes. Friends

of my father have urged him to "take the matter into his own hands," by

which I think they mean to simply baptize our son without our consent. My

father turns a bright red/purple with rage when the topic comes up and I

fear he is going to give himself a heart attack...at which point I feel

intense guilt and think maybe I should just give the man peace of mind that

his grandson will not wind up in hell for all of eternity. I think it is

absolutely absurd that anyone would characterize the perfect loving God I

experience as this scary monster throwing unbaptized children into hell, or

even purgatory, which are concepts I don't believe in anyway...you get the

point, this is why I "dropped out" in the first place.

So, I come to you with a request. Since we do not have the

wealth of theological knowledge to back up our feelings about God, and they

(the fundamentalist Catholics) have the backing of the Pope, the Bishops and

the "Church," my husband and I often stutter out a bunch of "We

believe...statements which just irritate the fundamentalist Catholics even

more because, in their eyes, it does not matter what "we believe," it

matters what "the Church" thinks.

Can you advise us on how we can gently help my fundamentalist

Catholic family members to respect our decision? We really need your help

on this because I'm afraid we are about to lose more family members and,

instead of losing them, we would really like to live in harmony and mutual

respect with them.


Thank you for your letter. There are two things operating in

your letter that need to be separated before I can respond to your


Your family issues seem to rotate around religious questions,

but they are also issues of immaturity and control, authority and rebellion,

your own individuation and your place as individuated people in a

controlling family structure. Your family's inability to allow you to make

your own decisions about your life and your child and their apparent need to

threaten you with hell, guilt and even your father's physical health are

symptoms of your family's dysfunction. Your inability to escape their

clutches, because you have to choose between being controlled by your family

and losing your family, indicates that you have not yet achieved the level

of emotional separation that maturity requires. These issues need to be

looked at by a competent family counselor or therapist.

There are no theological books that will help you because

theological knowledge never meets emotional issues. You have to decide

whether the price of having your family's love is worth compromising your

integrity. That is a terrible choice, but inside the dynamics of your

family that is the choice you must make. Given these dynamics, if you bow

to your family's wishes now, you may be certain that another issue will

arise in the future that requires the same bending to their will. So

whether you fight this battle now or later is the issue you face.

Try to understand that your family has itself been so bruised by

their religious upbringing that they are also scared. They are acting out

of emotional fear because they have made peace with a controlling religious

mentality that they believe and have been taught gives them security and the

promise of heavenly reward. When you stand against their values, you force

them to examine those values, which apparently they are not able to do. So

their chains simply rattle and their fear increases.

What will be the result in your life - in your child's life - if

you declare your independence of this emotional tyranny now? What will be

the result in your life - or your child's life - if you do not? Is it

better to make your stand now or later? What will it do to your

relationship to bide your time until your parents die?

None of these decisions are about religion. In this instance,

religion is simply being used to perform family emotional violence. No

matter how you decide, all of you will bear scars. Someday we might

recognize that religion is consistently used by people as a weapon of human

distortion. That is a long way from John's statement about Jesus' purpose

to be the one who brings life and brings it abundantly.

I wish you well.

John Shelby Spong




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