The One Fundamental Thing I Refuse To Be Ashamed Of

Alex Polkinghorn in her fifth grade school photo at St. Margaret's Episcopal School in Palm Desert, CA.
I am a Catholic. In the same way I'm a woman, an American, or nearsighted with long, brown hair, Catholic is what I've always been and there's a strong association and sense of personal ownership there. I’m a pretty typical child of two Catholic parents who came of age in the late '60s and early '70s. I was baptized and made my First Communion, but my Confirmation seemed to have gotten lost in the shuffle of three young children.

I went to parochial elementary school, but it was Episcopal. I grew up going to church roughly two Sundays out of the month, but have never been to confession. I’ve never eaten fish sticks on Fridays for religious purposes.

What people probably want to hear is that I’m just fed up with the Catholic Church and that I’m turned off by their disregard for women's health and sex education. People probably want to hear that as a single woman working in the liberal New York media industry, I am turned off by the Church's stance on abortion or its condemnation of contraceptives.

People want to hear that I find the Vatican's preclusion of women in the priesthood illogical and anachronistic, that its intolerance of homosexuality represents nothing short of harmful discrimination. I think that people want — and expect — me to say that it’s just too difficult to align myself with the faith I grew up with.

I have a constantly marinating sense of guilt and a disproportionate fear that I’m going to be punished in some way.

And it is true that there are a lot of reasons to feel abashed by being Catholic right now. There’s a very real concern that you’ll be labeled as a misogynist, or a bigot, or worse: the kind of person who would make an allowance for what would become the worst child abuse scandal in history.

My interpretation of the Catholic faith, lax as it has been, has always been augmented by a real belief in the religion's creed. I believe that someone is watching out for me and that there’s someone higher or better than me to seek advice from. I wholeheartedly believe that I should be kind to my neighbor and not covet her husband.

I have the tougher byproducts of a Catholic upbringing, too: a sense that if I do something wrong, something bad will happen to me (or vice versa). I have a constantly marinating sense of guilt and a disproportionate fear that I’m going to be punished in some way. Many people (some of them therapists) will argue with me, but I’ve always believed a feeling of looming punishment for bad behavior is good for the moral compass. So with all of my belief in the Catholic doctrine, why had it been such a long time since I felt truly galvanized by the Vatican?

A lot will be written about the pontiff's visit to the United States. He is a Time Man of the Year and he has often been called "the People's Pope." He will almost certainly be credited with being the single greatest influence in modern-day Catholicism and the sect’s best chance at progressing with the changing social climate.

It seems almost unnecessary to list how he has turned traditional doctrine askance, given the tremendous coverage he is receiving right now across every corner of the world. He has become a modern maverick and magnetizing force, not unlike John Lennon in 1964 or Barack Obama in 2008.
Photo: Courtesy of Lizbeth Polkinghorn.
Alex with her father receiving her First Communion at the Catholic Newman Center in Palm Desert, CA.
Pope Francis has taken on gay rights ("If someone is gay and he searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?"); abortion ("I have absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it."); divorce ("People who started a new union after the defeat of their sacramental marriage are not at all excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way."), and evolution ("When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so.").

This pope has created a tribunal within the Vatican to seek out and try bishops who did nothing to protect children from sexual abuse by priests in their parishes — an unprecedented step of acknowledgment and reform. The strength of his convictions and the risks he is taking in the name of progress can't be overstated.

Yet I was actually quite surprised by how excited I was when I heard Pope Francis would be coming to New York City. I tried to get tickets to the mass at Madison Square Garden (impossible, better off trying to score an orchestra seat to Hamilton) and then was kindly afforded the opportunity, through Refinery29, to see him speak before world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly.

What if we stopped constantly inserting religion into politics, and let the Church's core doctrine inform us instead?

The days leading up to his speech at the U.N. have become a sort of Popemania in the Northeast corridor, with Washington, D.C., New York, and Philadelphia working themselves into a frenzy of street closures, train delays, and unauthorized Pope swag for sale on the sidewalks.

On Thursday, people lined up along the FDR highway in Manhattan in the hopes of catching even a glimpse of his Popemobile. Men, women, and children have camped out just to see him as he drives through Central Park from the Upper East Side to Madison Square Garden on Friday.

As leaders from the U.N.'s 193 member states listened, Pope Francis delivered a thoughtful, politically charged speech that implored them to do more than just pass resolutions and treat the one billion people living in poverty as statistics. The pope urged environmental responsibility and outlined what we owe every human living on the planet: lodging, labor, land, and spiritual freedom.

His to-do list for world leaders wasn't so short. He urged countries to end human trafficking and the selling of human organs as well as sexual exploitation of boys and girls, including prostitution. He spoke out against the global drug and weapons trade, terrorism, international organized crime, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The pope urged fellow heads of state in the room to do all they can to mitigate these pervasive global problems.
Photo: Courtesy of Lizbeth Polkinghorn.
Alex and her parents at her baptism in Los Angeles, CA.
"We are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle, and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights," Pope Francis said. "To enable these real men and women to escape from extreme poverty, we must allow them to be dignified agents of their own destiny."

The Pope turned to 18-year-old Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai as he called for "the right to education — also for girls, [who are] excluded in certain places."

A college professor once told me that there is no ideology, only theology and economics. But I wonder what would happen if we turn that theory on its head by following His Holiness’ lead. What if we stopped constantly inserting religion into politics and let the Church's core doctrine inform us instead?

What if we remember why people seek religion in the first place — to connect with something bigger and better than themselves, to demonstrate forgiveness while seeking their own, to have a home that helps them understand and express their beliefs? I believe that if we think as Pope Francis does, it will provide us with the perspective and clarity we need to tackle the overwhelming social and geopolitical burdens without dictating governance.

This is a task not only for parishioners, but also for Pope Francis' fellow Catholic leaders. If we stop trying to make people feel inferior and unaccepted and allow them to feel loved and protected again, then we’re on a trajectory back to the ostensible objective of faith. The pope has declared that doesn’t believe in a Catholic God, only a single, unifying God. On Friday, he tasked the U.N. General Assembly with stopping and preventing "further systematic violence against religious minorities."

We are dealing with real men and women who live, struggle and suffer, and are often forced to live in great poverty, deprived of all rights.

Pope Francis
When he became the first pope to address members of Congress on Thursday, he did touch on some of the most timely policy matters at hand. He spoke about the need for a compassionate immigration policy, an abolition of the death penalty, and real action on climate change.

He implored both the House and the Senate "to respond in a way which is always humane, just, and fraternal...let us treat others with the same passion and compassion as we want to be treated." It is this all-encompassing inclusion that clears the greatest path forward.

Pope Francis is the first pontiff in 110 years to eschew the traditional papal trappings on the third floor of the Apostolic Palace. Instead, he lives in a modest two-room apartment with all of his fellow Vatican employees, eating all of his meals with fellow priests, custodians, and kitchen workers alike. He has washed and kissed the feet of inmates and convicted murderers, affirming to them Jesus' forgiveness (He is also first pope in history to touch a woman’s feet). He reportedly sneaks out of the Vatican to spend time amongst poor and homeless Romans. He has touched and kissed those with terrible skin and facial disfigurements, just as Jesus did with those battling leprosy.

How Pope Francis lives, to me, is religion, as opposed to simply institution. At its core, Pope Francis' doctrine means doing better for your fellow man than you do for yourself. So if the pope is telling us that this is Catholicism, there is an authentic possibility for us to come back and heal. He is bringing us home.

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