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I’ve been thinking about Catholicism’s celebration of suffering. Despite the strange and disturbing nature of this perspective, it is rarely discussed or questioned. This is unfortunate. A celebration of suffering lies at the heart of, and, in the minds of many Catholics, justifies emotionally abusive childhood religious indoctrination, and acknowledging and questioning this rhetoric of suffering is, I’d argue, one way to assist in removing the taboo that often prevents open discussion of the negative after-effects of Catholic childhood religious indoctrination. I’ll offer a few brief thoughts here and I encourage you to offer your own, in the comments section or elsewhere.
At the heart of Catholicism lies a rhetoric of and celebration of suffering. The Catholic Church asserts that suffering (of all sorts) is inherently good. This assertion, I’d argue, lies at the core of all of the emotional, physical, economic, and socio-cultural damage that the leadership and Catholic Church has inflicted on countless individuals and groups throughout history (childhood religious indoctrination being just one example). The argument plays out something like this:
1) God chose to take on the human form of Jesus,
2) Jesus was aware that suffering, pain, and crucifixion were his destiny,
3) Jesus did not complain about the suffering he endured; in fact, he welcomed it, as he knew his death would atone for the “original sin” that Adam brought about in the Garden of Eden and would “save” the souls of all sinners from an eternity spent in Hell, as long as the sinners accepted the divinity of Jesus. As the official Catechism of the Catholic Church says (bracketed words are mine):
“For as by one man’s [Adam's] disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s [Jesus's] obedience many will be made righteous.” By his obedience unto death, Jesus accomplished the substitution of the suffering Servant, who “makes himself an offering for sin”, when “he bore the sin of many”, and who “shall make many to be accounted righteous”, for “he shall bear their iniquities”. Jesus atoned for our faults and made satisfaction for our sins to the Father.
4) As Catholics, we (I use “we” here because I was a Catholic until I was 16 year old) are forever indebted to Jesus and should always do our best to emulate him. This includes, but is not limited to, never complaining about suffering and even taking pleasure in it.
5) And here’s where this argument gets truly dangerous: because we, as Catholics, are called to tolerate and even delight in our suffering, we are thus justified in expecting, or even demanding, that others (including children who have no choice in the matter) do the same, because it is in their best interest. Think of Mother Teresa’s overt fetishization of suffering, or of her horrifying claim that
“There is something beautiful in seeing the poor accept their lot, to suffer it like Christ’s Passion. The world gains much from their suffering.”
On a more personal level, this also translates into the Catholic practice of doing penance for our perceived faults, guilt, and sins. This practice is, of course, learnt in childhood, and, in many instances, unquestioningly passed down to future generations. But I’ve previously written at length about that topic, and want to stay focused here on the Catholic rhetoric of suffering, which is the root cause of and justification of both childhood indoctrination, and of so much of the extensive damage that the Catholic Church has inflicted, and continues to inflict, upon the world.
Suffering isn’t something to be celebrated, cherished, worn as a badge of honor, or inflicted upon others. Understanding and acknowledging the Church’s rhetoric of suffering and openly discussing its perniciousness is one way we can combat the pervasive stigma that prevents much-needed discussions of the negative after-effects of Catholic childhood religious indoctrination.