Catholic churches and Catholic history

In terms of its practices, Catholicism has always appealed to me as a faith. I love ritual, love moments that are imbued with gravity. When I hear people reciting Hail Mary or the Lord’s Prayer, I feel the togetherness of believers all over the world, stretching back for century upon century. It’s incredible to me that over the course of human history, so many people have been united by a set of seemingly improbable beliefs. The Church is especially fascinating because virtually none of their practices are actually described in the Bible. There’s no provision for a Pope, for a hierarchy of priests. There’s mention of sacraments, but from what I’ve read, they don’t seem anywhere near as institutionalized as the Catholic Church has made them. Watching a mass, I feel like I’m witnessing the longest anthropological case study in history. This is what happens if you take people, with all of their ambition and flaw, and give them a holy text promising them eternal salvation. I always find myself wondering how many of the faithful lines up to receive communion truly believe that they’re literally consuming the body and blood of Christ.
I absolutely love Catholic churches. I’m not sure if it’s in spite of or because of my atheism, but Catholic churches and cathedrals have always fascinated me. They’re beautiful—lavish decorations, stained glass, statues of the Virgin Mary, and always the slightly grotesque Christ suffering on the cross. When I enter a church, I always feel weight inside, the accumulation of millennia of history. I believe that as a rule, institutions have secrets, things they’d rather keep covered up, things they know that the rest of the world doesn’t. The Catholic Church is one of the oldest institutions on earth, if not the oldest, and I get so excited just thinking about the sheer quantity of information they’re privy to, the intrigue and scandal and history that have occurred over centuries. In the cathedrals I’ve visited in Europe, my mind goes back to high school European history, back to the Crusades, the Great Schism, the Reformation and Restoration.
Here in Quito, I visited the Iglesia San Francisco yesterday. It’s in the same spirit as the European cathedrals I’ve seen, though I think it might actually manage to have more decorations per square foot. But the inside feels a bit different. There’s more gold. The Virgin Mary seems more emphasized (what does it say about our culture, I find myself wondering, that the holiest woman on earth is the one who was able to give birth without ever having to suffer through the sin of having sex?) The Lord’s Prayer is in Spanish, which doesn’t make it sound any more serious, but does give it an entirely different set of cultural connotations. My mind starts to go back to Europe, to monasteries made from stone. But then I remember that Catholicism has an entirely different history on this continent, and suddenly I’m remembering conquest, subjugation, smallpox. Latin America seems so Catholic today that it’s easy to forget how they got that way. Catholic beliefs and imagery are so present that I have to remind myself they came with the conquistadors.
When I think back on Europe’s long and bloody religious history, I can accept it as a given. The thought of a bunch of Germans slaughtering each other in the name of God doesn’t anger me. It’s a bit puzzling, a bit regrettable, but it’s history. But thinking back on the conquest of the Americas, knowing the role religion played in justifying that endeavor, I find it harder to be neutral. I can’t bring myself to be outraged for something that occurred five hundred years in the past, and I’ve always believed that religion served more to justify something that would have happened anyway, rather than as an impetus to slaughter. But still, remembering the blood woven throughout Catholic history, I think to more modern problems. The refusal to ordain women or let priests marry. The sex abuse cover-ups. The willful spread of misinformation about condoms. The construction of sex as something sinful and shameful, and the way that’s impacted women in particular.
As an institution, the Catholic Church both intrigues and terrifies me. I am angered by the people who have suffered at the hands of power, five hundred years ago and today. I am angered at the blatant sexism that underlies so much of what the church teaches. But as a faith, I still find Catholicism beautiful. I am heartened by the knowledge that No More Deaths, as well as many other aid groups for undocumented immigrants, have a Catholic background. I am inspired by the wisdom and humility I’ve seen listening to lifelong Catholics speak about their faith. I am drawn to stories about human imperfection, about people trying to be better in spite of themselves. I am drawn to the churches, to the intricate decorations, to their attempts, however flawed, to bring the Divine a little closer to earth.