In second grade, I was effectively brainwashed into being Catholic. By fifth grade, my being Catholic meant I was an abomination of a person. I will explain.
In second grade we received our First Communion, or First Eucharist (Communion refers to the process, while Eucharist refers to the item). Communion is one of the most important Catholic rituals when we receive the body and blood of Christ. And yes, I literally mean the body and blood of Christ Jesus. To the outside world, it looks like Catholics go through a long line to get a wafer and a sip of wine from the priest, but Catholics believe that through the miracle of Christ, the bread and wine literally transforms into the body and blood of Christ each time you receive the Eucharist.
In preparation for our First Communion, we took a class with our teacher and the priest. I vividly remember the priest saying, “Catholics believe the bread and wine literally transforms into the body and blood of Christ, and if you do not believe that, then you should not receive the First Eucharist.”
After the class I approached my teacher who I was far more comfortable talking to than the priest and told her that there is no way I truly believe the bread and wine transforms through a miracle into the actual body and blood of Christ, to which she replied, “that’s fine. Just do it anyway.”
It wasn’t until I became an adult and saw shows Like Homeland and movies like Zero Dark Thirty, when I realized I had been brain washed. A common technique in brainwashing is to tell someone, that you can only do X if you believe Y. Then you force the brainwash-ee to do X over and over until they believe Y.
Priest: “Do not take this unless you literally believe it transforms into the body and blood of Christ.”
Me as an 8 year old: “Ha ha ha! That is the craziest thing I have ever heard. There is absolutely no way I believe that. I guess I’m not receiving my first communion… I guess I’m not catholic.”
Teacher: “Oh that’s ok just do it anyway, and by the way do it every Sunday for the next ten years.”
Congratulations Catholic school you successfully brainwashed an 8 year old.
By the time I was in fifth grade, I had been brainwashed, at least mildly, into thinking I was Catholic. They had not even finished teaching me everything that we believe but somewhere deep down I knew there was a disconnect. The problem was, looking around at my classmates, my siblings, and my parents, I knew with utter certainty that I was supposed to believe in Catholicism, even though I did not feel it.
At my grade school, fifth grade was when we began a course called Family Life. Family Life was a bit of a misnomer. They mean sex education, but if this course had been actually designed to help me navigate my ‘family life’ in a Catholic home, the following chapters would have appeared in our text book:
Chapter 3: Where Can I Learn About Love: Finding examples of love when your parents remain in a loveless marriage because they are Catholic
Chapter 4: Putting on a Show: How to understand that Mass on Sundays is not about faith but about your mom showing off how perfect your family is (even though it isn’t)
Chapter 7: Commandment 4: How to Honor Thy Father and Mother when you are clearly the most rational and emotionally stable of the three.
Chapter 10: God… Why do all the women in my family hate the bodies you gave them?: Body Image issues and eating disorders the Catholic way.
We trudged through the Family Life workbook, which was basically Sunday school theology mixed with some simple family psychology and a small section addressing sex. The format of the book was set up so there were some light green boxes off to the side designated to address minor topics that needed to be touched on but did not require a whole section of a chapter. The sex chapter had one such green box.
Our teacher, Mr. Stevens was my first male teacher. He was a large smelly man who could reach the third row with his spittle once he really got going. I hoped that despite the awkward atmosphere Mr. Stevens had established in our classroom, he would still be able to provide major insight into my sexual development as a Catholic. After all, how many young men get a male sex ed teacher in their lives?
We reached the green box, and my hopes for how Mr. Stevens might rise to the occasion of my sexual education were dashed. The section was entitled “Masturbation.” Mr. Stevens addressed the class, “I don’t know why they include this in here, but why don’t you all take a few minutes to read through the section in the upper right corner on your own.”
I wish I remembered word for word what my Pope-sanctioned Family Life workbook had to say about masturbation but I only remember the gist of it. In my defense I do not remember much about Lewis and Clark and we spent about ten times longer on them as we did on sex.
The green box said that masturbation is a sin, and that we should not do it, basically. God does not want us to masturbate and if we do, it will prevent us from being close to God. After we had enough time to read how terrible of a person God thinks that I am, Mr. Stevens said, “everybody finished? Alright lets move on.”
My heart sank. I was not previously unclear on the Church’s stance on masturbation, any pagan could guess they are against it. What was devastating to me was how the entire situation was handled compared to my need for answers. I was confused and scared about the one thing I could not stop thinking about, and the only authority teaching me at the time told me, “God says you had better not be think about that stuff!”
Masturbation, sex, and general lust took up about 90% of my daily thoughts. I was like a dying potted plant and every bit of sexual imagery, sexual thoughts, sexual contact, or sexual advice was like a drop of water to my dry crusty soil. A bumpy ride in the car gave me an erection, I was turned on by my classmate’s black and white year book pictures, and If I had seen a set of breasts in real life, I think I would have blown a hole through my boxers and my uniform blue oxford slacks. Yet, the Catholic overlords determined that one small green box saying “DON’T DO IT!” would suffice, which is ridiculous because every person making decisions in the Catholic Church was once a 12 year old boy himself.
Obviously, now I know that every boy and probably most of the girls were in the same boat as me. We all had no idea how to handle growing into our natural sexuality while being Catholic. I desperately needed guidance about lust, sex, and masturbation, but the topic was kept silent. The silence made me feel isolated, weak, and like a freak of nature.
If that reaction seems a little extreme, to what amounts to a teacher being too uncomfortable to talk about masturbation with a room full of twelve year olds, let me flush out the nuance of the message I receive loud and clear that day about who I am supposed to be.
Well into the throws of puberty, anyone could guess what a young Catholic boy might be dealing with. I had such high hopes that my male teacher would recognize this moment from his own youth and have some meaningful guidance. The reality was much the opposite as he said, “I don’t even know why they included this in the book.”
Further, the topic of masturbation is such a side note, they put it in a special small box off to the side to address it. Oh and by the way, when they address it, it is to tell you how wrong you are and how your mind and daily actions are an affront to God, you pervert. They will not provide any coping strategies, explanations of healthy sexual development, or even one word of understanding or acceptance, just tsk tsk tsk.
I felt like the biggest moral struggle of my life was not even on the radar for the rest of my peers and the entire world of catholic fifth graders receiving this same education. If anyone else had felt like I did about masturbation, how could the publishers of Family Life not address that challenge and provide some meaningful framework to handle those urges going forward? If I was normal, how could there not be more instruction, more help, more guidance. If everyone wanted to commit this terrible sin as much as I did, why didn’t the book dissect it a little more?
Imagine how much of a freak I felt like as a fifth grader when the biggest dilemma in my head was treated as a side box that did not even warrant a single word spoken out loud. If I want to be a good adult male I need to become a vastly different person. Through subtext and denial, I was told at age twelve that my sexual desires made a terrible freak of a person. If you can’t figure it out within three minutes of silently reading one paragraph, then you are doomed to be a terrible person who rots in hell.
I had been brainwashed into believing I really believed in Catholicism, and then during puberty, was told that I could not be close to God with all of my sexual thoughts and actions. Then I was subtly convinced that my problem must not affect very many people because it is a topic we brushed under the rug. I was told that the core of my being was not only wrong, but also unique and rare. Needless to say, this experience put me on a very interesting path of sexual development, but that is a story for another day. For today, I will leave you with the lesson I learned from my ordeal being a sexual Catholic: NEVER TRUST ADULTS TO PUT ASIDE THEIR OWN INSECURITIES AND BELIEFS SO THAT CHILDREN GET THE INFORMATION THEY NEED!