How My Local Church's Priest Turned Me Into An Atheist

Bless Me, Father, I Have Sinned: My Striptease of the Soul

Priest Made Me An Atheist
Photo by Владимир Васильев from Pexels

November 1961. It’s a Saturday afternoon, and I am eleven. At the appointed time, I enter the half-lit confessional, kneel on the prie-dieu, and fold my hands on the sloping shelf beneath the sliding screen. 

Above my head, a crucifix: his body nailed to the cross, a loincloth draped across him. I cast my eyes down. I must not notice his body and think only about his agony for the sins of mankind, which include my sins. The screen pulls back. 

The Latin incantation asks Jesus’ mercy upon my soul. I make the sign of the cross and whisper the words I have memorized: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been four weeks since my last confession. These are my sins.”

I struggle to steady my voice. 
“I have sinned against the sixth commandment, Father.” 
“How have you done so?” 
“I have had impure thoughts.” 
“And of what are these thoughts?’ 
“They are thoughts of the body, Father.” 
“Explain to me these thoughts.” 
A piercing shame comes over me. I feel the blood rush to my face. 
“I have observed my body when I am without clothes, Father.” 
“And what have you observed?” 
“That my body has changed, Father.” 
“How has it changed?” 
“It is not what it was, Father.” 
“Do you know what kind of sin that is?” 
His voice is barely audible. “It is a mortal sin, Father.” 
“Yes,” he says, “A mortal sin. And do you know what that means?” 
“Yes, I know, Father.” 
“Tell me what it means.”
“That I will go to hell, Father.” 
“Yes, you will go to hell. You will burn in hell for all eternity.” 
I say nothing. 
“Do you feel sorrow for this sin?” 
“Yes, Father, I am sorry.” 
“Then pray to Jesus’ mother to free you from the devil. Now say the Act of Contrition, and for your penance, every day for the next month, perform the Stations of the Cross, lest the devil lures you into hell.”

Every night as I fall asleep, I fear not waking up. I fear death. I fear hell. How many times have I awakened, struggling for breath, my nightgown soaked in sweat, only to fall back into a half-sleep in which I dream of Father O’Toole and that Saturday afternoon confession? 

Just last night, I was in hell again, a human torch staggering about, choking. If only the flames would devour me and end this torment. 

I look to Father’s eyes for an answer. His lips shape one word: eternity. He smiles. I awaken, feeling no sense of relief because I know this nightmare will return. Why should this be? 

I am not mentally ill. I am a public school teacher, a woman in late mid-life, and an atheist who long ago abandoned the church and abandoned God. 

But I cannot abandon the terror of that which was planted in me at age eleven. And I have tried. It does not console me to consider that the notion of God is, as Marx proclaimed, a superstition crafted by a structure of power and flung to the peasants to keep them subdued. 

Sin and darkness are squatters on my identity, as is the hatred for the “foul cavern” that is my body. The heart of the Catholic sacrament of penance is self-exposure. In confession, the penitent’s private self is revealed and held up to be scrutinized by a priest. 

As a religious rite, penance hearkens back to the time of the Flagellants of the thirteenth century, who sought to propitiate an angry God who had sent the Great Plague to punish sinners. 

The Flagellants wound their way across Europe, reciting canticles while scourging themselves to suffer as Christ did. 

Jealous of the following the Flagellants were gathering, Pope Clement IV threatened them with ex-communication, and the movement eventually died out. Two centuries after the Flagellants of the Middle Ages were suppressed by the Church, a new threat arose in the doctrinal challenge of Martin Luther. 

As the Protestant Reformation swept across Europe, the Church convened the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to respond to this growing Protestant threat to Catholic orthodoxy. 

As a result, the role of the sacraments, notably confession and communion, were given heightened importance in the Catholic salvific scheme. 

Confession was to be the answer to Luther’s justification by faith, the core Protestant belief that the gift of grace could only come from God and could not be earned by performing good works. 

The Catholic Church reinforced the importance of good works in the conduct of life and emphasized confession’s gift of purgation of sin, and priests were instructed to interrogate the penitent and to reserve “ego te absolvo” (I absolve you) only for someone he discerned to be truly sorrowful. 

In due course, the confessional became a hidden place of spectatorship and mental torture. The priest was enjoined to interrogate the penitent, and this quiet, private cell where sexual sins were disgorged, easily became a site of solicitation. 

For the penitent, the confession was an act of humiliation, a performance of self-abasement. But what was it for the listener? What gratification was derived in listening to a child describe her battle with “impure” thoughts? 

Scatalogia is the clinical term for the persistent need to hear the obscene language, to listen to someone as they describe an act of onanism. As a disorder, scatalogia, which resembles voyeurism in that it depends on the condition of invisibility, finds contemporary expression in phone sex. 

It involves the thrill of the forbidden, the same thrill that eavesdropping once allowed, a thrill that carries no threat of engagement. To listen to a child’s fantasy life was an exercise in power, a way to punish and yet at the same time enjoy the child’s sins. 

Shortly after this confession, I imposed a strict regimen of starvation on myself. If my body was a source of curiosity or sensuality to others, I would declare war on it. It would cease to change. It would become like a little girl's again. 

At fifteen and five-foot-nine, I weighed one hundred pounds. Anorexia nervosa hadn’t entered the national discourse yet, but when my mother took me to the doctor to determine why I hadn’t begun to menstruate, he used that exotic term and said to her, “You should feed her better.” 

Today, at sixty, I am no longer anorexic, but I still live close to the bone. I am still obsessed with fat and the sensuality it represents. There is an undeniable eroticism in disclosing sin, the whisperings in the dark. 

Confessing is a kind of a striptease of the soul, a dance that tantalizes the auditor with both concealment and exposure. Once sin was uttered to the priest, then the interrogation would commence. 

During that unforgettable confession when I was eleven, the questions came at me like machine-gun fire: “What thoughts went through your mind when you committed the sin of looking at your body? What sensations were experienced in your body as you observed it? 

What brought about the surcease of the sin? Was it someone coming upon you unawares? Did you make any effort to deliver yourself from these thoughts?” 

The sin of the impure thought was to be re-enacted in every vivid detail before a hidden man whose expression I could not see, only imagine. 

Priests are trained in the art of interrogation, in how to remove the protective walls that surround the penitent so that she consents to disclose her most private self. 

In this manner, the priest colludes with the “sinner.” Through his interrogation, he invites her to project herself back into her sinful thoughts. Only then might absolution be granted. In confession, there can be no selectivity in the disclosure of sin. 

If I chose to recite only a partial list of my sins, I was making an “imperfect confession” and thereby committing a sacrilege, which is far worse than a mortal sin. So day in and day out, I tortured myself in the hope of making a perfect confession, a crux theologorum. 

The self-torture started early in the day because every morning at school, Sister Humiliata ordered us to cast our heads down and examine our consciences. 

In Catholic theology, thinking an impure thought is no different than committing an impure act, so the command to disclose all sins resulted in a kind of infinite regress for me. 

Once I got to thinking about my sins, I would, in the process of remembering them, sin again, and that sin—the thought remembered—would have to be confessed, as well as the one before that in a causal chain that flowed back to the origin of my consciousness. 

With all of this sinning and re-sinning, it got to the point where I feared thinking. Because the diabolical could not be put back inside the bottle, I feared the devil would possess my thoughts and then possess me. 

But the religious rituals to which I subjected myself—reciting prayers in the middle of the night, attending Mass twice daily, incessant hand-washing— along with the lack of food made me weak and unable to fight off the offending thoughts. 

So like the Goths storming the gates, they always came flooding back. Thus, in grand totalitarian fashion, the Church established its thought police to punish thought crimes. 

Sin itself does not take place in the confessional; rather, the priest would evoke the sin in his interrogation and force the penitent to utter it and then behold it in all its filth and disgust. 

Helpless before this grand inquisitor, I lived in terror of absolution not being granted and instead of being plunged into a state of terrifying aloneness. 

Thus, my confessor and I were locked in a deadly game of quid pro quo, but the nature of this game demanded that I fulfill my part of the bargain, which meant I had to be convinced—really convinced—that these thoughts were sinful. My mind was hijacked. 

I could no longer tell what was evil, what was good. I would leave the confessional uncertain that Jesus and Mary would protect me against the devil, who was constantly seizing my mind and leading me into sin. This authoritarian aspect of confession, I believe, has been the most injurious to my life. 

The complete loss of autonomy, the loss of the subjective experience of the world, the demand that the Church mediates between the world and me, controlling the world that I experience—all this “soul murder” destroyed for me and countless others of my generation any possibility of spontaneity, imagination, or creativity. 

Like all my classmates, I internalized the rules governing thoughts, and in the process, I became estranged from my own nature. 

The assumption that we can control our thoughts is fundamentally at odds with what we know of human consciousness. To deliver ourselves from our bad thoughts, we were instructed to pray. Even as a child, this struck me as strange. 

I had been taught that God was almighty, so it clearly was he who placed these thoughts in my mind. But why? Sister Mary Agatha said God was testing me by allowing the devil to place temptation in my way. “You must be strong and resist Satan,” she said. 

But, one day after a horrifying confession when I was twelve, I asked myself, Was it God or the devil who was tempting me with these thoughts that the priest almost didn’t absolve that day? 

And then, I realized that I had entertained another kind of bad thought: a thought of doubt. This, too, was a sin. So, I descended to the floor to pray, but my knees gave out, and I fainted. 

Much has been written about the stunted sexual lives of priests, how they themselves were molested or sexually threatened at an impressionable age, how a decision to take up a life of celibacy was often a kind of false resolution of a man’s conflict with his own sexuality. 

These men are involved in a constant, lonely, and often futile battle to preserve their chastity because this “purity” is impossible. The struggle to emulate the sexless Christ and his virgin mother, along with their devotion to suffering as Christ did cost these men dearly. 

The priest’s insistence on detailed disclosure scarred me deeply. All this thought patrol resulted in a complete loss of creativity. I could no longer read, for when I would do so, my mind would stray from the story, and I would find myself on unholy ground. 

I came to feel estranged from myself, as I could no longer tell what thoughts had been implanted in me by the priest or the devil and what thoughts were my own. I placed my body under constant surveillance. 

I would close my eyes in the shower to avoid seeing the changes that puberty had wrought. Human sexuality, as both Freud and Nietzsche have argued, is ultimately the source of creativity. Our “filthy minds” are the phantasmagoria from which creativity arises. 

Sexuality and the tumultuous feelings it inspires give life to artistic creation. As I sought to purge myself of all impure thoughts, I found myself becoming more and more estranged from my interior life and imagination, which had once been for me a comforting retreat. 

Now I would pray and wash my hands, lest in imagining or creating a story, the offending thoughts would emerge, and I would have to confess them again and again. 

But there could never be a perfect confession because to be absolved was to invite the devil to tempt once again. Abuse at the hands of the nuns—abuse of a completely different sort—has received little scrutiny. 

The nuns’ abuse, which took the form of humiliation, ridicule, and corporal punishment has been laughed away in the shape of comedies like Late Night Catechism, which attempt to make a joke of the nuns’ rulers and rigidity. 

To watch, as I did, the Church transforms itself in the sixties and seventies into a church of love, with the nuns disowning their cruelty by exchanging their habits for civilian clothes, playing guitar, and singing about peace was a ghastly irony. 

It now seems that this was all a reaction to and disavowal of their past. Confession too has been reconstructed into “reconciliation.” One can now choose face-to-face confession and sit before a priest and engage in something that resembles Oprah-inspired life coaching. 

But make no mistake: this recent repositioning masks an iron will. Indeed, all this imposture may be understood as a kind of reaction formation against the unchanged doctrine that underlies all this folksiness. 

A priest these days may rap out his love of Jesus, but all of this contemporary-culture software has been installed to promote its original ideology, which is a binary narrative of heaven and hell, sin and purity. It has tyrannized generations and cannot be tossed out. 

Sin, as I experienced it in the confessional, is a state of mortal terror. In confessing my sins, l lost the most basic human right: the right to interpret my own experience and the right to the privacy of my own mind. 

The last Mass I attended was several years ago when I was the maid of honor at a friend’s wedding. There was an attempt on the priest’s part to make a slight joke about Limbo, a quaint little concept constructed by the Church a thousand years ago to give unbaptized infants a place to go after death. 

It had just been tossed out by the Church in a manner, not unlike Pluto’s status as a planet being tossed out of the solar system by astronomers. 

The issue of Purgatory, another embarrassing construct, was never mentioned in the homily. Instead, since he was speaking before a couple who were now given permission by the sacrament of matrimony to have intimate relations, the priest spoke at length about the joys of human sexuality, even going so far as to say, “Sex is fun.” 

Hearing these words, I felt like I had been the victim of fraud. What did it all mean, all those jeremiads that my generation and I had listened to about the filth of the body and the gutter of the mind? Why did we suffer?

To be told now that the body is actually a miracle of sensation and wonder, and that one must celebrate God’s gift of sexuality?

What was the point of all that was said decades ago? Did we go through the indignity of confession only to be told that the whole notion of sin was all a vast comic joke? 

That Mass was an epiphany. At that moment, listening to that homily, I became what I’d always been: an atheist.

Today, I wear my disbelief proudly. But late at night, when I can’t sleep, I still fear the devil, I fear not waking up. I fear the flames.

I fear hell. So, if there’s a God, then he’s a joker who says, “O, ye of little faith.” I can hear him now, calling to me, “Come back! Come back! We love you!” To this I quote that great rapper Eminem: “I’m going to hell. Who’s coming with me?” Ego non te absolvo!


By Kathleen Schultheis 

Kathleen J. Schultheis earned her doctoral degree in English literature at the University of Southern California. Her dissertation was on Gore Vidal, who christened Christopher Hitchens, “my delpino,” which is Italian for “dauphin.” Until their disagreement over the Iraq War, Vidal and Hitchens were close friends. Currently, Schultheis is teaching Advanced Placement American literature at Oak Park High School in Oak Park, California. She was a recovering Catholic. Now she is just recovering.
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