Posted by MeganFinnegan at 3/28/2009 6:56 PM EDT

Let’s talk religion. When the powers that be at asked me to write about Catholicism on this blog, my first emotion was excitement, and my first question was, “Do I have to worry about offending people?”

I was raised as a good Irish Catholic, going to Mass every Sunday (even while on vacation), letting the gilt-edged pages of our family Bible rest undisturbed on the bottom shelf of the coffee table, ordering pizza every Friday during Lent and regarding the “CE” people (those who crowded our pews on Christmas and Easter only) with mild contempt and Jesus-sanctified superiority.

During college, I kept attending Mass, but began to ask questions about my religion, stemming from experiences typical (is it an extra sin to skip church because you’re hung over?) and not so typical, as when my father, the bastion of Finnegan family Catholicism, died unexpectedly in my junior year. Initially, I clung to the Church like a life raft, desperately hoping that it would keep me afloat in the midst of profound loss. While my adherence to the Mass schedule remained relatively faithful, my actual faith started to waver as I slogged my way through grief and growing up.

Eventually, I gravitated back to the Church and realized that while I asked God questions, I never necessarily questioned God, and that’s an important distinction to anyone who wants to maintain their faith. I keep my critical distance from the Church and its practices, and I like to tell myself that this only strengthens my relationship with the man upstairs.

In my 24-year life, I’ve observed that those who are raised Catholic are forever doomed or blessed, depending on your angle, to define themselves based on their Catholicism. People are practicing Catholics, ex-Catholics, lapsed Catholics, lukewarm Catholics, Catholics converted to other religions, agnostic Catholics. Catholicism pervades one’s sense of identity, for better or for worse, and it especially pervades the identity of Irish Catholics, whose long memory stretches back to a time in Ireland when being Catholic meant a life of persecution, poverty, gross injustice and violence, and a religion practiced in secret.I’m here to make sweeping generalizations and the occasional insightful observation.

I’m not a member of any clergy; I’m not an expert or a scholar. But I was baptized and confirmed, and that alone makes me a full-fledged member of the Church, capable of and qualified for judging from the inside, no matter how much its flesh-and-blood representatives in robes may resent the idea. No organization, no true family, can live and grow at peace if every member continues to grit his teeth and keep silent. The code of silence, as we have all learned in the past scandal-ridden decade, devastates.

But Catholicism is not democratic. Nor are any Christian religions, truly. Those that let you believe whatever the h-e-double-hockey sticks you want to believe are just kidding themselves. I have no problem with people believing what they want, but why form a church around it? What’s the point?No, religion should be sturdy and old and immutable. It should not adjust its doctrine and dogma based on the mere fact that thousands of years have passed since its inception and perhaps it needs to reach out in a different way than it did in, say, the Renaissance era. Beliefs should be mandated, and any pansies out there who can’t handle that will burn in Hell. And yeah, it’s a place, not a curse word.

Damnit, those dueling angels on my shoulders are at it again! Though I think of them less as angels than attorneys – well prepared, Harvard educated lawyers, one arguing for the God-given right of a free mind and the reality-driven need for change, the other for the case of a solid, reliable, institution that will guide you safely into the arms of Heaven if you would just follow a few simple rules.

When I describe myself as a liberal Catholic, is that a progressive, bold step in the right direction, or just an oxymoron? I am proud to support marriage equality for all, but still feel the need to get married myself by a Church that would not allow some of my closest friends the same opportunity. I’m a middle class heterosexual woman who wants the right to choose but doesn’t know how she would ever make that choice if faced with it.

There are times when I am proud to be Catholic, and times when I am truly ashamed - not of my faith in Jesus Christ, but in my association with an institution that has been known to harbor pedophiles and deny orphans homes before placing them with gay couples. My gripes with the Church are sadly not original or unique. Many of us call ourselves Catholic and do nothing but shake our heads in disgust when the Pope decides that simply refusing to advocate the use of condoms to stop the AIDS epidemic in Africa will no longer suffice. Nor will a proclamation against contraceptives for religious reasons.

No, we must go so far as promulgate lies and tell the public that the use of condoms actually aggravates the problem and increases HIV transmission. The media has said all there is to say about this irresponsible edict, though I must point out: God didn’t cover condoms in the Ten Commandments, but He did mention lying. (He’s against it.) Sure, wouldn’t it be great if we could convince an entire continent to wait for marriage? Seems plausible. In the meantime, children are dying.

What, dare I ask, would Jesus do?And there is the central question that has been reduced to a catchphrase and stenciled on charm bracelets. Catholics don’t ask ourselves this enough, the Church tries to make us, but it does not turn the question in on itself. The first question is indeed, What would Jesus do? The second question is, What will we do?