How I walked away
By Patrick MaGuire
I'll start at the beginning. I was born. It was a virgin birth, naturally.
I can't imagine my mother having anything to do with sex. Of course,
it did happen eight times. But one thing that is true, is that my
birthday is on the eighth of December, which is, as ex-Catholics know,
the feast of the immaculate conception. There's a theological problem
for you. I was doomed from the start.
I was born in Ireland. I was 14 when my family came to this country.
My brother Danny, the noted liberal theologian, was born here. He
is the only one in our family we could advance for president of the
In Ireland in those days, the thing to strive for was the priesthood,
from any point of view: respect, high achievement - you're doing God's
work - and prestige. There's always an egotistical element in these
things. That's why there are so many Irish priests. Almost any church
you go to, including California where I live, you'll hear an Irish
accent. I guess every culture has its dominant theme. If you "should"
be a nuclear scientist, I guess that is what you will strive for.
I was only nine months in this country when I was incarcerated in
seminary. By my own choice. I spent ten years there and 15 years in
the priesthood. About my fourth year I began to question some of the
doctrines of the Catholic Church, particularly immortality. That was
where I first went wrong. I couldn't find any convincing arguments
for the next life.
I took one of Plato's dialogues, "Phaedo," where he elaborates on
the immortality of the soul. This amounts to an argument from the
rational theory of knowledge. The idea is that if you can show that
there is a concept which is abstract from space and time, then that
argues for a faculty which is abstract, not subject to the ravages
of space and time, and therefore immortal. Of course, this is an oversimplification.
At the time, I thought Plato's argument would be somewhat convincing
because this really means: "What's the difference between human beings
and other forms of life?" We would immediately settle in on intelligence.
The argument would be convincing if it were not for the fact that
we have all these other animals who have consciousness and intelligence
- more than we would like to admit - from the amoeba to the high primates.
It is very difficult to distinguish between human beings and these
high primates. We are almost a little embarrassed that they are so
The arguments for the immortality of the soul all ignored the development
of the brain: the difference between us and the other animals, and
even between different animals. The more complex the brain, the more
capable of mental activity. We have parts of the brain they don't
have, so it seems to be naturally explainable.
Later I observed that we have all kinds of things in common with the
other animals. We are conceived with a sperm and ovum. There is little
difference between the reproduction of other animals and our own reproduction.
All animals reproduce. Even a mule has a baby - I don't know what
you'd call it, donkey, horse, mule, or whatever.
So there is no need to infuse anything into this offspring. We all
have our faculties. Like any other animal, we can reproduce another
human animal. There is no need for anything like a soul. So the idea
of the soul became a big problem for me. What does it mean?
I think the origin of the idea of the soul is the personality. But
as pet lovers understand, every animal has a personality. When I was
on the Sally Jesse Raphael program I used the example of a parakeet.
They have a tiny brain, yet they are loaded with personality. They
seem so aware of everything. As a matter of fact, I tried to teach
my parakeet to speak English, but I ended up speaking parakeetese.
This animal was stronger intellectually than I was!
I continued thinking alonge these lines, and as I went into philosophy
and theology, I expressed my doubts to friends in seminary. But I
found out that I was different, somehow, from the others. I remember
one time we had a professor from Germany, a very learned man, who
could lecture in Latin, who spent a lot of time during my sixth year
talking about the immortality of the soul. I mentioned to Joe Blanchfield,
one of my friends, "You know, Father Bruehl solved some of the problems
I had." Joe's answer surprised me. He said, "We don't have those problems,
Pat." I figured, what's the matter with me?
I thought maybe it's because I had come from another culture, Ireland,
when I was at the impressionable age of 14. Nine months later I was
thrown into seminary amongst these American boys, living in dormitories,
getting up at 5:00 a.m. and going to bed at 9:10 p.m. I was forced
to evaluate and compare the different civilizations. It might have
Then I went on to evaluate the church. But of course, when you say,
"I'm going to follow my logic," as Socrates said, "wherever it leads
me," you have already committed a serious sin against the first commandment:
the sin of doubt. So there I was. The more I thought, the more I realized
I could not believe. They would tell me, up in theology, that I was
going to get answers, but I never got any answers. Yet I continued
with seminary. (The psychologists would have a field day on this.)
It was a sinking feeling to realize that I was dedicating my life
to something that really rests on a myth.
I was ordained when I was 25, and when I was 30 I went to the University
of Pennsylvania for four years. I took graduate work in philosophy
because I wanted to look at the whole thing under secular auspices.
I was somewhat put off by the nihilism of the philosophy department
at that time. Still, my questions persisted. I later went to UCLA
for a year and a half, and took some courses at USC, and found some
I realized that in the origins of Christianity there was nothing really
unusual about Catholicism. They had taken all kinds of thnigs from
other religions, like Mithraism, even the title "Father." Those religions
believed in a god who was born of a woman, very often a virgin. According
to the historian Toynbee, there were 87 gods born of a woman, killed,
and then resurrected. They usually associated the death of the god
with the winter and the resurrection with the spring.
For these reasons, and much more, I came to the conclusion that I
simply could not believe. And yet I continued 15 years in the priesthood,
reading and observing. My life was getting more involved with the
Catholic church. I was functioning as a priest, in the strange position
of preaching and teaching, yet not believing.
I remember one time, when I was talking about the credibility of the
church, there was a high school student who said, "I don't think Father
Maguire believes this himself." She was very sharp. I had been speaking
with an impartial, professional approach: "This is what the church
teaches." I could answer everybody else's questions but my own.
I even went to the archbishop before I left the priesthood, and I
talked it over with him. We had lunch a few times. His answer was,
"You are having tempations against the intellectual sin of pride.
So, forget it." He recommended some other things. He said, "Why don't
you go to the rehabilitation institution in Oshkosh and clean up the
vomit of alcoholic priests?" I said, "I'm not that pious." His final
statement was, "You'll take ten years off your mother's life." My
mother lived to 97 years of age. The archbishop had been dead and
buried for many years when my mother died.
I had been stationed in about eight different parishes, so I had a
lot of people who knew me. Leaving a group like that, especially with
the family and friends, would cause all kinds of grief. There would
be lots of tears shed. It was a disgrace to the family in those days.
It was 1955, before the Second Council [Vatican II]. My mother, who
was very sharp, noticed that I had been thinking about leaving and
actually said, "I would rather see you go up the aisle." That means
dead. They take your corpse up the aisle. It's social pressure. It's
quite understandable. It was considered the greatest disgrace in those
So leaving the ministry was very difficult to look forward to. That
is one of the reasons I kept putting it off. I couldn't even express
myself to my family because I thought I would remove the foundation
of everything that is valuable in life, as they understood it. I couldn't
even tell my brother Danny at that point. Danny is still in the church.
He's fighting it from the inside and I'm fighting it from the outside.
After the Second Council, in the early 1960s, all kinds of people
left the clergy, but in those days that's the way it was. That was
the mentality. I had been functioning as a priest all that time, hearing
confessions, saying Mass, and all the rest of it. But a lot of the
work you do in the priesthood is social work. You counsel people,
helping them in various ways, solving their problems within the parameters
that they believe in. So it's easy to get lost in time and postpone
things. I'm a natural procrastinator anyway. I can't even get around
to joining the Procrastinator's Society.
I thought for some years along the line of a story by Una Muno, a
Spanish existentialist, about a village priest who lost the faith.
He decided to say in the priesthood because what difference does it
make? "There's no God, no next life. I know how to help these people."
I thought about that for quite a while. But there was something about
it, I don't know what it is. Integrity? That sounds too noble. There
are times in the priesthood when you have to face up to religious
dogma, but most of the time you don't. You might say that was the
last tempation of Father Patrick MaGuire.
I left the priesthood in very good standing. (They never caught me.)
But leaving the ministry is not just an intellectual decision. I had
long years of finding that out. It must have wounded me in many ways
because there is tremendous guilt (psychological? sociological?) with
a decision like that. You belong to the organization right to your
fingertips. You learn in the seminar, "Once you put your hands to
the plow you must never look back."
It's difficult to explain those feelings. Even after I left I would
wake up in the morning and, sitting on the edge of my bed, shivering,
I would think, "I have antagonized 800 million people." I worried
about doing damage to the church, imagine! I worried about doing damage
to my family, causing tragedy, tears, disgrace, and so forth. And
also doing damage to myself: the egotistical element.
I made some decisions that I regret very much. One of them was to
postpone marriage for about five years. The crazy reason was that
I didn't want my colleagues to get the idea that I left for anything
except my convictions, which is rather silly, really. My wife also
had a Catholic background, and being associated with somebody like
me, well, we lived in the underground, you might say, for some time.
It was difficult for her because she was not able to build up the
strength of convictions that I had. She was subject to a lot of depressions
and finally died in 1978. I find it difficult to talk about that.
I still groan at night when I think about it. I didn't realize she
was dying. I consider her a casualty of my leaving the church. That
hurt me so much that I was sometimes tempted to think, "Was it worth
it?" It's almost like Socrates: if you go against society you are
forced to drink the hemlock. Maybe a little bit, at least. After I
came out of that I picked up strength. I picked up backing from other
Another thing I regret is that I did not leave sooner. When you make
a decision, even though you're trembling and sweating it out, if you
do it you will get strength afterwards. People will back you. Even
that secular invocation I gave at Los Angeles Valley College, published
in _Freethought_Today_, shocked a lot of people. I opened up by saying,
"I'm not going to invoke anyone higher than you for the simple reason
that I don't think there is anyone higher than you." I really sweated
over that invocation. The president of the college was standing in
back of me, and her father was a minister. But even that uncovered
a lot of backing from people that I didn't expect to back me. I'm
preaching here. If you're worrying about something that you know is
the right thing to do, go ahead and do it. You'll find out that it
We should be able to consider these things without a fanatical attitude.
Look at all the various religious writings. They are strictly human.
Evaluate them that way. We should be free to enjoy and even appreciate
some of the ideas, but always using reason. We operate better if we
do things which supply the needs of people. We live in a cold and
alienated society. Churches give people a chance to work together,
to socialize. But we could do it much better without religion. We
could inspire, encourage, help, and love each other, and we could
do it better because it would be untrammeled without religion. Love
is still the greatest force in the world. It's about time we began
to use it. We must lead the way.
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