Part Three: Driven by Fear

Driven by Fear

Part Three of Thirteen

I was raised Catholic. I’ve probably said that line hundreds if not thousands of times throughout my life. It had a lot of different meanings, depending on what question was asked and my mood at the time.

For example, if I was invited to a wedding where the couple was on the far right of the protestant spectrum, someone would invariably ask if I went to church. I would simply reply, “I was raised Catholic.” The response was always the same: a knowing look of sympathy, a slight bobbing of the head, a pained smile, and a merciful end to the conversation. I was immediately back to foraging for cookies.

It’s almost like a get-out-of-jail-free card if you want to end a conversation with someone who wants to save you. It speaks volumes, all on its own. It says, “I’m extremely jaded about religion, and with good cause, so don’t waste your breath.” Depending on how long I pause, it can also say, “I was abused and don’t want to reopen those wounds.” If I’m not in a good mood, it can also say, “I was abandoned by my family and raised at a Catholic Orphanage Slash Workhouse and shouldn’t be trusted around the good silver.”

I suppose that’s why I’m fascinated when someone appears to genuinely believe that the bible is the literal Word of God. Did I ever really believe that?

Nah. I was raised Catholic.

But it made me curious. What in the human psyche leads many of us to accept supernatural explanations for life’s greatest mysteries? And not just to accept these explanations, but to embrace them publicly as indisputable and absolute truths.

Looking back on my Roman-Catholic-Ukrainian-Byzantine-Rite upbringing, I think I know the answer.


Our priest was a friendly enough fellow. I had friends who were altar boys and I know he would take them out for a game of golf and a few beers on occasion. But he also gave off this vibe that said, “Don’t even test me son. I’ve buried more people than I’ve Baptized.” I guess you could say he put the fear of God in me. Admittedly, growing up in Youngstown, pretty much everyone gave off that vibe.

Yeah, I get it. Fear of uncertainty can be so overpowering that it forces us to bypass the critical thinking part of our brain, even if we use critical thinking to manage every other decision and emotion we may feel.

No one can say with any certainty, for example, what happens after death. But the fear of not knowing can be so unnerving to some of us that we choose to put our faith in an ideology that would normally be skewered by the skeptical, suspicious, critical thinking part of our brain.

Fear of social recrimination and embarrassment can also cause people to respond in ways that tarnish their self-worth and self-respect. Some will go to almost any length to avoid being labeled ungodly, perhaps because of perceived political or business retribution, or just the thought of future holidays spent evading the sole-withering glances and comments from the true believer side of the family. Others may be living where the rule of law is determined by a theocratic government and desperately trying to avoid persecution for themselves and their families. Like America if Republicans manage to pull off their Project 2025 plan.

Those fears of recrimination are not unfounded. Historically, anyone who made an announcement or proclamation that challenged the prevailing religious beliefs of the region could face unwelcome scrutiny and persecution from the church. Perhaps the most well-known examples of this type of unwelcome scrutiny can be found in the Catholic Church’s response to the great scientific discoveries of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Early scientists of the period, like Nicolaus Copernicus, were well aware that they would face severe consequences for contradicting Church doctrine, choosing to publish only after their death. Others like Galileo Galilei tried to finesse their publications to avoid the Church’s scrutiny, but in the end, could not avoid the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Galileo acquiesced to the Church’s demands to avoid the worst of the punishment, though still ended up in house arrest for the remainder of his life.

Whether through fear of uncertainty and social ostracization, or the practical desire to avoid torture and execution, there have been relatively few large-scale attempts to resist the Church’s power, and none that have had a long-lasting effect. It has resulted in some of the most horrific crimes against humanity, from genocide and conquest to slavery and segregation.

For example, in 1452 the Catholic Church issued its Doctrine of Discovery in a series of papal “bulls” or decrees. The Doctrine of Discovery led to one of the darkest periods in human history, as it gave European monarchies the God-ordained right to conquer and enslave indigenous peoples all over the world. According to Reverend David McCallum, Director of the Program for Discerning Leadership in Rome, in a 2023 interview with NPR, European expansion was fueled by a “sort of missionary sense that the Western monarchies had a right to go to these new lands and to take from them their resources and if necessary to put down people, including enslaving them.”

For the next 500 years, untold numbers of indigenous peoples were slaughtered or converted and enslaved in the name of Christianity. In the United States and Canada, Native American and First Nation children were kidnapped and forced to live in Christian “schools” that were equal parts work camp and indoctrination centers, in what amounts to publicly sponsored cultural genocide. Native children were often beaten, starved, and killed if they did not convert to Christianity or if they attempted to go back to their families.

The Doctrine of Discovery has been cited as precedent for centuries, including by the U.S. Supreme Court as early as 1823 and as recently as 2005. Despite the magnitude of these crimes against humanity, the Catholic Church did not revoke the Doctrine of Discovery until 2023. Yeah, 2023.

Sadly, the concept of faith, which can be such a powerful force for good, is by its very nature susceptible to the most egregious abuse and manipulation. Through the centuries, religious exploitation proved such an effective way to control a populace that it became the favorite weapon of oppressive regimes around the world.

There is no debating that conservative leaders today have mastered that weaponization. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the Republicans’ legislative assaults on women’s bodily autonomy, voting rights, black identities, LGBTQ rights, and gender-affirming health care.

At times I’ve wondered if Trump stumbled upon The Handmaid’s Tale streaming on Hulu, while taking a break from his late night, obsessive tweeting. In Margaret Atwood’s eerily prophetic novel of the same name, disease and pollution has left most women infertile, leading to a second Civil War. Far right Christians stage a violent coup, taking over the government and suspending the U.S. Constitution.

In its place, the crusaders create their version of a utopian, totalitarian theocracy, called Gilead, which seems to govern by a mashup of Puritanical and modern-day Evangelical ideology. Sound familiar? Keep in mind Atwood wrote this in 1985. In any event, the few remaining fertile women are rounded up and given the honor of serving as breeder slaves to the hierarchy.

By Trump’s own admission, he hadn’t given much thought to what he would do, or should do, if he were to actually win the election. In my mind’s eye, I picture Trump racing through the episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, writing sticky notes as quickly as he could stick them. It was like God speaking directly to him through Hulu. A weekly stream of step-by-step instructions on how to run the country – all from the comfy confines of his bedroom. A Christmas miracle if there ever was one.

I see Trump nodding approvingly with furrowed brow, once again demonstrably right in ignoring the incessant pleas of his advisors to draft a transition plan. His historically low handicap further evidence that he spent his time wisely. The last sticky note: a reminder to tell those advisors, “You’re fired.”

Trump can legitimately claim to have done more than all the previous presidents combined in moving our country toward a fascist theocracy. What would he say was his greatest accomplishment, I wonder. Perhaps sneaking out all those boxes of classified documents right under the noses of the secret service, while the country was distracted by insurrection? Hard to say. But I’m quite confident his advisors will tell you that it’s the three Supreme Court justices and hundreds of higher-court judges he nominated during his term.

All of the conservative Supreme Court justices were painstakingly vetted and hand-selected because of their commitment to interpret the Constitution through an Evangelical or Catholic lens. This paid obvious benefits most recently with Justice Alito proudly defending his opinion to overturn Roe versus Wade using seventeenth and thirteenth century Catholic Canon Law.

With Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett, two-thirds of the Supreme Court identify as Catholic and promote a theocratic interpretation of the Constitution. They join the 234 conservative judges appointed by Trump to federal benches around the country. If anything in government resembles a deep state, it is Trump’s cult-like army of conservative judges and political appointees who are committed to a Christian nationalist-like rule of law.

In case you need a refresher, the Catholic Church’s track record on women’s rights is just as egregious as their track record with Black, indigenous, and people of color. It is not surprising that the Roman Catholic Church was the religious group that most consistently opposed women’s suffrage and just as aggressively opposes women’s reproductive rights today.

The Church’s influence has far-reaching and dire consequences that many fail to see until it affects them directly, and by then it is often too late. Consider this. Four of the 10 largest U.S. hospital chains, as ranked by number of beds, are now Catholic, and as reported in Health News Florida, Catholic-based health systems require their affiliated institutions to follow the church’s directives.

These directives are determined by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. All men obviously.

What many people fail to recognize is that when a hospital merges or falls under the control of a Catholic-based institution, critical services related to reproductive health and end-of-life care will no longer be available. In the 2018 revision of the church’s directives, several were added to specifically address Catholic health institution mergers and acquisitions with non-Catholic institutions, dictating that “whatever comes under control of the Catholic institution — whether by acquisition, governance, or management — must be operated in full accord with the moral teaching of the Catholic Church.”

The 2018 Church directives also continue to ban contraceptive interventions. It goes on to address procedures like in-vitro fertilization, saying, “Reproductive technologies that substitute for the marriage act are not consistent with human dignity.”

The American Medical Association Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs raised serious concerns, noting that the number of religiously affiliated hospitals and facilities increased 22 percent between 2001 and 2016 alone, benefiting greatly from tax exemptions and other tax subsidies. The ramifications on patient health care are deeply disturbing. In its report, the Council warns that, “Certain treatment choices for care at the end of life, reproductive health care services,” and unsurprisingly, “certain services for transgender individuals,” are all at risk.

And we all know that the people who are hit hardest are the ones with the fewest resources and options, as the Council notes, “Restricted access to services can have a disproportionate impact on poor women, and women in rural areas where religiously affiliated institutions are the only providers of care.”

This is what every rational, democracy-loving American should fear. Not trans kids and not some mythical ‘wokeness.’ 

Peter Tchoryk

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