At 62 years old, Maryanne McNeil decided that it was finally time she left the Roman Catholic Church. The Bridgetown, N.S., high school teacher penned an editorial about her longtime disillusionment with the Church in Halifax’s Chronicle Herald. “Appalled by what Catholic Church has become, I am walking away,” was published on April 7, 2018, and prompted a “tremendous reaction” from readers. The Observer spoke with McNeil about hope, Pope Francis, and what finally pushed her to leave.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself as a Roman Catholic. Where would you place yourself on a “devoutness scale?”
A: I would probably put myself at an eight out of 10, because I attended mass every single Sunday. Sacraments always meant a lot to me; it was very important that my children be baptized and confirmed in the Church. I taught Sunday school; I was a lector; for a while, I was a Eucharistic minister.
Q: In your editorial, you write about leaving the church. What brought you to that decision?
A: When the sexual abuse scandal started breaking in Canada, with Mount Cashel and then all the other incidences, I began to have very serious doubts about whether a good person — I won’t even say “a Christian” — but whether a person who was really trying to be a good person should support this organization.
It wasn’t as much the fact that the abuse happened, as the fact there was a cover-up. The abuse was heartbreaking, but the cover-up was soul-breaking.
It just really made me doubt that there was a desire for goodness at the heart of the management of the church. It seemed so far removed from the teachings of Christ.
Q: You also wrote that the election of Pope Francis awakened hope for you. Why is that?
A: Because he dared to make some controversial statements. He would delve into crowds, and seek out the weak and vulnerable. He just had a demeanor of humility that was the most refreshing thing to witness. He appeared to be a priest of Christ, and not just of the organization that is the church. I felt that in his core beliefs, there was a commonality with what I was struggling with.
But I also knew that it would be very difficult for him to bring about change in the church. The first year or so of his papacy showed that he was going to have the courage to speak out, and I took great heart from that.
Q: What changed in your eyes?
A: The Catholic Church is a massive corporation with many levels of management, and it seems to have become very insular. The more there is to lose, the more structure there has to be to protect that — and I think the church has, in those upper levels at the Vatican, lost sight of what it is supposed to be about.
It’s my impression — I don’t have any solid evidence — that Pope Francis has muted his more controversial opinions… I don’t feel that he is currently on a path to making any substantive change.
And then there was his statement. When Pope Francis said he “could not” at this time apologize for the [Catholic Church’s role in Canada’s] residential schools after our government asked him to (I believe those were his words — “could not;” not “would not,”) that was kind of the catalyst for me to submit my editorial to the Chronicle Herald.
Q: What was the “last straw” that led you to leave the church?
A: I can’t pinpoint one thing in my decision, except that it was when I stopped feeling anger and only felt sadness.
Q: What does the future hold for you in terms of your own faith?
A: I have recently been going to the United Church, which — now get this — meets in the Catholic Church building! It’s a little tricky.
Q: Given the depth of your faith, and the place the Roman Catholic Church once held in your life, how has it made you feel to step away?
A: It makes me feel shaky. I feel sad. I feel a sense of loss and regret. But I want to be clear that there was nothing about my little congregation that made me step away. It’s the policies and the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church at a high level that I had to walk away from. I’m really sad that I had to leave the local parish to do that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.