Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Catholicism and Yours Truly

We got into a fairly interesting discussion in the Benedict XVI thread, and it caused me to write at some length about my relationship with the Catholic church. This subject, and the subjects of God and religion generally, are areas I don't wander into that often in writing, but that I have always enjoyed discussing over a few beers.

It would probably come as a surprise even to many people who know me well that thinking about spiritual and religious matters occupies a significant slice of my inner life. I subscribe to no particular doctrine, though I do have a particular "line of inquiry," if you will, that I have chosen to concentrate on to the exclusion of other avenues.

My experiences as a youth in the Catholic church are probably among the most important formative experiences of my life. I learned more by being a Catholic than I did as a student in any school, and if it were possible for me to raise my children Catholic with any degree of honesty I would be inclined to do so. As orthodox religions go, it is a good one.

I probably wouldn't have put it that way as recently as two or three years ago, but time has healed a lot of the wounds left by my rejection of, and by, the church. There is, of course, the fact of the church's awful and bloody history, but of course if we are to enter the business of rejecting cultures and institutions solely on the basis of awful and bloody histories, we have a lot of work ahead of us. In the end we would probably have to reject the whole human experiment and, in a sense, the question of why exactly we should not do that is the very foundation of spiritual discovery.

In any case, I thought I would bring this piece of the discussion to the front page, since I think it provides an interesting glimpse at a few edges of my personality that many of you have perhaps encountered in person. It's presented with some edits.


In America, as in Western Europe, most people left the real fundamental doctrines of the Catholic Church behind a long time ago. They basically extrapolated out from Vatican II and decided that their version of Catholicism was going to follow that trendline.

So now, after about 40 years of anti-VatII backlash, American Catholics are hopelessly out of step with the church. And the funniest thing about this is that nobody is really seriously considering the idea of just breaking off and becoming the American Catholic Church or the Western Catholic Church. Why? I have no idea.

Most American Catholics do not believe in papal infallibility. Many believe women and married men should be allowed to be ordained as priests. A large number of American priests - I had a few as pastors growing up - actually subscribe to many of the very ideas that Ratzinger (correctly in my view) uses to denounce Liberation Theology as apostasy. Among American Jesuits these ideas are more or less common currency.

One of the greatest homilies (same as a sermon, for the Lutherans et al) I ever heard growing up was actually key to my deciding to stop going to church as an adult. The priest was Bob Perkins, and the homily was themed "The Kingdom of God is Now."

The message was essentially a gnostic one - corporal works of mercy (helping the poor and afflicted, basically) are social necessities in the here and now, not spiritual poker chips to be cashed in after you die. The purpose of spiritual life is increased understanding and awareness of the fundamental unity of God's creation, so that we might fit better into God's plan and help to build the Kingdom of God. The idea of a literal afterlife was not specifically rejected, but certainly obviated by the homily to a large degree.

I remember hearing that sermon and thinking "yeah, that makes a lot of sense." I had thought for a long time (since about third grade) that the whole Heaven thing sounded kind of fishy - a lot more like something humans would come up with than something God would think of. And over the next three or four years I went through the ranks of the church youth basically talking about this and getting pretty excited about being a Catholic.

But the more I thought about this idea, the more I realized it wasn't really Catholicism at all. Theologically, it's well-supported by the Gospels, but contradicted in large part by Paul. So in order to really get to a place where you can accept this doctrine you have to reject Paul almost in his entirety, which I had no trouble doing because Paul is a loser.

Trouble is, the epistles of Paul are more or less the bedrock foundation of Catholicism, much more so than the Gospels, which like most real scripture are pretty vague and can be interpreted in any of several ways. And to actually bring up these ideas with American Catholic lay people tends to elicit something approximating the reaction of a high-society wedding party to the arrival of a Hell's Angel at the rehearsal dinner - that is, they won't quite have the guts to argue with you to your face, but you can feel the hatred building just the same.

So that's probably more than you wanted to know about why I'm not Catholic. I left the church when I became persona non grata in my region's lay power structure (for my age, if you can believe it, I was actually a somewhat important person in the church at that time) because of comments I made as one of the leaders on a youth retreat. I had said something which I meant to mean "God to me does not have a discrete consciousness in the normal sense" but which the other leaders on the retreat clearly interpreted as "I don't believe in God."

So the rest of the adult leadership started to treat me as an outcast on the trip, which at the time I chalked up to my being somewhat abrasive and reckless, qualities which certain people do not find nearly as hilarious as I do. I was prepared to laugh the whole thing off, but I had the very disorienting experience of bringing this up to another friend of mine in the church a few weeks later, in the context of explaining to him why I felt like I had blown my romantic chances with this one particular adult leader on the trip. The telltale sign - early in the trip we got to talking, and she described this guy I had seen her with as "a friend." By the end of the week, their relationship had advanced to the point where she referred to him exclusively (and gratuitously) as "her boyfriend."

In any case I mentioned this to my friend and he actually already knew about the situation and explained to me why the other adults on the trip had treated me the way they did. Which was weird not only because it simply hadn't occured to me that I could be suddenly blacklisted just for saying some unorthodox things, but also because it meant that the other trip leaders had been sufficiently affected by the experience that it was being discussed in great detail by the entire parish.

At the time I chalked this up to narrowmindedness on the part of these lay folk - after all, I was basically echoing the sentiments of one of our parish's most beloved pastors. But over the years I've come to understand that in a sense the lay folk were right, and it was Father Perkins who was wrong. There is a great deal to be said for ideas like his, and I personally happen to think they show a lot of promise. But they aren't Catholicism, and they probably never will be.


Anonymous said...

Interesting history with the Church, thanks for posting. I wanted to continue with a couple of carry-over comments from the last thread and a few items about what you've written here too.

First, I think that if you look at the corpus of Catholic dogma, it is largely internally consistent. That is, they hold certain principles about the way god and the universe work (which I think are nutty) but they consistently apply those principles, and don't arbitrarily throw some out just to arrive at a result that's more comfortable or popular. From that perspective, I respect the Holy See's right to formulate reactionary positions within the framework of their dogma (which I still think is nutty). It's because the church is run by smart people that this consistency is there.

That consistency is also what leads them to oust people who express unpopular opinions like what you did on the retreat. Their faith is well-defined, and doesn't have many cracks where creative interpretation or personal meaning fits in. The church's role nowadays seems primarily focused around reiterating old policies, and casting new issues (like stem cell research) in terms of old policies (sanctity and dignity of human life), at which point they can reiterate old policies.

I guess for me the most obvious problems with their theology is that it makes possible the "spiritaul poker chips" that you've referred to, the granting of indulgences (which I understand isn't done for money anymore, but which is still theologically possible), and absolutism of morality to the point of intentional abject ignorance of modern life.

As a friend of mine used to say: "Every time the pope goes to some country that's so poor people don't even have a pot to piss in, he stands up in front of the crowd, holding high hands filled with jewel-encrusted rings, and he says, 'Be fruitful and multiply, for god will provide'. It kinda gives me the willies."

RBP said...

I believe Catholic Charities (as do all charities religious or otherwise) do a great service to the poor around the globe. But the problem comes when the "dogma" gets in the way. Specifically, the refusal to allow condom distribution in AIDS ravaged Africa. This, dispite what we KNOW will save lives. I have a hard time reconcilling the two.
But I'm not anti-Catholic. I'm against any dogmatic belief structure that doesn't allow the course of human knowledge and understanding, both about the world around us, and who we are as people, to be explored and ultimately realized.
BTW, I grew up in the Church of Christ, perhaps the most Protestant of the Protestant religions. No icons, no official ceremonies, not even a piano. They did have a collection plate though, like all religions.

Anonymous said...

Holy crap! (Pun not intended, but I'll take it.) Do you have any idea how big a hole this fills in my personal understanding of you? It's the freakin' missing link. Damn.

An observation:

The other leaders probably actually believed that you said something to the effect of "I don't believe in God as you know Him." Which for them, probably does have the same tangible effect as "I don't believe in God." You've got it figured out though - it's not Catholicism, and even discussion of the possible conception of a different kind of God is threatening and therefore unacceptable. It's a difficult thing to come to understand that intellect and curiosity (at least in certain areas) is not a virtue in much of organized religion when you've been raised in that environment.

I also trust that you have a good idea of how long it took me to figure that out. I mean, I believe in a conscious God and the divinity of Jesus Christ, and I'm still in far left field as far as most protestant religions are concerned.


Lord Lessismore said...

I've been wanting to post for several days, Mr. Short, but haven't had a spare second. I can't believe you are both a Browns fan and Catholic-raised. I spent my formative years in the city by the burning river, going to the Holy Spirit church in which I was confirmed. I have SOOOO many things to say about religion (and not just about how it relates to the Browns) but have to go to bed soon. I appreciate and respect your perspective and love hearing about your spiritual journey. I'll try to chime in at a later date. Maybe after DeLay finally gets his...