It has been thirty-two years since I last attended Mass as a Roman Catholic. After thirty-two years, you would think that I would have exorcised Catholicism from within me. Theologically, I am about as far from Catholicism as you can get. I have been a practicing Unitarian Universalist for the last ten years. This is a religion so Christian-lite that arguably it is neither a theology nor Christian. Rather than having to profess that I believe in the Trinity, to be a UU I do not have to profess to believe in anything at all, including God.
Yet I believe that if you took a survey of members in any Unitarian Universalist church and asked them what religion they grew up in, at least forty percent would say they were raised Roman Catholic. That was my experience when, some ten years ago, I attended an orientation on Unitarian Universalism. I expected myself to be nearly unique. Instead, I was surrounded by ex-Catholics, many of whom, like me, were still more than a bit traumatized all these years later by the whole weird Catholicism experience. I think it would be hard to find any drug that could mess up a logical mind more completely than Catholicism. (I am sure others would protest that their religion had this effect too.)
Perhaps subconsciously choosing Unitarian Universalism as my religion was an adult act of rebellion. “Take that, pope! Of all the religions out there, I choose the one that is the most unlike the Roman Catholic Church!” There is none of that contemptible original sin dogma in UUism. I do not have to spend my Sundays contemplating whether, after coveting my neighbor’s wife, the sin was mortal or venial.
I am 50 years old and I am free of Catholicism, except I am not. I do not think many of us who were raised Catholic ever fully escape its long tendrils. Deep inside me, like most of us ex-Catholics, there still lurks an inner Catholic. I have determined that no surgery can remove it from me, as much as I would like it to. No amount of therapy will assuage that small, frightened inner Catholic child in me that still thinks, “My soul is stained and I will go to hell.” For better or for worse, who I am is defined by the Catholicism that I experienced in my developing years. If I could remove my inner Catholic, I would be a stranger to myself.
Perhaps I would have happier memories of the Catholic Church had I had parents who went a little less heavy on Catholicism. Alas, I did not. Attending Mass once a week was not just a good idea, my parents demanded it. If I did not attend then I had committed a mortal sin, which meant that God was seriously pissed at me. The first bus that run over me meant that it was straight to Hades for me, for eternity, for missing a frigging Mass. (It was not until later that I learned about Cafeteria Catholics, who somehow got to heaven even though they only attended Mass on Easter and Christmas.) We had to go to confession about once a month too. I was generally too scared to tell the priest my real sins (“I jerked off twice today Father, and I felt guilty about it, but it also felt too good to stop”) and, bizarrely, made up fake sins, which logically further stained my soul. Bless me Father for I have sinned. I lied twice to my parents, even though I didn’t really. I took the Lord’s name in vain once, even though I didn’t swear. These were sins I felt comfortable confessing. After a while, I got the impression that these were the kinds of sins the priests wanted to hear. I was easily absolved with a few Hail Mary’s and Glory Be’s. I would never tell my parents, much less this creepy dark robed creature whispering at me from behind a veiled partition, my real sins.
I had many other issues with Catholicism of course, but it all boiled down to a couple points. As a parochial school student, I witnessed physical abuse by the sisters at the school who, when I think today about what they did so many years ago, still raises my blood pressure. Even as a child, I knew what I witnessed was deeply wrong, but it seemed blessed by the Catholic Church. Of course, at that age I was incapable of reconciling these evils with the absolute faith I had been handed. The second issue were its bizarre creeds that I supposedly subscribed to. Jesus ascended bodily into heaven? Jesus was conceived via Immaculate Conception? God was three entities at the same time: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit? I don’t think so. It is unlikely that I will ever be Muslim, but at least they got it right: God does not suffer from multiple personality disorder.
I realize that billions of people believe, or at least profess to believe in these teachings. Moreover, I both respect these people yet cannot fathom how they can actually believe this crap. Catholics, do you really believe a consecrated host is both bread and the actual, living body of Jesus at the same time? If you can believe that, why it is that I cannot sell you swampland on which to build your estate? On the other hand, is your belief just pablum that you cannot acknowledge even to yourself?
Yet Catholicism for all its illogic still intrigues me, and remains a part of me. As readers know last summer, my family went to France. I spent much of my time inside the many Catholic churches, basilicas and cathedrals in and around Paris. For reasons I do not understand, stained glass evokes awe in me, along with statuary depicting long dead and likely wholly legendary saints. Visiting a cathedral like Notre Dame filled me with awe and reverence. While we were at Notre Dame, we watched a mass in progress. A soprano filled the cathedral with her ethereal music. The priest did his best to fill up the vast space with the pungent smell of burning incense. It was not really magical, but some part of me still perceived it was both magical and mystical, because I was viewing it through the prism of a naïve and trusting six year old boy.
While most of the church’s beliefs are just silliness, some of its practices are plain mean-spirited. For example, I think it is contemptible that they deny divorced Catholics access to the sacraments. Priestly celibacy is both unnatural and has proven unworkable. In fact, the male chauvinism of the religion simply reeks. How can any thinking Catholic woman put up with it? The second-class status it affords homosexuals, who are only seen as good Catholics providing they never act on their urges, is loathsome and truly makes me want to vomit.
Still, underlying it all are some kernels that still resonate with me. It is one of a small number of Christian denominations that still believes that all life is truly sacred, that the death penalty is just wrong in all cases, and that it is not enough to just say that you believe in your faith, but to insist that faith must be manifested by deeds. I have enormous respect for institutions like Catholic Charities, which do some of the hardest and most necessary charitable work in the world.
Catholicism thus remains something of a mystery to me, which both resonates at times and resurfaces feelings of loathing. I both admire it and despise it. I cling to those parts of Catholicism that so touched me as a child: the candles lit during a High Mass; the smell of incense; the sound of chimes as the Priest consecrates the host; their numerous saints; the virtuous Mary, Mother of God ™; and those engraved stations of the cross along the sides of the church. They personalized the poor, suffering Jesus who died so I could guiltily sneak peaks at Playboy magazines.
Perhaps what I miss the most about Catholicism is its utter and obnoxious certainty about everything. THE ONE AND ONLY TRUE PATH, from birth to death, was laid out with crystal clarity that was obvious to any true Catholic that stayed awake during CCD classes. All they had to do was walk its path. If there was any question about what the path was, your pastor could unambiguously clarify things for you, or you could thumb through a Baltimore Catechism and get a sonorous answer there. Its promise was not so much God and the hereafter as it was promises that with weekly injections of Catholicism you could get through life unafraid. All it took was utter faithfulness to its creeds, which I translated into the abandonment of reason on all things religious.
Now at age 50, the world is a cold place. Despite the silliness of Catholicism, its unyielding certainty (even when it is so completely wrong) and its proud obliviousness to the way the world actually works, it still holds some allure. I find Unitarian Universalism offers little in the way of comfort, other than the companionship of fellow souls with thoughts and fears similar to mine. I also know that even if I succumbed to the lure of Catholicism again, I would simply be deluding myself. I will never really believe in Immaculate Conception. There would always be some part of me that would say, “This is just utter rubbish.” Still perhaps someday as my life span narrows and my fear of death increases, my insecurities will get the better of me. Perhaps I will find myself engaged again in the adult thumb sucking that, sorry, to me epitomizes Catholicism.