Saturday, January 22, 2011

Catholicism. My experience

I was born into a family of no particular religious affiliation, though they were of the protestant persuasion.  An indication of that is my father choosing for his funeral arrangements a few words from an Episcopalian priest, a drinking buddy, not a Church he'd ever attended, to say a few words at his grave site.  My mother wanted no service at all.  In fact, she threatened to come back and haunt me if any religious service took place at her grave. Catholicism first attracted my attention as an undergraduate through its intellectual history.  I had never associated any religion with a substantial intellectual tradition.  As a student  I was mostly interested in classical philosophy, in particular, Plato and Aristotle.  Reading Aquinas led to curiosity about other philosophers identified with Catholicism from Augustine through Teillard de Chardin including more esoteric thinkers such as Meister Eckhart and Simone Weil.  Much later Wittgenstein's lectures on religion became a part of that intellectual evolution.

Just as important were the aesthetics of the Church in drawing me towards it.  The architecture, art, music and poetry formed part of a comprehensive world view.  While much of that  aesthetic was drawn from Medieval and Renaissance periods, much was contemporary.  The religious architecture of Corbusier, the music of Benjamin Brittin, the poetry of T.S. Elliot and Gerard Manley Hopkins, the films of Passolini spoke to the reality that contemporary Catholicism (and I'm including Anglo-Catholicism in this perspective) was culturally vibrant.  As was the case with my intellectual interests there were other, not very well known influences that were important to me, such as the California beat poet Brother Antoninus and the Benedictine monks at a small priory outside of Los Angeles.

This was the time of Pope John XXIII.  There was an exciting openness toward the world, toward diverse ways of understanding Catholic dogma.  As a graduate student I was fortunate to encounter a religious community that embraced that openness.  I felt there was room for me in the  Church that was emerging to study and understand dogma in an evolving way.  As I understood the words of Wittgenstein on religious belief, here was a world view unto itself, whole, complete with its own aesthetic and criteria of truth.  A language game that spoke to a way of seeing that was not to be confused or contrasted with the worlds of science and everyday logic, which spoke more as a film or a poem than with statements of empirical fact.

There was another important factor. For all of my adult life I've been a far left liberal, more a social democrat, and the Church of that time spoke to those political values as well.  Liberation theology was joining with Marxist and socialist ideologies to inform a revolution based on both the Gospels and the rejection of facism, capitalism and gross social inequality.  Catholic religious were very active in the civil rights and anti-war movements.  I was an admirer of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers Movement.  The Church seemed to have potential for becoming a partner in social transformation within which I as a leftist felt comfortable and supported.

I took instruction and was baptized in the chapel of the small religious community with which I had become very close.  Reading and discussing the Enchiridion Symbolorum as my introduction to Catholic dogma taught me that Church doctrine was not something written in stone, but an evolving teaching.  A teaching shaped by the history through which the Church was passing.  Doctrines sometimes being adopted as a result of murder and bribery provided evidence of the corruptibility and humanity of the Church through which one could, nevertheless, believe in a movement toward greater understanding.  As Brother Antoninus said, "God writes straight with crooked lines."  Theologians such as Hans Kung, were attempting to understand dogma in a way that looked for meaning rather then clinging to literalism.  I felt I could embrace the Church-in-evolution while maintaining and enriching values and experiences important to my life.

When I came to Mcgill University to teach philosophy I was introduced to the Church in Montreal.  I had very little experience of the secular Church, but had the good fortune of meeting with Cardinal Leger, visiting the Archbishop's residence and becoming a friend with a member of his staff who was a colleague in philosophy at McGill.  Cardinal Leger was a warm and wise man.  A man whose actions and lack of action facilitated the Quiet Revolution in Quebec.  I remember on one occasion after dinner he spoke of how as a young priest and bishop he had found comfort in the certitude's of the Church.  A comfort he compared to crossing a stream and knowing exactly where the rocks where to step on.  With the coming of John XXIII and the Vatican Council he felt he no longer knew where to step.  Instead of condemning and recoiling from that confusion, he embraced it.  He was a man with whom I felt at the time and later had confirmed I shared much that was important.

We all know what happened with that brief renaissance in the Church.  How Paul VI moved to "reconcile" the reforms with tradition.  How John Paul I, who was rumored to be progressive, died under suspicious circumstances after only weeks as Pope.  How the Jamboree Pope, Jean Paul II,  promoted superficial,  theatrical reforms, while steadily squashing whatever real theological and doctrinal reforms had once been possible.  How he was followed by Benedict XVI, the fascist pope (eerily resembling the
Dark Lord of the Star Wars trilogy),  and the counter-revolution was complete.  The Jamboree Pope is on the fast track to sainthood, while John XXIII lingers in beatitude.

Even subsequent to my identifying as gay during the reign of Paul VI there was a possibility that the path toward openness and acceptance in the Church would continue.  A theologian as recognized as Gregory Baum was a fellow member of Dignity, the Catholic gay group, in Montreal.  We met at the campus Newman House with the full support of those who ran it.  Before and during the AIDS crisis some religious groups made working with gays and lesbians a special part of their mission. The potential for openness was choked off along with other meaningful reforms promised by the Second Vatican Council.  I remember sitting at Mass and increasingly feeling alienated...that the Catholic Church had come to stand for almost everything I opposed...that I could no longer support it or feel a part of it.

For me letting go of the Catholic Church was well described by Wittgenstein as the process through which world views collapse.  He taught that a robust world view, such as Marxism,  Freudianism or Catholicism can never be definitively defeated or proven wrong.  They have responses from within their systems to counter any criticism.  Resembling impregnable castles that can withstand any assault.  You just wake up some morning and find no one is living there anymore.  The weight of supporting the structure becomes too heavy to continue bearing.  My life lost a richness when I left the Church, but I couldn't continue to be part of a structure in which rigidity and condemnation took the place of an open understanding...a wagging finger in the place of an embrace.

1 comment:

  1. John Southin: I can understand engaging with the Catholic Church just for the music, at it were (i.e., for all the cultural, historical, and social reasons you give), but you don't mention having also to swallow the irrationality at its core: belief in the existence of god, heaven, resurrection, son of god, transubstantiation, and all the rest. However beneficent and intellectually satisfying many aspects of the Church are (or were), wasn't it hard to overlook these other pesky little details?