Wednesday, December 5, 2007

A Humble "Cafeteria Catholic"

I remember the way I felt on my very first day of school, when I walked into that first grade classroom, and took my seat along with eighty - eighty! - other children. The old nun looked like the agent of some strange, otherworldly order of humanity. The black habit, the white bib. I couldn't figure out whether the wrinkles on her face were due to age, or the constriction of the headgear that pressed in on her head from all sides. The "her' part took a few minutes for my six year old mind to work out - she had, as I recall, a healthy gray mustache that made the issue a bit uncertain.

She may have been quite old, but she was quick to cover the distance between us on that first morning, pull me out of my seat, and toss me roughly into the corner. The engines of working class Catholic education knew how to deal firmly and decisively with any early signs of being a class clown. It maintained its vigilance over me all through my 12 years of Catholic education. The nuns, charged with the care of my small, unformed body, were careful to restrict their abuse to face slapping and hair pulling, often at the same time. When I got to high school the monks took the baton and used their fists in the service of good order.

Catholicism is something I know well. I've known lots of nuns, monks and priests, many closely. As an altar boy I recited my prayers, kneeling on the side of the priest at the foot of the altar. These were Latin prayers, that I memorized from a large, laminated card, and I learned them well enough that some phrases still roll around my head. I lit the candles, rang the bells, and poured water from the cruets so the priest could wash their hands before the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

I know the church - well enough to know that has a warped and twisted view of sex. It is narrow-minded. Bigots find it a welcoming refuge. Its majestic rituals are easy to mock. There are, of course, gaps in my knowledge. Personally, I never had to deal with the emotional scars left by someone of the "Father Fasthands" sort, but that such things happened doesn't surprise me. No one who understands the history of this archaic institution - the battles over heresy, the Inquisition, the Medici Popes, the wars of the Reformation, the Concordat with Hitler - should be at all surprised that things like that happened. No, name any sin, and it well and truly modeled by the Church.

Yet I have a deep and enduring love for Catholicism, one that has grown over the years.

I don't attend mass often, but when I do I always get the sense of real spiritual challenge. The Eucharist remains for me a significant encounter with of Christ the Reedeemer. I don't join in the singing and recitations - I stand and kneel still in the attitude of Latin Mass silence and reflection that the nuns taught me as a child.

My parents taught me about love, and showed me it is not, in its highest sense, a passion but rather a lifetime commitment. My older siblings helped me see a bit forward in my life, to chart the waters just ahead of me. My wife and my children reinforced as an adult what my parents modeled for me as a child. But my sense of the moral order of things, and my view of myself as a single, solitary man in the vast universe, was laid down early and completely by the Roman Catholic Church. It began with coloring books about Jesus, and it still continues with each sacrament.

Oh I've looked around. I've heard the flickering of Buddhist prayer flags in the high dry breeze of the Himilayas. and I gave the prayer wheels beneath them a good spin as I continued on my way. I've felt the waters of the Ganges. I've walked shoeless beneath the arches of Suleiman’s Mosque, and kneeled next to Bedouin Arabs as they unrolled their prayer rugs in the caves of Jordan. I once wrote a prayer on a small piece of paper, and wedged it into the cracks in the Western Wall, hoping the rocking prayers of the rabbis would lend it a favor my life had no claim to.

I've done old things like Sufi dances, and new things like holding hands in a circle and welcoming the Light. I've sat cross-legged and naked in the darkness of sweat lodges. The heat, steam, and sweat of others suffocated me within the womb of the oldest religious ceremony on earth. My voice joined the song of the Native American water-pourer, and when we sang the prayer for "our brothers the birds and the creepy-crawly things" I started to weep.

I've seen the places of my own religion too. I've been to Saint Peter's, I once laid myself down on a bench in the Sistine Chapel, and before the guards chased me away I was able to completely lose myself in Michaelangelo's creation: the bible seen as the high, arching backbone of history. I've knelt at the Crusader's star in Bethlehem, I've walked Christ's route along the Via Dolorossa, and I've seen the sunlight fire the blue light of Chartres.

I went to all those places as an aimless wanderer with no place to go and I left them the same way. It took me a lifetime to learn that religion wasn't a place for me, but rather a disposition written within me, on my soul. God placed it there, but the church organized it and taught me what it meant.

It is easy to remember how angry and mean the nuns seemed, but they taught me many good things. I remember their emphasis on mite boxes, and how important it was to give to the poor. They comforted us with the knowledge that each of us had a Guardian Angel kneeling beside us. They taught me about the trinity, the seven deadly sins and the seven cardinal virtues. I wrote them again and again on sheets of looseleaf with a fountain pen, and still I forgot them. Until much later.

Once in the city that used to be called Bombay, I was walking down the street. A woman came up behind me and started screaming. I turned and saw her face, and the scrawny, near-lifeless baby she was holding. I recoiled - never had anyone looked at me like that. I knew that in her eyes I was powerful beyond measure. The bills in my pocket were the calendar pages of her baby’s life. A curious thought rose within me. What did I have to live for? Where did I have to go? Where did I belong? I felt the strangest impulse to empty my pockets, clean out my bank account, and give every last thing I had to her. To give all, to risk all, to have nothing - and yet be entirely free.

I turned my back and walked on.

It was only later that I understood what happened, realizing that that feeling was something that the nuns and monks had taught me. Jesus calls us to love with reckless abandon, but that the seven deadly sins - in this instance avarice – make us hide. I heard a call, but continued wandering aimlessly, and when I came home it was to go through the motions of my empty life.

The nuns taught me about the doctrine of grace too - that the love of God is freely bestowed on the deserving and undeserving alike. And grace has made all the difference in my life. Because something astonishing happened. I had completely and totally forgotten about the little prayer I scrawled on a piece of paper and wedged into the Western Wall. It is, to this day, the only prayer of mine that has ever been answered, and it came in the form of a second call.

I didn't turn my back on this one. I sealed it with a sacrament, standing before God and pledging my love for the gift He gave me. My beloved wife. It is easy to think of a gift in the sense of a reprieve, an exit, something to make things easier. She was a gift of a far different sort, one that enabled me to say, with the pure fire of a fully-intended vow, that I would be hers forever. No matter what. Come what may. Freedom isn't about the ceaseless maintenance of alternatives and options - it is about the ability to give just once, completely.

Yes, the old nuns were right. The sacraments are a gateway to God. When my children were baptized, I knew I was given a lifelong responsibility, yet had to face that responsibility with humility - one of the seven cardinal virtues. They do not belong to me. The prayers said that I owe them everything, but I have no claim to them. At the funeral masses for my parents, as their caskets were wheeled down the nave towards the early morning sun I knew the words that were said - "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord. And may perpetual light shine upon them" - will be offered one day for me. I will need them.

So with some sacrifice, my wife and I rejected the advantages of our well-funded pubic schools to send our children to catholic schools. They are better than they use to be - the meanness and abuse is gone, but the teachings remain. Better they learn those teachings, grounded in a few millennia of human experience, than the trend-chasing multicultural pandering that passes for education these days. As I write this, my son is taking a theology class in a fine Jesuit University. I wish him luck - when I read modern theology I have the same reaction I have to Modern Language Association literary analysis - it is all incoherent jargon. I'll stick to Dante and Aquinas.

I feel I've offered my children the best possible foundation - a systematic point of reference about the world and themselves. A way of thinking about right and wrong. Some possible answers to deep questions they might have about themselves. The sorts of questions no parent can answer, no other person can answer.They are free to embrace it, ignore it, or perhaps improve upon it.

I think many non-Catholics have an odd view of what goes on in the church. Some suppose that priests are like mullahs, using their weekly sermons to berate parishioners on the evils of birth control, gays, and premarital sex. It has been decades since I've heard any discussion of these subjects from the pulpit. Almost all sermons I've heard are about the offsetting the temptations of materialism and laziness with faith, charity and the love of others. Critics of the church often demonstrate how parochial they are by assuming the Church is ignorant of the pressing issues of the day. Nothing could be further from the truth. The church is the most diverse institution in the world - issues have to be weighted for their relative importance to the refugees of East Timor, the sub-Saharan poor and the elderly in the empty pews of Europe. My preaching, as often as not, is received from a man from a remote village in India. When he arrived in our parish, one of the Sunday bulletins had a picture of him outside in the snow - because he had never seen snow before.

Some things are settled questions for me now. I believe human life begins at conception and ends at natural death, and is sacred throughout, and this informs my conviction that abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty are wrong. I am firmly in the church's camp on those. I'm quite firmly against their teaching that being gay is somehow "objectively disordered" and that the gift that was given to me is denied others. I've yet to make up my mind on institutional issues like priestly celibacy, or the ordination of woman. I don't believe in papal infallibility - a pretty recent doctrine as such things go, first formulated in 1870. Most non-Catholics don't even understand the doctrine. Not every word from the pope's mouth is supposed to be infallible, but only some words, carefully formulated as "ex Cathedra" assertions of truth. The last such teaching - that Mary was bodily assumed into Heaven - was made in 1950. And no, I don't believe it.

I believe some things the church doesn't teach - for example that the Shroud of Turin actually is the burial cloth of Jesus. And I believe this despite my rational skepticism based on the Carbon-14 dating.

I believe Jesus Christ was a real historical person, that he was divine, I believe Mary was a virgin. That Christ was crucified and rose bodily from the dead. I feel some connection with the Holy Spirit as I write this. I believe that the Church is the living repository of the truth of the Gospels. I believe in the Judgment - both mine of myself, and that I am accountable to God for His gift to me. When I do go to Mass, and hear the words of the Nicene Creed, I hear not one word I disagree with.

These, for me, are the anchors of faith. Not reason. The boundaries of human reason were demarcated by Kurt Godel in 1930, when he proved that if you believe in the consistency of logic, you must believe that there are real truths that are not logically provable. Such are the beliefs I have.


I once walked along the Roman street that runs thirty feet beneath the floor of Saint Peter's Basilica. I listened as the old Jesuit explained the history of where we were, what was built around us, and above us. That the Roman engineers leveled a hill that once ran above us, in order to bury this street, this necropolis of their dead, so as to make the stones and earth of it a foundation for their basilica. He walked us along the street, pointing out the excavated Roman graves and their elaborate mosaics to the old sun god - Helios. He walked down to the end of the street, and pointed to the etched graffiti by the early Christians around the one simple first century grave that was carefully left undisturbed amid all the building. The first basilica was built around that grave, as was the current basilica twelve hundred years later.

The church is built on the legacy of Peter. A simple man, who wrote little, if anything. Christ has Divinity, Paul had inspiration. The Romans we know of from those times all had creativity, eloquence, or power. Peter had none of these. The New Testament is a pretty remorseless illustration of all his faults: He was boastful, vain and cowardly. Certainly not the brightest of the Apostles. Paul made him look like a fool at Antioch, and the apocrypha tells us that he was a coward right to the end - Peter fled Rome when threatened with death – Christ had to lead him back.

Incredible that this simple, weak man had a two thousand year old institution built around his bones. An institution with adherents on evey continent, every class, every ethnic group. An institution that survived Nero, Atilla, Suleiman, and Stalin.

So when I consider my Church, I look upon it as Peter. When I consider myself, I always think first of Peter. When I consider the Church's teachings, I consider them as challenges to me, not, like Paul would, as injunctions for others. Like Peter, I have too much work to do on myself.

I think often of that little dirt grave, the second century graffiti (Petros est) over it, the edifices built atop it, and Bernini's elliptical, embracing colonnade in St. Peter's Square. The reach and scope of the church, I am proud of it. Proud of the wisdom it has gathered over the centuries, and of its breadth within humanity. But pride is the first, and deadliest, of the seven deadly sins, because it leads to a misplaced, misdirected faith in ourselves, or the institutions we are proud of.

The rock of the foundation piers that surround Peter’s grave won’t last forever. Only Christ is eternal. I have lots of foreboding about what will happen in the world. About the war, suicide bombers and the clash between Islam and the West. I'm convinced that the rushing winds of the media are swirling the embers of centuries-old grievances into some new, hellish firestorm.

I'd be a fool to put my faith in any church, or in Peter.

I thought of that little dirt grave when I watched John Paul II's funeral, and they recited the Litany of the Saints: from John the Baptist and Peter to Maxmillian Kolbe. I was struck by the inspirational power of the Church, how in every age its teachings have produced men and women of heroic virtue. I considered the millions that attended, and wondered what it felt like for all the heads of state, normally the center of things, to be relegated to a silent periphery. For Iran, Israel and Syria forced to sit in proximity, and to awkwardly shake hands. As John Paul was carried up the steps of the basilica, there were shouts from the crowd for immediate canonization.

I was deeply moved by this. It seemed a vindication of Catholicism, and how one extraordinary man marshaled its teachings and the divisions of the faithful to defeat Stalin's legacy. How for one day the church seemed the center of the world, and able to quiet some deep and dangerous tensions. But I then realized that all of this - the basilica, the square, the architecture, the Latin, the cardinals and the curia are Roman, not Catholic. They are the last vestiges of the Roman Empire in the world. Looked at one way it can seem strong. I see it as a tempting illusion - the church appropriating the once strong but now weak structure of the Empire in a vain hope for protection. Something Peter might do.

John Paul was such a dynamic leader that he made it seem possible to steer this institution through all the scary things we face. This ship might be our only refuge, the fisherman our only pilot. And that is why many Catholics have contempt for people like me, the cafeteria approach of just picking and choosing the doctrines and codes of Catholicism I like. For not being obedient, for not being good, loyal crewmen. When under pressure groups always get angry at their wavering members.

Then he made the disciples get into the boat and precede him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowds. After doing so, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. When it was evening he was there alone. Meanwhile the boat, already a few miles off-shore, was being tossed about by the waves, for the wind was against it. During the fourth watch of the night, he came toward them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw him walking on the sea they were terrified "It is a ghost," they said, and they cried out in fear. At once [Jesus] spoke to them, "Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid." Peter said to him in reply, "Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water." He said, "Come." Peter got out of the boat and began to walk on the water toward Jesus. But when he saw how [strong] the wind was he became frightened; and, beginning to sink, he cried out, "Lord, save me!" Immediately Jesus stretched out his hand and caught him, and said to him, "Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?"
(Matt. 14:22-33)

I have my family, but I am alone in the world. While love is the highest of the cardinal virtues, the love I have for my wife and children is an easy thing. Nothing like the heroic virtue of the saints, this love of mine is just one isolated peak in an otherwise plain life. I want to believe this Church will stay afloat in the coming storm, that it might chart some course for the world, and be a haven for my children. I love it, but humbly, because I know neither the church nor myself am immortal.

This ship, my church, can carry me just so far. My foreboding about the coming storm has a deeper root. As a middle aged man, I’ve learned the narrow limits of what I can do, I’m losing the unquestioned sense of immortality that young men have, and when physical strength wanes the world seems like a more fearful place. So I cling to what seems like the best hope, yet I know from my life that giving in to fear can be sinful.

Peter, closest to Christ, heard a call in the wind and risked his life by stepping out onto the waves. Peter, when Christ was long gone, fled Rome to save himself. Both times Christ saved him, the first time to save his body, the second time to save his soul.

As a cafeteria Catholic I never know which choice I am making. But choose I must, and may Christ save me.


Bridgett said...

It seems like there is a kerigma of faith here that is in complete agreement with Christ. all the rest falls away, you know--indistinctly now, but then, face to face.

Thanks for writing, and visiting.

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful post, STF. I'm going to link this over at Beyond Assumptions.

Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

It must be wonderful to be so wise, to be able to say, the Church has the sacraments, and I agree with it on this point and that. But on these other points, I know it is wrong. And on still others I haven't rendered a judgment.

To know with such certainty that a doctrine taught by Pope St. Clement I in the First Century, taught by Pope St. Gregory the Great, and yet was new in 1870, is such a wonderful blessing.

The counter-intuitive pride of the self-proclaimed "cafeteria Catholic" in his own put-on humility seems a very strange thing. It is truly awe-inspiring.

It's America. You can, if you wish, pick and choose what to believe. You can say that the Church is right about this, wrong about that, and you're the one who knows which is which.

I can't do that. I can't know that the authentic teachings of the Church are wrong on any point. If I could know a thing like that, then I must suspect them on every point. It would only be a coincidence, a matter of chance, that the Church could ever be right on any point. The odds of winning the lottery would be better.

Still, you have the power to pick and choose, and look on the rich banquet of Church teaching as merely a buffet.

But to claim that you are being humble in the exercise of such power is simply false to fact.

Sweating Through fog said...


For me, I feel I can know the church is wrong on some points. This doesn't prevent me from having respect and love the church as an institution and believing it has some divine charter and purpose. I have love and respect for people, but I don't demand perfection from them before I do so. Similarly, I don't feel I need to believe an institution is perfect to learn from it, to support it, and to use it as a guide and source of wisdom and teaching about what I should do in my life.

At the same time, I'm not criticizing those who do believe all the teaching. I'm not claiming I know better than they do.

Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

STF, I understand your point, and you're entitled to make the choices you do, but to claim to be able to judge among the Church's teachings which are right and which wrong is not humility.

I'm also tagging you for a meme on my blog

Vito said...

It took me a while to consider my comment. On the one hand, you show a wonderful example of exploring your own spirituality in trying to understand the complexities of Catholic Doctrine. On the other, you know the use of the term "Cafeteria Catholic" is a sore subject with me. =)

You blog reflects the feelings of many other Catholics out there: feeling close enough to understand and be inspired by the Church, yet feeling out of touch with all the doctrine. The "Cafeteria Catholic" label perpetuates the false idea that finding God is an "all or nothing" task.

Being able to understand Catholicism and Christianity is more linear. As we live our lives, our perspectives change, our understanding of life grows, and our spirituality avances as we learn more about the world and those around us. It should never be a question of what you don't like about the Church, rather what brings you closest to God.

Personally, Eucharistic Adoration does noting for me. I could say 1,897 rosaries and feel nothing. However when I am alone outdoors, or I hear the chant of Benedictine monks, I know I'm being at one with God.

My "humble" opinion would be to drop the cafeteria reference and focus on what brings you closer to God. Perhaps it isn't exactly what the Church teaches. Perhaps someone will tell you "That's wrong." Whatever opens your mind to understanding Christ will further your spiritual life. And after you've discovered more about yourself and your relationship to God, your opinions may change about some of the Church's teachings.

Sorry for the long comment. Peace.

Sweating Through fog said...

Vito - thanks for your comment and peace to you as well.

Jennifer F. said...

Thanks for this thoughtful reflection. I've had a very different experience with Catholicism, so it's interesting to hear another point of view.

It's particularly interesting to me when you say:

I know the church - well enough to know that has a warped and twisted view of sex.

For me, when I read JPII's Theology of the Body was when I became sure that this really was God's church. I'd thought it probably was for a lot of other reasons but, coming from a nonreligious background, the wisdom there hit me like a ton of bricks. I've found the Church's teaching on sex to be one of the most liberating things I've ever experienced.

Anyway, thanks for your honest post. You're a great writer.

Sweating Through fog said...


Thanks for your comment, and I'm glad I discovered your blog!

I haven't read the Theology of the Body. When I said "warped and twisted view of sex" I wasn't referring to the core teachings of the Church as such, but rather the way those teachings get expressed by both the laity and priests. I was thinking of the way I felt sitting in grammar school, hearing the priests come in and tell us that any lustful thoughts were deeply sinful and repulsive. The way they focused more on lust as the worst possible sin, rather than just one of many sins we were prone to, and need to be wary of lest we lose ourselves.

I completely agree with the fundamental teachings of Humanae Vitae, and I consider them a necessary counterweight to our pornified culture, where casual sex is seen as just recreational fun and is cheapened as a result.

Where I still struggle a bit is in the issue of homosexuality - I can see no good argument that the prospect of mutual love and commitment is denied to homosexuals.