If you were born sometime between 1945 and 1955, more or less, you remember the drill. On Saturday afternoon you summoned up your courage and went to church. Not just any church. You went to your parish church. And with seriousness of purpose. Because you were going to Confession. It was a familiar sacrament of the Roman Catholic Church, and you were there because you were human. You had sinned. Everyone sinned other than Jesus, Mary, and a few smart-ass kids in your parochial school class. They never were affected by PALEGAS, the acronym by which we remembered what the deadly sins were. Hell, they could probably really draw in art, sing in music, and clap the school erasers clean. The nuns loved them. You regarded them suspiciously as some sort of pain in the ass. They didn’t go to confession. Or if they did, they were in an out in a minute. Damn. Following them was not good. Some old Irish priest would say “You did what???” Or “explain to me exactly what you did with her.” Man, that always took time. And when you finally caught holy Hell from the priest and got to leave, the other people, especially the kids you knew, were grinning. Heh, heh. “I know what you did last week.” Yeah, they could guess. But you were saved. Temporarily. You said Five Our Fathers and Five Hail Marys if you were lucky. And you felt good for a day or so. You wouldn’t go to Hell that weekend. By Tuesday, who knew?
In retrospect, what seems like some sort of adolescent initiation into a shame culture probably had a deeper effect. For some of us, it would eventually drive us out of the Church. The pointlessness of pretending that you regretted doing something that you had no real intention or ability to stop doing–and inevitably, this was something mortally sinful, which meant go straight to Hell, dude–got to you. Or you took a deeper view. You figured you would suffer through this ritual because you should–and that was half the penance. You kept it up because, well, because the Hound of Heaven was there somewhere. You had to do it and you really were at a loss to explain why. Maybe it was neurosis. Or maybe neurosis was a modern name for God’s grace. But the reality of God and the sacred were there, like it or not. You felt it when you walked into a church. And you weren’t kidding around. You may have hated yourself for it, but you went along with it. And you probably struggled with it. As any sensible person would. Belief was not a choice. Any more than eye color, intelligence, or, God forbid, sexuality. Not that we ever discussed that much.
But for me, thinking over this part of my life in light of the Vatican’s latest pronunciation on the intrinsic disorder of homosexuality is a bit revealing. When you say to yourself, as I often do, how in God’s name do I continue to count myself a member of this homophobic misogynistic cult? What is there that keeps me hanging around, the dreadful revelations of pedophilia and corruption over the past few decades notwithstanding? There is, for some of us, the very slight suspicion that if we could somehow go back to the fourth century CE, that if we could could recover the early Christian communities whose bane was the Roman Empire, we might find what we were looking for. We might be totally off the mark as far as details go–the role of women, the view of sexuality, the frank theological anarchy–that we imagine the early Church to be about. But we don’t much care. If that wasn’t the Church that Jesus Christ founded, it should have been. This one, we fear, lost its moral compass well before Charlemagne knelt before Leo III in 800 CE. We are Christian anarchists, like it or not. We survive in the thrall of a miserable desire to know God’s will as interpreted by a bunch of curial bureaucrats who likely practice the very behavior they satanize. Bless me, father.
We live with cognitive dissonance as our creed. We are, as they say, “faithful Catholics”, at least in our own minds. Miserere nobis.