Considering how much time I’ve spent ranting, if only to myself, about how much I dislike people who define themselves purely by what they oppose rather than what they support, that seems pretty hypocritical to me. So I wanted to take a moment and discuss the reasons why this has been such a time of heightened emotion for me.
To do that, I have to talk about being Catholic, being a left-winger, and being a left-wing Catholic.
The second comment I ever received on this blog argued that my combination of religious and political beliefs “defines a fascinating journey.” As flattered as I am by that description, the truth is that I’m still a pretty bad Catholic. My Mass attendance hasn’t been good since I was seven, I missed confession last year (after having received it the previous year, after having missed it for about fifteen years), and I cohabit and plan to marry a woman who some days isn’t sure she believes in God and other days might be flirting with deism. I’ve said several times I’m either the most atheistic Catholic or the most Catholic atheist a body could ever hope to meet on this God’s green Earth.
Plus, as some of my friends know, Catholicism only recently got back into the picture as far as my faith life was concerned. If I’m a bad Catholic now, I was an exponentially worse one when I was hired at my current job, and I’d spent years sort of flitting between agnosticism, atheism, deism or pantheism. That’s pretty par for the course in one’s formative years, obviously, and I was lucky to have that opportunity to examine my beliefs in detail and to be able to change them without too much judgment or opprobrium.
During those same years, however, my political beliefs really only solidified. I went from thinking I was a moderate Republican (when I was very young, circa 2003-06, when Linc Chafee was still a Senator) to a moderate Democrat (2006-2008) to a hardcore liberal (2008-2010) to, finally, some gray area between social democrat and socialist. I’ve been there for about three years now, and while I can’t say I won’t change my mind again in the future, this does seem to be a better fit for my views than anywhere else I’ve been along the continuum.
Part of that has been that while I identify as a left-winger, it’s more of a syndrome than a proper disease. I don’t have well-defined first principles beyond some vague ideas about how society should treat certain sectors of the population and I tend to approach a lot of political questions here in the US with some serious skepticism and more than a modicum of snark.*
Part of that has been that when I went back to Catholicism, I was sure it would conflict with my politics, and this worried me even though I knew that it would not become an issue at my work.** It didn’t help that for years I’d heard that those of us who didn’t particularly care for the Church’s homophobia*** or for the relentless emphasis on pro-life politics were “cafeteria Catholics,” willing to take the parts of the Church we liked but be lesser Catholics.
But then I had the good luck to visit with some amazing sisters, and they taught me, and the kids going on the retreat with me, the following:
That made me realize that there was, after all, a place for me in the Church. A small place, but a place where I might cultivate my faith. So, nine years after most people do it, I picked out a new name**** and got myself confirmed. I promised myself I would try to be a better Catholic, to do my Sacraments properly, to really, truly live my faith.
And I do. Just not the way most Catholics do.
His Holiness, Pope Francis, has been a huge boon, I think, to many Catholics of my stripe. I can’t speak as to the rest of us, but I certainly felt unwelcome on hallowed ground while John Paul II and Benedict XVI headed it. Now, under Francis, I feel as if I can finally hold my head up and say, proudly, that I am Catholic. Not a “cafeteria Catholic” or a “liberal Catholic” or twenty other adjectives – just Catholic.
In some sense, Francis said what I’ve been thinking for a while. If you’re pro-life, and against marriage equality, but you’re still in favor of the death penalty, you stand against workers’ rights***** and more open borders between nations, and – most of all – you stand against the poor and the vulnerable, the people on the edge of the night, the kind of people who are most hurt by this shutdown and by so many other circumstances of the past few years, then you’re no less a “cafeteria Catholic” than I am or have been. I’m just glad someone with a shiny beanie on finally said so.
Like I said, I’m still a pretty bad Catholic. I still don’t make Mass too often, I still don’t talk about the parts of Church politics that make me uncomfortable, and the ever-lovely Peregrina and I aren’t planning on breaking up anytime soon. (In fact, if what the Cardinal Secretary of State said about discussing clerical celibacy becomes fact, and allowance is made for our circumstance, she and I may be discussing my entrance into seminary.) But I am a Eucharistic minister, of some months’ vintage, and I perform Communion services with all the aplomb I can muster. I will receive Confession this year. I try to find opportunities to help those who need it, not just people I know directly but in my community-at-large, the way a small-c catholic faith ought to do. Most importantly of all, at least for my money, I teach.
(But see Retrospective Update below.)
When I first came to the School, I offhandedly asked one of our Jesuits whether I could get married at the school, if I so chose, since it contained a chapel. I meant it half in jest, but his response was that while the school did sometimes host weddings, for someone like me it would be best to get married in whatever my parish church was.
I replied that I considered the School as my parish.
That wasn’t half in jest, and it’s even truer now.
* For one – and I realize how ironic this is coming from a Catholic – claims of “moral authority” for the Constitution, the Founders, the Declaration of Independence, or a thousand other things really tend to fall flat with me. I don’t understand how anyone who’s read more than a few SCOTUS opinions and taken a couple lit classes at college can still consider these documents and people, at this point, little more than political Rorschach tests, but then, that’s why I’m not running the country.
** I wasn’t wrong. Even though there are times I’ve wanted to strangle people, I have to always remind myself that that’s the case outside of work, too.
*** This is a somewhat controversial term for some Catholics because, they argue, the Church has never had a problem with homosexuality as an orientation. I’d argue that perhaps the institutional Church isn’t quite homophobic now or, at least, Francis has taken a couple steps in that direction. But when you can define forbidding the marriage of two people because they happen to be of the same sex as “respecting human dignity,” many parts of me find that rather homophobic.
**** Picking out a new name isn’t a tradition in Hispanic countries, like my home colony, but I wanted to do it anyway. I chose Ignatius, because without the Society of Jesus, I would never have returned to the Church, but I also had in my mind Jeanne, for my left-handed sort-of-personal patron saint, toward whom I’ve always felt some weird kinship.
***** And by that I mean actual workers’ rights, not the right to be fired, the right to be starved by their employer, or any of the other sundry Gilded Age “rights” workers had then.
In trying to convey the point that I can again be proud of being in my church, I was less apologetic than I should’ve been about my particular failings in my duty to that church.
I’m still very much a work-in-progress faithwise. I still want to go to Mass more, or at least Communion services. I want to read my Bible cover to cover for the first time in forever, even if I own the wrong version. And my grasp of theology, except for Catholic Social Teaching and the effects of the two Vatican Councils, is somewhat shaky.
If I’m going to be Catholic, I’m going to do it right. I just have a wider definition of what “doing it right” means.