Monday, September 28, 2015

Popes, and stuff

The reader of this blog, Jim Grey (hiya, Jim) posts links to interesting blog posts regularly, and most recently, one was a link to an explanation of the Pope's role as gleaned by a man who converted (I think) from Lutheranism to Catholicism. I have to say, even as a lapsed Catholic, I learned at least a couple of things I didn't know... or maybe had misconceptions clarified.

It did get me thinking about my own experience. J.P. Cavanaugh, the author of the blog post, identifies himself with the conservative wing of the Catholic Church (whether or not he's actually a communicant). He seems to be in harmony with the Pope on his stand on behavioural matters, but less so on the Pope's pronouncements on social issues. I have to admit, I'm a little puzzled to hear a pope offer opinions on climate change and the amelioration of poverty myself.

I've taken a course that in most respects is the flip side of J.P.'s. I started life as a "Catholic", inasmuch as my parents were both Catholics, despite the fact that the majority of my great-grandparents were in fact one flavour or another of Protestant, 5:3. Catholicism just seems to trump most of the time.

I didn't really get a religious upbringing. I remember going to Mass till I was about 5, when getting away to our trailer in the mountains became more of a priority for my folks. My folks separated for a year and a half or so when I was 6 or 7, worked things out, and got back together. I do remember thinking at the time that it was a miracle. I'm surprised by the realization now, but even at the age of 6, I guess I'd had enough of an exposure to modern drama that I understood "separation" as the precursor of inevitable divorce. The problem was that my dad, at the time, and even for a couple of years afterward, let himself be pressured into going out and drinking with the guys, and it caused problems. I developed a superstitious nature that if I did certain things during the day, kept promises, avoided some other things, that the "deal" I was making with God would mean Dad would be home on time and there'd be no trouble. I was grasping at straws in thinking I could control those things. I say, without the intention of slighting anyone, that it was the only kind of religion I ever really had. I suppose it's never quite left me.

Of course, the reality is that my dad just needed to grow up some and realize that the opinions of the other guys who drifted in and out of his life in the military were of far less consequence than the love and well-being of his family and his responsibilities. By the time I was 8 or 9, he'd pretty much gotten there. He had the control of that. Not me.

Most of what religious "instruction" I did have as a kid was televangelism beamed up out of New England on Sunday mornings. I'd watch it because there was pretty much nothing else on TV on Sunday mornings in the 70s, and I watched it alone, down in the family room, while my folks haunted the kitchen upstairs. Because most of it was Protestant, I grew up with a vague suspicion of the religion I'd been baptized in and was nominally a part of. The idea of a Pope still doesn't resonate with me, and I don't think it ever will.

In my early 30s I had a few personal crises involving illness and death in pets and friends, and I decided it was time to seek answers. It was also around the time I gained my Irish citizenship by foreign birth registration, and I was trying to connect to the culture. As a nominal Catholic, it seemed appropriate to turn to the parish church down the street. I spent six months taking catechism for adults with a dozen other people, and eventually took the sacraments of Confirmation (about 25 years late) and Communion (though I'd taken Communion before, without realizing I shouldn't have). I started attending Mass, hoping that it would finally click, and everything would come into focus and become a part of reality for me.

I genuinely enjoyed Mass. The singing, the fellowship, the ritual, the hopeful message, the sense of being part of something huge and ancient yet vital. I waited for the Holy Ghost to do his thing, and sink roots into me from my surface religiosity. But it never really happened. My guess is that I came to it too late, or in too cynical an age. Or maybe God really is real but just passed me by. The long and the short of it is that I increasingly felt like a fraud, and that in a way, I was mocking the deeply-held convictions of those around me by showing up and going through the motions. So, I stopped.

There was also that nagging matter of issues I had with Catholicism. There's quite a lot about it, as a branch of Christianity, that doesn't resonate with me, quite apart from the hideous scandals of recent years. I mean real, actual doctrinal matters:

  • I don't agree with the institution of a celibate ministry; in fact, I think it's damaging.
  • I don't agree that the fact that twelve men were arbitrarily counted as apostles, and meanwhile the women around Jesus were not (just as arbitrarily), is indicative that women were not intended to partake of the priesthood.
  • The Catholic Church's position on same-sex relationships and marriage are also troubling, though I have to admit they reflect what's in the Bible (meanwhile, prohibitions against shellfish, pork, and mixing fabrics don't seem to trouble the Church, though they're from the very same list).
  • The Church's attitude to contraception also strikes me as wrong, and wholly arbitrary. To wit: global warming is a problem; poverty is a problem... but both of these would be ameliorated if we stopped filling up the world with more and more and more human beings, which the Catholic Church beats the drum for. Is driving the world on to 8, 9, 10 billion people either starving to death on the one hand, or driving Hummers with one's six kids to soccer practice on the other, really showing the proper concern for this issue?

The straw that broke the camel's back for me was when, about 10 years ago now, my parish priest stood up before us and urged us to sign a petition asking Parliament to use the Notwithstanding Clause of the Constitution, something no federal government had (or has) ever done, to overrule the Supreme Court and ban same-sex marriage. I was incensed. It's one thing for a religious organization to say "we hold, from teachings, that same-sex relationships are wrong", and let the laity connect the dots and act accordingly. It's quite another for them to tell you how to vote or communicate with your representative or use its membership to tacitly threaten the government of the day. They're tax-free on the basis that they do not involve themselves in politics, and I felt that my bishop, or perhaps even the cardinal, had crossed the line. I didn't sign. I never went back to Mass, except with someone else because of some occasion.

If I had it to do over again in sincerely searching, or were I to become sincerely persuaded of the existence of God, I would not have become, or resume being, a Catholic. I feel much more simpatico with, and admiration for, the Anglican Communion or the United Church of Canada (a century-old union of most of the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Congregationalists in Canada), to which my father's father belonged. It has occasionally crossed my mind to begin attending (there's a United Church congregation literally a three-minute walk from my home). But then I remember that my presence would be hypocritical and as such, disrespectful to those who genuinely believe, and I content myself to holding onto the option, should that change.


Jim Grey said...

Thanks for sharing your experience with the church. It's very interesting that a political move from the pulpit did you in. I think a lot of people find that objectionable. I know I do. Please just tell me about the gospel and about the Bible, but leave politics out of your sermons, period.

The high ceremony of the Catholic Mass repels me. I like a stripped down, simple worship, and that's what we do in the (Restoration Movement) Christian Church.

barefoot hiker said...

I can appreciate your feelings on the nature of worship, though I think mine are largely the opposite. I imagine it's because what little experience I did have of church as a child was largely the Catholic Mass... though come to think of it, I do now remember us occasionally attending a small chapel... I get the impression it was Baptist... in rural Nova Scotia, and being struck, even at 5 years old, by how small and plain everything was.

For what it's worth, I find something transcendent and genuinely stirring in a large and ornate ceremony. I suppose that's why, even now as I find myself with Protestant sympathies, I'm still attracted to denominations that make a fairly big production of Sunday... Anglican and UCC; the latter of which adopted most of the big pipe organ ceremony of the (formerly) Presbyterians. That kind of thing is actually what I miss most about not attending services. I don't think that something small and intimate would move me the same way. I guess to some extent you can take the man out of Catholicism, but you can't take the Catholicism out of the man. :)