26 August 2012

catholic razzle-dazzle.

I have an irrational, ridiculous, and (yes) complex relationship with Roman Catholicism. I realize this claim is somewhat misleading, however, because it seems to imply that I still maintain some sort of formal (or, at least, regular) dealings with that particular brand of faith. But for the most part, my attitude toward Catholicism remains one of conspicuous disregard. If the pharisees were eager to be seen in temple, then I am correspondingly eager to be seen anywhere but worshiping in a Catholic church. My spiritual life—to the extent that I have one—is defined by willful omissions. It isn't that the Catholic god is essentially crueler or more irritable than his Islamic and Judaic counterparts—I haven't actually worked up a Consumer Reports-style comparative chart to arrive at a proper judgment—but that I have a special personal grudge with the Catholic god that refuses to be mitigated by the similar failings of competitor gods.

On the other hand—living side-by-side with this resentment for Catholicism—is a disproportionate loathing for Protestantism which exceeds just cause. This is where the complexity comes in. We're all familiar with the recurring impulse to defend members of our family—even those whom we may openly despise—simply because they are being attacked by outsiders. Likewise, when these small-town, spittle-flying pastors, in their churches like barns or, else, shopping malls, decry the heresy and idolatry of Catholicism, I have an incredible urge to bitch-slap them. Repeatedly. 

When I was a Catholic—as a child and by default—it was the very things that distinguished Catholicism from Protestantism that appealed to me. (And, no, I'm not talking about institutionalized child molesting.) I loved the massive, echoing cathedrals—those ornate behemoths whose great expense was itself an affront to the church's mission to help the poor and needy. These gothic palaces, fortified, it would seem, against reason, were comforting in their history (or their seeming history) and their literalized imagery: the snake-stomping Mary, the hippie Francis, the CGI heart of Jesus... Maybe it was more exciting to me because I loved Greek mythology—and these statues and rituals recalled those absurd myths. I saw the original Clash of the Titans more times than I could count, and as a consequence I pretty much pictured God the Father as Sir Laurence Olivier, in his flowing satin robe, with those blue neon lights radiating from his head in the distance—the marks of his divinity blinking like Times Square at dusk.

Another major East Coast-West Coast beef that Protestants have with Catholics is that the latter places far too much emphasis on the Virgin Mary—even that they 'worship' her, which is clearly blasphemous or heretical or at least very, very bad. In response, Catholics, in a legendary fit of hair-splitting to rival Clinton's 'not inhaling,' claim that they venerate the saints; they do not actually worship them. Now, you're welcome to consult a dictionary to seek out the difference between worship and veneration if you're really interested, but frankly I had no problem with worshiping the Virgin Mary. Whenever I prayed—you know, those kinds of Santa Claus prayers when you wish to be miraculously given something good—I always prayed to Mary. Let's face it. She's infinitely more approachable than that Jesus dude, who too often resembles Devendra Banhart. (Yuck.) In the same way you knew that your mother was usually a lighter touch than your father, you also suspected Mary was more accommodating than her emotionally distant, goody-two-shoes son. I mean, do you remember when Jesus went postal on those merchants in the temple? If he pulled that shit today, you can bet TMZ would have the footage on tape and it would be remixed to dance music like the Christian Bale rant. 

I always imagined the Virgin Mary to lie somewhere on the temperament spectrum between Barbara Billingsley and Betty White. She'd be the one to tell your father (God the Father, that is) how you fucked up big-time, but she'd soften the blow and deflect some of the force of the punishment with her maternal protectiveness. (It's interesting that this particular view of motherhood didn't exactly match up with what I experienced at home. My mother was far more fiery-tempered than my father and more apt to smack the living shit out of me. But I learned all that I really needed to know about the mythos of motherhood from television.)

One thing that honks me off about Protestants—and, yes, I realize that this is a huge generalization—is that they seem more passionately committed to their faith. All of that fire and brimstone, speaking in tongues, rapturous sermonizing, evangelism, and religious assertiveness seems to come from the Protestant side of the church. Have you been to many Catholic masses? You'd almost swear the zombie convention was in town. A lot of people just stand, sit, kneel, stand, sit, kneel and don't ever say a word. Sometimes they move their lips to a hymn or two, but they're about as convincing as Ashlee Simpson on SNL. Fortunately, Catholic churches often make use of a cantor who sings loudly and off-key into a microphone in the hopes of covering up the fact that nobody there seems to give a flying fuck about any of this.

You'll never see anything more Dawn of the Dead-like than a procession of psychologically weary Catholics trudging to the front of the church to cannibalize their Lord and Savior. Could the imagery be any more complete? Since so many of the devout tend to be elderly and physically impaired in some way, these flesh-eaters often hobble stiffly to the chow line, just like your garden-variety zombie. All we need are cheap prosthetics and some spirit gum and George Romero would be good to go.

I guess what I'm saying is that I am not a fan of enthusiastic or, worse, angry worship. The impenetrability of your average Catholic churchgoer will never upset your peaceful daydreaming about what you're having for lunch or what the woman two pews ahead looks like naked. You can go deep inside yourself with your thoughts, close the panic room doors—and you usually will remain undisturbed. There's something so distasteful about these Protestant shucksters with their undignified ravings. During Catholic mass, you can be like C-3PO in Star Wars when he says to Luke, 'Sir, if you will not be needing me, I'll close down for a while.' And then his eyes go dark. 

I would be all for Catholic ritual if it were somehow unattached to a religion. It would be fun in a Halloween sort of way to dress up in a long flowing robe like those statues pleure [i.e., memorial statues of cloaked weeping women, usually found at grave sites] and perform meaningless rituals in one of those imposing, intensely atmospheric European cathedrals like Notre-Dame de Paris. It wouldn't be all that much different from the innocent thrill you experienced that one week in your adolescence when you discovered the writings of Anton LaVey and wanted to paint your bedroom walls black and buy a human skull candle holder.


  1. "One thing that honks me off about Protestants—and, yes, I realize that this is a huge generalization—is that they seem more passionately committed to their faith."

    Catholicism is like a family member with a sometimes-deserved bad reputation. I can mock/criticize Catholicism, but the protestants down the street better not.

  2. "There's something so distasteful about these Protestant shucksters with their undignified ravings."

    Also, in my experience, the protestants often sing FOREVER. Like, you're supposed to stand and sing for twenty minutes at a time. At least with the two readings/one gospel/sermon format you can space out as long as you stand and sit and mumble at approximately the correct times.

    1. Protestants are too folksy. I don't do folksy.

  3. David wrote: "I always prayed to Mary. Let's face it. She's infinitely more approachable than that Jesus dude, who too often resembles Devendra Banhart. (Yuck.)"

    This blog post is freaking brilliant, David. The next time I'm at a wedding or a funeral, I'm not going to be able to contain myself watching the zombies line up for their meal.

    1. Were you raised Catholic, Morais? (By the way, how is your last name pronounced? More-RAYZ? More-RAY? More-REZ?)

    2. Ugh, I hate More-Ray-Iss. I get that all the time.

      It is pronounced like Jason Mraz except with a long \ā\ sound.


      which, interestingly, i just typed without looking at David's reply and it looks like his first attempt is correct. and we even phoneticized it the same.

      I went to a Catholic school growing up (grades 2 allllll the way through 12). So I'm familiar with Catholicism as it differs from other Christian denominations. Interestingly, we also studied some world religions in the 12th grade which was pretty cool. For a long time I was fascinated with Islam. And I still am to an extent. It is unfortunate that the world is so prejudiced against Muslims now. It's a really peaceful religion.

      Anyway, I am not religious despite my upbringing. My family isn't either, really. I'm not entirely sure why my parents sent me to a Catholic school, although I think they thought it was a better education than the public so that was their reasoning (it definitely wasn't the Catholic aspect of it).

      I used to go to church religiously (i.e. twice per year). Now I'm even worse than that. I WENT TO CHURCH ON MY WEDDING DAY! Yeah, it's that bad. Oh, well.

      Also, THIS: http://thetalkingmirror.com/review-jason-mraz-makes-nickelback-sound-good

    3. I was sent to Catholic school probably for the same reason you were. The public schools are unthinkable.

      So I am assuming that Morais is French in origins?

    4. No, but I went to a (private Catholic) high school in a city called Woonsocket (in Rhode Island) which is predominantly settled by French Canadians. So everyone assumed my name is French, but it is not. It is Portuguese.

      Most of my high school friends still to this day pronounce my last name "mor-RAY" as if it is French and the 's' is silent.

      Because my father emigrated here from Portugal, I grew up with a lot of Portuguese culture (food, language, holiday customs that I hold onto for reasons that they remind me of my heritage more so than that they are in any way religiously symbolic). Do you have similar experiences growing up in Polish household? I assume you are Polish. Your parents are probably not "fresh off the boat," though?

    5. My grandparents on my mother side were first-generation Americans, but on my dad's side they'd been here for two or three generations. Both sides of my family are Polish-American. And, yes, there were definitely Polish customs and such in the family while my grandparents were alive, but not so much anymore. (South Bend has a relatively large population of Polish-Americans, and my grandparents used to actually attend a Catholic mass said in Polish.)

      I have to confess that I don't feel close at all to my Polish heritage, but I'm okay with that. I think Americans cling for too long to their national origins.

    6. The town I live in (and grew up in) still has a large enough Portugese-speaking community that even now, one of our churches has portuguese-language masses at some times during the week.

  4. Great post, D!

    I was raised Catholic too, unfortunately. My mother suddenly became very religious when I was about 11 or 12. I don't think I had ever set foot in a church prior to that time (with the exception of my baptism). I think my father's iconoclasm caused me to be alarmed by anything overtly religious or spiritual (even though he's into all this hippy-dippy New Age stuff - he's a shrink, if that helps explain it). Being dragged to all these religious services always irrationally angered me because it always felt so unnatural and absurd. Plus, I was already in a religious school (it was ecumenical though, not Catholic), so it felt like I was receiving double the punishment, I guess. Anyway, I think some of the above referenced factors "saved" me from forming a lot of the traits (e.g., the guilt, bitterness and trauma) that ex-Catholics seem to share. My attitude towards Catholicism is the same as my attitude toward all forms of religion: one of disgust.

    1. I think I found comfort in religion as a child. I don't think I had enough psychological wherewithal when I was young to imagine a world without god. I was neurotic even then. One of my parents often had to sleep with me because I was afraid I 'would stop breathing.' I meant that I was afraid I would die—but I couldn't say the word. There was something disgustingly intimate about calling death by its name. I still kind of like the rituals and trappings of Catholicism—for a while in my twenties I was into Catholic kitsch—but the actual belief system? No thanks.

    2. I had that fear as a young child too. It would keep me up at night. I always sensed that it was something abnormal to think about, so I would lie to my parents and tell them I was crying or couldn't sleep because I thought there was a monster under the bed.

      Also, I agree with you about the concept of zealous worship as something tacky. I always kind of thought of religious belief/worship as a deeply personal thing.

  5. "Have you been to many Catholic masses? You'd almost swear the zombie convention was in town. A lot of people just stand, sit, kneel, stand, sit, kneel and don't ever say a word."

    Truer words have not been written. I've always been amazed by the lackluster enthusiasm that Catholics have for their masses. Now and again, we'd have a peppy and relatively talented choir that would put on a great performance, but still it was more for show than participation. I suspect the reason lies in the fact that most Catholics are hedging. Since Catholocism is deeply rooted in guilt (the Jews have nothing on us), Catholics have a blue-collar, punch-the-clock appraoch to Sunday mass. If they, at the very least, go to church once a week, and dutifully drag their children there, then possibly all will be forgiven when they eventually get to the pearly gates. I've never felt anyone other than my father really internalized and embraced the Catholic faith to be something uplifting and not just a drudgery. I'm always amazed by my "Catholic" friends who hadn't gone to church for most of their lives, but the second they had a child started up with all the Catholic rituals. It's as if there is no way to raise a child without the oversight of the Catholic church. It's more superstition than spirituality.

    "I would be all for Catholic ritual if it were somehow unattached to a religion. It would be fun in a Halloween sort of way to dress up in a long flowing robe like those statues pleure [i.e., memorial statues of cloaked weeping women, usually found at grave sites] and perform meaningless rituals in one of those imposing, intensely atmospheric European cathedrals like Notre-Dame de Paris."

    My boyfriend and I joke a lot about opening a gay bar in our neighborhood (Boys Town) with a Catholic theme. We want to call it the "Manistery". But seeing how this could have much broader appeal, maybe we should rethink the concept and open it to everyone who wants to participate in all the fun the church has to offer (wine, robes, confessionals!) with none of rules and guilt. Although, being forced to be quiet always made everything that happened in church a hell of a lot funnier.

    1. I like that most Catholics are unenthused about their faith. When those Protestants are shouting and clapping and loudly sermonizing and yelling 'Praise Jesus!' it seems... tacky to me. I agree with your hedging-their-bets diagnosis, and I also think there's a lot of comfort in mindless habit for some of these people. Their parents took them to church, they went to church, they take their own children to church. It's more empty ritual.

      I love the idea of a Catholic themed gay or non-gay bar! And if you specify Catholicism, you'll run into less trouble than if it were generally Christian or Protestant. Catholics will picket, no doubt, but Protestants will throw a fire bomb in there. (Catholics can't work up enthusiasm for confession, let alone terrorist attacks.)

  6. I was raised Lutheran, but am firmly in the agnostic camp now. I don't mean for this to sound snarky or otherwise offensive, but growing up among many Catholics, I always had a sort of admiration for Catholicism... for all its pomp and pagentry. In my adolescence, I wrestled with a lot of the standard religious questions most kids do: "If God is all-powerful, how can there be a struggle between Good and Evil?"; "Why are there so many outrageous faith-challenging assertions in the Bible (i.e.- the universe was created in 7 days); etc. To me, my own church seemed to shussh these away and focus more on the practical/mundane applications of their (our?) faith. It seemed like Catholicism took a different approach: too me (very much the ignorant outsider) it seemed a balls-out embrace of all things mystical and bizarre... from Papal infallibility to transsubstantiation, vows of celebacy and silence, the outlandish dress of some of the higher church figures, all the many many saints (which seemed vaguely polytheistic to me, like the many assorted gods of Chinese folk religions, or the many incarnations of Vishnu). It seemed to me like Catholicism was kind of saying to the world "Yeah, this is a crazy, elaborate belief system we've got here! Take it or leave it!"

    I know ultimately a lot of Catholics choose to leave it, but I still admire the church's defiant refusal to change with changing sensibilities. Protestantism seems so weak-willed in comparison. Remember all those "heavy metal Christian" bands of the 80's? It's fucking embarrassing. Those are all 100% Protestant, I can pretty much guarentee you. And the pastors at my church weren't fatherly authority figures the way Catholic priests seem to be. They were mostly pushover niceguys who more than anything seemed like they wanted to be liked by the congregation... especially the youth. And the youth in my church could smell that like sharks smell blood... adults wanting to be liked by kids was pretty much the equivalent of having "UNCOOL" tattoo'd on their foreheads (which, ironically, would have seemed pretty cool). Maybe that exists in Catholic churches too, but it doesn't seem like that very much to me, what with stories of nuns hitting kids with rulers and all.

    The Catholic church should at least be given credit for effectively "playing the hand they were dealt".

    1. Well, Lutheranism is about as close as you can get to Catholicism without being Catholic, right? I agree with most of the things you said, by the way. I love the 'pomp and pageantry' of the Catholic church—and its anachronism.

      There is a really large non-denominational Protestant church here that looks like... I don't know... an airport? A shopping mall? My ex's family used to go there and the things she told me about that place just disgusted me. They are always trying to do tie-ins to pop culture things. (I once got a flier in the mail from them about The Da Vinci Code. I also think they managed some kind of multimedia Twilight thing.) It's horrible. And they always have 'rock' bands playing in their services. It makes me ask the question: Do these people need to be entertained like television-watchers or circus-goers to attend this church? Aren't inundated enough with that crap OUTSIDE of church? But this (of course) is a very popular church. The parking lot is so big they actually have a little bus that drives people from its furthest reaches to the building... which also makes me ask: Wouldn't it be better to have several smaller, more personal church communities rather than this huge impersonal arena where people file in as if they're going to a football game?

      I'll never understand Protestants.

    2. Yes- this stuff is all known to me (in a general way, not that specific church). How embarrassing!