About twice a year, I feel like I’m back on the set of the show “Politically Correct,” sitting across the stage from the beautiful Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (Jane Seymour) and of course the irreverent and sarcastic host Bill Maher (half Catholic, half Jewish) battling it out over the sins and ills of the Catholic Church.
Because Catholicism is so much a part of who I am–and plays a central role in my recovery from addiction and depression–I feel the need to defend it.
A few days ago, my commute into the nation’s capital with a lapsed-Catholic-turned-Unitarian Universalist/Scientologist presented me with the opportunity to explain, why, even with all of its warts and cancerous moles, I’m not trading in my conservative faith for a more politically correct, all embracing, less rigid religion.
Here’s a (very) rough paraphrase of our conversation (plus some added commentary I didn’t think of at the time … Darn it! I should have said that! Well … I’ll use it next time, which there will be in approximately six months.)
“I don’t get it, Therese. You’re an intelligent woman. Do you really believe all that crap the Catholic Church feeds you?”
“No birth control or premarital sex for starters.”
“I suppose I’m a cafeteria Catholic in that I don’t agree with all of the Church’s teachings, but that isn’t enough for me to dump my faith. I don’t see the so-called ‘rules’ as being the essence of Catholicism.”
“But don’t you feel like a hypocrite going to Church after Eric got a vasectomy?”
“No. Not when I consider the ‘conscience clause’ (a.k.a. the trump card). You never hear about it in sermons but paragraph 1776 (same year as the US Declaration of Independence … coincidence?) of the ‘Catechism of the Catholic Church’ states:
Deep within the conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . .His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.
“I know, in good conscience, that I can’t handle another kid. Especially given my anxiety issues and bipolar disorder. The hormonal fluctuation and chemistry shift in my body less than a year after Katherine was born landed me in the psych ward twice. For me the greater sin would be to bring another child into the world–opening yet another can of biochemical and neurological disarray and adding to my stress–than to practice birth control, and stay a better, semi-sane mother of two.
“And the Church-sanctioned method of birth control–natural family planning–is simply not an option for me given my irregular periods, the tumor in my pituitary gland, and my mood disorder. I rarely know when I’m fertile.”
“But all that negative guilt. I mean, who needs it?”
“I know I gripe a lot about Catholic guilt. Some strict Catholic schooling may have gone too far in imprinting moral codes into young minds, especially in the past. But, to tell you the truth, I find some of it refreshing in today’s secular and permissive culture. For me, personally, the guilt keeps me in check. It’s like a safety valve on hot water–the knot in my stomach tells me that I’m about to do something stupid and will get burned. Granted, I have to learn how to shut it off (through therapy) when I want to take a steaming-hot shower. But, in general, I think it helps me be a more decent person. For example, the guilt I would feel in having an extramarital affair would be atrocious. And that’s good.”
“But that’s not Catholic guilt. That’s just knowing what’s good for a relationship and a family, and what’s good and moral behavior.”
“For me I can’t really separate the two. What instructs me to be more loving and more faithful is tucked away in the same memory as reciting the Apostles’ Creed and the Hail Mary.”
“But how can abstaining from something–like red meat on Fridays–be good for you, if you are depriving yourself of something you enjoy?”
“I guess I think of fasting and abstinence like that one ‘Seinfeld’ episode when George gives up sex, and gets smarter. In fact, he becomes so brilliant that Jerry invites him to talk to a high school class. But before his talk, George has sex at gets stupid again. Right before his talk, he places two champagne glasses upside down on his head and says to Jerry, ‘Take me to your leader,’ and Jerry immediately knows he’s had sex.
“I’m not always good about following the Church’s recommendations on fasting, but I do think that by not drinking I have more clarity in my thinking, and that I get better reception to God than I did in the days I was boozing it up. I understand the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and the value of asceticism.”
“But what can you say about all the pedophiles? So many priests are so morally despicable.”
“I can’t deny that there are some really bad apples in our group. It’s disheartening. But there are bad apples in every category of people. All I know are the priests in my life. And they are among the most spiritual people I know. I was really lucky, I guess, to be educated by so many inspiring religious people. That makes me not give up hope in the clergy, even as I read depressing headlines.
“I get a little irritated with the media’s slanted coverage of the priest scandal, as if every priest is guilty of pedophilia. Not every religious (or Catholic) is a molester, and the whole church shouldn’t be judged for sins committed by some bad apples. Just as it would be unfair to judge all Unitarians based on the ‘X Files.'”
“The X Files?”
“Several Unitarians I know claim to have had coffee with ET, and to be able to recognize hybrids (alien-humans) among us. Granted, that’s not molestation, but it’s not exactly normal, in my humble opinion.”
“Well, that’s certainly not every Unitarian.”
“Precisely. And every Catholic isn’t a molester.”
The conversation ended with my last comment, as I had expected it would. And that made my dry, Catholic mouth happy, because I do get tired of defending my faith, even though I know it’s important to do twice a year.