Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Papal Visit Emboldens Catholics

On our fabulous cruise of a few weeks ago, I met the parents of a Catholic priest. "He's not gay," the mother assured me, even though I hadn't even asked about that. As far as I am concerned, the gender of the person you are not having sex with is irrelevant. Anyway, the mother was proud that her son had been chosen to coordinate part of the papal mass at Yankee Stadium. This was a huge logistical undertaking. Such details as the size of the priests at various level had to be worked out. Portly priests were put further down since they were less aerodynamic than slender priests who could handle the wind in the upper tiers.

The papal visit generated a lot of interest in New York City, what with there being lots of Catholics in residence in and around the metropolis. Being Catholic is entirely normal here, not a cause for alarm at all. And they don't necessarily even look Catholic, either, so you never know who might be a papist. My conspecifics at work, mostly Catholic, don't believe it when I tell them that a presidential candidate's Catholicism still matters in the rest of the country. Being Catholic in New York is like smoking pot on a college campus. You forget that the pot is illegal and that Catholicism is still considered more than a little creepy in many parts of the country.

I grew up where Catholics were few and far between. I knew precisely two Catholic families. The priest was a notorious groomer of teenage boys, at least that was how he was perceived by the Protestants. Maybe he was just friendly and interested in working with youth. There were many more Jews in my hometown, and being a Jew was way more respectable than being a Catholic. Catholics weren't really Christians, I was taught. They worshipped idols and saints and Mary, and they answered to a hierarchy of foreign bishops. They even had a different Bible.

A lot of this anti-Catholicism stemmed from the history of my people in Northern Ireland and in the rest of Great Britain. Catholics were my ancestors' enemies. Catholics would have, given the opportunity, burned my ancestors at the stake. There were raids and battles and plenty of violence between Catholics and Protestants back in the day, and my people apparently have long memories. My grandparents, for example, probably never met a Catholic in their whole lives, but they knew that Catholics were bad.

When I grew up and moved away and became acquainted with Catholics, I didn't detect any significant differences or indicia of evil or lunacy. Then again, I didn't meet any really observant Catholics until I married into a Catholic family. The old ladies were a little off, in my view. They went to church every day, for crying out loud, and they did all that mumbo jumbo with the rosaries and candles and the whole nine yards. I was convinced that this did no harm to anyone and that if it made them happy, more power to them. The other observant Catholics in my wife's family were pretty much normal people. To the extent that thay are abnormal or crazy, which many are for sure, this has nothing to do with Catholicism. They're just nuts.

I no longer harbor any prejudice against Catholics qua Catholics. But I could never be a Catholic myself. The top down hierarchy means that members don't have much say in the functioning of the church, and the idea of apostolic succession gives the clergy a monopoly on access to God. This is as it ought to be, one might argue if one were a devout Catholic. And since religious matters are irrational subjective preferences, who am I to gainsay them? The Catholics I talk to about religion don't feel that way, though. They chafe at the hierarchy and unresponsiveness of the institution, and they believe things that the church forbids them to believe. Many of the new members of my church are former Catholics seeking a more active role in the church.

Does this make me anti-Catholic and worthy of the wrath of the Catholic League? I suppose I am criticizing core aspects of Catholicism, but advocating those same aspects would be tantamount to criticizing core beliefs of my religion. So there. It is still permissible, I think, to disagree about religious issues while respecting and loving those with whom we disagree. I still think my religion is better than all the others. Just saying.

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