An Israelite Without Guile
Becoming Culturally Catholic
Catholicism is also a muse. As a writer, I need material like I need oxygen, and the Church never seems to come up short. It's provided job opportunities. Because she's chock-full of paradoxes—sublime truths in custody of a very mundane institution, an objective Reality that draws a good part of its power from subjective experience—the world of Catholic letters is always hiring. We've got open slots for policy analysts, apologists, theology wonks, and mommy bloggers. To my surprise, there's even a ready niche for me, a Catholic gadfly.
A few weeks ago, I wrote that kids seemed to respond well to stories of terror and misery—including reports of hell. In support of the point, I quoted Bruno Bettelheim and Adam Gopnik. One was a Freudian psychoanalyst, the other is a New Yorker columnist. Since neither is Flannery O'Connor, I was committing an act of some originality and some daring—in short, making a statement. If you remember that scene in Borat, where Sacha Baron Cohen brings a barely dressed black woman to a gathering of Alabamans who look like veterans of the White Citizens Council, you'll get the general idea. My piece was received even more cordially than Baron Cohen and his date. The tent is big.
Lately, it's become popular to complain about the Church's internal divisions—roughly, picky cafeteria Catholics versus those with enough of an appetite for doctrine to treat the Catechism as an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. This can be trying, it's true, but the complainers—and I've been one of them—set the bar very high, measuring the polarized reality against an ideal of unified, or at any rate a harmonious, ideal that may well prove unreachable this side of the grave. Go check out Salon's combox if you want to see real fratricidal fury—with cusswords, no less.
Not long ago, after reading the opening sentence of an opinion piece, I found I was able to anticipate each of the author's high-powered phrases—"narcissistic," "selfish," "lukewarm," "watered-down"—and felt a kind of weary contempt. But it occurred to me later that it was a contempt born of familiarity; "familiarity" shares a root with "family." Seeing bombs tossed may not make me happy, but by gum, it makes me feel at home. If I hadn't sworn off booze, I'd say that those maddeningly overused words could form the basis for one honey of a drinking game.
So here I am, a thorough cultural Catholic. Whether I ever become a political Catholic remains to be seen. ("Christ rode a donkey," I like to remind myself whenever I feel the pull, "not an elephant.") A more realistic goal might be evolving into the sort of Catholic who bears a compelling witness to nearby gentiles. Here I envy people who live in the midst of intolerant jerks—that's the kind of set-up that gives a Catholic the chance to shine, blood of the martyrs and all that. As luck would have it, when I tell infidel friends and relatives about having to get up early the next day for Mass, they sigh with relief, knowing me for an eccentric who could have done a lot worse for himself than get religion. I'm not sure I could pick a fight with them if I wanted to.
As St. Sebastian was overheard to say, somebody shoot me.
Max Lindenman is a freelance writer, based in Phoenix. He has been published in National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and Salon. His Open Salon blog is here.