I’m probably attacking a straw man — or at best a stick man — but lately I’ve been hearing rumors that certain Catholics are growing suspicious of us converts. Instead of breathing new life into the Church, their reasoning goes, all we do is sow confusion and take blogging jobs away from good, honest cradle Catholics. Unless someone redraws the districts in time for the next papal election, we’ll end up voting in socialized medicine and gun control.
I have to say, nobody’s ever expressed these ideas to me directly, probably because they’re so easy to demolish. For one thing, the data suggest that cradle Catholics, on the whole, live in a glass cathedral where fidelity is concerned. Then there’s the fact that the American Church is importing increasing numbers of priests from the global South, including from some regions where Catholicism is fairly new. If you’re expecting to be anointed on your deathbed by a guy whose grandparents prayed to Shango and Yemoja, you’d better be sport enough to offer a wholehearted sign of peace to someone who grew up worshipping Pokemon, Bob Dylan, or the God of the Missouri Synod Lutherans.
But maybe I insist on believing in this phantom prejudice because I know there’s some truth in it — not a whole lot, but just enough to deserve a careful dissection. If the bare minimum of Catholic authenticity is spelled out in the Nicene Creed and the Catechism and the Code of Canon Law, the greater part of the package is strictly cultural, a formidable snarl of dos and don’ts that nobody has ever codified, and which nobody can learn except through trial and error. Precisely because it’s not carved in stone, this unifying comme il faut is vulnerable to mutation through outside influence. If you’re a convert, as I am, and if you’re not careful, as I’m not, you might really end up tracking the mud of the World over the Church’s fine carpets.
One Catholic custom that’s always caused me problems is fraternal correction. Where I come from, men stay the hell out of each other’s business. If women like, they can fight their Mommy Wars and fatten the buzzards on one another’s corpses. Our rule goes: if you’re not the boss of me, then damn it, don’t act like you’re the boss of me, unless you want to spend the weekend picking shards from my beer mug out of your scalp. In other words, live and let live.
About three years ago, I was drafted to serve as an RCIA sponsor. My candidate was a college senior, a gym rat with a disarming manner, a pickup truck, and a tattoo of the Italian flag on his bicep. Shortly after the first series of dialogues, he began hooking up with another candidate, a fellow undergrad who had a blood-and-milk complexion and long lashes that fluttered, flaglike, over eyes the color of Baltic amber. I wasn’t thrilled. As kids still do these days, the couple made goo-goo eyes at each other while presenters were unpacking the preferential option for the poor.
That messed up the energy badly enough. Things got worse when the lovebirds fell out. By Holy Week, they were pointedly selecting chairs on opposite sides of the room. The woman took to sighing extravagantly and hugging herself; the man began rolling his eyes toward God and the fluorescent lights. Easter came and went, but the signals of reproach and counter-reproach only amplified. During Mystagogia, those two crazy kids were the uncontested stars of the show, the program’s chief attraction. Even Sr. Lucia got into the habit of glancing at them during paragraph breaks, just to see whether they had anything to add.
I had refrained from acting for several reasons. First, as we’ve seen, was my basic male respect for privacy. Second was my basic male respect for pack hierarchy — it is not for a small man with a Geo Prizm to interfere with the carnal delictations of a larger man with a Ford F-150, even if he does have religion and common sense on his side. Third…well, chaperone seemed like a role fit only for the old and the ugly. I might have been older and uglier than my candidate, but that was no good reason to drag my pants above my waistline prematurely.Thank God for women. My candidate’s counterpart and her sponsor — my counterpart — began buttonholing me before sessions, pouring their hearts out. Their complaints didn’t correspond exactly to the sins the Church would have held against my neophyte; together, they sounded more like a generic “she said,” against which there had to be an equally valid “he said.” Though I was in no mood to adjudicate, and wasn’t at all sure it fit into my job description, the two scrubbed the possibility of further inaction. On the bright side, they provided me with a cover story that saved my face and my charge’s. With perfect candor, I was able to say, like De Niro in Goodfellas, “They’re together comiseratin’. I can’t have it. I can’t have it.”
So one evening in the middle of Easter season, I laid it on the line. Or rather, I was about to. No sooner had I got out “I heard some things,” when my baby brother in Christ broke down and told me he thought the whole affair had been a terrible mistake. Then he insisted on telling me his side of the story. By that time, I’d pretty much guessed it, but listening gave me the opportunity to play a much more familiar part, that of the loyal buddy who sides with bros over other people’s baptismal candidates. It was under this cover that I suggested, as gently as possible, that my friend sow his wild oats in some other field, at least for the time being.
And that was the worst of it. The two lovers lived happily — and separately — ever after. Conferring and comiserating got to be such a habit with me and the other sponsor that we started dating; for a few months, we seemed to have a shot at becoming one of the parish’s power couples. We did break up eventually, but managed to remain friends, which may have been a first for me.
I still haven’t lost my essential queasiness regarding fraternal correction, or for any of the other intimacies of ecclesial life. One day, a woman from my parish showed up at my door uninvited and unannounced, something my best friend knows better than to do. In the seconds it took me to remember I had neither shotgun nor rock salt handy, I had a flash of insight: as a convert, I was perfectly happy living anonymously in a big city. This church lady’s zip code might have adjoined mine, but since she was a cradle Catholic, her spirit resided in a tiny, smurflike village somewhere in the Pyrenees. According to her value system, not tarrying by my hut when business happened to take her to my end of the grazing commons would have been a positive insult.
Until someone defines that chumminess infallibly, I’ll never embrace it willingly. But at least I am coming to understand it on its own terms enough to brace myself for it (if by no other means than by covering my windows with wattle and daub). If my case is typical, then maybe the critics have a point — we converts are at least as much trouble as we’re worth. The next time cradle Catholics pray success to the New Evangelization, they might want to bear in mind what they’re praying for.