“Catholics Do Not Throw People Away”

When I took a job loading aircraft for America West, I had to join the Transport Workers’ Union. The perks of membership became apparent after my first accident. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t my accident. All I did was drive the belt loader as close to the aft bin as I could manage to do. It was the baggage runner who hooked the back end of the belt loader with the last baggage cart in her train, punching the conveyer belt’s raised front end two or three inches into the fuselage of the A319 Airbus we were trying to load. Nevertheless, the duty sup held the two of us equally responsible and drove us off the ramp for a urine test.

After the baggage runner and I filled our cups, the cold-eyed duty sup covered them with strips of adhesive plastic and handed them back to us. Then we two culprits committed our respective versions of events to paper. As we sat side-by-side on a sofa, our urine samples rested on the coffee table, each plainly visible to the person from whom it hadn’t originated.

The baggage runner, a corkscrew-haired Latina in her early 20s, was mortified; every time I glanced at her, I saw agony in her eyes. I wanted to comfort her. For a moment, I considered taking her free hand and whispering, “No woman so beautiful should be ashamed of a little thing like urine.” Just as I thought better of it, the duty sup took our testimonies and told us to go home and come back after a day’s suspension. The same union rules that had put us through that ordeal, protected our jobs.

Being Catholic is a little like belonging to a union. On the bad side, it means suffering through certain rituals of repentance and reconciliation that can feel only a little less intrusive than having a cup of your warm pee eyed up by a manager and a creepy co-worker. On the good, it means you’re very, very hard to get rid of. As Elizabeth Scalia wrote yesterday, “Catholics do not throw people away.”

What a statement. Of what other institution could that fairly be said? Every day, people get themselves thrown out of families and non-union jobs, trespassed from bars and discos, driven from political parties. But to bounce a squatter from the Catholic Church is a task of Herculean complexity. Even if you manage to withhold Communion from some rotten egg — something ministers prefer not to try, for fear of raising a ruckus — he’ll still be there, taking up sacred space, breathing your air and plotting to snatch one of your donuts.

Seven o’clock Mass at my old parish sometimes attracted a scarecrow of a man who’d drifted down to Tempe from the Navajo Nation with nothing but a greasy Dodgers cap, which he insisted on wearing through the service, and a plastic rosary, which he hung round his neck. I found him picturesque — even when he reeked of eight-ball, he had something of the holy fool about him. Most of the time he was harmless, except for his singing. But once he did something outrageous. I forget what, exactly, but it made one of the hotter-blooded ushers chase him out the door.

It was not a surgical extraction. The disinvited guest to the Lord’s supper halted on the sidewalk, only a few steps from the door, put up his fists, and shouted at the usher to come on if he thought he was so bad. The usher’s fists and teeth were clenched and he was trembling. It was obvious he wanted nothing more than to accept the invitation. If the church had been a bar, only fear of a lawsuit would have stopped him from mountain-bombing the dipstick right onto the concrete. What bolted the usher in place (and kept the other man’s grape in one piece) was something else: it was the Sermon on the Mount. (Well, that and your narrator, who stepped up to play Good Cop; but even I was thinking of Matthew 26:52, not punitive damages or bad write-ups on Redfin.)

And that just illustrates the difficulties involved in removing someone from a Catholic church, indefinite article, small “c.” Getting him out of the big-C Church requires investigations, reports, invitations to dialogue and ultimatums, all of which cost time and money, not to mention reams of paper. An awful lot of what Catholics write about Catholicism boils down to their frustration with this multiplicity of hoops. Why, we demand, has this order not been suppressed, nor this university disowned? Some observers call for an end to this kind of thing, but after seeing that usher in action, I’ve come to accept it as inevitable. Between justice and mercy, between a mouthy bum and the Gospel, is a terrible place to be caught. A little impotent fuming is par for the course.

Now that I think about it, the usher’s expression reminded me a little of the look on the ramp sup’s face when he saw me clock in, two days after the accident. It was clear that he had his own quibbles with retentive HR policies. A few months later, I realized his worst fears when I managed to drive the front end of another belt loader straight into the fuselage of another A319 — this time without any help from anyone. Union rules would have kept me around, pending another drug test and another suspension. But my teammates had already made me for a klutz. Pacific Islanders, some of them Crips in good standing, and each one as broad as a Smart Car, they were giving off a vibe that Captain Cook might recall from his last moments on earth. When the duty sup showed up, I handed him my SIDA badge and said, “I’m done.”

Rigorists like to complain about cheap Grace. But I guarantee that if they’d been standing in my steel-toed, OSHA-approved boots that day, they’d have found the price of reconciliation a little steep. The Catholic Church remains one place — maybe the only place — even a complete loser can’t get thrown out of, and where he almost certainly will never get his ass kicked. Now that’s a slogan to evangelize with.

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