It’s a Wonderful Mardi Gras, Encore

Reposting from last year, because it’s as true as ever. Our own celebrations might be subdued today, because we’re in a reflective mood after the announcement of the Holy Father’s renunciation of office. But the rest of you? Let it roll, on us.

Today is Lundi Gras—Fat Tuesday—in New Orleans. Last night the monarchs of Zulu and Rex arrived by boat at the foot of Canal Street, kicking off the party that won’t end until tonight at midnight. The good times are rolling, in a frenzy of parades and throws and masked balls and rich foods and music and liquor and behavior as spicy as Cajun pepper sauce. It’s a good bet that many of those partying in the streets of New Orleans, or anywhere else in the country in this carnival week, might be among the Americans who wish the Catholic Church would shut up and stop being such a puritanical killjoy on this whole contraception thing.

Let’s imagine that the Church could indeed be wished into the cornfield right this minute. Or that, in some Frank Capra scenario, we could suddenly have an America in which the Church had not only stayed quiet on issues of its own beliefs, but never existed at all. Poof! The guys in the funny hats aren’t in bed with you anymore, trying to keep you from having all the fun to which the Constitution entitles you! Crank up the zydeco! It’s Mardi Gras season!

Except that it isn’t.

Without the Catholic Church, there’s no Mardi Gras, no carnival. These are Catholic inventions, customs of excess developed in anticipation of the Lenten fasting and abstinence that begins at midnight tonight—Ash Wednesday. Back in the day when Catholics had to abstain from meat not only on the Fridays of Lent but for all 40 days of the season, and additionally had to forego sweets and fats and limit portions to one moderately sized meal a day, it became customary to use up all the forbidden foods in one last festive blow-out the day before. Thus “Fat” Tuesday, and carnival—from the Latin for “Goodbye, meat!” And because Lent had to begin with shriving (the old English word for confessing one’s sins—thus another name for today, Shrove Tuesday), it seemed only natural to get all the sinning in one could while indulging in that final feast. The girls flashing their breasts for plastic beads probably don’t recognize it, but they’re part of a long, long tradition of pre-Lent licentiousness.

So, no Church, no Mardi Gras. The streets of the French Quarter are suddenly as gray, deserted, and forlorn as they’ll look tomorrow morning after the sanitation workers come through. You won’t even be able to console yourself with some blackened tilapia at Mulate’s and a night of zydeco at Tipitina’s. Because no Church, no Cajuns. The folks who brought such colorful seasoning to the American gustatory and musical palate were French-speaking Catholics from the Acadian region of Canada, displaced by the Protestant British. Want to displace the Catholic Church? BAM! No more Emeril, cranking it up a notch. No more Beausoleil. Jambalaya? What the hell is that?

And lotsa luck settling for Creole food at Arnaud’s, or Dixieland jazz at Preservation Hall, or beignets and chicory coffee at Cafe du Monde. Lotsa luck doing anything at all in the Crescent City. No Catholic Church, no New Orleans. French and Spanish Catholics, free Catholics of color, Creoles and Cajuns made New Orleans what it is. No New Orleans, and who knows what we’d look like, taste like, sound like as a country? No New Orleans, and we might not be a country at all, since without the Catholic city’s stand with the forces of Andrew Jackson—and, according to deep-held New Orleans tradition, the miraculous intercession of Notre Dame de Bon Secours (Our Lady of Prompt Succor)—the War of 1812 would have been lost to the British, whose troops at the Battle of New Orleans outnumbered Colonel Jackson’s ragged militia by more than 2 to 1.

But suppose that even without the help of New Orleans and its Catholics, the Republic survived. We’d still be a much more liberal, free, tolerant society without the Catholic Church trying to shove religion down American throats, right? I mean, after all, that’s what the First Amendment’s all about—worth losing some Mardi Gras glitter and Cajun spice as long as we’ve got that.

Ooops. No Catholics, no First Amendment protections against the establishment of a state religion. Not even much of a concept of religious liberty. The Puritans, remember, were as much of a theocracy as the Taliban, and equally as repressive. Out of the 13 original colonies, all but two had established churches (Protestant Christian, either Puritan or Anglican); Maryland was founded—by Catholics—as the first non-denominational colony, where freedom of religion (which was a short-lived experiment in Quaker Pennsylvania) took root and flourished as a concept so valuable to the founding fathers that it was enshrined up front in the Bill of Rights. Thomas Jefferson—known for coining the phrase “wall of separation between Church and State”–recognized the contributions of Catholics to the diversity of American life, and the importance of protecting free expression. He put those thoughts in writing in a letter to the Ursuline Sisters of New Orleans, who feared that the Louisiana Purchase would cost them the freedom to run Catholic schools and institutions they had held under French and Spanish rule.

The principles of the Constitution and government of the United States are a sure guarantee to you . . . that your institution will be permitted to govern itself according to its own voluntary rules, without interference from the civil authority.

You can see that letter in the museum of the Ursuline Convent in the French Quarter (and paste a copy to Kathleen Sebelius’s mirror, while you’re at it)—or you could if you hadn’t wished Catholicism, and the religious freedom so precious to all of us, out of existence. No Catholics, and America (first settled by Europeans sent, need I remind you, by Their Catholic Majesties) is Puritan from sea to shining sea. And you think we’re a buzzkill?

Say none of that matters, and you’re willing to flout the Puritan blue laws to sneak out in a couple of weeks to wear the green and tie one on for St Paddy’s Day. Oh. Wait. No Catholics, no green beer, no corned beef and cabbage, no Riverdance-inspired girls in curls kicking up their heels. OK, I could lose that last one, having acquired Irish dance PTSD from placing sixth out of four competitors at a feis when I was 10 . . . but you get my drift.

Think twice before you imagine what a wonderful life it would be without the Catholics–who, by the way, just because it bears repeating, don’t give a string of Mardi Gras beads about what you do in bed as long as we don’t have to call it a sacrament or pay for you to do it. It’s Mardi Gras. We live in a religiously free and tolerant nation, where New Orleans swings with every fiber of its spicy, fatty, sinful-about-to-shriven being.

Laissez les bontemps rouler, chers! And thank a Catholic.

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