This afternoon, I am reading through Kaya Oakes’s Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church. Oakes is a self-described progressive and a feminist. One of the questions she is constantly struggling to justify, to herself and to readers is, Why be Catholic?
Oakes is a poet, so the effort is not completely futile. As Socrates said, poets have access to insights that they understand not, and can give us new ways of approaching those mysteries. But too often, for my taste, she slips out of a more poetic mode and into rationalization.
Sixty some odd pages in, Oakes has explored her deep and unexpected longing to rejoin the church of her youth. She has contrasted the Catholic Church with other religious bodies that might be a bit closer to her ideological outlook.
Episcopalians bored her with with “uninspiring sermons” and “endless repetition of verse in hymns.” United Church of Christers “had some embarrassing white-people hip-shaking thing at their service.” Praying with Unitarians “felt like entering a vacuum.” Buddhism is great, Oakes said, but it lacked anything to for her to work toward, “other than nothingness.”
So Oakes wants to join with a people she’s comfortable with and a church that stretches back through the ages. That much I understand. What I do not understand is her way of dealing with the beliefs of that Church — my Church as well.
The Catholic beliefs that are agreeable to her she accepts wholeheartedly. The beliefs that are maybe a little bit difficult she swallows hard and signs off on. And the ones that seriously challenge her way of thinking she simply rejects. On those issues — abortion, contraception, gay marriage, women’s ordination, etc. –, she argues that it is the Church, not her, that is in error.
It’s not the purpose of this post the argue all the specific points with her. I am not so much concerned that she is a “cafeteria Catholic” (her words) as that it looks like she is going to end up with a cafeteria morality as well.
I worry because it is terrible idea to start with the premise that “I’m not so bad, really” and construct a moral theory and a set of theological beliefs to support that conceit.
Okayness, as we might call it, is a denial of the darker side of human nature. It ultimately removes morality as a serious restrainer. And if you don’t think humanity is in need of some restraint, have I got the song for you!