I was raised Freudian. My father was a psychoanalyst; my mother had, at various points in her life, been an analysand. To hear David Brooks-type pundits tell it, every kid who grew up since Constantinople fell to Mehmet the Conqueror was suckled on lollipops and self-esteem. If only. In our house, it was taken for granted that all of humanity blundered through life following disordered drives that only years of close professional scrutiny at $150 per hour could tame. Nobody ever came right out and said, “Trust only your therapist,” but that was the general idea.
Now, I don’t claim to understand Freud all that well. I certainly didn’t understand him when I was 10, 15, or even 18. One observation I’ll stick by even after all these years is that most of my dad’s colleagues — a certain E.S. being an exception — were pretentious gasbags. On the other hand, the idea that many people were fundamentally sick seemed to have a firm empirical basis. Gradually, as in a game of intellectual Chinese whispers, it mutated until it became a belief in something I eventually recognized as Original Sin.
That conviction has never left me. Seeing even the best people hurt, exploit and betray one another on a regular basis has made it impossible to reconsider. Lots of them do it against their own wills, or at least against the clear demands of their consciences. When St. Paul complained to the Romans that he did what he would not, and did not do what he would, he was writing an epitaph for an big segment of humanity, including yours truly.
One wonderful thing about Catholicism is the way it posits this very obvious fact without letting anyone slide into misanthropy or torpor on its account. In his first letter, John the Apostle asks, a little testily, how anyone can love an invisible God without also loving visible people. It’s actually too silly a question to be anything but rhetorical – familiarity does breed contempt, and ineffable Beings are hard to get too familiar with. But John posed it for a good reason, to remind the early Church communities that people are still members of the Mystical Body of Christ even when they’re acting like real…members.
By the same token, mankind’s Fall may have weakened our will, but there’s enough left that we can make a conscious turn in God’s direction. Broadly, we shouldn’t feel too surprised or discouraged when we fail to be good, but we still have to make the effort. Between telling people, “If you can conceive it, you can achieve it,” and saying, “Oh, what’s the use,” working out salvation in fear and trembling, giving Grace room to build on Nature, looks like a realistic middle position.
Maybe Graham Greene put it better when he said that he became Catholic in order to find a religion to measure his evil against. But for me, there’s more — for example, the Mass in all its beauty. I don’t mean bells, smells or Gregorian chanting. (Hearing that stuff oversold makes me roll my eyes and think, “Fussy fascists at prayer.”) Instead, I mean the beauty of a God who is so eager to be accessible that he transforms flat bread and cheap wine into his own substance. You can’t find a more user-friendly gesture than that.
The Catholic Church also forms a subculture, or a fandom. Even now, belonging means sharing a frame of reference with, roughly, a billion people worldwide. Once when I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I noticed a bearded man wearing a gray habit. “Excuse me, sir,” I asked. “Are you a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal?” “Why, sure I am,” the man said, grinning. We chatted for a good five minutes, which between complete strangers in Manhattan is pretty impressive.
To anyone outraged over the rash of clerical sex abuse revealed in the 2000s, this must seem like pretty small beer. Being a non-parent, I suppose I have it easy. And yes, it can be infuriating to hear of bishops, like Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, who flouted the Dallas Charter by keeping credibly accused priests around. But, if Laura Kipnis can be believed, students and faculty on campuses across America have arrived at the conclusion that rape and rapeyness are inherent in the human condition. Why, then, single out the Church? In any case, I have eyes and ears and no qualms about dropping dimes, so there’s always the chance I’ll get to be part of the solution.
This leaves the question of gays and transgender people and other interest groups locked in a zero-sum contest with the Church. What kind of swine am I that I would become their enemy in exchange for the cheap pleasures of eating crackers and praying to a flying spaghetti monster? The official Church answer is that true liberty is the freedom to obey God’s commandments; the freedom to break them is false liberty, or license. Extending license to people does them no favors, whether they realize it or not. I admit, I am still enough of the World’s creature to find that answer paternalistic, not to mention insufferably smug.
My own answer is that sexual minorities are having their day, and I suspect that day will last for quite a while. Whatever power the Church once held over their life choices it lost a long time ago. They and their allies are now setting the terms of the debate – if, indeed, there’s any debate left to have. As I’m more likely to dance at the end of their rope than t’other way round, my malformed conscience can acquit me of being a privileged bully, and leave me to enjoy my passé fun free of guilt (apart from the normal Catholic kind).
Entering the Church when so many people are leaving does feel kind of embarrassing, like discovering the goatee after everyone with the follicles for it has already grown a lumberjack beard. And I loathe the sound of the Benedict option, whereby the Church protects itself by shrinking and hardening into cells. I hold out hope that, by remaining a relatively world-friendly Catholic, I could end up playing a creative minority to a creative minority — a great way to make sure my evil gets measured from all angles.