Tuesday, April 05, 2016

I Once Was Lapsed, and Now I'm Relapsed

I was raised Catholic, but started being lured away from the faith when I was about 15. The root cause of my eventual loss of faith was essentially intellectual snobbery, pride, and ambition. Let me tell you a bit about how it happened that I left and came back again.

When I was 15 going on 16, I had back surgery and was hospitalized for a year. I continued my voracious reading habit in the hospital bed, while continuing to do teenager-type things such as painting my toenails blue and having contests with a friend in the next bed about who could fill the nightly bed pan the fullest by drinking huge amounts of water. I can still see the tolerant nurse's aid, with her starched white cap and uniform, struggling to carry away the brimming metal bedpans.

Every week my sophomore English teacher sent me four or five works of fiction by writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Mary McCarthy to Simone de Beauvoir. Most of the authors treated religious belief as a crutch for those who are too weak to stand the existential pain of living in a meaningless universe. In 1963, I got a scholarship to Brandeis University, where I did more class readings that cast religious belief in a negative light. I aspired to being a great intellectual, and so by the middle of my freshman year in college, I had left my crutch (my faith) behind and hobbled off alone.

The freshman cafeteria served rare roast beef every Friday, and one Friday I finalized my rebellion against the Church by eating that rare roast beef.

When I became a lapsed Catholic, at least I took with me a good basic grounding in the faith, from nine years of parochial school and from reading I had done on the side, such as the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux.

In 1964, I dropped out of Brandeis, started hanging around with artists and others on the fringes of society. I continued seeking enlightenment, following the trail of whatever the intellectuals and artists of the world had to say about the nature of truth and reality.

Fast forward to 1976, by which date I had been married and divorced. By then I had a 4 year old daughter and a 6 year old son, and I was living on welfare in Minneapolis, without any family or friends to help me. With the aid of the government child care funding and student loans, I was finishing my degree.

I started to notice that people who follow Christian teachings achieved more than the hedonistic, selfish artists that I previously admired. When I think of hedonistic, selfish artists, one fellow art student comes to mind. In an attempt to make original art, he slept and lived in the middle of a huge roll of paper. When he got another art student pregnant, he "supported" her by giving her money for an abortion and comforting her as she grieved afterwards.

It began to dawn on me that God's commandments were protective, rather than being the rules of a Big Meany in the Sky who was trying to steal our joy. For example, it occurred to me that when a person makes a life-long commitment to a single spouse instead of going through a series of "relationships," that person is spared the often-grievous pain of separating from one mate after another and (for that and other reasons) is more free to do good things with his or her life. That observation was a small beginning of growth of my trust in God's benevolent love.

Once I accepted the reality of God and Christ, I tried lots of Protestant churches: Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Evangelical, Charismatic, Full Gospel, even Unitarianism. Eventually none of them satisfied because none provided the Eucharist. The Body and Blood of Christ alone would be powerful reason enough to return to the Catholic Church, but I also became aware of how necessary the Catholic Church's traditions are as guidance in interpreting the Scriptures.

Following are just two examples of where I saw the need for tradition, which I witnessed in a small church associated with a small denomination, the Evangelical Free Church.

In one Saturday Bible class taught by a laywoman, the pastor sat in. The woman interpreted certain passages in St. Paul's 1st letter to the Corinthians [1Cor14:33b-36] according to the historical context. Her point was that in those verses, St. Paul was not forbidding all women to speak, only deploring the disorder being caused by some newly-converted pagan women in the Corinthian Church of that day. Either because the pastor had slept through her class with his eyes open, or because he disagreed, the next day the pastor used the same verses in his Sunday sermon to reiterate that 1st Corinthians forbade women to speak out in Church. Individual interpretation of Scripture led these two individuals to draw totally different conclusions from the same set of Bible verses.

This next example was even more troubling. A Stanford and Yale-trained lawyer who was teaching a Bible class disagreed with the pastor about how the Evangelical Free Church should respond to Christ's "Great Commission" to go out and preach the gospel to the whole creation. That lawyer and his friends broke away and started an even smaller church, called Straitgate! Obviously (to me at least), with only the Scriptures as a guide to faith, the splintering of the Church that started centuries ago is still going on.

This is not to say that I found perfect adherence to the Catholic Church's interpretation of the Scriptures in the Catholic Church on my return. The worst example that I ever witnessed was at a retreat center. First the Franciscan priest stood up and read from the Gospel of the day Christ's words forbidding divorce, and then in his homily the priest said that Christ really wasn't against divorce. When I asked him later how he could contradict the Gospel by saying that Christ wasn't against divorce, the priest said that a theologian said so.

To my mind, that priest and many theologians too could benefit by seeking out what the Church has always taught about Scripture passages before they propose an original insight into the mind of God.

In spite of that priest, and in spite of other venal or misguided or evil priests and Church leaders, I couldn't consider leaving this Church again. The Church is the body of Christ. His Spirit lives in the Church and has guided it since the time of the apostles. The Church has the authority given to St. Peter and the apostles and has the traditions to guide interpretation of the meaning of the Scriptures. As Peter said, "Where else would I go, Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life."
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