I know I promised I’d be talking about books and stuff, but shit’s been real, guys, and I have to get this off my chest.
Although I have not wanted to admit this to myself, the past couple of years really has been a protracted crisis of faith for yours truly as a Catholic, with the last few months being particularly acute. I’ve tried to tell myself that this has just been limited to particular, isolated moments (which I sometimes have touched upon here), and that I picked myself up from these after maybe a bad week or so. To a certain extent that’s true, in the sense that getting back on your feet after having been punched in the face is a recovery of sorts, but you still have a mess of blood and broken bone to deal with. You’re still left weaker, and this stuff has been part of a general decline that I haven’t been able to turn around.
My relation to the Catholic faith has been one which has shifted from an acceptance of its teachings and attendant pains, something which was more of a love affair, to one which can only engage with it in a far more philosophically tortured and doubting manner; one where the life of faith is a sort of impersonal, rarefied system of thought that you awkwardly attempt to apply to your life; and I haven’t succeeded in getting back to the former state. I don’t mean here a normal spiritual dryness, but rather a palpable disconnect and alienation, the faith becoming something other, ethereal, external to me and the world I inhabit – that it’s something I can only parrot and not truly live. And, as I think I said in an earlier post, you can’t make sacrifices to an abstract, distant thing.
When you can’t escape that gnawing emptiness, it becomes easier to sin. You can go through the sacramental rigmarole, but it feels more like a pause button than anything else, and the situation just perpetuates itself, and gets worse. So you’re also trying to fend off despondency and despair.
It may be that, in my early years as a Catholic, I was so eager to be that 100% orthodox convert poster boy that I swallowed whatever misgivings I may have had at the time, and that now they’re getting revenge upon me. Maybe it’s my fault.
The intellectual advantage, in theory, of being Catholic is that you have an epistemological leg up on everybody else. Human experience is a murky place full of personal and cultural blind-spots and limitations. The Church, in her infallibility, provides the correct interpretation, and thus is the only institution capable of having a final word on human affairs. I do doubt this.
And this doesn’t stop the contemporary magisterium from making things a hermeneutical nightmare. A recent example: the change in the catechism declaring the death penalty to be intrinsically evil. The outcry over this was less about the death penalty per se, but rather that Catholic tradition has long taught that capital punishment is just, and so breaking with that carries some unfortunate implications. An institution which consolidates this amount of authority while also playing fast and loose with the truth starts to look totalitarian.
Of course, there are ways out of this; there are different levels of magisterial teaching, not all of which are infallible, that need to be weighed against each other. But now we’ve moved away from the realm of the everyday man in the pews and towards the theological specialist. The teaching office of the Church becomes something which itself requires interpretation and commentary in order to bring into a harmonious whole.
Traditionalists, in their critique of a lot of the post-Vatican II Church, strike me as the ones who are the most internally consistent in their belief in how the Church has historically understood herself, and the social/political implications of that. But aside from a preference for the Tridentine rite, their mindset and way of life is something which I’ve never been able to appropriate, not without cognitive dissonance. They’d might as well be from another planet.
In the answers I seek, I just find more doubts and questions, having felt not so much like I have found an epistemological escape door, but rather have only wandered into a particularly arcane mode of human experience.
Anyway, you can’t have “being serious about your religion” always = “writhing in existential torment” and not have it take a toll upon you. It’s an enervating and corrosive war of attrition. And it ate away my faith.
It didn’t help that, as this crescendoed in me, all the new revelations and scandals about the Church hierarchy were blowing up, showing that my already admittedly pessimistic outlook on the hierarchy was, in fact, a little too on the sunny side. That realization fucked me up more than I thought it would, because I couldn’t find any substantial consolation or hope to cling onto. All the reminders of ex opere operato, or that the human ugliness on display could not trump the fundamental divinity and holiness of the Church have felt so abstract and immaterial. So I was left with, not just a lack of faith, but a fundamental lack of trust in the Church as a human institution.
But I’ve been good at papering this over. I have, by nature, a non-confrontational, go-along-to-get-along personality, which is not without its benefits. It does, however, run the risk of a certain obsequiousness and passivity. I’ve at times allowed bad relationships in my life to fester because of it. A big shock for me, recently, has been realizing just how much my continued relationship with the Church has followed this pattern and operated more out of inertia than anything else. This has also, I think, been reflected a bit in my blogging habits; my turn away from a willingness to be up and personal with Catholicism in my writing was perhaps a little motivated by the fear that things would blow up if I did.
Anyway, the new year so far has been my attempt to reckon with how what was there is no more, and that a gulf has appeared between myself and the Church that I don’t have the wherewithal to cross. It all queasily resembles aspects of my conversion: the realization that my trials and perambulations had changed me in some irrevocable fashion and had separated me from the way things used to be.
But I am older now, with at least enough self-awareness to know that one of my difficulties is an inability to cope with the absence of closure. Part of the appeal of conversion to Catholicism for the younger me was the seeming closure it would provide: reception into the Church would be the climax of my life’s drama, and everything else an extended epilogue. This is something which is both really silly for someone in their early 20s to think, but also something you need to be very young to half-believe, in that you still haven’t quite grasped how life proceeds onward irrespective of your own narrative conceits.
There is indeed part of me which thinks that I can close the door on all the drama of the preceding years by walking away from the Church. End chapter. But I suspect things are not that linear and pat, and I have my doubts that trying to scrub my all my Romish inclinations away would be successful, any more than trying to efface my gay inclinations. In some fashion or other, it will haunt me.
And, indeed, my whole time in the Church, viewed even from a non-theological standpoint, strikes me as quite necessary: I needed to undergo what I did in body, mind and spirit, to allow my imagination and intellect to be so molded by the Church and gain a rootedness in something so antique and foreign to what I had known up to that point. It was the one thing needful in my education, something that you really cannot get from the modern, secular world.
Also, it continued what I have found to be a running theme in my life: see as the outsider or alien. First in my Jewish heritage, which has always impressed itself upon my imagination since I was a child, perhaps doubly so because I was implicated in it without it being mine to completely own (the line of matrilineal descent not having been preserved by my parents), the image of the hated exile with some terrible destiny. Secondly in growing up queer, which was the first thing that Only Happens To Other People which happened to me.. Then finally in stepping outside of secularism into the strange, wooly world of Catholicism. In these cases, I found myself with grammars that were slightly different from what my peers were using. You see how things that seem inevitable may not be so, and that there are often things in the gaps and silences. There’s some value in this.
All the same, I can’t claim with a straight face to be in good standing with the Church at the moment, nor do I have the ignorance or cognitive dissonance required to believe that flouting the doctrines of the Church is compatible with being a good Catholic. Attempts to soften the Church into something anodyne and easy to digest are unpalatable and tacky as hell. I have seen your heterodox theologies and find them silly.
The best I can call myself is a lapsed Catholic.
So I don’t know. I don’t know what the future is for me. Perhaps I am merely on the precipice of rediscovering the faith anew, a re-conversion of sorts, since what seems insurmountable to me may not be so to God. Worse cases than myself have likely done so.
I don’t have answers, but I don’t think things can go on the way they were. 2019 is an interesting year so far.