Learning to Love Catholics

by Elias Blum

“Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!”
(Hilaire Belloc)

If you’d asked me what I knew about Catholics when I was in my late teens, I would have told you that they worshipped Mary and the Pope, that the Pope was evil, that they were ruled by corrupt drunkard priests, that they believed in and practiced a form of black magic, that they were not allowed to have sex for fun, but were feckless and reckless proponents of out-breeding the rest of the world. They had no morals, because all they had to do was go to confession, and they were poor (a product, I assumed, of the over-breeding, the drinking, and the lack of intellectual ability created by centuries of mental slavery to the priesthood). They were not, any more, a threat to the security of the realm (it’s not the 1690s, for crying out loud), but they weren’t exactly ‘our sort’ either: there was something unavoidably dirty, foreign, deceitful and debauched about them.

As you can probably tell, I never had much contact with real-life Catholics. I don’t think I ever knowingly met one, except for one boy at school who would deliberately, and pointedly, omit the ‘for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory’ bit out of compulsory prayers in the school chapel. Such ‘knowledge’ of Catholics and of Catholicism  as I possessed came from two heavily biased sources: (i) cultural osmosis, through the membranes of a culture which is still, under the surface, pretty ripe with anti-catholicism; (ii) the study of history, especially the history of Tudor England, the civil wars, and the Glorious Revolution.

Then, one February in the very last years of the twentieth century, when I was a first-year undergraduate navigating my way through a university life that seemed full of challenges and opportunities, two remarkable things happened.

Firstly, I found Jesus. I went to a talk about the Gospel of Luke, put on by my University’s Christian Union as part of their events week. What can I say? I was young. I was curious. I didn’t know any better. They had free cake. I went, and I listened, and I was confused but intrigued.  I spent the whole of the next day reading through a little copy of Luke that they had given me. I even walked up a hill to sit on a rock and ‘think about it’. It was no good. I couldn’t avoid it. I had to go back the next day. I don’t remember the content of the talk, but I do remember being presented with a stark but unappealing choice: accept Jesus as my ‘lord and saviour’, who died ‘to pay the debt of my sins’, or get roasted for eternity. No one wants to get roasted for eternity, and at the time my knowledge of cosmology, evolution, biblical criticism, sociology, anthropology, and such like, was too shallow to enable me to see through this apparent dilemma. At just around midnight, in the flat of some over-eager CU fellow with a contagious grin and far-away cultic eyes, I recited a ‘sinner’s prayer’ and, as they put it, ‘got saved’.

Secondly, I met a girl. She was luscious and exotic, with dark flowing hair, sparkling dark eyes, olive tanned skin, and a curvature of breast and buttock so perfectly generous that I was, for some uncomfortable minutes, unable even to go to the bar and order a drink. She talked with her hands. I’d never seen anyone do that before. I couldn’t hear the words she said, because the movement was enchanting. If I got close enough, she smelt different, too: less ‘squeeky clean’ than the frail little blonde girls around her; more earthy, with tones of wine, garlic, paprika, scented cigarettes and spanish perfume. Of course I was smitten, but I didn’t think much of it. I was 18 year old, very sheltered, priggish and prudish, a virgin, and a product of a boys-only school: at that stage, smitten-ness was a near-daily occurrence. I wasn’t to know, then, that a few years later (after a couple of false starts, a few detours along the way, and a lot of growing up) we’d be married.

The point of this over-sharing story, as I’m sure you have figured out, is that this marvellous creature, now my wife, is a Catholic: not a lapsed, nominal, cultural Catholic, but a fairly devout and practicing (although liberal, and neither strict nor legalistic) Catholic.

By the time we were engaged, I’d long since outgrown my youthful dalliance with evangelicalism, and moved, as my faith matured and deepened, to a more liberal, unitarian and universalist, position. I had also outgrown, through maturity and education, much of the ignorant anti-catholic prejudice that I had unwittingly absorbed as a child. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Although it was never deliberate or hateful, it was, well, stupid and closed-minded. Sorry.

As we discussed the spiritual foundations of our relationship during courtship, we came to realise that, aside from the different labels, cultural traditions, and outward manifestations, we shared a very compatible spiritual approach; despite differences in theology, there is common ground in Christian ethics, in the primacy of love over law, in the triumph of grace and inclusion over retribution and separation, and in the desire to pattern our marriage on the model of transcendent commitment and mutual submission found in Ephesians 5:21-33. We even managed to achieve mutual agreement on birth control (yes) and abortion (no), and on the question of whether any future children are to be baptised as babies (no, except if she does it in secret, using stolen holy water, and without any official record being kept).

I learned much during these conversations, and through the on-going experience of sharing my life with a Catholic. Of course, I’m not a Catholic myself, and I don’t think I ever could be. The biggest stumbling blocks (aside, obviously, from the whole Unitarian ‘denying the incarnation and the trinity’ thing) are institutional: I cling to the principle of the gathered, congregational church, of soul freedom, and of the right of every person to be led in all spiritual matters by the light of the Spirit within them. I’m too much of an iconoclast, too much of an individualist in religious matters. I’m too inclined to make lists of things I disagree with and nail them on doors. I still recoil at the corruption, the arrogance, the conceit, and the abuse of power, of the Roman hierarchy. I’m still suspicious of priesthood.

Nevertheless, I have come to understand a few things about Catholicism, and I can now see much that is excellent and appealing in the Catholic tradition. For example, I have achieved a greater appreciation of the sacredness of time and place. I see the value in liturgical services, and in the relentless procession of liturgical seasons. I can understand the use of visual and tangible prompts in worship, like paintings and statues.

More importantly, if I squint hard enough, and wilfully suspend disbelief for a moment, I can catch a glimpse of what Andrew Greeley, in his eponymous and excellent book, calls the ‘Catholic imagination‘. This, as I see it, is the true wonder of Catholicism. The world is full of God. Everything that is is alive with God-ness.

“The central symbol (of religion) is God. One’s ‘picture’ of God is in fact a metaphoricalnarrative of God’s relationship with the world and the self as part of the world… The Catholic ‘classics’ assume a God who is present in the world, disclosing Himself in and through creation. The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be somewhat like God. The Protestant classics, on the other hand, assume a God who is radically absent from the world, and who discloses (Himself) only on rare occasions (especially in Jesus Christ and Him crucified). The world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be radically different from God.” (Andrew Greeley)

Therefore, according to Greeley, “Protestants are never at home on earth, they are pilgrims on their way. Catholics, meanwhile, like to dwell on earth. They enjoy life and are not in a hurry to get to heaven because God lurks everywhere, especially where you do not expect her (sic) to be.”

This makes such a difference to how life is lived. To take one example, Catholicism’s attitude to wealth is healthier than the Protestant attitude. There’s none of that horrible Protestant nonsense (so painfully and grotesquely evident in our politics today, as welfare recipients are branded as ‘scroungers’ and ‘layabouts’) that material wealth is a sign of worthiness and good character, and that the poor are to therefore sinful, and to blame for their poverty. Instead, the Catholic view sees wealth as necessary for the good life, and the state as being necessary to ensure that all can enjoy a good life. The accumulation of wealth for its own sake, business models based on limitless growth, and economic systems based on fierce competition, are very Protestant notions, antithetical to these ideas. It is no coincidence, I think, that all European countries that are majority-Catholic have, to the best of my knowledge, social and economic rights written into their Constitutions.

Despite the continued (and irresponsible, in an over-populated, resource depleted world)opposition of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to birth control, Greeley’s methodologically robust quantitative survey data show that ‘Catholic sex’ can be more fun than ‘Protestant sex’, precisely because God, in the Catholic understanding, is not separate from nature. The Protestant God might have to avert his eyes from all the icky squishy grunting, but the Catholic God’s right there in the midst of it, present in the enjoyment of the joys of nature.

There’s also something appealing about the very ‘catholicity’ of the Catholic church: unlike Protestant churches, which due to their fissiparous structure are often segregated by wealth, education, churchmanship or theological orientation, Catholic churches are for everyone. You might not like it. You might not even agree with it. But you are welcome all the same (as long as you shut up and don’t criticise). The church isn’t a well of stagnant holiness for the in-crowd, it’s a fountain of blessing for everyone. Again, I’m not claiming that the institutional Roman Catholic church lives up to this – not by any means – but it is a very attractive idea all the same.

All this comes with a further disclaimer: the Catholicism to which I have been exposed is Mediterranean Catholicism. The Catholicism of the Irish (and of Scots of Irish dissent), she tells me, is another thing altogether – made dark, austere and unforgiving by the cold northern air. There’s more of a bunker mentality, less light and joy in it, and a greater obsession with ‘the rules’ and ‘obedience’. I’ll have to take her word on that for now.

Even so, these glimpses of the Catholic imagination are both intriguing and delightful. They have caused me to think again about the nature of the Unitarian Universalism, which is, after all, a merger of two distinct religious strands. The Unitarian strand is profoundly Protestant. It is cold, stark, rational, empirical, and is concerned with the absence of God: with the not-God-ness of Jesus, the not-God-ness of the Bible, the not-God-ness of all human institutions. It resolves itself into an honest but cheerless and empty agnosticism. But while Unitarianism critically denies, Universalism joyously affirms. Universalism declares the Catholic immanence of God. It celebrates the God-ness of All: the God-ness of all nature, and the God-ness each one of us.  While Unitarianism leaves us radically isolated in the Protestant confines of our own reason and conscience, Universalism unites us in the Catholic embrace of a human, ecological and cosmic community.

It is amazing. Just think of all that Oneness in the Loving Embrace of Divine Cosmic Community I would have missed out on, had it not been for a Spanish girl with long dark hair, and her hopelessly corrupt, rosary-kissing, saint-invoking, genuflecting ways.