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Confessions of a Dithering Catholic

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

After a childhood filled with Catholic doctrine, ritual, and festivals, I left the Church in the years following the Second Vatican Council. I didn’t leave because the reforms struck me as too liberal, but because they weren’t liberal enough. I left because in sexual matters the old conservatism still reigned, specifically the prohibition against artificial birth control.

I was glad but not surprised by the Church’s turn towards ecumenism, which seemed to me a shift in form rather than substance. I had always been taught that salvation was available to all people of good will, no matter their religion or lack of it. The notion that a just God would bar someone from heaven because she had never heard of the Catholic Church or chose to worship elsewhere was patently absurd. I was dismayed, however, that in the new liturgy Latin was replaced with English, Gregorian chant with random folk tunes, and ancient rituals watered down for the sake of “relevance.” But the main reason I turned away was that I didn’t want to run the risk of having a baby every year.

For a long time I thought I’d gotten off scot free. I had shed Catholicism like an old skin, and embraced my new secular existence without reservations. Most of my friends and colleagues, whatever their upbringing, had gone through a similar process. In academia, where I worked, open reflection on spiritual matters was not likely to ease the road to tenure. If you had concerns of a religious nature, you kept them to yourself.

However, in my sixties I started to suspect that all those years of rosaries and masses and confessions, genuflections, communions, and benedictions had left their mark. I had banished my old religion and it had left a void. So I pussyfooted around, in a spiritual sense, reading about Buddhism, taking up meditation, learning about the revival of contemplative prayer and its links with Eastern practices. For a while I attended a Unitarian Church, that haven of lapsed Catholics and Jews, and was there introduced to the “earth based religions,” namely Wicca, whose ecological and feminist roots attracted me. Something always seemed to be missing, though, and every once in a while I wondered what it would be like to wander back to Mass some Sunday. But the Church’s official condemnation of birth control, abortion, homosexuality, and the ordination of women kept me away.

The post-Vatican Catholicism of my twenties, with its seemingly kinder, gentler gestures covering up the old proscriptions wasn’t what made me think about going back. I wanted the Church of my childhood, in an ancient, preferably medieval, building, with candles and ritual gestures and serious music, and Latin, please. But that Church had ceased to exist.

Or so I thought, until this article in the New York Times informed me that here and there across the land churches had returned to the “ancient” worship. As I read on, however, I learned that the congregations at these churches consisted largely of people with staunchly conservative views about same-sex marriage, birth control, and the rest of it. Furthermore, to my horror, surveys showed that 60% of Catholics who attended mass at least once a month had voted for Trump.

According to the article, in addition to the right wingers, the old Mass also attracted some “aesthetic traditionalists.” Is  this all I am, I wondered,  an amateur of pomp and ceremony? Or is there more to the vestments, the rituals, and the chant than meets the eye and ear?

Joseph Campbell thought there was. He believed that the hieratic gestures, the ritual use of Latin, the sacred music all pitched us out of what he called “the field of domesticity,” i.e., the world of everyday life, and into the realm of myth, where humankind’s  longing for the sacred is fulfilled in ways not accessible to the rational mind. I think that Campbell is right. Half a century of immersion in strict rationalism had left me with few answers, and prey to gusts of existential despair. I guess I was missing myth.

So now that I know that it exists, what is holding me back from heading for the nearest Latin Mass? It’s fear, of course. Fear that I am one of those tradition-loving aesthetes who like the sound of Latin. Fear that what I am seeking is merely a return to my childhood, a kind of Proustian experience, with the Host in lieu of the madeleine. Fear that the congregants in the pews, and worse, the priest in the pulpit, might disgorge sociopolitical views that will send me running for the exit.

So I dither, lamenting the tension between traditional ritual and open-hearted, ecumenical, liberal attitudes. But I often imagine myself opening the church door and genuflecting before the altar as the priest intones In nómine Patris, et Fílii, et Spíritus Sancti, and my hand flies up all by itself to make the sign of the Cross.

Me, age six, in First Communion finery

6 Responses

  1. Interesting – I never had the deep-church European version of Catholicism, with the gorgeous visuals and scents. Our weekend churches in Mexico were more pedestrian (though some of the beautiful ones from colonial days are still in continuous use).

    I just figured the church hierarchy of old men was going to take a long time to get around to what was so patently obvious: that, at least to me and within the confines of marriage, it was much better to use modern technology to have only the number of children you could afford to care for – without losing your self. If it was legitimate to use the ‘natural’ family planning methods, it was ridiculous of them to deny me the other methods, when the aim was the same, and I wasn’t hurting anyone. We have three wonderful children – by choice. The timing was ours (very late – and I will always be grateful).

    I’m a very liberal Catholic who isn’t going to let all those people judging keep me away from the sacraments. Responsible parenthood was still an incredible amount of work, and may have been the reason I was too stressed and committed to fend off illness when it hit – so I’ve just done the best I have been able to since.

    I figure God gave women a working brain on purpose. Foolish old men who have never personally cared for a baby until it was toilet trained should have no say in those matters, and a lot more charity toward what they don’t understand. We don’t interfere with their lives!

    And I’m not on board with the ‘moment of conception’ idea – it makes no sense, when you know that two separate people with completely different selves and souls can come when a fertilized egg splits into twins.

    Science and logic – and not arguing with the wrong people – have gotten me thus far. That, and a very Catholic mother who prayed the rosary daily, but said once to me that ‘no woman should be forced to have a child she doesn’t want.’ My MOTHER! Who managed not to have me for five years after she and Daddy married – by knowing when she was fertile, and staying up to ‘finish knitting a sock.’ Because in her time there were no chemical or barrier helps she could use to do what the two of them had agreed to, which was to let him finish school after the war.

    Fortunately for me, she talked about all this later with her five daughters. And mourned the three she lost, who she always wondered whether they might have been boys.

    We listen, the daughters. Some of our husbands aren’t church-going any more, one of us took way too long to divorce the cad because she thought she had to pretend she hadn’t made a bad choice, some of us didn’t manage to get the next generation to follow strict rules – and it is not our job because they are now all adults.

    But I can’t wait to get back to our local parish in person, and am very grateful that we still have Mass and a communion service here monthly at the retirement community. I figure She will handle my lack of orthodoxy just fine if I still love Her and do my best.

  2. My understanding is that RC priests were (like Eastern Orthodox priests) were allowed to marry and that the later celibacy was imposed to prevent their male offspring from inheriting their fathers’ estates, i.e., land, titles, etc. (In medieval Europe religious and secular politics were inextricable.) Henry VIII and Martin Luther killed that–only to rise again in the new “religions” of Fascisim and Communism. All that we really “know” is what humanity has imagined. Supposedly, when Picasso first saw the Lascaux cave art from 20-30 thousand years old, he exclaimed that all subsequent art is decadent. Google Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man”: One must learn to “see nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is.”

  3. Not a Catholic, but moved into Unitarianism as a young adult. I really enjoyed this piece and sent it to several of my skeptical friends (plus Anne and Susan who also hung out in Birmingham as teenagers).

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