As you might have guessed by the vowel at the end of my name: I was raised Catholic.
First Communion in third grade, confirmation in eighth; a slog through parochial high school thereafter. A typical story in which one is indoctrinated in the Catholic Church.
And the Catholic Church educational model was made for kids like me. Kids not necessarily raised or expected to be part of the power elite, but who needed to learn an approximation of the skill sets that kids at other private schools got. A bit more “critical thinking,” courtesy of religion classes and civics classes in which teachers, in an era well before the grey specter of Common Core normalization reared its ugly head, encouraged debate and discussion.
Those were the good teachers. There were some embarrassments as well.
Well, high school ended, and the yearbooks and uniforms mysteriously disappeared. The devout Catholics in my family, the ones who actually cared that there was a Polish pope, passed away. I knew that my dad was dying when he got really into watching the Eternal Word Television Network in the months before his death.
He was looking for something; maybe peace, maybe a familiar discourse. Presumably, he found it.
In the years since, I haven’t stepped into a Catholic Church more than a handful of times, and all of those were out of a sense of social obligation. The routines were imprinted on my brain nonetheless. The liturgies, the signs of peace, and the collection basket.
Every time I have gone into a Catholic Church, good seats were always available.
For the last decade or so, I’ve privately believed that the Catholic Church, as it relates to the immigrant waves of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, has been a victim of ceaseless attrition. The novelty of John Paul II wore off before Y2K. Benedict, meanwhile, never quite shook his service in WWII on the losing German side, and his religious conservatism galvanized the hardcores, but didn’t do much for outreach.
And then, of course, the predatory priests and their predilections for the young and vulnerable. The church may go bankrupt paying off the victims, but the damage to institutional credibility can never be so neatly restored.
Just when it seemed all was lost, a new wind from Buenos Aires blew into the cathedral.
A South American pope, a hemisphere removed from Old Europe, with a perpetual mug of Yerba Mate — as popular in Argentina as Purple Drank is here. A voice of tolerance. The kind of pope you could talk to your atheist friends about and not get derided … at least not instantly.
Pope Francis’ American trip was the culmination of that marketing push. For a few days, the pope was everywhere. Writing in a McDonald’s in Arlington on the Friday he was here, I sat with a roomful of faces of meth as the Pope addressed the United Nations Assembly on the in-house TVs.
Seemed normal enough.
I enjoyed all of his TV appearances; my favorite soundbite was Francis namedropping (in front of Congress) Dorothy Day, the Catholic socialist activist of the 20th century who never quite made it into my high school religion classes.
All of that was great. And I was thinking, briefly, about un-lapsing my Catholicism.
Then, to remind me why I lapsed in the first place, the news that the Pope spent about 15 minutes with Kim Davis, the Hazzard County clerk who chose to go to Boss Hogg’s jail rather than to authorize gay weddings.
Reportedly, Pope Francis told her to “stay strong.” Now, whether you believe that or the persistent counternarrative that the Vatican has pushed in the past week is a matter of perspective. However, to this observer it looks like the Vatican is trying to play both sides.
That’s entirely his prerogative. There are some who benefit from the narrative that standing in the way of legal gay marriages, whether by refusing to issue licenses as Davis did, or by shutting down wedding ceremonies like our own Ronnie Fussell did at the first of the year, puts them closer to God.
And for a Pope who is a politician above all else, making the deliberate decision to allocate time for Davis should be interpreted as a sop to social conservatives, both in the church and in the protestant churches, who somehow see the derelict clerk as a role model or maybe this year’s Joe the Plumber.
A Catholic education taught me many things, including critical inquiry that one might not get in the “God Said It. I Believe It. That Settles It” style churches. However, that same critical inquiry led me, and tens of millions of other Americans, away from the church. Papal pandering to the Kim Davises of the world reminds me why I left.