WARNING: In this essay I use the terms conservative and liberal that no one likes. I don’t like those labels! everyone says, implying (whether intentionally or not) that their own position is too complex and nuanced to be captured by something so simplistic as a one-word label. I use those labels because I have no other choice. What else can I do if I am not to commit the stylistic sin of using 26 words instead of one each time I want to refer to a group of people who share a certain orientation in their religious opinions? I think you know what I mean. Of course, the people in both groups have differences in what they believe and how they believe it. I am not trying to cut them all out with the same cookie cutter. Every word is a linguistic compromise. If I hear one more person say, I really don’t like those labels, I’ll scream.
Where do I fit? I am a Catholic with an identity crisis. For most of my adult life, I was a liberal. Shortly after the close of the Second Vatican Council, I joined the fledgling Los Angeles Association of Laymen. I was angry at the bishops and the pope, and furious with Cardinal McIntyre for not letting Catholics in Los Angeles turn around their altars soon enough. We are the church! Yes! Soon I dropped out of the institutional church and joined a floating parish, with unauthorized Masses in my living room, singing along with Sebastian Temple records playing on our stereo. That community soon disbanded, and after a few years away from the church altogether, I decided to return to the institutional church when my oldest son was ready for first Communion. I spent many of the ensuing years parish-shopping for one I could stand. I rejected the church’s teaching on contraception, was furious that Catholic women couldn’t be priests and avidly read Hans Küng.
When my children were older and I could get away for a weekend, I started attending liberal conferences. I loved them at first, embracing the idea that the papacy is an embarrassment, the hierarchy an encumbrance, Humanae Vitae an annoyance and confession (as it used to be called), Catholic schools and nuns in habits simply joke material. Eventually, however, I started to feel a little uncomfortable. Besides being continually scolded for being white, middle class and privileged, I was told that a Eucharist celebrated by a group of like-minded believers without the presence of an ordained priest was as valid as Mass in a parish church, and that the real presence at such a liturgy was as real as any other. The flamboyant liturgies at these conferences were energetic and entertaining; but they bore little resemblance to the traditional Mass of the Roman rite that I had grown up with. Despite my early enthusiasm for guitar Masses, my affection for the ritual of the Latin Mass had never really disappeared and now began to re-emerge.
I became annoyed at tortured syntax and inane diction in the name of inclusive language. I resented the fact that all the homilies were on social justice and sometimes revamped the Gospel to make it support a politically correct agenda. Just as the contemporary way to teach U.S. history is to catalogue all the sins of an oppressive, exploitative, power-hungry, vulgar country, so also the liberal view of the Catholic Church seemed to be that it was a sexually repressive, hierarchical, power-obsessed institution that has never done anything right. Belief in the Catholic Church as a reliable source of truth seemed gone for good.
My life as a liberal Catholic came to seem too chaotic, too angry, too ideological. I wanted to put my energy into prayer and worship, into trying to uproot my moral flaws and cultivate the virtues. I wanted to learn the Scriptures, pray the psalms and love the church instead of fighting with it. So I began to look at the right. I even had the traitorous thought, Could it possibly be that the church is right about birth control?
Two books that galvanized my change of direction were Thomas Day’s Why Catholics Can’t Sing and James Hitchcock’s The Recovery of the Sacred. The liturgy was the wedge that cracked the door to conservatism. The English Mass, which I had originally welcomed enthusiastically, came to seem tedious and stale and more about the personality and showmanship of the priest than the old Latin Mass, in which the personality of the priest was hidden in the rite. I began to question whether the people were really participating more than when they read their missals. I observed that most of my liberal friends eventually ended up non-Catholic, non-Christian and in some cases non-theist.
I developed a grudging admiration for conservatives’ courage in taking positions-no artificial contraception, the immorality of homosexual acts, no easy divorce and remarriage-that were so countercultural. The opinions of some extremists at the other end of the spectrum-contraception, women priests, divorce and remarriage without annulment, homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle, and even in some cases, the acceptance of abortion-are, after all, the values of the secular culture. Not hard to proclaim them in the marketplace. But the conservatives-they were either right or just unbelievably obstinate. I did notice, however, that throughout Christian history, Jesus’ faithful disciples were usually not in tune with the reigning culture. Theologically and philosophically, the conservatives seemed to have a more coherent position. Besides, I’ve always been perversely attracted to those who are contrary.
So I became conservative. And yet.... I am more than a little put off by the stridency of much that I read in literature from the right. I shrink from being identified with those self-appointed guardians of orthodoxy who report any evidence of dissent to the Vatican. Although I am pro-life, I am offended by a brochure from a pro-life group with the headline, Find out what was found in the trash bins behind an abortion clinic! printed right next to a picture of a baby. In reading the article, however, we learn that what was found was printed records of clients-not a baby.
As a cradle Catholic, born well before Vatican II, I beg to differ with those (mostly adult converts) who imply that all was idyllic in the preconciliar church. I know full well that there were aspects of the pre-Vatican II church that were inhumane and repressive. Parish priests rarely seemed to know or interact with their parishioners. Church was pretty much an assembly-line business. There were no ministries for many hurting people, and too often pleas for help were met with formulaic or canned answers (Say the rosary). Many conservatives seemed to believe that before the dissenters challenged Humanae Vitae, Catholics happily accepted the church’s teaching on birth control. I know this is untrue. I had heard from my older sister and from other older Catholics about the frustrations and tensions of living with the rhythm method. Although there was no open dissent, people didn’t like it and were resentful that they had to struggle with it when their Protestant friends were free to express their love sexually without fear of another pregnancy.
I read in a conservative Catholic magazine that Oscar Wilde converted to Catholicism on his deathbed. But the article neglects to explain that he was unconscious at the time. His friend called a priest, and baptism was administered conditionally. There was a slight movement of Wilde’s hand that might have indicated assent. But it is far from the forthright acceptance of Catholic faith that the article implied. I became tired of the snide references to angry feminist nuns (as if they had no valid grievances) and the assumption that good Catholics have eight children and home-school them all. Despite my disappointment in much contemporary liturgy, I dislike the charge that all modern Masses are a three-ring circus. Some are reverent and prayerful. In one conservative Catholic magazine, I read that evolution is a fairy tale for adults. On an audiotape by a prominent conservative, I hear that Freud said you should give in to every sexual impulse. Anyone who has actually read Freud knows this is untrue. I became tired of the continual carping about dissenters.
So now what am I? While I was in the state of transition, my 25-year marriage ended in divorce. Problematic. I am divorcedbad for my conservative side. But I have an annulment and am remarried in the churchgood for the conservative side. Or is it? Conservatives are upset by the large number of annulments that are being handed out and think the practice severely compromises the church’s traditional teaching on marriage. So do I. I am happy in a second marriage and am pleased that I could be remarried in the Catholic Church; still, I am conflicted about the language of the annulment process and its basic premise (as I wrote in Commonweal, 9/13/96). My position on divorce, remarriage and annulments fits neither the conservative nor the liberal side. So what am I? Just saying you don’t like the labels doesn’t take away the problem! It is not just that I don’t have the word to describe myself. I could make up a word. I don’t know what I am, or where I fit or how to find like-minded people to talk to, a journal to read, a convention to attend.
My husband describes himself as a flaming moderate and says I am also one at heart. But my problem is, where are these flaming moderates? Why don’t they speak up? They have an annoying way of staying invisible. Although I long for a religious family, I think I want to join the flaming moderates in the closet. I want to make myself invisible, crawl into the woodwork and practice 1950’s-style private religion. The old days, with all their warts, are starting to look better: praying the rosary, frequent confession, favorite saints.
I want the old church back: Pay, pray and obey. No fellowship, no coffee and donuts after Mass. No parish councils, no congregational singing. Lists of do’s and don’t’s. Fasting from midnight before Communion. Catholics locked into miserable marriages. Rhythm. Mean nuns in ridiculous habits. Priests with Irish accents.
This is why I want the old church back: I am tired of factionalism. You were either Catholic or Protestantnot a liberal Catholic, or a conservative Catholic, or a cafeteria Catholic, or a cultural Catholic. You were a Catholic. The Mass was the Mass. You didn’t have to shop for a parish you could stand.
I think of my experience at a Catholic women’s college in the early 1960’s. We didn’t argue about women priests or birth control or abortion. (Maybe some people did. I can’t say. I didn’t hear it.) We knew that as Catholics we would be expected to use rhythm to space our children, and although we had heard from older siblings and friends that there could be frustrations and failures, we accepted it and felt we would deal with it when the time came. When I think of my college faith, I remember discovering the psalms in Sr. Laurentia’s class on The Bible as Literature. It was exciting to hear the then-new Gelineau psalms sung in English for the first time with their reverent, plaintive chant of longing to be close to the Lord. I remember going to 7:00 Mass in the beautiful college chapel, carrying my missal with five different colored ribbons. Discovering the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, memorizing bits of it and reciting it while taking walks along the fire road in the hills behind the college. Reading Cardinal Newman, Ronald Knox, Christopher Dawson, étienne Gilson, Sigrid Undset, Graham Greene. There are other vivid memories, too: the liturgical bulletin board décor, residence hall customs and prayers, going to a senior retreat at the Benedictine monastery in the sun-drenched desert at Valyermo, the sense of having graduated to a new relationship with nuns. In my college the sisters were no longer the stern, authoritarian figures of grade school and high school, but friends and colleagues. We took walks together, talked and joked. With some of them we shared our problems. One felt proud to be a Catholicnot in a polemical or tendentious way, but in the calm security of being cradled in a worldwide faith that we believed told us the truth about the meaning of being human. We didn’t think about it much. We just lived it. It was a settled kind of faith.
The Second Vatican Council was just beginning as I was finishing college, and that settled Catholicism began to appear naïve and infantile. So I became a liberal.
Now my Catholic friends on both sides feel that I have sold out, betrayed them, lost my mind. Moving either to the right or the left makes one vulnerable to hurtful epithets. A liberal friend attacked me when I told her that I didn’t want to go to the Call to Action conference, that I subscribe to Latin Mass magazine and that I have read some material put out by Catholics United for the Faith. My conservative friend was horrified that I read Garry Wills’s Papal Sin and thought he had some valid points. I have been called homophobic, pre-Vatican II, restorationist, triumphalist.
Maybe it’s time to join the flaming moderates in the closet. I am going to let all my subscriptions to Catholic magazines lapse and read the old stuff: Knox, the Chesterbelloc, Dawson, Lewis, Sheed. I know, I know; it’s triumphalist, not Vatican II, not politically correct. I don’t care.
I need to feel good about being a Catholic. Not a conservative Catholic. Not a liberal Catholic. Just a Catholic, once again.