April 20, 2005

Reflections On Catholicism

I was raised loosely Protestant - loosely meaning I was never baptized and I only ever went to church when visiting my grandparents, and then usually only at Christmas. My view of the Catholic Church is naturally going to be affected by coming from the direction of the people who were created out of criticisms of the Church.

To be honest, I really sympathize historically with the Protestants, even as I realize they had problems of their own. But the Catholic Church was big, cranky, stubborn, anti-reform and just generally corrupt. To step briefly into theology, I also find that Catholicism reminds me of Sufism - integrating local pagan, pre-monotheistic beliefs and rituals with the forms and basic ideas of a major religion. I mean, come on, the Catholics have a patron saint for different cities and countries and for different activities.

How is it any different to have a patron saint of travel or medicine than to have a god of journeys or a god of war? Strikes me as incredibly primitive and tribalistic that all the little villages in Italy worship their patron saint.

And of course, a lot of Catholics have this strange obsession with Mary. I'm no theologist, but I'm pretty sure Mary didn't have any god-like powers and didn't save us all from damnation. In fact, I understood that the only thing miraculous about her was her virginity. Jesus died for our sins thus allowing us all God's grace into bliss, but you want to worship his mom because she never had sex? Doesn't make much sense to me. It sounds sort of like they want to worship a Nature Goddess or a Mother Earth sort of figure, and Mary is the most famous woman in the Jesus story so she got the role.

So I'm not exactly amenable to a lot of Catholic practices and rituals like these. To be perfectly honest, it really undermines my view of Catholic spirituality and theology when I see some Catholics doing stuff like this. It just seems like tradition, orthodoxy. Just like a bunch of people got together to defend the whole mass of practices and customs they'd already set on.

As you can see, I take a Protestant-esque line on the Catholic Church - especially on their huge churches which are surpassingly beautiful but strike me as an insult to God. I guess I also take the Protestant line that all dealings with a Christian conception of God ought to be humble, since humans are flawed and any pretension of spirit or of edifice would always be unworthy. This is especially interesting since I'm a Deist and I don't think God has done anything since creating everything.

I see the Catholic Church generally as just a big club of people backing their traditions, not so much a theological vessel. This is true to some degree of all religions, but it strikes me as more true of Catholics generally than Protestants generally.

But I don't hate the Catholics. I just don't agree with their theology, so you'll probably never see me converting to Catholicism. But since they never try to convert me personally, I have no problem with the people; I have a problem with the theology. And the anti-Catholic biases that used to be more common in this country 150 or 160 years ago don't sit well with me at all. I disagree with theology, not with Catholics being near me or being in this country (after all, I'm from St. Louis which has a heavy concentration of Catholics).

I also realize that the Catholics can set their own practices and values. If they don't want to hear my views on the deification of Mary or the pretentiousness of large cathedrals, they don't have to - and they certainly don't have to follow any of what I say. It's, for lack of a better word, their club. Like an interest group, a bowling alley or a religion is a club; a private association of people with similar interests, values or goals. Since it's private, they don't have to listen to what I say and I don't have to listen to what they say. Amazing how well a little autonomy works out well.

I am not a Catholic and I don't want to be or claim to be. If someone doesn't like the Catholic beliefs on one issue or another, they are free to join me or to ignore that. So when a bunch of people who want the Catholic Church to be open to abortion, contraceptives, women priests and the like complain that the Catholic Church doesn't listen, I'm not very receptive. If the Pope wanted to throw them all out he'd be perfectly within his rights to do so as far as I'm concerned.

There's is no right to be a member of other people's churches. If they don't want you for your sexual behavior, for your race, for your beliefs or for your income level, then so be it. You can argue, probably successfully, that it's dumb of them to be exclusionary or bigoted or that it's also wrong or hypocritical, but don't pretend like they OWE you some right to be inclusive. They do not.

Don't like it? Start your own damn church. That's what the Protestants did and that's where Eastern Orthodox comes from. If they agree to allow dissent then that's their choice. They are not bound to be democratic, except by their own rules and by their own choice. They are not bound to listen to your opinions, even if you are or claim to be an adherent of their faith. They are in a private group and can do whatever they want with their own stuff and their own ideas.

If you don't like the Church's view on gays, don't be Catholic. Hey, simple! It's not a state religion. I'm not Catholic and I don't want to be. If you clearly hate the Catholic position so much on gays and condoms, then don't be Catholic. You have the right to stay as long as they let you and to try and convince them to change, but you are not entitled to anything in the Church's faith. They are not obligated to be modern, nor are they obligated to be tolerant or to adhere to a certain political viewpoint other than what they choose.

You're free to criticize, from within if they allow it and from outside whenever you like, but you can't demand anything from a private association like a church and expect it to carry weight.


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