Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The question is...

I was a little hesitant yesterday to use that phrase from Philip Larkin's Aubade to refer to the Roman Catholic Church -- "that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade." It seemed unnecessarily harsh. But there you have it, as my neighbors in Ireland say.

The Church I grew up in was indeed a vast, moth-eaten brocade. The music was sometimes grand, particularly the traditional canon -- Gregorian chant, Bach, Handel. The refrains of the Tantum Ergo and Dies Irae still echo pleasantly in my head.

Make no mistake: I have a great affection for the Church of my youth. I loved the whole physicality of the liturgy, the colored vestments, the candlelight, the incense, the bread and wine, the bells. I carried something of that sacramental theology into my secular life -- the stuff of the world as visible signs of invisible grace. Not supernatural grace, to be sure, but the grace implicit in a universe we will never fully understand.

Oh yes, I could still be a happy Catholic if it were all rite and ritual celebrating the ineffable mystery of existence and the life of the mortal man who delivered the Sermon on the Mount. I appreciate the ancient myths as part of our cultural heritage. I understand the importance in our lives of rites of passage and collective celebration. I honor contemporary saints like Teilhard de Chardin, Thomas Merton and Thomas Berry. I have lauded here and elsewhere the many professed women who are trying to drag the Church kicking and screaming into the 21st century. But of all the rest -- the miracle-mongering, Jansenism, triumphalism, authoritarianism, paternalism, misogyny, homophobia, and a Creed that owes more to fourth-century politics and superstition than to a modern scientific understanding of the world -- all of that I can do without.

A vast, moth-eaten musical brocade? It is, but it need not be. It is a Church full of much goodness and the ingredients of a rich natural spirituality. But I don't expect to see it change any time soon. On Easter Monday, James Carroll, ex-RC priest and Boston Globe columnist, tried to give us a rational, 21st-century interpretation of Jesus' resurrection. I applaud him, but it was painful to watch someone I so much admire as a writer trying to have his supernaturalist cake and eat it too. I doubt that what he ended up with would satisfy most believers, and certainly no skeptics.
"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."

"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."