Growing Up Catholic
Wilfrid Sheed January 21, 2011 - 9:46am
This article originally appeared in the February 26, 1965, issue of Commonweal.
It is difficult to write about something in flux as if it were something fixed; probably by the time this essay appears my view of what mattered in the past—even of what happened in the past—will have moved on.
In a sense I have been lucky—but only “in a sense,” because this kind of luck probably has to be paid for. The Catholicism I was first taught was compellingly attractive; its doctrines were presented with a reality which I suppose they will never lose for me, whatever I may wind up thinking I think about them. Besides my admirable parents who, in more senses than one, speak for themselves, I spent a good deal of time with one of those Irish grandmothers you read about, but very seldom meet: a woman to whom faith was a simple matter of fact, whatever else wasn’t (she was quite capable of skepticism in other areas) and who connected religion with ordinary life “atmospherically” so that it gave a particular flavor to those years.
At the same time, by virtue of a freakish transatlantic education, I was spared the usual anxiety about local aberrations in the Church. If things were bad in one parish, you could be pretty sure they were better in the next. Large-scale peculiarities could be put down to quirks in the English or American character. The price for this was a certain alienation in both countries, a feeling that my real home was in yet some third place, which led at times to that combination of smugness and envy which is the common condition of outsiders.
Then again the Catholics I met as a boy had a natural geniality and kindness that I took in those days to be a special Catholic feature. Granted that they were always foreigners, wherever they were, perhaps they were a little less foreign than other people. On the social level, my early Catholicism had a distinctly clannish note. Protestants tended to be prigs, who worried about things like gambling; agnostics were sloppy thinkers and no match for Monsignor Knox (I am caricaturing my fifteen-year-old self for reasons of concision); Catholics were jolly good fellows, who thought wisely or not at all, and had a great sense of proportion about things like gambling.
An Ideal Church
This, roughly, was my view of the matter between nine and about twenty. I had an ideal Church firmly fixed in my mind and believed myself to be beyond the stage where a foolish teacher, or an incredible sermon could unsettle it. I went to a university where I was exposed to the follies of secularists, more than of Catholics, and my intellectual conviction has probably never been stronger than it was at that time. The occasional attacks I heard on the Church were aimed at some lesser church—which by an unhappy coincidence nearly all the non-Catholics I met had been tricked into believing was the real one.
Now an ideal church has its advantages, for a would-be writer in particular. It gives one a point of view and a choice of styles. (People who are brought up without any religious ideal at all are inclined to hug the secular consensus and to borrow the prevailing style, without even knowing they are doing so.) As a writer, I at first found my ideal-Catholic viewpoint somewhat imperious and overpowering and I catch, in re-reading my early stuff, occasional traces of dishonesty, presumably caused by my attempts to appease it. But every writer is tempted to appease something, and a Catholic background offers in return a density and richness that gives better than it gets. Later on I would find a genuine tension, as I tried to adapt the ideal to the real—because an ideal church is no substitute for a real one—and since this perhaps has been the dominant theme in my short history from twenty to now, I shall concentrate on that from here on in.
I have noticed (and perhaps this was the beginning of my own re-examination) that many quite intelligent Catholics have absolved themselves altogether from this tension. They are content to go on equating the ideal church of childhood with the real one, to the point of corrupting themselves with ingenious explanations of how this works: maintaining that the Church’s imperfections are either extraordinary exceptions (the old-fashioned view), or else that the imperfections are totally inessential, and virtually insubstantial, “the human side of the Church”—as if nothing at all need be expected of human institutions, as if they didn’t have to meet any standards at all. Many good Catholics have weakened themselves and the Church grievously with these evasions.
I was never tempted, in even my most violent reactions to the early dream, to believe that the Church was actually worse than other institutions. But I did feel a gathering dismay that so many Catholics didn’t seem to think it mattered one way or the other. As long as their ideal Church remained intact—and it was likely to, because what could get at it either in the way of ideas or of facts?—happenings “on the human level” remained splendidly unimportant and virtually unreal.
This strikes me now as a violent perversion of the idea of a Church; yet for many years, I had accepted without question this condescension to the merely human. Catholic newspapers and magazines were insolently amateurish—and this was merely human. The atmosphere of one’s parish might be as worldly as a quality ad—all too human. There were, in short, no tests for anything—except the rigid, subjective tests for private conscience.
It was obvious that many unbelievers, who were content to be judged on human achievements alone, came closer to moral reality than this. But the question was not simple. There was much both of saintliness and of moral intelligence among Catholics; what looked like a sloppy indulgence toward mediocrity was often a form of charity, a device for excusing others, not oneself; and there was often, among very good secular people, a lack of moral sophistication that kept them from advancing beyond the vaguest niceness, that left them hopelessly at sea with elementary moral problems.
Still, this lofty attitude to the specifically human seemed to warp the whole texture of Catholic life. Almost every parish I belonged to began to seem progressively more like a bus-station than a church; I had never felt half so isolated in a theater or a ballpark. None of this mattered, of course, so long as one had the Mass and the sacraments—but a formula can only stand so much repetition; and I suddenly began to think that it mattered a good deal, in spite of the Mass and the Sacraments. The gloomy isolation week after week, the priest mumbling to himself while the audience yawned and scratched—this, in human terms, was a poor sort of meeting: and my own attempts to exalt myself above the human seemed falser and falser.
A Question of Focus
Since this is a personal essay, perhaps I should make note here of certain oddities of temperament that helped me get into this position.
The focus I feel most comfortable with is a very narrow one. I was, and am, prepared to ascribe something remote like, say, Spanish bigotry, to cultural and historical patterns unknown. (Although it should surely be asked what part the Church has played in forming that culture and history. The idealist is too prone to picture the Church as a perennial innocent by-stander.) But the tone, the human feeling of the Church in my own neighborhood, seemed to be something I could reasonably have an opinion about. My slightly cosmopolitan background is an accident anyway: by temperament I am almost exclusively interested in the place I happen to be in at the moment—whether it feels “right” (I can’t put it more precisely than that), or whether it feels corrupt or unreal.
This, I suppose, is the stance that fiction-writing induces—and it must be the despair of those who do take the large view. There is no excuse, on the face of it, for leaving the Church because of a stupid school or an unfortunate parish: yet these are probably the precise reasons that most writers leave. And it is no answer to them that the “real” Church is not like that—or even that the Church in France is not like that. To them it is the Church they encounter in their own flesh that counts. All the rest is talk.
(Perhaps this view doesn’t seem quite so outrageous if we turn it around for a moment, and talk of staying in the Church because we have met Christ in a single priest, or in one small community. The admonition to know trees by their fruit must have some bearing within the Church as well as without.)
By a process of dreadful attrition, I came next to the discovery that I was not as immune to the incredible sermon as I had thought. I had always understood that sermons were not going to be terribly bright (disappointing because I like to listen to them—but a case, like Spain, where you could accept the excuse). But slowly it dawned on me that most sermons were worse than unbright: they were downright repulsive. They spoke a language, they presupposed a view of life, that seemed to me virtually inhuman.
To take a trivial example (and most of the examples are trivial), for every sermon I have heard on a major doctrine, I must have heard—call it bad luck if you like—at least five on being a good example. And being a good example has turned out, as often as not, to mean things like no swearing, no dirty jokes and (in extreme cases) making sure that you are seen being a good example.
Now I don’t know what sort of boy-scouts these sermons were originally written for; but their effect on a congregation of average present-day adults is dismally unreal. Swearing is a normal enough activity, tedious and self-defeating in excess. To preach against it in tones of shocked dismay is to suggest a serious inhibitedness and lack of contact; to talk of it in terms of Christian example is to talk something close to nonsense.
It will be objected that I have chosen a foolish example, but if you ignore the foolish examples, you are ignoring a great deal. And it is precisely my point that intelligent Catholics have ignored too many foolish examples, not realizing their cumulative importance. Again and again I have found myself listening to things which, in any other context, I would automatically dismiss as wrong-minded, or willfully insensitive, childish or impenetrably smug. This, repeated over a lifetime, is no trifle. It affects your feeling as you go into church, it affects the feeling of the church itself, adding to its desolateness. That the only words spoken in English should be both foolish and remote is enough to throw anyone into despair and wonder. The wisdom, balance, realism that had been trademarks of my ideal church simply seemed to have been short-circuited on the parish level. And this was the level that I cared about. The rhetoric of the pulpit (together with some of the advice in the confessional, which was only the same rhetoric in a lower key) seemed to come from another world. An idealist would perhaps have sought out a pet monastery at this point, or a special priest. But even in my own idealist phase I had never cared for elite, specially-tailored religion: I wanted what everyone else was getting: the thing had to stand or fall in the parish.
And the parish seemed to me basically frivolous, a place where nothing was really taken seriously. Doctrine was not taken seriously; liturgy was not taken seriously; even morality (except for sex, which always threatens to break the spell, and is a natural enemy) is not taken seriously. By the one small mistake of insulting the human, the tangible, we had lost our grip on everything; nothing was real, nothing mattered.
These were the things I found myself thinking each Sunday as I listened to the irrelevant pep-talks, the advice without use or context. Whether the sermon was waspish or genial, whether it stressed character (i.e., buoyant submissiveness) or total passivity, made very little difference. The contrast with the solidity and sobriety of the Mass itself was bizarre. Perhaps the best way to put it is this: I have always felt that anyone who has not found the world in some sense a tragic place has just not been paying attention: and that anyone who has not adverted to this knowledge within, say, the last three months, has nothing important to tell anyone about anything. Rhetorical brimstone and prissiness are no answer to the fears that come in the night, to the sense of cosmic loneliness that Christ matched for us; nor, heaven knows, is “Christian cheerfulness.”
I am no good at reading faces (better at voices). It seemed to me that a diet of this kind of instruction was infallibly calculated to produce second-rate people; but looking around at the dreamy, unresponsive expressions on all sides, I began to wonder whether the whole thing wasn’t so irrelevant to their lives—their spiritual lives, even—that no real harm was done. In either case, though, they struck me as good-hearted patsies who would put up with just about anything; and I felt at odds with them over this. My alienation from parish-life was so complete that I never wanted to talk to anyone outside church—another sad curiosity, if you think of a church as a Christian meeting place.
As for priests, I had admired them very much as a boy, and am still predisposed to do so. But, perhaps from seeing too much of one particular kind of parishioner, they seemed to older eyes to over-indulge in a boyish heartiness that could be almost as impersonal as a convention-greeting. This style is no doubt part of a laudable effort to please as many people as possible; but it increased my feeling that I was trying to worship in some kind of great transportation center or super-market. (Some priests give me this feeling even in my own living-room.) Something about the big-parish structure seemed to work against ordinary human contact; and indeed one’s Catholic friends seemed to be drawn from just about everywhere except one’s own community.
It would be misleading to suggest that I was the only person to have made these discoveries. Even in terms of my own, too-narrow focus, there has always been company—other Catholics whose reaction is so close to one’s own that it is not fanciful to assume a special bond after all. Unfortunately, we had all, all the thousands of us, assumed ourselves until recently to be in virtual isolation. And there was, besides, a proneness among my companions to an impotent sourness, to an almost mechanical railing—against the system, against the clergy, against everything—that was almost more depressing than the problem itself.
In many ways, this kind of whipped-dog snivelling was the most unhealthy aspect of the Catholic life in the immediate pre-Council years. We felt, for reasons of extraordinary complexity, that we couldn’t say all we wanted to say publicly. It was not, as an outsider might suppose, an overt suppression (although there was just enough of that to make it another factor) but a kind of built-in censorship: part loyalty, part fear of simplification (a genuine virtue of a good Catholic training—up to a point) and part the punch-drunk caution of a man brought up in a minefield.
The situation seemed to be in stalemate. The parish-system, which is in some sense both the blood and the nerves of the Church, had gone terribly wrong somewhere—not through bad will, but through a very grave misunderstanding of reality; extraordinarily subtle concepts like humility and obedience had been used with gross incomprehension to stifle the flow of opinion that every human institution needs for survival (when the pro-cleric says “we’re only human” he means things like laziness and short temper; we mean things like the dangers of one-sided, uncriticized power). The natural critics had fallen into the cynicism of the helpless underdog, and some of them were to fall even further into a kind of permanent bleat that was one of the ugliest sounds ever heard: like an animal with its vocal chords cut.
“In Human Terms”
The problem was institutional, not personal: nobody was to blame. For this very reason, many of us were tempted to suppose that it would last forever, and made our plans accordingly: either ignoring the itch or trying to enjoy the actual scratching of it; using the parish as a sacrament-dispensary and ignoring the rest; or whining amusingly with a group of kindred spirits; or possibly both.
But while some of us were responding in these ways at least some of the time, there were others of better faith, who remembered what we had forgotten: the Church’s freakish (in “human terms”) vitality. These people—patient, charitable but unwaveringly persistent—are worth noting. The present Council has borne them out, and has left the more thorough-going cynics feeling a bit sheepish: probably a recognizable motif in church history. But even if the Council had done nothing, these people were cause for hope in themselves; these people were the Church—their existence was where the vitality came from, and where it is preserved during periods of stagnation. Vitality, as opposed to cheaply-won optimism and bounce. It is by meeting them, or more likely by reading their books, that one can keep a rational faith in the idea of a Christian community.
It hardly needs saying that, with such a recent background, I have strong feelings about the Second Vatican Council. The erosions of our woebegone (I had almost said God-forsaken) parish life were worse than one might have realized if one hadn’t seen a sudden possible end to them. Recently in a small village parish I heard for several weeks in a row a really good dialogue Mass: and found that the bleakness of our chic, airplane-hanger churches was harder than ever to take afterwards.
That the Council is to such a large extent directly pastoral is evidence that our complaints were not altogether cranky. Except that this is alive and mine was dead, the post-conciliar church has a slight look of my old, ideal church. An optical illusion, no doubt, but one that may be shared by many.
It is tempting under a new regime to curse everything about the old one. But if we believe that the Catholic Church manifests Christ to each generation of men, we cannot be so summary in dismissing the last four hundred years. It would surely diminish one’s confidence in the present reforms, reducing them to a level of mere tactical ingenuity, if one believed that the Church could go so totally wrong as that in the past. (If then, why not now?)
For this reason, I am disinclined to dismiss the past as a bad dream, or to bury these old grievances, now that things seem to be getting better. Even if the conciliar decrees are ratified and carried out in their full spirit, I shall always be puzzled as to how things went so wrong in the parishes. We may have tried to hang onto a good thing too long, or we may unconsciously have been proposing ourselves as the other term of a dialectic with Protestantism. In any case, I should be happier in my mind to know the divine purpose of these last curious years.
It is part of our recent tradition to soften this kind of criticism at the last minute with a wink or some verbal organ music. But some criticisms should not be softened, or they are lost. Writers and artists have again and again found parish-life sterile, unfruitful and even repulsive. It is no use pretending that it wasn’t as bad as all that, that they didn't really leave the Church at all—it was and they did. If this was their total experience of the Church, I honestly don’t see how they could have done otherwise, and retained their own vitality.
Duller and Grayer
But having said so much, there remains much that has not been said. I am not thinking here of my own steady refusal to take part in parish life, to do anything to improve it; or of my untested assumption that priests simply didn’t want a layman’s opinions; of, in short, my own place in the dreary pageant.
I am thinking, rather, of some residue, very difficult to define, that made the thing worth going on with, even at the black times. It was not simply faith in Christ, because that, by itself, can make the Church seem more puzzling than ever (this needs elaboration; but here I must leave it bald). It was something to do with the actual texture of life. To put it too simply, I have always felt that life would be duller, grayer, without religion. I have seldom, as an adult, felt that religion provided consolation (for every scrap of that , there has always been the two of agitation), but I have felt it added a heightening, an intensity, to everyday experience.
And this the Catholic Church has always provided preeminently, in the most worldly parish and during the most desperate sermon. Edmund Wilson wrote of Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel that it contained every fault a novel of any merit could contain, save the unforgivable one—it did not fail to live. In my darker moments, which I admit have been frequent, I have never been tempted to think worse than that about the Catholic Church.
This article is an excerpt from Generation of the Third Eye © Sheed & Ward, Inc., 1965.
About the Author
The late Wilfrid Sheed, formerly a Commonweal columnist, drama critic, and literary editor (1964–69), was a novelist and a critic. His last book was The House That George Built: With a Little Help from Irving, Cole, and a Crew of About Fifty (Random House).