As I begin what will be my seventh (!) decade as a Catholic, I find that I am less and less sure of what Catholics believe.

Oh, I know our opinions. Especially regarding any topic that touches on politics. I know what prolife Catholics believe and I know what prochoice Catholics believe. I know where the church stands on women priests, contraception, homosexuality, the death penalty, just and unjust war, gun rights (although, actually, I wish I heard a little bit more about where my prolife church stands on guns), immigration—and I’m well aware of how and why and to what divergent degrees my fellow Catholics agree or disagree on all these matters.

I also know our good works. I know that the generation of Catholics that follows mine has embraced social justice in a way that fills me with pride and admiration. I know that among my fellow Catholics there is a quiet and continual spirit of generosity and compassion that feeds the hungry and houses the homeless and keeps vibrant any number of Catholic schools and Catholic hospitals, missions, shelters, organizations, places to come to. I know we strive to be a generous and loving people.

But I suppose what I have become less sure of is why.

Of course, there’s the apparent and obvious answer, the whole “whatsoever you do for the least of my people” mandate. Which is lovely, don’t get me wrong. It’s grand. But surely Catholics, Christians, can’t claim that generosity and compassion is ours alone—every faith, every nonbeliever, can make a legitimate claim to loving sentiments and good works.

I suppose it’s an occupational hazard of mine—after more than thirty years in this writing business—to apply writing metaphors to any number of things, but lately I have felt the urge to ask my fellow Catholics who are so clear about their various and complex opinions regarding abortion, torture, religious freedom, even charity, the question I often ask myself—and my writing students—when a creative effort threatens to implode under the weight of its own complex plot or loquacious characters or entangled prose: What is at the simple heart of all this palaver? What is it that you believe to be true?

One of the most successful writing assignments I ever gave was to an intelligent class of imaginative and well-read adult students whose circuitous narratives kept spooling away from them. Write a short story, I told them, that begins with these three words: The point is....

After all this time as a Catholic, I begin to fear that our politics, our opinions, our complex arguments and arrangements and attitudes have allowed our beliefs to spool away from us too. Like muddled writers, we forget the simple heart of what it was we wanted to say.

We say: We believe in God, the Father Almighty. The Creator. The First Cause. The force that lit the fuse that set off the Big Bang. Whatever. Got it. And in his son, Jesus Christ. Who came down from heaven (down and heaven being metaphorical, yes? no?), entered time by being born of the Virgin Mary, walked the earth, told us how to live, implored us to love one another, and then was crucified, died, and was buried. Historical fact. Descended into hell (metaphor again?) and on the third day arose from the dead. Literally. Walked the earth once more and then ascended into heaven. Sits at the right hand. And his kingdom shall have no end. We’ve got the rest down pat: The Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting....

The point is: God so loved the world, he gave his only son so we should not perish but live....

The point is: Love redeems us. Even from death.

Really?

That’s immortality we’re talking about. Heaven. Literally. We’re saying that we believe that the injustice of death, every single death in human history, is made just by a loving God. We believe that the observable fact that we all perish—literally—is made null, overturned, by Christ’s sacrifice two thousand years ago. We believe in the triumph of love over death. We believe that God’s love for us—God the First Cause, the Creator, the metaphorical guy with the match at the Big Bang—lets us, unlike everything else in creation, live in eternity. That Christ’s literal, historical sacrifice on the Cross changed everything. That God’s love for every living, breathing one of us, which is reflected in our love for one another, redeems us, brings us to literal everlasting life.

We believe this and yet, except for moments of personal or collective grief—at funerals, after Newtown or 9/11—it seems to me that we contemporary Catholics say very little about it. Except for moments of grief—when, to the non-believer, such talk of heavenly reunions and everlasting life might seem only wishful thinking, magical thinking called forth to blunt the dreadful fact of death’s permanence—we focus our public discourse on managerial questions, on the niceties of custom, on politics and social work, and avoid mentioning as best we can the Glorious Impossible that we stake our hopes on, our faith on.       

Is it because at heart we are unsure—there is always doubt? Or because to the contemporary ear it all sounds a little nutty, a little bit like wishful thinking? Love redeems us. Or is it just that we’ve grown complacent about the whole notion of the Redemption? We know the notion is there in our repertoire of beliefs, or of platitudes, something to call on when we, or those around us, are devastated by grief, but honestly, too much talk of it in polite company might make us appear, well, death-obsessed, or naïve; Evangelical, even.      

I confess to having wondered at times, while listening to sermons about religious freedom, or reading editorials about the pros and cons of a celibate male priesthood, or finding myself caught up in arguments between liberal and conservative Catholic friends over health care or the death penalty: Do we really believe it? Christ’s death bringing us to everlasting life—heaven? Really?

Another suggestion I have sometimes made to my writing students when their stories grow static, complacent, if you will, when they have sufficiently described the steady state of their fictional settings and its inhabitants—usually indicated by an overabundant use of the conditional tense: Every day, our hero would wake at dawn and go down to breakfast where he would prepare the same eggs over-easy.... He would then, and then he would and after that he would—is this: Imagine what you have written thus far as a still pond—that’s background, steady state. Now throw a rock in it—that’s story.

I sometimes wonder if we contemporary Catholics need a rock tossed into the silent complacency of our beliefs. A word as simple as Why? or that skeptical Really? A brief clearing away of the tangle of issues and opinions and arguments in order to momentarily recall: What’s at the heart of all this anyway? What’s our point?

From time to time in my fiction I have attempted to capture some sense of what it means to believe what we Catholics claim to believe. In That Night, it was a teenage girl who tells her troubled boyfriend that because she loves him he will not die. In Charming Billy, it’s the alcoholic who believes that to become reconciled to the death of the young woman he loved is to diminish the injustice of it, and so to make Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross unnecessary. In After This, a family’s loyalty to an unlovable woman offers them an unexpected grace, a respite from their own inconsolable sorrow—love redeems them.

I’ve been called a “Catholic novelist” because my characters are Catholics, but I am not a Catholic novelist if the label means a writer who is out to convince or convert, a writer whose point is that what Catholics believe—the Incarnation, the Redemption, Everlasting Life—is certain and true.

As I’ve been saying, I’m not sure I even know what contemporary Catholics believe, and my own faith in this magical thinking, this Glorious Impossible, comes and goes. It compels me and comforts me as much as it fills me with skepticism and doubt.

 As a fiction writer, I attempt to create characters—troubled, flawed, struggling, loving human characters—in order to discover what they believe, or hope for, or long for. I write stories not to weigh the validity of these beliefs but to figure out how, given such beliefs—or even the lack thereof—they live their daily lives in the ordinary, onrushing world.

What makes me a Catholic writer, I think, is not that these characters belong to a certain church, or neighborhood or time or place. What makes me a Catholic writer is that the faith I profess contends that out of love—love—for such troubled, flawed, struggling human beings, the Creator, the First Cause, became flesh so that we, every one of us, would not perish. I am a Catholic writer because this very notion—whether it be made up or divinely revealed, fanciful thinking or breathtaking truth—so astonishes me that I can’t help but bring it to every story I tell.

“A human being is an immense abyss,” St. Augustine wrote, “but you, Lord, keep count even of his hairs, and not one of them is lost on you; yet even his hairs are easier to number than the affections and movements of his heart.”

The stone that I throw into the still pond of such belief is no more complex than a skeptical “Really?” But it stirs for me stories that attempt, vainly perhaps, to number the affections and movements of our complex hearts. Stories that give life and breath to Catholic characters who perhaps can do no more than whisper, Is it true? Is it possible? Is this what we believe?


This essay is adapted from remarks delivered at Fordham University’s Center on Religion and Culture as part of the Duffy Conversations program sponsored by James H. Duffy.

Published in the 2013-05-03 issue: 

Alice McDermott is the author of six novels, including Charming Billy, which won the National Book Award for fiction in 1998, and After This, a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize.

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