Sunday 23 November 2008

Catholicism and The Big Life Question

When I was chapel orderly at Sudbury, I used to have quite in depth theological chats most days with the CofE chaplain, a kind of Vicar of Dibley character.

She disliked being referred to as 'Protestant'. She maintained that the CofE was neither Protestant or Catholic.
Indeed, on some of her views, I could accept where she was coming from- because she inclined more to transubstantiation than consubstantiation, amongst other things. She was quite Catholic in many of her viewpoints.

I think she knew I found the whole Protestant outlook anathema to any serious modern world outlook and I think she knew my view on a lot of tradition Christian teachings. She knew I didn't believe in a personal God in the way many non-thinking Christians do.

One of the key topics we used to argue about was the fact that in my view, you cannot interpret Christ's teaching's on salvation and redemption as implying anything other han the existence of Purgatory. Fact is, I don't believe in Heaven or Hell, particularly, but I maintain that if you believe in those places as being real, you have to believe in Purgatory. And to me, it is this fact amongst others makes Protestantism a nonsense creed.

The key text any Catholic uses to prove this point, is of course, the Epistle of James, the whole 'Show my faith without works, and I will show you my faith by my works' passage.
The text proves that faith on its own is nothing. That is the Catholic viewpoint and it's opposition to the Protestant viewpoint is one of the key divisors between the faiths.

But one of the other things we used to discuss was deeper differences between Catholicism and the rest of Christianity. The differences which, to me, mean that the other variants are bastard creeds which don't get the point.

Because of course, I am a Catholic. Deeply so. Catholic in the sense that a huge part of my ethos, the very way I think could ONLY be the outlook of someone who understands a fundamental point that is inherent in Catholic thought, and absent in all other variants of Christianity.

And it came up in conversation once when we were discussing women priests.
She said 'I guess, though you don't say it, you don't see me as being a valid priest'.

I pondered. 'I can't dispute the validity of your ordination, because it was valid under apostolic succession. But.'

I leaned forward 'You know when I was little and I first heard about Protestants? Do you know what the thing was that shocked me most? Hearing that their priests were married'.

She raised her eyebrows 'I guess it would seem odd, yes, if you weren't raised to expect it'.

I sat back 'No, I wasn't. We went to church every Sunday to a church attached to a college, a church served by about eight priests. And my Gran knew all of them. Priests and clergy were a major part of my life at that age. So I had a very definite image of what a priest was. Hearing about married priests was a bit like the first time I heard about the Mormons and their many wives- just something that you feel to be WRONG. Somehow a little disgusting. A perversion of what a priest should be'.

She smiled 'And how do feel about it now'.

I shrugged 'I still don't see how you can be a priest AND be married. It's not what being a priest is all about. The whole point about being a priest is you separate yourself from that. You have been ordained to serve the Church, the Church is your bride. Having a wife and family is incompatible with serving a higher cause'.

She interjected 'But wouldn't you say that the main problem your church faces is that it can't get priests because no one wants to live a life of sexless abstinence these days?'

I smiled 'Aye, the opposite problem to your lot, ain't it? You got empty churches, we have full ones with no priests. Yes, it's a problem. Because of the way we've been forced to interpret it. It was not ever thus. When Gregory VII extended the ban on marriage to secular clergy, he actually stated he wasn't saying priests couldn't keep mistresses, he wasn't saying they had to be chaste, he specifically said that. Chastity was still something he only expected of monks. What he was saying, was that he didn't want priests burdening themselves with wives. It was only after the Tridentine council, when the Church was under fire from the Protestants that these rules were tightened. Because one of the key criticisms the opponents of the faith made was that almost every single Cardinal and Bishop of the Church had a horde of bastard children out there, most often these bastard children got Church positions themselves'.

She shook her head 'And you think that's how it should be, do you?'

I shrugged 'If it was, I'd have been ordained a long time ago. That's the point.'

The point is about the distinction between the Shepherds and the Flock. It isn't so distinct in Protestantism. The clergy there are not a separate caste, with a separate values system. In Catholicism, they are. In Protestantism, there is a 'One size fits all' moral framework. This isn't the case in Catholicism.

Catholicism teaches you very early on, there are two things you can do with your life, two things you can aspire to.

In many ways, this difference in outlook is crucial I think in understanding just how much an impact this framework of thought affects you. My grandmother was devoutly religious, in a Catholic way. She's never in her life read a verse of the Bible. But she knows the Missal backwards. And she brought me up to revere one institution- the clergy.

And actually, I still do. I still revere the Catholic clergy. Because of the idealism they represent.

You see, most non Catholics reach adulthood thinking that the ideal for their life is to fall in love and settle down and raise a family. To love and BE loved.

That wasn't actually the value hammered into me.
To me, doing all that would actually make me a FAILURE.

A second rate human being.

Someone who could not rise to the challenge, the challenge that Catholicism asks of those it considers worthy.

Catholicism asks of those it deems fit to be entrusted with knowledge, with striving for enlightenment, with being the footsoldiers of the faith, that they love humanity generally, and do not ask to be loved back by a single one of them.

It is often pointed out that a lot of those who are inclined to Marxism on theoretical grounds, are Catholic educated. That there is something in the mind of someone brought up Catholic which means that ultimately, yes, the need to have a driving ideology which takes precedence over all else, is pretty much ingrained. Of course, I remain a Catholic, it's merely I have also embraced Marxism as a Socio-Economic creed.

But my attitude to idealism, is, of course, that ingrained on every Catholic boy seen as 'promising material'.
As I was, of course. I was brought up to accept one over-riding principle.

Whether you succeed or fail in life, will be down to whether or not you can over-ride one temptation in particular. Just one.
And it's not so much sex, that doesn't really matter.

It's being loved.

If it's there in front of you, the chance to love and be loved back, can you reject it?
Because it's that rejection, that rejection is the key. That really was the 'Last Temptation of Christ'.
It is the rejection everyone worthy of priesthood MUST make. Or live their lives in second rate failure, a person who sacrificed their principles to the heart.

A person who decided to accept the life of growing old and nursing their grandchildren on their knee.

As opposed to a person who lives every day of their life serving ideals and nothing else.

The point is, the fact one DOESN'T get ordained and become a priest, doesn't invalidate that basic choice. I'm not a priest, I have way too many vices. But I still see the logic of the point, the point that is inherent in everything Catholicism asks of it's clergy.

I can remember once me and my then girlfriend Claire were discussing a point of principle once and I said that if it ever came to it and war broke out in those circumstances, I would in those circumstances go off and fight as a volunteer.
And Claire said 'Don't you think that's quite selfish? What about me and any children we might have? You'd go off, perhaps never to be seen again, leaving children without a father?'
I was surprised at her response 'Of course! I wouldn't think twice about it!'

Which is why Catholicism asks its priests NOt to be in that situation. NOT to have peple they can't leave behind...

Because I suppose it comes down to the following; If you have a choice from the following options, which would you rather do?
  1. Die a martyr for a cause you believe in
  2. Grow old and bounce the grandchildren on your knee

Then actually, if I can have either, I'd go for the first. It's ingrained in me to prefer that option, to hanker after it, to see any life that doesn't end that way as kind of being a failure.

But coming back to the real dynamic of the priestly ideal and why it affects me every day of my life, why it actually hangs over my interpersonal relationships; it's this.

The real point of why Catholics have always respected their clergy is this. Because they are men who have rejected that most basic of human needs, to be loved by someone, in the name of principle.
And because they have done that, we the Catholic laity accept their moral right to lead.
Because moral leadership rests, and can only rest on that.

Your principles are nothing if they cannot pass that ultimate test.

That you will reject the chance to love and be loved in their name.

And I wrestle with that all my life. I wrestle with it with Haydee. I think she finds my position hard to understand, why it is I seemingly torment myself with these demons.
I told her about a conversation I had last night in the pub at the bar. Basically, I bumped into a girl who I was pretty sure I'd seen before. She initially refused to comment, but looking into her eyes, I knew that I'd looked into those eyes at a 'certain moment'. And when I bluntly put it to her that we'd done that particular deed at some point, she admitted it was so, but she wouldn't tell me any more, except that if I wanted to repeat the act, the offer was there.

Haydee finds it hard to understand why I'm so blase about that sort of thing, but am so uncomfortable with things such as 'meaningful relationships'.

And the truth is, because at heart I find the idea devalues me. That being in one is accepting existence as a failure. I always find when I'm in one that my self esteem is slightly- diminished.

It is accepting that you have no driving principles above and beyond, principles which demand that you make the ultimate sacrifice and reject loving and being loved back.

You see, what Haydee can't quite see, and I guess no other woman has and very few people really see the logic in, is this.

I've loved, yes. And I've been loved. I've only loved and been loved back once. But I was nineteen. And actually, even then, it did give me some misgivings. At one point, I was actually considering doing a moonlight flit down to Caldey Island to spend some time with the Cistercian monks whilst I got my head around loving Joanna.

But somewhere at the back of my mind really is this idea that if I had it there on a plate in front of me; Haydee, the woman I loved, loving me back, that it wouldn't be a gift, it wouldn't be that straight forward.

It would be a choice.

And I don't know what I would do. I've never felt this way and if she truly loved me, how could I say no? How could I turn down spending my life with her. Because so much of me wants to.
How could you turn down the love of someone you love?

And yet.
There is part of my entire thought system that says that doing just that, is passing the greatest test of all.

You see, this is what torments me about my love for her. Because I've never loved like this before. And now I do, I see why it is so hard. When you love someone like this, how could you say no to them, if they felt the same way. You want to hold them every minute you can. And if they wanted that too, how could you steal your nerves and say 'No. We can't'?

I find the paradox of the situation hard to deal with. You see, rejecting them for higher principles only has value as a sacrifice if they really are the only woman you will ever love and if they really are offering you their love.

So- for me to wish that she loved me, would be for me to wish that she'd put me in a situation where I would be confronted with what- now I can see the moral consequences of that test- would be the greatest moral challenge of my life, and it would be a situation where I would not know what to do.

Here is the paradox- I feel that until you've had that test, be offered love forever by a woman you love AND REJECT IT, you do not know your worth.
But one thing I know.
If Haydee offered, I don't think I could say no. How do you reject someone you love?

How hard is that?

That the ultimate point of moral principle, is that men of principle reject the love of those they love?

That ultimately, wanting to be loved back really is the ultimate weakness?

That you can never REALLY say you have conquered life, until you truly have learned to love, and have rejected being loved back. You give your love, gratis.

That, I guess, is the moment of true enlightenment.

And I don't yet know if it's something I could live up to.

People don't realise that that is the central message of Catholicism- loving, without being loved, aspiring for the crown of martyrdom over and above the warm embrace of a loved one.

If you want to live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse, you are following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. James Dean just updated the message.

Because that is the root of the problem.

I want to live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse, and the clock is ticking by.
But could I overcome that most powerful of temptations, that lure that so many succumb to?

DON'T die young. Grow old. With me. Who loves you. Grow old in my arms.

And I wrestle so much with this, I do.

Because if the second choice came along, and I took it, would I regret it on my death bed?
Would I look into the eyes of the woman I loved and regret the life I had squandered through being with her?

Because doesn't accepting someone's love forever simply mean you have no principle that you would put above them? Sure, it will make you happy, but's the point isn't it? You've opted for happiness.
It proves you have no principles that you'd sacrifice your happiness for.

That, that is the moral question that Catholicism asks.
And is that that it bequethes to all who grew up within the strictures of its teaching, whether they fully accept, or fully reject the technicalities of its theology. It bequethes that mindset.

It bequethes that thought.

That for your life to really be worthwhile, it has to be lived in devotion to a cause. And for it to truly be lived in devotion to a cause, one must even sacrifice the chance to be loved.

It leaves that thought hanging over us, that sense that wanting to be loved is a weakness.

It does not teach is that is wrong, indeed it openly provides for it as something that the majority of human beings should strive for. But it implicitly teaches that those who reject it have chosen a higher life.

And I can see the logic of why that should be so.
Because I grew up believing it to be so.
That belief is ingrained in my bones.

And my internal self has fought that war for many long years.
The wish to find love and be loved.
And the feeling that that wish is a weakness- a weakness that could waste my life.


Anonymous said...

This argument would pack more punch if you were out in the world doing things to love all your fellow human beings. But the way you seem to disdain and judge so many, it is hard to see your saintliness in this.

I think religion is a manmade contrivance that places power in the hands of few primarily using fear and random rules. I don't think you can devalue yourself by loving and being loved by someone. I think the ability to do this is not something to be scoffed at or shunned. I think so much of the Christian faith has been transmuted and adjusted to reflect the needs of whomever's hands it happens to be in. I don't think priests are better people than anyone else, but they sure would love to believe themselves above everyone else. I tend to think people who claim they are for the people in general are in for some sort of personal glory. Hardly not expecting something back. They are getting fed something they need very much.

I was raised Catholic. I don't believe in it anymore, although I did see the last pope in St. Peter's Square in Rome on his 20th anniversary and thought it was really cool except that the nuns were really pushy and rude.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes I worry that you are setting up so many rules and philosophies that you want to live your life by, but you don't really know what is around the corner for you.

You could truly get to 42 and meet a lovely woman who has children and it might just feel right, no matter how much you intellectualise it.
Because I think each one of us is biologically 'set' to find a mate, we are. Even if I tell myself a thousand times "I would like to live my life single and I am very happy with my freedom and independence" ...I can't ignore the fact that each man I look upon is a question mark, however fleeting - 'is he the one?'
This thought comes before I even realise what I'm doing.

I think after reading you so long now, what you like to do is set up ideals and policies and boundaries. I'm glad you've got ideals because it is obviously driving you and giving you a reason to be, but try not to be so hard on yourself when talking about life and love and growing old. Because you could just enjoy it with the rest of us plebes!!

Anonymous said...

Crushed, You are so a heretic you know. How you can possibly claim to be a Roman Catholic and in the same breath you say “I don't believe in Heaven or Hell” or you don’t believe in God, or at least a “personal” god whatever that is. Check with Rome, but I don’t think that is officially part of doctrine.

You don’t approve of the idea of Protestants, but I guess that is because you learned/accepted Protestantism and protestants were bad in some way, before you ever learned to question, and now it is one of the building blocks you use to think.

You are doing exactly what the original Protestants did. Saying “I like this bit so I’ll go with this”,” I don’t like that so it goes in the trash” – only even more so.

You are basically inventing your own religion. Maybe it’s just as well you don’t believe in hell, other wise you might be concerned about Sixth Circle where Dante has heretics are sealed in flaming tombs. Or maybe the eighth circle for schismatics?

Anonymous said...

"Non thinking Christians"??? Who do you think you are? You are a salesman. You go to work, play on the internet and get drunk. Stop being so fucking judgmental.

As for the true test for something or other being rejecting the love of someone who loves you?

YOU have pursued love.

You pursue women, declare here incessantly about the love you have for a woman you've met once, and chase women at the pub and elsewhere. Rejecting something that you have sought out does not demonstrate strength of character but the intellectual rigor and restraint of 2 year old. Grow up.

Anonymous said...

It is easier being an agnostic you know - we just dont have to like think about things. Care for a biscuit?

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Kate on this one. I tend to think of my moral codes as fairly inherent, in that at most times I will act according to them pretty much implicitly. Of course, we all have our dilemmas, but these aren't usually the norm. However, sometimes it seems this is a pretty standard struggle for you, and while I'm sure it is stoic and all, I'm not sure of the good of it. I guess I don't see why love has to be so complicated. I adore the fact that it is so simple.

PS. I have been absurdly busy lately, but I did want to thank you for your kind words on my post about revealing. I guess my vulnerability got to you, too ;)

Anonymous said...

VicariousRising- It's not so much about saintliness, I'm not sure that's entirely the point.
It's about being able to detach yourself.

Well, yes, I would agree with your point about personal glory. And I suppose that's partly it- if you actually want to be somebody to the world, you have to accept you can't be the world to somebody as well. The two are usually incompatible.

I was raised Catholic and still am, though hardly conventional in my theology.

Kate- Well, yes, I tend to like things ordered logically, and I like things to fit into a grand framework.

Kate, I do that all the time, in some ways. Or I don't, I don't know. I think I look at most wonen in RL and the question is far more primeval...

I know what you're saying about just enjoying it, but it's hard you know, I sometimes think I've kind of reasoned myself to where Frodo was at the end of LOTR 'The Shire was saved but not for me'. I admit that's defeatist but it's how I often feel.

Moggs- Catholic in the sense I admire the system of thought, particularly how it defines the causes of sin.

I actually just don't like Protestant Theology. I don't see it as being much better than Odin and Loki.

It's the Atheists in the flaming tombs. I can't remember where the schismatics are. They are in that circle, though I can't remember where. Interestingly, Mohammed is listed there as a schismatic.

Femme- I don't pursue love. I don't pursue the woman I love at all.
The women I do 'pursue' in RL, well, that's not really pursuing, nor is it for 'love'.

Mutley- I often say Catholicism is easy that way too- as long as you're just laity. Asking questions is something you don't need to do :)
A biscuit? I hope this isn't in the context of a Rugby club outing...

Princess P- I think yes, most of my morals are inherant, there are some things I will do, some things I just couldn't.

Unfortunately, however, it is true that I do tend to devise complex systems for assessing the ultimate significance or PURPOSE of pretty much most things.

I guess I found the post showed me a side I could recognise. I guess we all have that fear that we're afraid if people really could see into us, they wouldn't like it.

I don't know though, I think truth is, we're all a lot more like eachother than we realise.

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

Crushed, About Mohammed. Absolutely. I cant figure why the would be pegged as a schismatic, given that he only accepts JC as a prophet. I suppose you could stretch heretical.

Surely unbeliever is the best you can manage. I think I remember reading somewhere that the name “Allah” was originally applied to , or developed from, something like a moon goddess? But got a sex change ‘cos the people in charge were unreconstructed sort of guys who didn’t want the women they were wiping their feet on to say “Don't tread on me, hey the ultimate authority is a chick!”

They probably still are…

Anonymous said...

Femme- :)

Moggs- The reason is that there was a story going riund in the Middle Ages that Mohammed only founded Islam because he he didn't get to be Pope- the legend was that he HAD been a Catholic cardinal- therefore, he was a schismatic.

Well, medieval Christians believed Muslims said APOLLO. They believed Islam had an unholy trinity; Apollo, Mohammed and Termegant. Never found out who or what Termegant was supposed to be, but see Wolfran Von Eschenbach's Willehalm.

Anonymous said...

Interesting.. I figure the nearest you could call it would be it is basically a heretical Jewish sect then.

Like Christianity...