Thursday, August 26, 2010

Is Catholicism Like Smoking?

Since last week's post prompted some lively discussion on Anne Rice's Facebook page, this seems like a good time to ponder something that Rice has made me think about: the difficulty of quitting Catholicism.

I should clarify, to start, that I'm not a Catholic; rather, I'm a Prod with Italian roots, a nun obsession and a love of early church history. I named my son after Saint Anselm. So rest assured that I'm not trying to be flip about the Catholic Church here.  I see a great deal of beauty in Catholicism. When Anne Rice first declared her conversion into the Catholic Church, I thought it made perfect sense.  The things that resonate about her books -- the conflicted relationship between passion and morality, the grand drama on a larger-than-human scale, the tantalizing nearness of death -- are all very present in Catholic tradition and ritual.

And now she is walking away, not from her faith, but from the Church. Here's what I neglected to mention in the previous post: after declaring that she'd "quit being a Christian," Rice received a public invitation to join the socially liberal United Church of Christ (supported, of course, by an enthusiastic Facebook campaign). When she demurred, the LA Times asked Rice flat-out, How can you say no to that? Her response was diplomatic and honest: "I respect completely people who want to find a church that's more in accord with what they can morally accept. But for me, walking away is the thing right now. In the name of Christ, in the name of God."

Now, I love the UCC. I love their proud acceptance of different lifestyles and sexualities, I love their willingness to embrace change, and I love that their entire outreach campaign is based on a Gracie Allen quote. But the UCC is not the Catholic Church. For everything it offers, it lacks the rituals, the thousands of years of history and culture, the globe-spanning universal language of Catholicism. Now: did Anne Rice leave the church entirely because she thought it would make a stronger political statement than joining a more liberal denomination? Or did she leave because nothing can truly replace Catholicism for her?

I've watched many friends struggle to quit smoking, and it's always seemed to me that the hardest part of quitting smoking is that nothing can really take its place. There is no alternative activity that incorporates relaxation, socializing and ritual in the same way that cigarettes do. There's nothing you can do with your mouth and hands and breath that can replicate the feeling of having a cigarette.  Similarly: there is nothing else in the world like the Catholic Church. Some would argue for the Episcopal Church as an adequate replacement, but for many who have fallen in love or been raised with Catholic tradition, it will never be more than adequate. Remember: selecting a church is a deeply personal thing, and it can be more about a feeling of presence and belonging than about a series of check marks on an "agree/do not agree" list.

This is hard time for Catholics with an independent moral compass.  In June, a representative from the Vatican argued before the U.N. that condom distribution was actually harmful to AIDS-ravaged Africa. In July, the Vatican declared the ordination of women to be delicta graviora -- a "grave sin" comparable to sexually abusing a child. And the abuse scandal -- a travesty only magnified by the church's refusal to take responsibility -- is still a great unhealed wound; just this week, a Vatican lawyer gave an interview to Fox News assuring the public that Pope Ratzinger actually did show human emotion in reaction to the abuse cases. (When that's supposed to be comforting, we're in deep trouble.)

Anne Rice says that she'll "very much miss" going to Mass and participating in Holy Communion. Her decision sounds heartbreaking. But sometimes, going cold turkey is the only option.


K said...

"Holy Communion" and "the Eucharist" are the same thing :)

David Lee Waters Sr., said...

We don't lose habits, we replace them with better ones.

Christian said...

I thought she grew Catholic and then left the Church, later coming back. Now of course pitching organized religion all together.

Joyce said...

Yes, she grew up Catholic and left the church as a young adult.

Susanne said...

Way to go, Catholic Church. Ordaining women is now a grave sin comparable to molesting a child???

One more reason to never go back...when the Church considers half of the world as second class citizens (women) while those with the correct genitalia and ordination are allowed to get away with truly grave sins. Sad, sad, sad.

Gwynne Watkins said...

Ha, thanks K. I was paraphrasing Rice's quote and didn't catch the obvious.

Erin Snyder said...

The photo progression is absolutely brilliant. In particular, that last one is pure genius.

Anonymous said...

Christ, I love the smoking Jesus and smoking Penguins. So that is what killed Jesus.
"Holy Communion" is only Jesus in a piece of bread.
Just image ordained women hearing confession and catching up with the day's gossip.
I am a bedraggled refugee from the "Holy" Roman Catholic Church, no proudly Atheist.

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Urban (r)evolution said...

one picture of smoking Jesus contains secret pedo-code..should remove it..or name it..