“I’m a recovering Catholic!” More and more, especially within intellectual circles, this is a trendy thing to say. I have heard it off of the lips of authors, rock singers, university professors, talk-show hosts, ex-clergy and ex-religious, numerous public speakers, and a variety of my Catholic friends.
Usually it is not meant lightly. Most times it carries with it all the emotion and obsession of a fundamentalism: “I’m a recovering Catholic and this is central to my identity. To understand me, my struggle, my complexes, and my present anger and resentments, you have to understand this.”
Understand what? What are we saying when we say that we are “recovering Catholics?”
What I hear in the phrase is this: “I grew up in a certain narrowness and naivete. The religion of my youth, Catholicism, kept me infantile and unfree. It also put deep guilt complexes in to me, especially about freedom, creativity and sex. “As a child, I breathed in a certain Catholic neurosis. I’ve begun to move beyond that now, albeit the process isn’t easy. I am finding it hard to rid myself fully of the narrowness, guilt and adolescence of my Catholic upbringing. But I am growing up! I am slowly moving beyond the creative and moral suffocation of classical Catholicism.”
Undergirding this is a double affirmation: At one level, the recovering Catholic is stating that he or she is finally growing up; at a second level, he or she is suggesting, with some bitterness, that the Catholicism that was breathed in as a child is to blame for many of the neuroses, timidities, guilt and struggles that he or she is undergoing right now.
To my mind, both affirmations, while admittedly containing an element of truth, are major inflations:
“I am finally growing up!” Really. This is adulthood? Is there not a certain contradiction in laying claim to maturity just as one is laying blame for one’s unhappiness at the foot of somebody else?
What is heard in the echo of the claim (“I am a recovering Catholic and the Catholicism of my youth is to blame for many of my present unhappy struggles!”) is the voice of the wounded (and whining) child, the puer, the puella, still shifting responsibility away from self: “It is somebody else’s fault that I’m unhappy.”
As well, any claim to a new-found maturity that contains within it a certain bitterness about a former naivete is precisely a sign of lingering adolescence. It is the adolescent who is bitter about the taboos of childhood: “We were raised on poverty, chastity and obedience—and this left us infantile, guilt-ridden and unfree! I am bright enough now to see all that and am moving beyond it.”
Fine and good. That is a critical move beyond childhood. But it is not yet the move beyond adolescence. The adolescent longs to be sophisticated and critical, beyond the naivete and taboos of childhood. But the adult longs for something beyond even this. He or she longs to be post-sophisticate. As an adult, one again longs for a poverty, chastity and obedience that is post-critical. I don’t see this longing, nor this tone or energy, in many recovering Catholics.
“The Catholicism of my youth is to blame for many of my inner struggles and problems, especially my guilt neuroses.”
While there is obviously some truth in the statement, at the end of the day, it is a rationalization. It stretches logic to suggest that a series of religious ideals and moral taboos (which one is no longer observing) are, right now, the major cause of one’s unhappiness.
Moreover, there is a growing body of research (e.g., Anton Vergote’s work on guilt) that suggests that guilt-neuroses do not primarily take their base in religion (given that they exist just as noxiously in post-Christian cultures) and that most anger that is directed at institutionalized religion is anger more properly (and honestly) directed at one’s own father. We have about the same degree of comfort or anger in the face of the Catholicism of our youth as we do in the face of our own father—but it’s safer to be angry at Catholicism.
All of us struggle. Freedom, maturity, adulthood perennially evade our grasp. But I am not so sure that it is either healthy or honest to put so much blame for this at the feet of classical Catholicism and cloak it with high ideology. We are involved in a far humbler process. It’s called growing up.