About a year ago, I was giving a workshop when a man about my own age made the following comment: “I shudder when I think about the Catholicism we were raised on!”
“To think about all the garbage we were taught! All those nuns and priests preaching to us about poverty, chastity and obedience—when what we really wanted was affluence, sex and freedom!”
More recently, while serving on a committee that was writing a document on religious life, I brought a draft back to committee and was confronted by a fellow committee member, also roughly my age, who told me rather angrily: “Revise this radically! Eliminate all the times you say: ‘we must . . . we should . . . we need to. . .’ All of that smacks of super-ego and lays false guilt on people. Reading this, I thought I was back in catechism class 25 years ago!”
These two stories are, in many ways, parables that expose both what is best and what is worst in the religious attitudes of those Catholics who are roughly my age.
We are a rather curious generation, we baby boomers. We straddle two very different times in history. We are old enough to remember another time, when, for better and for worse, life was simpler, especially for Catholics. We had clear ideas then about family, religion, morality and our social institutions. We were raised on a Catholicism within which, precisely, priests and nuns dealt a truth we never questioned.
There were many musts, shoulds, have to’s, need to’s, and nobody doubted these and nobody doubted either that poverty, chastity and obedience were clear-cut virtues. We lived and learned within that Catholic ghetto even while the voices of the Enlightenment told us that all of this was backward and more than enough voices within tempted us towards other things.
Then, right when most of us were in our 20s and 30s, many of the ghetto walls came crumbling in. Within a very short time, almost every religious and moral idea that we had been raised on was challenged and, within an equally short time, many turned upon their religious and moral past with a bitter vengeance that took few prisoners.
The stories above are parables of that. They speak of Catholics who have looked at their past and declared it to be naive and infantile.
What’s to be said about all this? Obviously there is some truth in that judgment, despite its distortions at times. Every ghetto is overly defensive and overly narrow.
The Catholicism of our youth was no exception. There were aspects about it that smacked of infantile religiosity and which helped render us too timid to really enter the dance to which the Gospel of Christ beckons us.
However, in the type of reaction that the two stories above outline, there is an unhealthy excess. We have gone too far.
Why do I say this? Simply put, what that type of reaction does is to substitute a certain infantile grandiosity for a certain infantile religiosity. When we tum in bitter vengeance against poverty, chastity and obedience, we become precisely children of the Enlightenment and take on all the false pride and distortion of that philosophy of life and reality.
What is that distortion? Precisely the failure to recognize that the deepest need of the human soul is for obedience, that without this we inflate and quickly become gods to ourselves and monsters to others.
We are most human when we are genuflecting, revering something beyond ourselves; we are most loving when we are chaste, respectful and unwilling to violate another person; and we are most happy when we are poor, free from the enslaving attachment to material things.
Not all the poverty, chastity and obedience that was preached to us when we were little was healthy. The Enlightenment has its own secrets that are worth knowing. As well, more than enough of us were taught guilt, fear and timidity in the name of the Gospel when what should have been taught us was enjoyment, trust and courage to enter the dance.
But our present reaction throws away too much of the baby with the bath.
The real solution to infantile religiosity is not infantile grandiosity but a free choice for poverty, chastity and obedience that does not rise out of guilt, fear, timidity and lack of opportunity, but from the adult recognition that true belief in God and true respect of others demands a lot of shoulds and a lot of musts.