People said that's just what they're like
Those Catholic kids at the parochial school could string together swear words in a way almost no one in my public school could. They could produce them in mind-boggling numbers and loudly enough to be heard over a jet engine. Sometimes they produced them just before starting a fight, which they seemed happy to do, and at which they were rather good. They were like no one I knew.
I was the scorekeeper for our high school basketball team and going to games at the parochial school across the river was a little like going into combat. The players were always sportsmen, but some of the other kids and their parents were not. The number of really foul-mouthed and aggressive students and parents was probably small, but they drew such attention to themselves — and so many were genuinely scary people when angry — my colleagues and I didn’t notice the others. We were always relieved to get safely onto the bus and even more relieved when the bus got safely out of the parking lot.
This, some of the adults around me would say, is what Catholics are like. They aren’t like us, who rarely swore and never fought, at least in public. Theirs was an unenlightened culture. They did not share the genteel and civilized values of our community (a typical postcard New England college town). When we would let things go or talk things out, they resorted to verbal and even physical violence when things did not work out the way they wanted. The religion and the swearing and the fighting were all part of the same thing.
That was what I heard from secular adults. The religious adults I knew added another, sharper criticism. Some of these adults were classic mainline Protestants, others very conservative Evangelicals. Catholicism was essentially antinomian, though this was not a word they’d have known. One explained to me that this is how people act when they think they can get forgiveness just by going to a priest. A few with more knowledge explained that the Catholic view of grace let people feel they have God’s approval no matter they do, and that all they had to do was go to Mass. Others (always the Evangelicals) held against the Catholics as well that they drank and smoked and played bingo right in the church hall because their church let them lead such dissolute lives.
For these religious adults, the religion and the swearing and the fighting weren’t just part of the same thing. The religion was the source of the swearing and the fighting.
I’ve switched sides now. I’ll always be formed by my childhood in that town, but I’ve joined those kids from the parochial school across the river. They, and their children who might be yelling the same bad words at basketball games, are now my brothers and sisters. I share their religion, and I know it’s not the reason they acted so badly then because I know it’s not the reason I act badly now. Things look different from the inside.
Maybe their culture as expressed by their priests and parents allowed a rhetorical range theprim academic culture in which I lived did not, and maybe it did not judge a fight over a close game so bad as did our culture — the culture of people who didn’t fight because they didn’t like getting hit, if we’re being honest. Sure. Religions are incarnated in particular people in particular cultures, and each will go wrong in some characteristic ways but also go right in others. Catholicism is always pushing against a culture’s failings and pointing its people to the ideal.
The adults who so easily dismissed Catholicism because the parochial school kids misbehaved were just snobs. They didn’t swear at kids from another school and throw punches in the parking lot, and that, they thought, made them better. They were only doing what people like them did. Being a peaceful academic isn’t really virtuous when you and everyone around you is naturally a peaceful academic and rewarded for being that kind of person.
The people who had explained Catholicism to me had their sins, which were as great as the Catholics’, just more socially acceptable in our circles. I remember someone condemning the Catholic kids’ drinking, though he himself was an ardent dope-smoker. And no one, including me, noticed the problem. The self-regard and snobbery they showed in talking of the people at the parochial school were acts lacking charity, their far subtler form of aggression. We didn’t hit people, we just dismissed them as cretins. It was a worse form of aggression, I think: the guy who swears at you and then swings at your head might become a friend after the fight, but the person who thinks you’re just inferior isn’t likely even to speak to you.
Still, all that said, we can be embarrassed at the apparently casual way some practicing Catholics relate to the moral law. The Catholic mobster you see in movies is not entirely imaginary. We all live lives at variance with our faith, but a few of us live lives so spectacularly at variance.
The English writer Ronald Knox had to deal with this, because when he became a Catholic about one hundred years ago, a very large percentage of the men in prison were Catholics, and former colleagues would point this out to him. I can imagine how they said it, because friends said things like that to me after I became a Catholic. They seemed to think that the news of some Catholic sinner would send me scurrying in horror back to Anglicanism, which struck me then as expecting me to get back onto the Titanic because some of the crew of the rescue ship were known thieves. If the choice were losing my wallet and arriving safely in New York or drowning in the north Atlantic with my wallet safe, the choice was easy to make.
In a book collecting his talks to Oxford students called In Soft Garments, Fr. Knox saw the problem, but he also saw that it said something comforting about Catholicism. “In a way this is a compliment to our religion,” he argued. “Because it does mean that a Catholic does not necessarily cease to be a Catholic because he is a rogue. He knows what is right when he is doing what is wrong.”
The Protestant, Knox continued, “as a rule will give up his faith first and his morals afterward; with Catholics it is the other way round. The Protestant only feels his religion to be true as long as he goes on practicing it; the Catholic feels the truth of his religion as something independent of himself, which does not cease to be valid when he, personally, fails to live up to its precepts.”
Knox generalized, of course, but in my observation it’s a fair generalization. Most Protestants I’ve known who substantially changed their lives shrugged off their faith, and there’s something admirable in their consistency. They’re honest men trying to live with integrity. I keep meeting Catholics who haven’t been to Mass in years but yell in protest if anyone even implies that they are no longer Catholics. A Croatian waitress In New York once said to me, “Of course I’m Catholic!” but when asked where she found a Croatian-language Mass said, with real shock, “I didn’t say I was religious.”
I’d rather that than an unbelieving life lived with integrity. The mobster, the waitress, and the rest of us remain, whatever our sins, connected to the Church by a thread, and there’s always the chance that we will stop swimming away and God will be able to pull us in and bring us home.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng. This article was first published in Touchstone and is reprinted with permission of the author.