On growing up Catholic


The Australian Labor Party split in two three times during the 20th century:  over military conscription during WW I, over economic policies during the Great Depression, and over entryism by Catholic anti-communists in 1954.   A Catholic-dominated splinter party from that last split, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP), now looks likely to be represented in the Australian Federal Parliament again after 36 years absence, by winning the last Senate seat from Victoria in last week’s election.   I therefore thought it interesting to collect the views of several lapsed Catholics on their education.
Here is Germaine Greer, educated in Melbourne by Catholic nuns of the Presentation Order, in an essay in the collection, There’s Something About a Convent Girl (Edited by Jackie Bennet  & Rosemary Forgan.  London, UK; Virago, 1991):

I am still a Catholic, I just don’t believe in God. I am an atheist Catholic – there are a lot of them around. One thing lapsed Catholics do not do is go in for an “inferior” religion with less in the way of tradition and intellectual content.”

And Catholic-raised Terry Eagleton on reason in religious education:

[Richard] Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief.”

Catalan & American philosopher George Santayana, who ended his life, though a lapsed believer, in a convent in Rome:

Catholicism is the most human of religions, if taken humanly:  it is paganism spiritually transformed and made metaphysical. It corresponds most adequately to the various exigencies of moral life, with just the needed dose of wisdom, sublimity, and illusion.” (Persons and Places. London, UK:  Constable, 1944, p. 98)

British author David Almond, in an interview with Sarah Crown, quoted on his Catholic upbringing in Newcastle, UK:

Readers and critics have labelled Almond’s novels modern fairytales. But for Almond himself, “the pressing thing is the realism. Skellig had to be in a real garage. Kit sleeps in a real mine. The Fire-Eaters, while it has a miraculous element to it, takes place in a real coastal town, and features a real fire-eater – he was based on this character we used to see on the Quayside in Newcastle when I was a kid. Once you’ve got that solid, touchable world you can do anything. Maybe that’s something else to do with being brought up as a Catholic: you’re taught to think about the other world, but you grow up in this one, and you realise there couldn’t be anything better. So you find the miraculousness in reality.”

Hilary Mantel says something similar:

In the ideal world, all writers would have a Catholic childhood, or belong to some other religion which does the equivalent for you. Because Catholicism tells you at a very early age the world is not what you see; that beyond everything you see, and the appearance – or the accidents as they’re known – there is another reality, and it is a far more important reality. So it’s like running in the imagination. I think that this was the whole point for me – that from my earliest years I believed the world to have an overt face and a hidden face, and behind every cause another cause, and behind every explanation another explanation, which is perhaps of quite a different order. And if you cease to believe in Catholic doctrine it doesn’t mean that you lose that; you still regard the world as ineffable and mysterious and as something which perhaps in the end can’t quite be added up. It could be summed up as saying “all is not as it seems”, and of course that’s the first thing Catholicism tells you. And then it just runs through everything you write and everything you touch, really. Plus, it’s good to have something to rebel against.”

Irish writer John McGahern, in a 1993 essay, “The Church and its Spire”, on his upbringing in 1950s Eire:

I was born into Catholicism as I might have been born into Buddhism or Protestantism or any of the other isms or sects, and brought up as a Roman Catholic in the infancy of this small state when the Church had almost total power: it was the dominating force in my whole upbringing, education and early working life.
I have nothing but gratitude for the spiritual remnants of that upbringing, the sense of our origins beyond the bounds of sense, an awareness of mystery and wonderment, grace and sacrament, and the absolute equality of all women and men underneath the sun of heaven. That is all that now remains. Belief, as such, has long gone.”

Journalist Antony Funnell in an article about the violence in Australian Catholic education also says:

It was many years before I started to truly appreciate the full effect that the Catholic education system of the 1970s and early 80s had on my psyche. From the [Marist] Brothers I retain, and cherish, a sense of what’s often called “Catholic social justice”: a deeply held belief that what’s important in life is to make some form of difference to society, no matter what you do and no matter how small your contribution; that treating everyone as your equal is important; that your goals in life should rise above the simple pursuit of material wealth.
How odd then that I also learned from them how base and brutal and petty human beings can be.”

I think this sense of the absolute equality of all arises from the universalist ambitions of Catholicism (all people are called to embrace it and be saved), which it shares with Islam.  Those forms of Protestantism which focus on an elect, the people whom God has decided will be saved (even, according to believers in predestinationism, so chosen before their birth), do not share this bias for absolute equality.    Of course, within the Church itself, with its priesthood currently restricted to men, and then only some men, the tradition of equality is dishonoured more than honoured.  And the universalism of Catholicism, coupled with its global presence, mean that a welcoming community and familiar rituals can be found by adherents most anywhere they go (again like Islam).   Perhaps only participation in a global martial arts community, such as karate or aikido, offers anything similar.
And since Catholics hold that it is the-people-as-the-Church that receive grace and are saved, not people as individuals, there is a bias toward community and social cohesion that runs counter to the prevailing individualistic ethos of capitalism.
Note:  The image shows one of the many woodcarvings in the Catholic Church at Serima Mission, near Masvingo, Zimbabwe.

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