This past week I was in the Pacific Northwest for some long-neglected family time. But among some really good times (which included partying like it’s 2099 with my pseudo-fundie extended family–WITH BOOZE*), I discovered that my mom has become a cafeteria Catholic.
This disturbes and unsettles me. This is the woman who used her artistic skills to write all the basic Catholic prayers in caligraphy to hang above my bed when I was two. This is the woman who fought tooth and nail to help my dad to convert. I went on a pilgrimage with this woman in '93. But on Saturday night, she and I had a real high-intensity rager in front of family and friends. Over what? I’m not even sure what the real issue was, but it was theoretically over how well Catholics know what they believe.
I should have known not to get into the topic, though. My family is held together by a sensible mix of respect and repression. Through trial and error we’ve finally reached a workable truce where we know what not to talk about. For example, I definitively answered for my mom years ago the question: “Should I give [Montanaman] unsolicited relationship advice?” I know better than to ask my dad what his “feelings” are. Unless I want to hear a string of obscenities, I know better than to suggest my brother watch his language. My sister once decked me–hard–for recommending that maybe she should spend less time on her butt and more time WRITING, as it’s her greatest gift. (She’s now in college for it, though).
But something weird has happened to the family in the years since I’ve been gone (though probably not BECAUSE I’ve been gone). As far as Catholics go, we’ve always been stronger than most. By that I mean we go to Mass more than on Easter and Christmas, we read Catholic literature, it comes up in conversation, etc. However, I’m the only one to ever take it to a fanatical level. For the most part, though, we’ve always acknowledged that there’s right and wrong, truth and error. So how weird was it to discover that my brother, who has temporarily moved back home (into the new house they just built) has his girlfriend over so often that they more than “practically” live together? And, when I planned the trip out west, I had planned to put Grace in what is now my brother’s room, and I would sleep on the couch. But no, mom insisted that we not turn the living room into a bedroom, and that I sleep in Grace’s room. “You can work out the sleeping arrangements yourselves,” she basically said.
I slept on the floor, by the way. My back is still stiff two days after getting back home.
But that’s just context, I suppose. The real fight was over Catholic education.
Over dinner, in response to some forgotten thread of conversation, I mentioned that Catholics were poorly educated about their faith. Mom said “I recall that the last time we had this conversation it didn’t end well.” She’s right–it didn’t. I thought it was because the conversation came up when I was tired, walking home from a long day at work, and I was testy. But, it was an innocuous, off-hand remark. Mom, however, took the simple fact that I was asserting into a broad value judgment about a billion people. Where I said “Catholics don’t know their Catechism,” she took it to mean, “Catholics everywhere need to be apologists or they’re going to Hell.” She never moved off of that interpretation no matter how many times I rejected the nonsensical conclusion. And that’s pretty much what happened on Saturday night.
Everyone was home–Dad, Mom, brother, sister, brother’s girlfriend and my girlfriend, Grace. I tried to derail the pointless conflict by reminding her that it was just a simple factual statement, that 9 out of 10 Catholics couldn’t pass a simple 20-point quiz I’d recently seen about their faith. She started talking about people’s gifts, and that loathesome phrase, “What’s in their hearts.” I acknowledged that the state of a person’s soul was ultimately important, but the simple fact was that most American Catholics couldn’t tell you the difference between the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth, much less how a person is saved.
Mom wouldn’t hear it, and she took it to the next level. “Not everyone can be like you, [Montanaman].”
“I don’t WANT everyone to be like me,” I said. And I don’t. I piss myself off plenty, thank you very much.
From there it just got ugly. Mom’s ultimate argument, if you can call it that, is that all that really matters is what’s in our hearts. Grace tried to be a peace-maker by explaining that her work led her to interview dozens of priests who–to a man–said exactly what I was saying. She also pointed out that the pope himself has made Catholic education one of the pillars of his pontificate. My brother, also trying to be conciliatory, pointed out that faith and reason are two different things. By saying so, he basically proved my point that most Catholics don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.