One of the arguments my ex had before she was “ex” was about abortion. While we walked a neighbor’s dog, she asked if we knew she was carrying a baby with Down’s syndrome whether I’d want to abort the fetus or not. Now, I don’t think that my opinion on this matter is somehow “virtuous” and hers was not. As a resident in South Dakota in 2008, I voted against a measure to ban all abortions. But, personally, I would have trouble complying to abort a fetus for reasons other than health of the mother or family planning reasons (i.e. too many kids, not enough money, etc…). And that was my answer. Not that I wouldn’t. Just, that I’d have trouble with that.
Later that night, while making dinner, I mentioned in passing that I’d been recently to “mass,” and she said, after a long pause, “Yeah…we should probably talk about that.”
Fast forward weeks later, in the middle of a fight over Thanksgiving weekend, I told her I had always wanted to raise my children Catholic, as I figured some moral framework (even a framework you learn to break) is important for child development. She reacted, as is obviously her right, with no uncertain rejection. She also, like me, grew up Catholic and said she’d never subject her children to a bigoted faith. And given the Catholic Church’s history of psychological warfare on its adherents, I can’t logically say this was an overanxious concern of hers.
Months later, after we’d broken up and were still talking, she told me she was reading a book on Buddhism. I expressed happiness at this, as I wanted her to be centered (as much as this is possible with anyone) and find good coping mechanisms (she was/is navigating a high-stress academic environment).
But, I also realized simultaneously while she needn’t bat an eyelash in revealing her curiosity in Buddhism, breathing, meditation, or other forms of spirituality, I could never talk to her about what I liked in Pope Francis’ homily last week or how I find the words of Thomas Merton moving.
I don’t think they are the same, of course. I teach at a Catholic college, and I frequently find myself painfully nodding at paper topics from some of my seminarians, who are often theologically (very) conservative young men. So, I see that Catholicism has more brand damage than other faiths. So for a long time I’ve thought of my faith as a liability. It’s part of the conversation I don’t want to bring up. Depending upon the audience, it can be shameful, akin to admitting I was once in prison or perhaps suffer from alcoholism. Except, unlike alcoholism, my faith is a conscious decision. And not all faiths are created equal. I recognize that to my friends, “reading Thich Nhat Han” as a Twitter status gets a pass whereas “reading Dorothy Day” wouldn’t. To many of my friends, Catholicism signals bigotry, rigidity, and intolerance. And as person who finds peace and focus in the rituals of the Catholicism, the mass, communion, the contemplative aspects of the faith, and its more fair-minded, 20th Century voices, such as Merton and Day, I no longer know what to do.
In April, I saw a poster hanging in the cathedral (a different church only blocks from my house) that advertised a “conversion” experience for Catholics experiencing “same sex attraction” (groan) that I tore down. I’ve never been back to this church since. But I still occasionally go to mass at a basilica across town, with an immigrant population and a more progressive, social justice message.
Of course, it’s compelling to drop this part of my identity, or swap my faith for one that has more societal acceptance in the 21st Century. But, like the travelers in Inception, my Catholicism is my identity totem. Mass is my yoga. Mass is my Sunday morning brunch with friends. Mass is my version of Baumbach’s pilgrimage to the Museum of Natural History in Squid & the Whale.
And I think I should be able to do that. But, I also have realized, admittedly a bit of a defeatist position, that I can’t anymore expect people to accept this in a relationship. On day-to-day interactions, my faith isn’t important. But, in a relationship, I can only hope to meet someone who can love me in spite of my Catholicism, not because of it. A friend of mine, more traditional in her Catholicism, is convinced I’ve already given up too much. That my abdication of wanting to have a “Catholic” family, a “Catholic” fatherhood, is an abdication of my very values. And she’s right. But I often wonder want to ask her, what circles are you dating in?