Questioning God? Ask a Kennedy

Let’s book review, shall we?

I just finished reading Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning (Crown Publishers 2008), which was compiled and edited by Kerry Kennedy, daughter of RFK. Kennedy interviewed 38 American Catholics (many of them of Irish heritage) – several priests and sisters, actors, activists, politicians, journalists, lay people, business people, and even Bill Maher – about their religion.

The idea is a vital one, pushing a concept that we should undertake more frequently: to question our religion. Each person was chosen, ostensibly, for his or her involvement with the Church; some are no longer practicing Catholics but have a history and an opinion about it. Written in the first person but obviously transcribed from interviews, the essays – for this is what they become when condensed onto the page without quotation marks – sometimes lack coherence and the specificity that comes from deliberately setting out to write something, rather than to aimlessly talk about it. Instead of reading the barely-differentiated details of each person’s Catholic upbringing, we could read the standout details that each person would discern as unique. Then again, people with important things to say aren’t always the best writers (and I better not get that statement turned around on me), and people can be freer with their thoughts when having a conversation.

The questions asked, though sometimes disappointingly transparent and thus the cause of chapters sounding repetitive, were basic but provocative. I can guess from the answers that most people were asked something along the lines of the following:

1. What was your Catholic childhood/initiation like?
2. Do you have Catholic guilt?
3. What would you do if you were pope for a year?
4. What is heaven like? What is hell like?
5. Do you still go to Mass/practice your faith?
6. Why stay Catholic?

Anyone have some answers?

One of my favorite answers is from Peggy Noonan, who said, “Everyone’s idea of heaven probably says something about them, maybe more than they know.” That certainly rings true to me.

An amusing response comes from Thomas S. Monaghan, who founded Domino’s Pizza (and swears he runs it ethically – maybe he wants to have a word with the booger boys in North Carolina) and then Ave Maria University. “Catholic guilt is one of those criticisms of liberal Catholics about the Catholic Church. I think a certain amount of guilt is good. You go to confession and you don’t have guilt anymore.” There you have it, ladies and gentleman. It’s just that simple! The same guy also says, “A lot of good came of the pedophile scandal. The inspection for homosexuals in the seminaries was a good thing.” Exactly. Those homosexuals can’t be trusted. I think I’ve lost my taste for Domino’s, though it has nothing to do with bodily fluids.

Anne Burke, who served as interim chair of the National Review Board of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, describes the difficult and frustrating work of being a lay person and woman trying to regulate authority figures who feel that they are responsible to no one but the hierarchy – instead of being responsible to the people they serve.

Dan McNevin, a spokesperson for SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) was abused as a child and can only speak of god with a lower case “g;” his faith was ripped from him long ago by an abusive priest, but he does the good work of fighting for victims.

Dan Akroyd deserves a mention, if only for the fact that his spiritual beliefs sound like he pulled them from his Ghostbusters script: “What happens when you die is the soul’s energy goes into the multiverse, and it goes to a parallel dimension;” “I believe in the continuity of the soul energy as a bioelectric fact.”

Martin Sheen talks of his return to the Church late in life; Susan Sarandon dishes on social justice, Andrew Sullivan reconciles his openly gay identity with his deep religious faith, Bill O’Reilly shouts some stuff along party lines, a 19-year-old considering life as a nun explains that if one spouse has HIV, he or she should just abstain from sexual intercourse within their marriage, so there’s no condom conflict there. Someone should get that girl a job working with AIDS patients! The compassion just shines through.

All sarcasm aside, the book as a whole is a moving portrait of American Catholics, not least because it demonstrates how Catholics are always wrestling with their faith. The percentage of celebrities and self-described ex-Catholics is a bit high, and the book has been bashed as liberal trash, but even if the people interviewed don't represent the general population by percentage, their questions resonate with many.

Amazing, though not surprising, are the tropes that emerge, woven through most chapters. The most prominent theme is the opinion that women should be more involved in the church, at the level of priest. (The most vocal advocates? Nuns. Duh.) After that is the idea that the Church is the people, not the hierarchy. Another recurring stance is that the Church badly mishandled, and continues to botch to a lesser degree, the pedophilia problem. So Catholics at all levels of society and degrees of faith align in these views, and it makes you wonder why things can’t get done.

At the very least, Kerry Kennedy has put these questions out there, and I think that more of us should answer them, especially the quintessential one: Why stay Catholic?

My late father used to say, The Church is going to have problems, but the Church is like your family. You don’t abandon your family. You fight for your family. That’s why I stay Catholic.

Why do you?

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