Saturday, January 9, 2010

Dirty Little Catholic

Several posts ago, I referred to my Unitarian Church as being made up, in part, of pissed-off ex-Catholics. I’ve since come to realize, with the help of some really pissed-off emails, that it’s not the most right I’ve ever been. It turns out that a small handful of happy ex-Catholics actually do exist. Happy ex-Catholics, by the way, use the most colorful language to get their points across.

In the interest of full disclosure, my view of Catholicism, and of those who practice it, is tainted by my own history. I grew up in Manistee, a small, very white, very Catholic town on the shore of Lake Michigan. The word diversity was never a part of my childhood vocabulary, probably because there was only one permanent black resident in my little Podunk town, Bob Brewer, and he (and his white wife) lived quietly in East Lake, the smallest, poorest enclave in the city.

For a town of less than ten thousand, I’ve always been struck by the stark divisions that define it. If East Lake is where the poor minority are hidden, then Snob Hill, a subdivision adjacent to the private golf course, is where the powerful elite set up camp. In between is Oak Hill, a glorified nursing home community where the old linger for years before being called away, as my dad used to say, “to meet their maker.” He also referred to the cemetery as Marble Park, and of the Catholics he’d say, “Let ‘em go to hell with the rest of us.” The man is a fountain of wisdom.

We lived in Maxwell Town with all of the other rag-tag working class families who didn’t’ fit into any of the other micro-communities. Our house sat on a block that was wedged between a boat factory and a salt factory. At one point in my life, my mom, my sister, and my brother would head off to work at the boat factory, and my dad and I would head the other way to the salt factory.

Like Bob Brewer, my family was actually a minority too. We were an ethnic and religious minority. Ninety five percent of my hometown’s population is Polish and Catholic. We were, I was told, German and Lutheran. We didn’t go to church very much when I was a kid, but I do remember going to a Baptist Sunday school. Some guy my mom worked with drove the Sunday school bus, and since my siblings and I walked to our elementary school and had never ridden a bus, Baptist Sunday school became very appealing to us. It wasn’t until I grew up and moved away that my parents finally confessed that they only let us hang out with the crazy Baptists so they could have sex without four rambunctious kids interrupting them. I wanted to be mad at my parents for this selfish betrayal, but I have to tip my hat to them for coming up with such a brilliant scheme.

In addition to being part of an ethnic and religious minority, puberty would introduce me to yet another minority: the gay one. I consider it a generous act of God, however—either the Catholic, Baptist, or Lutheran one, that he would send me a gay, white, Polish, Catholic boyfriend. What are the odds? I often found myself asking much bigger questions, though, like what is there to do in an up North Michigan town for a Catholic/Protestant gay teen couple? Well for one, we drank ourselves silly so we didn’t have to think of all the levels of Hell we’d be visiting in the next life.

Most weekends I’d find myself sitting on the bluffs above Lake Michigan with a pint of cheap whiskey and my boyfriend by my side watching the sun go down. Merkey Road ran all the way through town and ended at the bluffs. On the way, it cut right through the two local cemeteries, the tiny protestant one on the south, and the thirty acre Catholic one on the north. Whenever we sat on the edge of the bluffs getting schnockered, my beau would insist on taking the catholic side because, get this, he didn’t want to offend his God by being on the wrong side. I let him have his way because I loved him and because he wasn’t just any dirty little Catholic, he was my dirty little Catholic.

The more I learned about Catholic dogma, the more I disliked the religion, although their elaborate rituals with all the robes and glitz and fire and smoke are enough to make any right-minded homosexual stand up and take notice. I’ve found two other things about Catholicism to be equally attractive. One is their meeting times. I hope that whoever thought up the idea of holding Mass on a Saturday evening is enjoying a well-deserved Sainthood and an eternity of personal bliss. A typical Saturday in the Polish Catholic household in Manistee went something like this: watch college football, take a nap, pig out on a massive Polish dinner, go to Mass, get out in time to get wasted and party for the rest of the night, and then sleep in on Sundays. This is how we Protestants spent our Saturdays too; we just cut out the evening Mass part.

My other attraction to the Catholics is their inherent ability to lay out a spread of food. And nowhere is this more apparent than at a Catholic funeral meal. When someone dies, it’s as if God turns the rest of the family into caterers because the meals I’ve seen prepared to honor the Catholic dead have been every bit as impressive as those I’ve seen at weddings or graduation parties. I don’t think the bountiful funeral meals were intended to honor the dead as much as they were to one-up the Protestants. I can say from experience that this really wasn’t hard to do. When my Lutheran grandmother died, for example, I remember having lunch at the church, which consisted of tuna salad sandwich triangles, marshmallow salad, and red Jell-O with canned fruit cocktail awkwardly suspended in it. And for the really important dead Lutherans, a tub of whipped cream would mysteriously appear.

I guess I’m taking a really round-about way to say to my ex-Catholic friends, I feel your pain. I get you. Catholicism is the alpha Christian dog on the block—my computer just automatically capitalized the word ChristianJ—and those of us who have left the flock, or have never been a part of it, will resolve ourselves to lives of obscurity in the religious minority. So thank you to those who have opened my eyes and helped me see that there is happiness after Catholicism. You just gotta have faith!

A sense of humor doesn’t hurt either.


  1. Exactly how is the fruit suspended awkwardly? It seems to me that there is only one way to be suspended in Jello, and that would mean it can't be awkward, because awkwardness seems to imply an ability to be otherwise. Could you elaborate?

  2. Who invited the philosopher? Glad to have you back.