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Feature Story April 8, 2005
Dead Catholics
By John Dolan Browse author Email

So the Pope is dead, and that Schiavo woman is finally, officially dead. It ought to be a good moment. After all, dying is what Catholics do best. It's the prelude to death that confuses us -- that nagging question spraypainted on the walls of Belfast, "Is there life before death?" That's a serious question for Catholics, and the honest answer is, "Well... no..."

These two deaths, though-they're just not going right, because they weren't very Catholic deaths. Schiavo's corpse has been hijacked by the fundamentalist Protestants, who've taken over the Catholic opposition to euthanasia, and in fact the whole Catholic agenda. It's one of the more amazing switches in the history of religion, the way these crazy Baptists, who have ranted for 400 years against "Rome, the Whore of Babylon" have now suddenly gone out and grabbed all the Catholic fixations-including even the Virgin Mary. That's their most amazing acquisition, because for centuries they hated her most of all, went into crowbar frenzies when they spotted statues of her. Yet according to the cover story of last week's Time Magazine, "Protestants are finding new reasons" to worship Mary.

Their biggest issue-grab came when they hijacked the anti-abortion crusade. Back in the 1970s the Evangelicals sneered at the Catholic fixation on dead fetuses-couldn't have cared less about the "little ones" they cry over now. So long as it was a mere Catholic obsession, there was never any real threat against legal abortion.

Then sometime in the Reagan years-smelling an opportunity to worm their way into the lives of the promiscuous liberal women, the Hilary Clintons they love to hate-they made it their key plank. But until then, the anti-abortion movement was a joke, a Catholic joke to be exact.

I know, because...uh, well, may as well admit it: I was one of those quixotic Catholic "pro-Life" demonstrators. There I was outside the San Francisco Federal Building on a typically breezy morning in 1978. I still considered myself a soldier of the Faith, if not exactly a believer. So I showed up, blushing furiously, at the demo. It was a pretty disappointing turnout: a dozen of the Faithful listening to a middle-aged Latino lady speak into a microphone turned so low you couldn't hear a word she was saying.

She was a TV character actress who specialized in playing maids-a classic Catholic occupation. If you watched a lot of bad TV in the 70s (which I did, having a rather, uh, limited social life), she might have been vaguely familiar. And she was the best this demo could do for a celebrity. It was pathetic. I'd known it would be; that's why I had to come.

I didn't fit in very well. Maybe it was the clothes. I was in full Punk uniform, from the leather jacket to the broken biker boots to the spiked bracelet. The boots were worthy of one of the old Matt-Talbot style saints: the nails had been poking up for months, so that my feet oozed blood and pus every time I stood for any length of time. I was leaking onto the concrete as the Latino lady spoke.

The jacket was my pride. When the Pistols appeared so suddenly, I converted in a second; but finding the compulsory leather jacket was harder. After hitting every Salvation Army and Value Village in Oakland, all I could find was a dumb leather double-breasted suit coat. At least it was black. I converted it into a leather jacket myself, with a heavy-duty awl and thread from a shoe repair shop.

I was working weekends at the time, as a guard at a truckyard in West Oakland, patrolling with a geriatric attack dog. Nice lonely job, no need to talk to people. Long shifts, twenty hours or more. Most of that time I spent stabbing that awl into the damn lapels of that coat, sewing them back to make it look more like a biker jacket. Never having sewn before, I managed to stab every inch of my hand, producing a very nice stigmata effect. At last, the coat looked sort of punk. All the more so because it was such a lousy stitch job and literally steeped in blood.

I wore that uniform with such pride! And it WAS a uniform; you who have the option of joining groups or standing alone don't understand how wonderful it is for the permanently excluded to have a gang to join at last. I wanted to be utterly Orthodox in Punk; I wanted to conform completely, and would have died for Punk.

In fact, I would have died for a lot of things-even this lame Catholic anti-abortion demonstration. If only we were attacked by somebody. I looked around for possible attackers. Nobody. Just the office workers going in and out of the Federal Building, ignoring us. My golden foot ichor was leaking out of the boot. The Latino lady was reaching the climax of her speech. You could almost hear what she was saying, even. She stumbled down from the little dais, helped by another of the women. They were mostly dowdy Irish-American mothers and a couple of their plain daughters. And they were terrible demonstrators. They make terrible demonstrators; you can tell they're scared and embarrassed, grateful that nobody's noticing them. A demonstrator needs a huge ego, and that's something Catholicism tends to crush. We specialize in (to quote a diagnosis I once got) "a huge, punitive Superego and a squashed Id."

They hunched in their clothes as if hoping nobody would notice them. And nobody did. We were off to the side of the main entrance, in some proto-free-speech corner. A steady stream of suits went in and out of the building. Office workers on break sat on the stone benches bitching about their jobs. Street people shuffled from trashcan to trashcan, looking for returnable bottles.

The plain women and their daughters held posters, far too small to be seen at any distance. I'd grabbed one when I arrived and held it rolled up now, wishing it was a club. The posters showed the usual dead fetus at the bottom of a sterile hospital pail. You know, that's the aspect of this that's hardest for me to figure out: what did I actually think about abortion, the ostensible point? I don't think it was real for me. I'd never so much as held hands with a woman, and never expected to do so. I hoped someday to make the world pay for that privation, but in the meantime all I knew was that I had to do this on behalf of the Catholic Faithful because nobody else would.

Getting involved in anti-abortion protests put you beyond the pale of Berkeley civilization. It was the ultimate heresy, the most uncool, unforgivable cause imaginable. There's an old Catholic or maybe Irish value involved here: I must do this because no one else will, because all the cool people have the sense to avoid it.

The enemy of both dying Orthodoxies, Punk and Catholicism, was...well, virtually everything else: the vast hordes of pursuers-of-happiness who lived lax lives full of divorce, abortion and other conveniences, yet felt themselves on a first-name basis with Jesus. Fighting the pursuers of happiness seemed a lost cause then-but Catholics love lost causes.

Catholics love lost causes. My favorite saints were St. Jude, patron of lost causes and car keys, and Sid Vicious, who even looked like a Catholic statue and would soon be as dead as they come. The more hopeless, the better. As the Minstrel Boy vows,

...Though all the world betrays thee

One sword at least thy rights shall guard,

One faithful harp shall praise thee.

For me anything involving real-world sex was a bitter mystery. (And that too is a Catholic trait, an admission price, admittedly a very steep one.) So the fetuses, the consequences of real sex in the actual twentieth century, were...abstract, a claim, a point of honor. Not something to mourn the way I mourned my dog. The death of your dog is a million times more tragic than that of some stranger's unborn child.

In fact, my favorite song was "Bodies" by the Sex Pistols, with its glorious break in the middle and Rotten's voice in a wheedling scream, "SHE don't want a baby that looks like that, I don't want a baby that looks like that!" The song was about a Pistols hanger-on, this deranged girl who carried around her aborted fetus in a jar. I knew it by heart.

I didn't see any contradiction. And still don't, really. Oh, I get the surface irony. But in the larger, terrifyingly bland landscape of California circa 1978 there really wasn't much of a contradiction. Punk and Catholicism were virtually indistinguishable, huddling together way over at the dark end of the cultural spectrum. Both were proudly celibate in a culture that still celebrated promiscuity. And both took the heat for their heresy. Ever see a film called Looking for Mister Goodbar? If you want a quick survey of the sleaziest pop version of American anti-Catholicism, that'll do for a start. It seems our trouble was, we didn't fuck enough. And maybe it's true. But fuckers, the ones I know, have other worries.

Punk disdained sex too. Rotten announced that he was "a sexless monster." And celibacy was a fact of life for me and most punks. Punks were mostly small guys who'd been bullied (I was big but had other disqualifications) and girls who were too chunky or otherwise misfit for the Barbie silhouette. They-"we," whatever-went to the shows alone and came home alone, the unlaid whose sexual ineligibility had been made very clear to them by the cool kids. And that was something the cool kids-not very articulate as a rule-were eloquent about.

You have to understand the guilt-not just the misery, but the guilt - that not having lots of hot sex engendered in Californians. Out there, back then, not having "a good time - ALL the time" was a sin, the only mortal sin. If you wanted absolution, Punk and Catholicism were the only shrines open to you.

They shared a lot in looks, too. Before Punk, none of the available aesthetics satisfied that hunger for displays of blood and pain "offered up" to some great purpose. The hippie girls were beautiful - I loved them in perfect unrequitedness - but they were a tough crowd, looks-wise: "Willowy or Death" was their motto.

The Catholic tradition was darker. We had pictures of bloody, dripping hearts hanging in our bedrooms. And our crosses - you know the difference between Protestant and Catholic crosses? Theirs, hewing to the provincial Wahhabism of Calvin, are empty. Ours showed Christ hanging, his every wound in loving detail: the hole in his side, each puncture made by the crown of thorns, the mangled hands and feet.

Then there was the Stations of the Cross, a slow pacing out of each gory step on the road to Golgotha. I loved the names of three particular stations: "Christ falls the first time," "Christ falls the second time," and "Christ falls the third time." Or am I imagining that third fall? I do tend to gild the lily in matters like that.

Punk was in perfect harmony with the blood-Christ tradition. We bled. Iggy was doing it long before, but Sid made it a hit. Sid even looked like one of the old saints, and proved it by dying early.

I didn't realize how much I'd missed all that till Punk came along. The last time I'd been allowed to dress the way I actually wanted was Halloween at age ten, when I gloried in the uniform of a wounded Union soldier, complete with a rag around my head soaked in red food coloring and a limp I'd practiced all day.

Catholics weren't allowed to flaunt the gory glories of the Faith very often, alas. But there was one day of the year when you wore your allegiance on your face: Ash Wednesday. On that day, a priest dipped his finger in a chalice of ashes - I mean, a gold chalice, full of ashes! Top that! - and made a cross of ashes on your forehead. You weren't supposed to wash it off that day; it marked you as a Catholic.

I'd have been happy to have it laminated on. It was a perfect passive challenge, the sort of thing coward/berserkers like me live for. I veered my forehead at people all day like one of those cockney head-butters, daring passersby to persecute me. Even now, I see Sikhs with their turbans and Orthodox Jews with the strings and the hats and think, lucky bastards! With a dress code as aggressive as that, you can avenge yourself on a whole world of civilians without having to admit aggressive intent at all.

I guess the lame, rational objection here is that I didn't focus on the "true meaning" of the ash cross - which is some childish tale from the Bible, I suppose. Well, first of all, even as a child I never believed in the Bible or God. Anyone born in the developed world after 1945 who actually believes in some supernatural spook is mentally ill. You didn't have to believe in God to believe in the Church. Unlike God, the Church actually existed. And the Church had saved my family and millions like it from the demoralization most poor tenement dwellers suffer. My father was one of ten kids living in a Jersey City shack smaller than your garage; but thanks to the Church schools, he and his brothers and sisters could shine at school and even dream of joining the Jesuits, the pinnacle of Irish-Catholic ambition. Those schools, though not plugged into the jobs'n'connections pipeline, were as tough and rigorous as anything the rich had. You may have had to be poor, but you didn't have to be trash. And that allowed families like ours to develop what a friend of mine calls "a superiority complex," in spite of our clear lack of socio-economic superiority.

And I knew damn well what the ash meant - screw the stupid Bible! Ash for burning, battle and death; cross for allegiance. The Bible connection was irrelevant. Mel Gibson with his idiot blue-painted Braveheart face - a cross between woad and a Chelsea fan's facepaint - is a pitiful attempt to recapture that blood allegiance, just as Gibson's Anime Jesus popping spigots of blood is a moron's take on the glory of Catholic suffering. Mel, Mel, Mel - just go back to your private island in Fiji, Mel. If you're a Catholic, I'm a movie star.

The next best marker of the Faith was the no-meat-on-Friday rule. You were set apart, a magical prohibition imposed on you. Once at Kenny Tamplen's birthday party I refused the baloney sandwiches, because it was Friday. That was a glorious moment.

Even the worst things about the Church were glorious. Take the Inquisition. There was a stark magnificence about its slogan: "Error has no rights." I've never seen anything to match that formula for simple, concise honesty. Lots of movements act by that rule, but very few can say it so well. That was a marker of the Church's confidence; there was nothing mealy-mouthed about its persecutions.

And we were on the receiving end of persecutions just as glorious. I don't know if this holds true if you're a Catholic from one of the Continental states where it was the official religion, but in Ireland the Church was flayed with a savagery hard to exaggerate. Cromwell killed them like live vermin; their lands, if not confiscated to reward the Roundheads, were to be given to any family member who abandoned the Faith. And few did. There was a bounty on the heads of priests. Few turned them in. There were a thousand smaller humiliations: Catholics couldn't own a decent horse, for instance. For every martyr the Anglicans could offer, we had ten thousand slaughtered magnificently. And all of that was yours, in the bloody inheritance of the Faith.

Pope John Paul II 1920 - 2005

The saddest connection between Punk and the Church is the most important one: both were lost causes. Punk was too good for America. It was dying from the start. The ones who were getting laid didn't get Punk at all, and the rest...well, they were just the usual cowards. We were very few, and had no knack for combining. By 1978 that spraypainted slogan "Punks not dead" had already begun to appear. And when people start insisting something's not dead, you may as well start making the funeral arrangments.

Catholicism started to die in America around the time Kennedy, the only Catholic president, was killed. That was our high-water mark, 1963. A year earlier, Vatican II had stupidly ordered a set of changes to mimic the Reformation, just as the Reformation plainness was going out of style. The folly of the changes is obvious now. They did away with everything great about the Church: magic, ritual, beauty, difficulty, separateness. Even the incense and the candles went. We were going to meet in brightly-lit plain places. The priest would now face the congregation. Worst of all, the mass was to be in the local language instead of Latin. Listening to mass in English, you could hear that the magic formulae were nothing but virtuous commonplaces. Bill and Ted stuff: "Be excellent to one another"! And with the priest facing you, the sense of a spell being worked was gone.

After that, we were nothing but ersatz Protestants. Worse, actually, because we lacked their key survival traits of overweening spiritual pride and snuggling community. After Vatican II the Church tried to imitate the Protestants' chumminess, instituting a "kiss of peace" where you turned to the stranger in the next pew and mumbled the idiotic phrase "Peace be with you" through gritted teeth. But that farcical parody of community, the compulsory handshake with some blushing stranger, only drove people away faster.

Just as the Catholics surrendered their faith, the Baptists plundered all of the once-marginal, "loony" issues, like fighting abortion. And that's when the anti-abortion movement finally began to matter. Pitiful rallies like the one I attended in 1978 are no longer so pitiful. Because the real America, the Ulster-America, had weighed in at last.

Let's face a very unpleasant, important fact about the US: the bedrock white American population is largely descended from, and entirely dominated by the cultural traditions of Ulster Protestants - Ian Paisley's tribe, the people alluded to by that deceptively mild term, "Scotch-Irish." And this tribe's oldest hatred, their Ur-hatred, is for the Papists they used to hang from meathooks in Northern Ireland.

Sure, they've found new objects for their hate in the new world: blacks and gays and anybody else who happens to be in range when Scots-Irish eyes are glinting with hate (which is all the time). But underneath, whispering in every Baptist sermon, is that old horror of Rome, the "Whore of Babylon."

When Kennedy was running for president, the great positive-thinking minister Norman Vincent Peale warned that American values would collapse if a Catholic were elected. When Al Smith, also an Irish Catholic, ran decades earlier, one of the most powerful propaganda tools the Republicans had was a pamphlet that circulated all through the South showing Smith opening a tunnel. The caption explained that it was a secret tunnel leading from the White House to the Vatican, so the puppet Smith could get his instructions from his Jesuit masters. It's this sort of quaint Americana that led the historian Arthur Schlesinger to call anti-Catholicism "the deepest prejudice of the American people."

According to another prominent cultural historian, Samuel Huntington, the only reason Ulster-America has relaxed its old hatred of Papists is that "American Catholicism assimilated many of the features of the Protestant mainstream."

And now these bigots are pretending to mourn the Pope and getting themselves on TV collapsing in tears when Schiavo was "pitilessly starved to death." When they start to care about these issues, like euthanasia (another once-loony Catholic obsession) things actually happen. Kansas and Alabama, not exactly bastions of papacy, have already outlawed euthanasia.

Worst of all, the spectacle of Schiavo's and the Pope's deaths show that even death is no longer our domain. Nothing could signal the death of Catholicism more than the death of the Catholic death.

And meanwhile the few Catholics still around today have been so completely assimilated that they actually sound like syrupy Protestants - even this just-dead Pope, who was considered an extreme conservative. His final blessing was supposedly "be happy." Be happy? Was he channeling Bobby McFerrin or the keyboard player for Spinal Tap ("Have a good time...ALL the time")? What does "be happy" have to do with the Faith?

The charitable explanation for the Pope's shameful last words would be overmedication - give me enough Percodan and I'm in favor of happiness myself. But I fear it's something worse: even at the very top of the hierarchy, the Church has forgotten the bloody magical beauty that made it worth dying for. The Pope is dead, but the Church died long before him.

John Dolan is the author of Pleasant Hell. See home page for ordering details, or ask your local bookseller.

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