(Otto Penzler)I'm a cultural Catholic.I've heard that kind of statement from Jews: I'm not observant, my parents weren't observant, but I'm Jewish culturally.And it makes sense: Judaism is a religion, an ethnicity (or more precisely, several ethnicities) and a culture. Reading Isaiah's excoriation of the stiff-necked people or the self-destructive hair-splitting of the besieged inhabitants of Jerusalem in Josephus' "The Jewish War" one sees a key part of that culture: an unsparing self-consciousness befitting God's chosen people.Catholicism is a culture too. That is nowhere more obvious than in Italy, an overwhelmingly Catholic nation with the lowest birth rate in Europe. Most everyone is Catholic, they go to Mass, receive Communion, and then go live their lives regardless of what the Pope or official doctrine says. After all, Tuscan culture was already ancient at the time of Jesus.Did Christianity affect Italy more than Italians affected Christianity? Given the relative austerity of Judaism and Islam compared to Catholicism, I'd vote for the latter. The theater of Catholicism, the many saints (polytheism domesticated: "I'm not praying to a false God, I'm praying to a saint!" (Oh.) the festivals, the brilliant and vivid art, the great sets of the cathedrals, the stations of the cross, all are Italy's greatest stage production, dwarfing La Scala.
The rituals scale from the personal, genuflection, the sign of the cross, to the neighborhood (church worship, communion) to the civic (festivals, church consecrations) to the national (Papal visits, funerals, elections). Catholics can choose to participate at any, all or none of those levels.
Which is what my grandfather Emilio did: put off by officious parish priests, he pulled himself and his wife and family of six children out of the Catholic church and into the Episcopal church. So even though my mother was raised Episcopalian (Catholicism lite: "most of the ritual, none of the Pope!") and I was baptized in it, Catholicism has always been part of my culture.
I learned this not by self-examination, but by analyzing the aftermath of my collisions with Catholic women. Besides ending badly, these encounters all had an operatic story arc: boy meets girl, young lovers overcome obstacles to their love (protective mothers, altar-boy boyfriends, ex-husbands, guilt etc.), lovers discern a conflict that begins pulling them apart (want/don't want babies, marriage, alcohol etc.) and the final rending.
Protestant or Jewish women rarely had the same drama, and that has its charms as well. After a couple of particularly disastrous benders a decade ago I finally swore off and I've been a happier man for it.
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So it was with increasing interest that I read The Enemy of God, a story of the moral choices of a group of New York Catholic boys and men, wrapped up in the guise of a mystery. A priest is found dead on a Harlem street, killed by his fall from a building. Did he slip? Jump? Or was he pushed? The friends are all middle-aged now and all successful: a New York Times reporter; an assistant DA; and a deputy chief of police.
Their interactions as they delve deeper into the mystery of the death of the priest --- "the good one" --- give the writer a chance to survey the murky moral basis of the Church, the police, the media, and the judiciary. Suicide is a mortal sin, so he must have been pushed. And what motive did he have if it was suicide? Yet the perfunctory police investigation concludes it was either accident or suicide, not criminal, a conclusion his friends can't accept.
So we are treated to an insider's look at the state of police, church, news and justice culture as the deputy police chief pushes the investigation. While this part of the book has its pleasures, it is the flashbacks to the four friends a working class Catholic boyhood, the parochial schools, the priests and nuns, the Jesuit college, the first fumbling sex, the Protestant girls, that seemed the most heartfelt and genuine. The enforced innocence about sex and the mystical idealism of priestly Catholicism give the boys an other worldliness that is both surprising and touching.
The mystery is ultimately less of a mystery than a love story, just as the book is less a police procedural than an evocation of a soon-to-be lost era. Just as the Church suddenly lost its hold on the Quebecois in the '70's, it seems today's American Catholics no longer follow the Pope or the strictures of the Church with much devotion. Without the influx of Mexican immigrants American Catholicism might fade almost as quickly as it did in Canada.
Stories have two purposes: to tell you about others and to tell you about yourself. What I learned from Enemy of God, is that perhaps good Catholic girls have a complementary mystical assumption of a perfect virgin/fallen Eve mythos which leaves them both forever pure and aching for release from the inhuman strictures of the perfection they're taught to worship. The sexual tension drives both guilt and abandon, often in the same breath, and can make for a wild and exhilarating ride for a time. One that, something like my grandfather before me, I've decided no longer to take.--- Robin Harris