Everyone in the world is fumbling their way through life. None of us fully knows how it should be done. And I mean “Know” with capital “K”, I suppose. A lot of us think we know. A lot of us are pretty sure we’re on the right path. But know with a kind of God-like certainty? Not a one of us. None of us are God. Not all of us are even sure there is a God.
Still, as I’ve talked with friends of mine, there seems to be two main approaches to the fumbling. One approach is to trust your instincts: does what you’re doing feel right in a soul-satisfying sort of way? Or even a flesh-satisfying way? Are you living the life (or at least pursuing the life) you really want? Are you pointing your ship towards the direction of your personal moral compass and passions? Building a life in answer to these questions creates a kind of persistent curiosity – and a kind of humility in it’s own way. What’s right for me may not be right for you. I don’t know everything, and I’m open to anything. It’s a very progressive way to look at yourself and the world.
But as a Catholic, that isn’t entirely the approach I take. It’s not even mostly the approach. And it really seems to bother people who approach life in the sort of open-ended way mentioned in the previous paragraph. My way, if I could sum it up, is to follow what previous generations have, through trial and error, discovered to be the best approach to life. I reverence their collective opinions more than my own. It’s like with great pieces of music: sure, I like Twenty-One Pilots and Taylor Swift’s album 1989, but only time will tell whether they rise to the caliber of Beethoven’s 5th symphony or slip into the trash-bin of kitschy pop culture, forgotten like the crooners of the 20’s. I give as much weight to the opinions of my own culture and their tendencies as I do Ms. Swift’s music. I give as much reverence and deference to the saints of old as I do the genius of Debussy or Mozart. This makes me rather conservative…. and a bit of a stick-in-the-mud.
And it seems we all have experiences in our past that throw fuel on the fire. “I grew up in a tight, legalistic household. I trust my heart.” “I grew up with a strong, compassionate father-figure. I trust authority and the wisdom of the past.” Fair enough. In a way, I don’t think we should trash or embrace either approach entirely. None of us stereotypically follows one path or another.
But still, my stuffy Catholic approach to life, at least here in California, is definitely frowned upon. In the eyes of many, I am someone who sees only a small square of the vast tapestry of the world, and I fixate on it as though it were the only thing worth looking at. I risk standing on “the wrong side of history.” I believe with a dangerous zeal that my beliefs are true and right and that any deviation is error. This closes my mind to new ideas.
In some ways, this is an unfair assessment. There is a lot more wiggle-room in Catholicism than it might look like from the outside. But if you want to know how someone like me could be so closed-minded about life, I’ll tell you a story:
A lot of people think the Nazis were isolated in their barbaric thinking when they tried to cleanse the German race of people they felt were inferior, but that’s not accurate. The truth is, in academic circles in the U.S., eugenics was a thriving idea. Laws were being put on the books in many states granting permission to the state to forcibly sterilize women who were deemed not fit to reproduce. The most vague and patronizing excuse for doing this to many of them was that they were “feeble-minded” – a label loose enough that you could pin it on all sorts of women for all sorts of reasons.
But there was push-back from one particular group of people. One state that held out against eugenics laws was Louisiana. You want to guess why? The state was too Catholic. All these backward-thinking priests and nuns wouldn’t have anything to do with it. These new progressive, scientific and innovative ideas went against their faith that taught them a person was valuable because they had a soul and were created by God, not because they didn’t have certain inabilities or perceived handicaps. We look back now and see those stuffy Catholics were right, but it took awhile. And in the moment, they were definitely in the minority.
So to those who feel I’m a closed-minded Catholic, please excuse me. The progressive ideas of today – being pro-choice, holding a looser definition of marriage and gender – are all the rage right now. But I’d rather stick to the wisdom of the ages. It’s not that there is nothing I can learn from people I disagree with, but while you look at the boundaries I draw around my beliefs and see them as a wall keeping me from new ideas and experiences, I see them as safeguards keeping me from falling off the cliff. And if my own experience, and the experiences of faithful Catholic men and women before me, are any indication, those safeguards are the very things that have given us full and abundant lives – filled with color and larger than any one personal compass, any one time period or any one mood of the moment.
(Pic: dominika zarzycka/Shutterstock.com)