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My Crush On Catholicism

Recently a lapsed Catholic friend confessed a serious case of religion envy—for the religion I happened to be born into. “I’ve always had a strong admiration for Judaism,” he told me. “If I had to choose any religion, it would … Read More

By / August 8, 2007

Recently a lapsed Catholic friend confessed a serious case of religion envy—for the religion I happened to be born into. “I’ve always had a strong admiration for Judaism,” he told me. “If I had to choose any religion, it would be yours.” Ironically, I had a similar confession to make: I’d always felt the same way about the Catholic Church. In an age when schoolchildren in the most goyish suburbs learn to sing “Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel” alongside “Silent Night,” when churches and synagogues engage in interfaith outreach, and where politicians regularly lump sharply contrasting belief systems together under the category of “faith,” it shouldn’t be surprising that religions can seem interchangeable. Especially when your own religion feels a bit lacking. Don’t like fasting on Yom Kippur? Why not try on Catholicism for size? Unhappy with the latest Pope? Drop by your neighborhood synagogue or mosque. But religious values aren’t a Chinese menu, where we can pick two from Column A and three from Column B to suit ourselves. In fact, the better metaphor here would be a delicately balanced house of cards; pull out one from the middle, and the whole thing comes crashing down. As my friend explained his high regard for Judaism, I realized that he was attracted to certain Jewish cultural traditions but didn’t realize how they fit into a larger philosophical framework. He had two reasons for his high regard for Judaism, beginning with our people’s famous penchant for heterodoxy. Unlike Catholicism, we have no Vatican that issues The Final Word which all Jews must follow. He also admired our tradition of scholarly debate: rabbis carrying on heated discussions long into the night, not to mention Jewish writers and intellectuals like Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt carrying on that tradition in the secular culture. My friend found this refreshing compared with Catholicism, in which the word of God goes directly through the church to its adherents, with no room for questioning. I found it difficult to recognize the religion he was describing. True, we lack a central authority, and our rabbis don’t hector us from the pulpit like stereotypically stern Irish priests. But then our rabbis don’t need to hector us, as the Jewish laity has more than ably fulfilled that role. Judaism emphasizes faith performed in the context of a community (which is why, in order to pray, you need the presence of ten adult males.) Step outside its accepted norms and you’ve got two choices: subject yourself to an earful about it from family, friends, and strangers, or walk away from the community. And while there is a lot of debate in religious circles, I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it all as intellectual since it focuses mostly on matters of ritual rather than philosophy. (What’s so intellectual about a debate over whether it’s permissible to put sugar into tea or tea into sugar on Shabbat?) This reflects Judaism’s emphasis on practice over intent—the here-and-now over the metaphysical. Our leaders often find themselves absorbed in such profundities as the proper way to slit the throat of a chicken. In fact, most of our greatest intellectuals (Spinoza, Marx, Freud) were reacting against the grain of our religion, not with it. Compare this to Catholicism, which inspired St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante.
And that’s why, as I told my friend, I’ve long had a secret case of religion envy for Catholicism, with its emphasis on the soul, not rituals. Catholics have the freedom to live their daily lives as they see fit, because Catholicism has few rules governing the banalities of what to eat or what clothes to wear. Also, especially in contrast with Jews, Catholics have a much better knack for pageantry and decoration. Walk into any Catholic cathedral and then a Jewish synagogue; which space is more likely to inspire a state of awe and meditation conducive to prayer? Perhaps the chief source of my Catholic religion envy, though, is the ritual of confession. Imagine it, free therapy! For a Jew, what could be a bigger wet dream? But as my friend quickly pointed out, Catholicism’s fetishization of the soul can become meaninglessly ritualistic in itself. Catholics can eat shrimp to their heart’s content, but their penalty for breaking the faith’s few key rules is rather extreme: an eternity in hell or a slightly shorter time in purgatory. As for Catholicism’s theatrical pageantry, it’s fun to look at occasionally, but after a while, it can all get a bit tacky, even gruesome. The point is not to inspire individual meditation, but mass conformance to Catholic dogma. And Confession isn’t a bit like therapy. The priests aren’t there to sympathize but merely to help you atone—all in all, a ritual as empty as the rabbi of a synagogue with over a thousand members shaking a congregant’s hand on Shabbat. That’s when it hit me: Understanding someone else’s religion is like learning a language. You can’t just translate the words one-to-one. Rather, you have to begin by tackling the logic of the whole supporting system underneath.
It’s not just a question of Judaism and Catholicism, either. I find it lovely that many Muslims search for the kashrut symbol on non-meat products in American grocery stores because a kosher product is often also halal. Keeping kosher and eating halal, however, are hardly the same thing. In fact, one of the reasons kosher meat is not considered halal is that kashrut is based on the Jewish principles of cleanliness and the ethical treatment of animals. Halal rules incorporate these principles, but they privilege the uniquely Islamic value of submission to God’s will, which is why a prayer affirming the greatness of Allah must be uttered immediately preceding the animal’s slaughter. Why do we feel the desire to mold unfamiliar religions to fit our own wishes and ideals? Maybe in an era of terrorism and armed conflict in the name of God, we want to comfort ourselves by affirming the notion that deep down we really are all the same. (We are, but our religions aren’t). For some of us, religion envy may be a symptom of a consumer society in which almost every product can be customized to fit each customer’s specific tastes. “Would you like your sandwich on whole wheat, foccacia, rye, white, country Tuscan, country Tuscan whole wheat, or country Tuscan whole wheat low-carb?” “Would you like your religion belief-centered, practice-centered, monotheistic, pantheistic, ritual-heavy, or ritual-lite?” The more I hashed the matter out with my Catholic friend, the more it became clear that our religion envy came out of sadness, even regret. Just as children idealize their friends’ parents when their own parents seem not to understand them, we too idealized each other’s faiths (and denigrated our own) because of our desire to correct what we saw as the flaws of the religions we’d been born into. Religion envy is a band-aid, but it doesn’t quite fit over the wound.
For example, my friend stumped me with the following un-Jewish question about Judaism: “What happens if you don’t go to synagogue? Is that a sin? Does that mean you’re going to hell?” He’d been turned off from Catholicism after being told that skipping church on Sundays was a mortal sin. But Judaism addresses the subject of hell only in passing, with scant detail. For all Judaism’s rules, our emphasis is not on doing right to receive a reward or avoid a punishment, but on doing right for its own sake. Perhaps the best answer I could come up with was, in true Jewish form, another question: “Does the Pope wear a yarmulke?” Similarly, in all my questions about Catholicism’s emphasis on spirituality the name “Jesus Christ” never came up. In fact, I was surprised when my friend explained that you can’t be a good Catholic without affirming your belief in Christ as the Son of God who once walked on Earth and died for our sins. “But what if, even if you’re not sure Jesus was divine, you follow all of his teachings to the letter?” I asked. Nope, not good enough. For Catholics, faith in Jesus’ godly status is a prerequisite. I’d been unable see this dogmatic aspect of Catholicism because I was too busy admiring the religion’s spirituality as an antidote for Jewish dogma. If we must accept the notion that different faiths are indeed fundamentally different, where does that leave those of us who’d like to promote interfaith understanding, particularly now, when we’re so frightened of people who passionately believe things that are antithetical to our own belief systems? A false understanding of how other religions work is just as bad as no understanding. Instead of promoting untruths like “we all believe in the same God, just with different names,” we should approach the faith of the Other with a completely open, almost childlike sense of wonder and bewilderment. In other words, we should be adult enough to say something as juvenile as, “Wow, your god used to think if you eat meat on Fridays you’d go to hell? Interesting, but I don’t understand that at all. Tell me more.”

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