The ethnic Americans that populated the neighborhoods where I grew up and the Catholic schools I attended may have celebrated holidays with different foods but they all shared the same religious traditions. Baptism, First Communion, Confirmation, Marriage, and Funeral Masses were life events, rites of passage, celebrated and shared with extended family and friends. They brought people together and were opportunities for the Church to dramatically intersect the lives of its communicants. More importantly, those making the passage were obligated to do so through the prescribed ritual, with the proper intent and preparation. Those who were not Catholic and those who had “fallen away” or who had been excommunicated, usually by virtue of divorce and remarriage “outside the church”, always stood out. They did not belong to the club.
Catholicism is a strange mix. It is schizophrenic. It is a religion of service to the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the indigent. As I knew it, it was compassionate and stood for social justice. It is John XXIII and Vatican II. It is also a religion of Dogma and Rules and Consequences. The Inquisition and its “modern” counterpart, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are testimony to the Church’s unwavering stubbornness and its unconscionable hubris . It can forgive and absolve the most heinous crime, yet cannot find compassion for the conscientious dissenter, the remarried, the homosexual. Those who struggle with their conscience and make difficult decisions often end up, not so much “Losing THE Faith”, as just “Losing Faith”.
The Faith began losing me in my adolescence.
Grandma’s Prayer Book
When the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith of the Roman Catholic Church, under the direction of Joseph Cardinal Razinger, in October 1986, officially defined being a sissy as an “objective disorder” certain aspects of my childhood and youth finally began to make sense: The schoolyard bullies now had serious, grown-up words to more effectively humiliate and hurt us and to separate us like the apocalyptic damned.
Being pegged as a “sissy” at the age of six by other six-year-olds is revealing. It really does have more to do with one’s identity than it has to do with playtime activity or lack of athletic skills. The fact that those six year olds know a sissy when they see one contradicts what they say later on as adults: “Being gay is a choice” or “I never knew anyone gay”.
“Straight” boys, even six year olds, become frustrated when they sense that all their teasing and taunting will not change a sissy. They are powerless to make some of us conform to their boyish male stereotypes. If they don’t resort to beatings with baseball bats, they will later try psychoanalysis, electroshock therapy, behavior modification, or, depending on their own persuasion, rosary beads and penance or fire and brimstone. These tactics make them feel powerful and in control, but ultimately, their strategies won’t work.
Growing up Catholic, I tried to follow the rules. I obeyed my parents, I went to church on Sunday, I didn’t eat meat on Friday, I didn’t lie or steal. I prayed the Rosary and knew the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries and the day of the week to which they belonged. I could say the Mass responses in Latin, carry aGregorian tune, and had the word monstrance in my vocabulary. Bringing flowers to school in May to place in front of the statue of the Virgin was a dead give-away, I’ll admit.
In spite of my piety, at twelve years old I was a good boy guilty of more deadly sins per week than most people confess in a lifetime. I was certain that no other boy in school was so depraved, except perhaps Pudsey, the only eighth grader in our Catholic school in 1960 who had a duck-tail haircut and smoked cigarettes. Pudsey was bad. Being bad is what Pudsey did best, in a defiant kind of way. Pudsey got suspended from school. Eventually Pudsey got expelled. (I remember thinking that the kids who got expelled from Catholic School were probably the ones who most needed to be there or, more likely, the ones that the Catholic School system most needed to keep).
When breaking the rules is a virtue, there is little concern with guilt. In fact, I don’t think Pudsey ever felt guilt. That was just one of the differences between us. I knew guilt. Guilt told me that what I did was worse than anything Pudsey did. I remember thinking that Pudsey might appreciate knowing about my way of being bad, if he didn’t know already. But I didn’t know Pudsey well and I was afraid to talk to him.
In the schoolyard I would flip baseball cards with the other kids, but even that was barely within my comfort level when it came to baseball. Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and Ted Something-or-other were valuable cards to have. You could trade one of them for ten or more ordinary cards. Tossing cards was part skill and part luck and it didn’t involve actually throwing a baseball, or trying to hit one with a bat or, god-forbid, standing in the out-field waiting, no, hoping with symptoms of an impending anxiety attack, that no one hit the ball your way. Praying, of course, was of no use to protect you from a baseball or a basketball or a football projected in your direction.
When it came to sports, Hail Mary’s were for winners.
In the playground, it was always easier to pick “Simon Says” or “Giant Step” over basketball or catch. When you picked it so often that it became always, you were silently relegated to the edge. It was an unspoken rule. Something understood without understanding. There was no gymnasium at our Catholic school, so rainy days actually had an upside. Being good at reading and math was a plus. It made the indoor part of school tolerable and, to some degree, interesting.
Despite what I believed for a time, it never was a matter of learning how to throw or catch a ball or shoot a basket. It was, knowing deep in my sissy-gut, that I would never, ever, like throwing a ball, in much the same way as I know that I would never, ever, like having heterosex. The Catholic Church calls this aversion to sports and heterosex – two aversions frequently, but not universally linked – an “objective disorder” with a “more or less strong tendency toward moral evil”.
They say it with all the magisterium authority of the Vatican, the Papacy and the Collegiality of Bishops. And they require all good Catholics, to believe it. The Catholic Church is teaching parents of sissy-boys as they sit together in the pews on Sunday that their children have an innate propensity for moral evil. How cruel.
It may as well be that blatant and straightforward: “Your boy doesn’t like team sports. He seems very sensitive. He plays with the girls. It is most likely an objective disorder that will lead to unthinkable moral depravity and evil. Try rosary beads. Try psychology. Try electro-shock. Try teaching him sports. But be prepared, it’s not likely to work. If you’re lucky he’ll join the seminary.”