A Catholic’s conundrum

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Andrea Platten/Courtesy

My mom Googles actors frequently, so I can’t remember who this particular performer was, and neither can she — some dead British guy, probably, but it kills me not to be sure.

What I do remember is his religious affiliation. His Wikipedia page made quite clear that despite his severe drug problems, the actor wrestled with Catholicism for nearly all his life.

“He couldn’t shake the faith,” my mom said, unintentionally jabbing at my own insecurities.

Roman Catholic children don’t question much. I would know — I attended Catholic school for 13 years. We wear a simple plaid uniform. We memorize hymns and sing our little hearts out, gaping at the Latin our generation never had to learn. We walk down aisles and subject ourselves to the panoptic gaze of a church full of wide eyes. Thanks to an abundance of crucifixion statues, we accustom ourselves to death early on, though our tiny bodies can’t yet comprehend the apex of human agony.

We don’t question the hard-and-fast rules of the Church, because alternative perspectives on faith are few and far between. Premarital sex, contraception and abortion are sins. God does not sanction same-sex marriage. Women can’t be priests, bishops, cardinals or popes. Our parents likely vote Republican, and Democrats are miscreants, especially the ones who purport to be Catholic.

By the time I arrived to college, though, I had already embarked on my metamorphosis into a so-called heretic. My mom still dragged me to Newman Hall — a parish that serves a sizable contingent of UC Berkeley students — which, “conveniently,” was a block from my residence hall. We visited in the afternoon, much to the delight of the young visiting missionaries.

I got sushi with one of them a couple of times, a friendly gesture toward a freshman with no real friends and an aching to belong to a palpable community.

The missionary seemed relatable at first, but soon it dawned on me that these impromptu lunches were nothing more than propaganda chats over miso soup. Whether or not it was her intention, she used overly intimate anecdotes to foist the anti-abortion agenda on me and instill a fear of sexuality. Instead of feeling compelled by her direct plug of the Church, I felt further isolated on a campus where the majority of students reject Catholic teachings in favor of a liberal ideology with which I increasingly aligned.

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I made a naïve choice between 19 years of faith and leftist principles. Knowing full well I couldn’t stay afloat in Berkeley without adhering to the very liberalism I felt drawn toward, I put Catholicism on the backburner, with the occasional visit to mass on holy days of obligation.

On Ash Wednesdays, I bear cinders on my forehead. I bow my head before entering pews in a pitch-black church lit by votive candles. I stare at golden chalices of wine that glint in faint light. I was taught not to do this, but I like to perceive my spirituality through tangible elements that betray the Church’s oppositional stance on iconography.

Outside those walls, I make offhand jokes about Christianity. I denounce core Catholic social values. As a journalist, I distance myself from my religious affiliation as I cover secular news in a secular office full of predominantly secular people. I watch “Spotlight” and find myself rooting for the reporters; the powerfully degenerate religious institution is the clear villain.

“I made a naïve choice between 19 years of faith and leftist principles.”

I am the disoriented product of two warring worlds.

Over the years, I have fallen into the Hollywood stereotype of a perplexed Catholic who visits a priest — the poor man’s therapist — to help make sense of my indecision. One priest made me cry during confession. Another gave me his blessing to remain relentless amid blowback from irate sources. I have witnessed the spectrum of clergymen and can vouch for their diversity in empathy, piety and philosophy.

Father Ivan Tou is the pastor at Newman Hall. He went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an undergraduate, worked at HP and pursued a doctoral degree at UCLA. Then, after all those years of a worldly career in STEM, God called him to priesthood.

“Engineers, we sort of like order out of chaos. We like things that make sense, and structure and meaning,” he said. “The greatest meaning-maker is God.”

I noticed that even amid my haste to type up his interview, I felt compelled to capitalize “God.”

Rev. Tou gave candid statements on the parish: While Newman Hall still sees about 500 students at masses each week, church attendance has waned across the country in recent years. He attributes the decline to the millennial prioritization of spirituality above religiosity in the wake of Church scandals and the time-sucking demands of 21st-century life.

My greatest shock, however, came as we analyzed the intersection of politics and Catholicism.

The recent election still weighs heavily on me. My upbringing led me to a rigid understanding of religious alignment with candidates. Catholics support Donald Trump, who — in a limited but core section of his platform — embodies conservative values, while heathens endorse the antichrist, Hillary Clinton, right?

“No candidate fully espouses Catholic values,” Rev. Tou said, probably unaware of his impact on my worldview. “For the most part, we tend to be a very liberal parish.”

Newman Hall, just one of the world’s many Catholic parishes, is by no means radical. The priests are not relics of the ’70s who condone “free love” and the most liberal of personal values. Rather, the parish focuses on issues of social justice — care for the poor, immigrants, refugees — that appear at odds with the policies of the current presidential administration.

As our interview slowed to a halt, I forced myself to ask: Do people have to agree with all of the Church’s teachings to consider themselves true Catholics?

Andrea Platten/Courtesy

Andrea Platten/Courtesy

Catholicism is structured to contain a hierarchy of truths, Rev. Tou said. You have to believe that Jesus is God, that he died for your sins, that he was resurrected from the dead, that the communion is the body of Christ. And then there are the fringe values, the ones that may evolve over time with increased ecclesial insight.

“No one has the full monopoly, the full wisdom of truth,” Rev. Tou said. “It’s a dialogue — we’re not just supposed to listen and follow. … If we wanted robots, God would have created robots.”

In recent weeks, I have gone to Church every Sunday night. I contemplate what the hell I’m doing as I walk there, because frankly, I still feel jaded. I sit and stand in my pew, say the prayers tattooed on my brain, sing canticles with a wisp of the passion I felt as a child and kneel as I pray for my family. It can get mechanical for me, but I prefer the technicalities to a painful, anxious rumination on the real reasons I’m there. Then again, it’s a bit callow to assume that anyone else knows why they devote an hour each week to divine rituals that elude true human comprehension.

Maybe I live a lie by sitting in that pew when I disagree with so many teachings of the very faith I am there to practice. After all, I have never received consent to focus so deeply on the secular that I reject my religion.

But Rev. Tou, at the very least, reaffirmed the complex reality of a lifelong battle with it.

Like the Beat poets, young Catholics are a generation of disillusioned souls. We were raised by ceaseless cataclysms of international terrorism, natural disasters and political divides — but our teachers assured us that God takes care of His people. We engage with sex and violence on TV and wear white dresses to receive First Communion. Sometimes, our own Church shirks responsibility for its own corruption, burying a tragic past as deeply as Catholics repress their urges toward thoughts and actions that fall outside pious bounds.

“But Rev. Tou, at the very least, reaffirmed the complex reality of a lifelong battle with it.”

We are a Church of contradictions. The chaos helps justify how I can attend mass and still acknowledge my own turbulent devotion.

My faith is constantly shaken. But I cannot shake my faith.

Contact Andrea Platten at [email protected].