MARCH 15, 2010 4:43PM

Fallen Away: A Catholic Story

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We are tribal creatures.  Some of us belong to the Democratic tribe, and some to the Republican tribe; some to the Green Bay Packers rooting tribe, and some to the cat’s eye marble collecting tribe; some to the vegetarian tribe, and some to the Jimmy Dean pancakes and sausage on a stick tribe.  I was born, raised, and educated in the Catholic tribe.  Now I am a member of what some claim is the even larger tribe of fallen-away Catholics.

I find it difficult to explain, even to myself, why I joined this tribe.  It was not political, even though I disagreed with the Church’s stand on contraception, abortion and sexual orientation, which put me in the very large tribe of Americans who ignore uncongenial edicts from Rome.  It was not sociological, even though I thought women should be ordained and priests allowed to marry.  It was not academic, even though I could not accept a historically contingent document like the Bible, its component books assembled first at the Council of Hippo in 393, debated at subsequent councils, and finalized as infallible at the Council of Trent in the 16th century, as the divinely-inspired, inerrant word of God.  It was not especially doctrinal, even though I found the Augustinian conception of original sin, an iniquity bequeathed to posterity by his conviction that all humanity was present in Adam, a stunningly unfair insult to human dignity and a punishment out of all proportion to the offense of intemperate fruit eating.  Besides, what was up with God’s ironic comment on Adam’s fate: “the man has become like one of us.”  Us?  Doesn’t the Apostles’ Creed recited at every Mass begin, “I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth?” And the notion of the Holy Trinity!  Why, it did not simply rattle the latch of logic; it burst open the door.  How could one Supreme Being be, at the same time, a composite of three persons.  If God was, as Aquinas said, esse, being itself, utterly transcendent and, as Anselm said, “than which beyond thinking cannot go,” was a triune God contradictory in that it made God a being in triplicate?

No, none of these account for my membership in the tribe of the fallen-away.   In fact, I considered most of the Church’s teachings morally resonant: the sanctity of free will and conscience that summoned us to exceed what, by nature, we were; the buttressing of revelation with intellect and reason; the emphasis on individual accountability, the recognition that the body, like everything else in the created order, is inherently good; the notion that evil is an internal lack or absence resulting from a failure to act in accordance with the good present in things, the idea that charity should infuse every aspect of our lives.  Moreover, the rituals, mysteries, and symbols of the Mass and other services—the resurrection and ascension, the miracle of transubstantiation, the infusions of grace, the stations of the cross, the priestly vestments, the blessing of throats, the anointing with ashes, the burning of incense, the votive candles, the statues, the indulgences and prayers for the poor souls in purgatory, the stained glass windows and vaulted ceilings and soaring organ music—enchanted a world I saw as desperately disenchanted.  Just being in a church during Mass seemed a small, sublime experience of transcendence.  I even liked the Tridentine Mass, for, as I followed the priest’s words in my missal, Latin on one side, English on the other, I acquired a fair proficiency in a language that connected me to a deep slipstream of religious, political, and scholarly history.

What, then, caused my falling away?  Perhaps it was that I was a young man who, like most young men, was self-absorbed and resistant to externally imposed obligations like Sunday and holy day church attendance, confession, Communion at Easter, inactivity on Good Friday afternoon, and self-abnegation during Lent.  Perhaps it was that I was a young man who came of age in the 1960s, when the zone of what counted as religious behavior and spiritual practice widened considerably.  Perhaps it was an unacknowledged form of rebellion against my parents.  Perhaps I simply grew tired of the inconvenience of getting dressed for Mass, finding a parking spot, sitting in an wooden pew for an hour, listening to wooden sermons delivered by men who appeared to lack the most basic knowledge of public speaking, and enduring the mad scramble out of the parking lot at the end of Mass.  Perhaps it was the artificiality of the enforced community spirit at Mass, the handholding and the exchange of the sign of peace.  Who knows?  One Sunday, I decided, for some reason, not to attend Mass.  No shaft of lightning knifed its way from heaven to strike me down.  On subsequent Sundays I made the same decision for the same unknown reason.  It cascaded, and eventually I fell away from the Church altogether.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the phrase “fallen away.”  On the one hand, it is haunted by negative associations: the headlong fall of Lucifer from heaven; the Fall of Man; the fall of pagan Jericho before Joshua’s 600,000 man army; the fall of Saul, the envious, witch-consulting first king of Israel; Solomon’s fall into idolatry; the fall of the Roman Empire; the fall of Saigon; the 2008 fall of the stock market.  The sense here is that some purposeful unrighteous act, or failure to act, sets a perpendicularly downward trend in motion, a precipitous and irredeemable decline from potentiality, from the fruition of good.  On the other hand, the phrase can also suggest passivity, an absence of fault, a being acted upon rather than acting.  We fall in (and out of) love; we fall into a swoon; we fall into bad company or misfortune or madness.  The mustard seed fallen by the wayside did not choose the inhospitable ground.  It is a perplexing phrase, “fallen away,” linguistically uniting two opposing conceptions of human agency without so much as a glimpse of synthesis in sight--much as the Catholic Church positions its adherents between the two worlds of matter and spirit.  The difference, and it’s a big one, is that the Church asks them to find a point of unity, a dialectic synthesis known by the more familiar name of “faith.”

To my knowledge, no other religion refers to its erstwhile adherents as “fallen away.”  Non-practicing, nonobservant, one-time, former—but not fallen away.  Evidently, the fallen away tribe is special as well as large.  I do not know why it is special, any more than I know why it is large or how I became a member of it.  What I do know is this: we are all wayfarers, and later rather than sooner we discover that our wayfaring is really a pilgrimage. Like Chaucer’s pilgrims on the way to Canterbury, we tell stories to make the going easier.  But eventually the destination comes in sight and the serious business begins.  Having pilgrimaged for many years, I find that being poised between the two worlds of matter and spirit is serious business for me now.  I’d like to find a synthesis.  It would seem you can leave the Catholic tribe, but it never quite leaves you. 

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Articulate and fascinating exploration of the topic, Jerry. In response to the first sentence of your final paragraph, Mormons definitely regard their formers as "fallen away." In fact, they go beyond that to "apostate." I've long been of the opinion that there are two types of people--those who are faithful to whatever the faith of their fathers is, regardless, and those who question the faith of their childhood, regardless. I happen to be in the latter camp, as apparently are you. A difference I find is that the minimum requirements for being considered a faithful Catholic differ significantly from those to be considered an "active" Mormon. Mormons frequently scoff at Catholics who go to church infrequently as though they are not good people, when the requirements are really quite different. To be an "active" Mormon, one must attend all meetings regularly, pay a full tithe plus other offerings, and participate in various callings. A Catholic, however, can attend once a year at the Easter season, take communion, and make an annual confession, and still be considered faithful. There isn't the sort of attendance-taking, tithing-settlement overseeing that occurs in Mormonism. There is the sense that once you are a Catholic, you are always a Catholic, whereas in Mormonism, someone who'd "fallen away" would generally need to be rebaptized, or at least, go through a process of reactivation far more significant than a Catholic just showing back up at church.

Nice piece, well expressed.
Thanks, Kathy--and thanks for the info on Mormonism, my knowledge of which extends only to "Big Love" and their one-time participation with Native Americans in the Ghost Dance movement. Catholicism is indeed "loose" in some particulars. Take the Precepts of the Catholic faith--are there five, six, or seven? I've seen all three numbers asserted. In any events, I appreciate your extending my knowledge here.
A pleasant read. I've too 'fallen away', though I'd describe the transformation as 'moved on' or 'stepped up'. It was the pre-modern mysticism I couldn't hold together while contemplating The Rest.
Nothing you write is frivolous; perhaps that's part of the Catholic inheritance. I see myself as a "cultural Catholic," though "fallen away" may be more precise. (I feel comfortable attending Mass, not that that means anything.) Your connection with the Catholic Church is profound; clearly the Church has not "left" you, nor should it.

Superb essay.