Catholicism is my discredited old friend; atheism is my credible new friend. When one talks trash about the other, I don’t listen.
I can’t believe how tiny that blacktop playground is, where I once watched from the corner as girls played hopscotch and boys played kickball. While I continued to attend Catholic school until three days into my third year at Archbishop Stepinac High School in White Plains, NY, the beginning of the end came during preparation for confirmation, in the third grade at Holy Name of Mary School in Croton-on-Hudson.
I remember the dreaded catechism. (“1. Q. Who made me? A. God made me.”) The warning from the monsignor (Fr. Joseph P. Moore, a gnarled man with the resin-coated baritone of a chain smoker, who could rattle a confessional with his absolutions so loudly that we all hoped for Fr. O’Brien, but we could never tell which one it was until we were kneeling and the window slid open — but I digress) that since through our confirmation we were endorsing our baptism and embracing the church, we’d be expressing our free will, and if we didn’t believe in even one tenet of the catechism, then our confirmation would be a travesty and a sin. Amazingly, nobody exercised their free will toward any misgivings about the catechism. (The message that wasn’t lost on me was that this was a difficult document to swallow whole, and that some sections were harder to digest than others. I wondered how many others thought this, but I dare not ask anybody.)
What really did it in for me is when, once the catechism was stuffed into our heads as thoroughly as it was going to be, we practiced the processional. Our small line, white-shirted-navyblue-tie boys on the left and blue-plaid-jumper girls on the right, were dwarfed by a cavernous and dark Gothic interior, the kind they stopped making once nuns took up guitars and put down the hickory switches. The echo of a cough was counted in silent Mississippis. Especially those of Fr. Moore.
The nun, Sister John Marie, was particularly emphatic about the hands. You’re praying the whole time, of course (though probably not for the intended reason), so the position of the hands was crucial during the whole procedure. We were to point our fingers directly vertical. To heaven. Straight up. That, she assured us, was the only way our prayers would get through to God. (Apparently we had been doing it wrong all along before then, and everyone we knew in church was doing it wrong, and the priest does it wrong.) Yes, there was a tendency in this posture for one’s elbows to go flying out, like a baseball player at bat. This was to be fought the entire time.
The actual breaking point for my credulousness, the moment of my birth as a skeptic, was when we learned it was also terribly important that the correct thumb overlap the other. (I don’t remember which. Which says something right there.)
Later that day, this same nun taught us her subject. Science. Where different rules apply.
As I say, it took me until halfway through high school to see how much of a barrier to continuing in Catholic school is a lack of belief in everything that makes a Catholic Catholic. It was quite a revelation to know that everyone else in my grade pretty much bought the whole thing, and when I asked about their state of belief would squint at me suspiciously and whisper, “What do you mean?” Another equally stunning revelation is that my father had been dutifully paying school taxes while paying extra to the Catholic schools. Somehow he’d kept that from me, and of course, the priests had no economic incentive to make sure we all understood. So I plunged headlong into public school, with more relaxed dress, easier courses, a social life where I could at last be called “Rick” and not “Richard”. Oh, and did I mention girls? Granted, I didn’t do much more than look at them, but vive le differénce!
There will be more on the history of my unbelief in future posts. Amen.