Wednesday, December 3, 2014

God bless Mary McCarthy, who left the Catholic Church but paid affectionate homage to the Catholic culture of her childhood

Thirty-four people showed up at my home for Thanksgiving--my favorite holiday. Gathered around the television, we watched home movies of my wife Kim's family that were recorded during the early 1960s.

The movies were in no chronological order, and taken together they comprised a montage of Catholic family life during the mid-20th century, when Catholic kids still went to Catholic schools. For me the most moving segment was a home movie of my sister-in-law Cindy's first communion.  I saw a large group of children--75 or 80 I would estimate--all dressed in white and marching in two neat columns into Holy Family Church in Port Allen, Louisiana. Nuns (Marianites, I believe) wearing long black habits with stiff white bonnets that looked like huge visors herded the kids along and kept them in line. A priest briefly appeared on screen wearing a long black cassock and an old-fashioned biretta, looking very much like Bing Crosby in Going My Way.

As an adult Catholic convert, I confess that I have a tendency to romanticize American Catholic culture during the pre-Vatican II years.  I like to think of this as the golden era of American Catholicism, when families built wholesome lives around their parish churches and Catholic schools.

But what do I know? I grew up in a repressive Protestant family in southwestern Oklahoma where there were very few Catholics.  I did not come into the Church until I was an adult, many years after Vatican II shook the Church so profoundly. What was Catholic life really like in the United States prior to Vatican II?

Mary McCarthy, one of America's great 20th century novelists, had a Catholic childhood, which she described in a wonderful little book entitled Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Although she later lapsed from Catholicism, she wrote about it with bittersweet affection in her memoirs.  I would like to share a few brief passages:
'My mother is a Child of Mary,' I used to tell other children . . . . My mother, not long after her marriage, was converted to Catholicism, and though I did not know what a Child of Mary was (actually a member of a sodality of the Ladies of the Sacred Heart), I knew it was something wonderful from the way my mother spoke of it. She was proud and happy to be a convert, and her attitude made us feel that it was a special treat to be a Catholic, the crowning treat and privilege. Our religion was a present to us from God. Everything in our home life conspired to fix in our minds the idea that we were very precious little persons, precious to our parents and to God, too, who was listening to us with loving attention every night when we said our prayers. 'It gave you a basic complaisancy,' a psychoanalyst once told me (I think he mean 'complacency'), but I do not recall feeling smug, exactly. It was, rather, a sense of wondering, grateful privilege. 
A few pages on, McCarthy made a remarkably humble confession: "Looking back," McCarthy wrote, "I see it was religion that saved me." She wrote quite movingly of the beauty and splendor of ordinary Catholic life during her childhood years.
Our ugly church and parochial school provided me with my only aesthetic outlet, in the words of the Mass and the litanies and the old Latin hymns, in the Easter lilies around the altar, rosaries, ornamented prayer books, votive lamps, holy cards stamped in gold and decorated with flower wreathes and a saint's picture. This side of Catholicism, much of it cheapened and debased by mass production, was for me, nevertheless, the equivalent of Gothic cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts and mystery plays. I threw myself into it with ardour, this sensuous life . . . .
As I said, McCarthy left Catholicism, and she writes critically and clearly about the Catholic faith of her childhood. There were two distinct strains of Catholicism, she wrote.  "There was the Catholicism I learned from my mother and from the simple parish priests and nuns in Minneapolis, which was, on the whole, a religion of beauty and goodness."

But there was another strain that was not so beautiful. This was the strain of Catholicism, McCarthy wrote, that was practiced by her Grandmother McCarthy: "a sour, baleful doctrine in which  old hates and rancours had been stewing for generations, with ignorance proudly stirring the pot."

Mary McCarthy
In the end, McCarthy concluded, "religion is only good for good people" because '[o]nly good people can afford to be religious." For others, McCarthy believed, religion provides "too great a temptation--a temptation to the deadly sins of pride and anger, chiefly, but one might also add sloth." In fact, McCarthy believed her Grandmother McCarthy "would have been a better woman if she had been an atheist or an agnostic."

I am grateful for Mary McCarthy's reflections about her Catholic girlhood. She wrote with remarkable maturity and balance about a Catholic faith that offered great beauty but also had its ugly side.

Let's say a prayer for Mary McCarthy and strive to live as Mary McCarthy's mother lived--with gratitude and joy that God has offered us the "crowning treat and privilege" of being Catholic.


Mary McCarthy. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. Hammondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1957.