Nice & nasty

“If, as you say, the world is going to Hell, how come there are so many nice people?”

My paraphrase does no justice to the acquaintance who asked. The original was rather more involved.

She is, by her own account, “not a bad person.” At least, ditto, she has never done anything very bad, though she admits that by the catechistic standard, she is quite the rogue. But that is a standard she rejects; she has her own standard.

Old, now (in her seventies), she is probably better informed on the teachings of the Catholic Church than most current Sunday churchgoers. This is because before she left, nearly half a century ago, she had been properly instructed, by nuns. For they had nuns in those days, who knew what they were about. (We still have a few, but not many.)

And this lady is sharp: her mind is not fading. She can even recite the titles of all the Books in the Bible, in the correct order. This was one of the things the nuns drummed in. And the ten commandments, and the seven deadly sins, and the four cardinal virtues, and the three theological ones, and the eight beatitudes, and the five sorrowful mysteries, and the five joyful mysteries, and the rest of it. Memory work, and her memory is still working.

She is one of those people who hated the “Old Church” before Vatican II, and welcomed the changes that came in the ’sixties. But when they arrived, she left. And she is candid about that, saying that leaving might not have occurred to her, otherwise. The “reforms” exposed the Old Church as a sham, in her opinion — for suddenly what had seemed immortal, and immovable, and unchangeable, was shown up for what it was: “a deeply flawed human institution.” And the priests who had the mysterious powers were shown to be just old men — celibate males, like old maids or spinsters.

There was a moment in the 1990s when John Paul II held her attention. She even attended church a few times, alone, for her husband was never a Catholic, and her two children were raised “free range.” That Pope seemed to be speaking of things that she had overlooked, or forgotten. But the Masses she attended were trivial: they reminded her it was “all a sham,” and so she drifted off again. When the Pope died, she could not explain to herself why she was heartbroken. It was almost as if her father had died.

“But it is all a sham,” she insists. “A nice place for funerals and weddings.” Or, funerals, since she hasn’t attended a wedding in a very long time. The services are unnecessary, “They should rent it out like the old Crystal Ballroom.” … For weddings, funerals, concerts, fashion shows, bingo, floor hockey.

The Church was priests, and the priests failed — according to this lady. Her relationship was with these old men. She recites some filth from the sex scandals, by way of dismissing them as utterly corrupt. While nothing so bad as what she’d heard on TV, she had a few bad memories herself of priests (and nuns) who were “slimy.”

And no, she hasn’t met or spoken to a priest in many decades; or to any other religious, male or female. “What would we have to talk about?”

I mentioned that the Christian’s relation is with Jesus Christ; that the clergy, from the Pope down, are intermediaries. That they are human, and sometimes fail. And sometimes they fail catastrophically. “I can understand you have nothing to say to some old priest. But let me be hypothetical here: what will you say to Jesus?”

That she has been a good person. That she has never done anything very bad. It began to sound like a mantra.

It is true, most people are nice. This includes Catholics, but also Protestants and Muslims, Hindus and Jews and Agnostics. (Most would rather be liked than hated.) Why just last week, I dropped a twenty-dollar bill on the floor while struggling at a cash-point, and the man behind me picked it up, and gave it right back. He didn’t run off down the street with it. What a nice man; I thanked him. In Parkdale, here, we have lots of nice people.  I think of them as “the church of nice,” and of all the “mercy” my Church of Nasty is currently dispensing on them.

I wonder if Christ will ever be understood. For it’s not just the priests and nuns: Christ Himself comes across as nasty, if you read the Script — judgemental, strict, confrontational. And when people dishonour his Father’s house — perfectly nice people for all we know, just trying to make a living — he becomes downright violent. Fashions a whip, turns over their stalls. No table manners at all. Garish talk about body and blood.

“If thy brother sin against thee, reprove him: and if he do penance, forgive him.”

Note the qualification; and that it continues through seven times, and would continue through seventy times seven.

We don’t give people what they don’t want. (That wouldn’t be nice.) And if they don’t want forgiveness, we don’t give it to them. We offer it up instead to God. The martyr on the stake does not say, “I forgive you,” he asks God to forgive them. This is a subtlety I don’t think nice people get.

Jesus Christ to priests who fail, catastrophically: “But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged around his neck, and that he should be drowned in the uttermost depth of the sea.”

Now, that is nasty.