Omnes gentes

We are getting ahead of ourselves, up here in the High Doganate: giving our lay sermon on today’s (usus antiquior) Gospel text last Monday; visiting Pluto five days before the American spacecraft; anticipating Saturday’s talking points on “Grexit,” Friday. At the old Idler magazine we would flag articles we had written years before, on topics only now in the headlines, and boast: “If you can’t wait for the newspapers, read it all here.”

So with the Gospel covered, let us try to expound the Epistle in today’s Mass, from Saint Paul to the Romans, touching on the mystery of our iniquity:

“Brethren: I speak a human thing, because of the infirmity of your flesh; for as you have yielded your members to serve uncleanness and iniquity unto iniquity so now yield your members to serve justice unto sanctification. For when you were the servants of sin, you were free men to justice. What fruit therefore had you then in those things, of which you are now ashamed? For the end of them is death. But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit unto sanctification, and the end, life everlasting. For the wages of sin is death. But the grace of God is life everlasting; in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

One might almost say he is commenting on our own pagan, post-Christian mores, looking forward through Christian eyes; though in the text he looks back to the pagan, pre-Christian Romans. “Uncleanness” seems a gentle, rather elderly English term, for the condition of our souls. Really it is not gentle at all, gents. We still know what it is physically to live in filth. The modern West is obsessively hygienic, and changes the bedsheets when they are soiled; but is indifferent to spiritual cleanliness. With the passage of time, we find it harder to imagine people who lived in acute discomfort from a knowledge of their sins. Our tactic is to stay free of that knowledge.

I remember this vividly from childhood, when I was in the culturally Protestant environment of a small Ontario town. There were a few Catholics, perhaps five families of which I was aware. All adhered to the stereotype of large, extended and poor. Some of them compounded their isolation by being able to speak French. The culture was already post-religious, but the notion that Catholics were dirty people had survived the transition. So had the habit of excluding Catholics from social clubs, including business management. They took jobs in the brewery (a low-wage employer), or in one case (that of an Italian immigrant family), raised rabbits in their backyard, and were somehow able to manage a fruit and vegetable shop on Main Street. It was open at the front, and fine Protestant ladies would spot flies on the bananas.

Though hardly born into the Catholic fold, I was a genetic freak: for as long as I can remember I have been “pro-Catholic.” It may have run in the family: my parents told me to play with the Catholic kids — and with Jews, if I could find any. They made a point themselves of mixing across the race-line, and buying anything a Catholic man was peddling from door to door (desperately trying to feed his family), such as powdered milk (the bags of which piled up in our basement). And from the age of nine, when I first fell in love, I noticed Catholic girls were prettier. (My Beatrice carried the name, Liddy; she did not approve of me, however, and said her mother had warned I’d be going to Hell with all the other Protestant children.)

More history could be divulged, but I have focused upon this fragment only to remember the North American meme, that Catholics were dirty people. And let me add, they knew it. And with large families, they always had colds. But for Mass, all dressed in their ill-fitting Sunday best, and the girls under lace mantillas. And all that wonderful kitsch hanging on Catholic walls, so adverse to the metastasizing suburban Bauhaus. The thought of them, queueing for Confession, brought strange fancies to young Protestant minds.

To this day, I wake some mornings with the thought, “Good Lord, I’m a Catholic.” Some drollness must be understood, for it is recited in the tone of, “omigod I have leprosy.”

And sometimes I think, perhaps, I joined just as all of them were leaving, “in the spirit of Vatican II.” One by one, or one thousand by another thousand, they grew into North Americans, nostalgic for, but also ashamed of their background — “recovering Catholics” determined not to be excluded from a world that, as Liddy’s mother said, was going straight to Hell.

The sense, not that the people down the road are dirty, but that one is filthy oneself, is now bred out of the children in their schools if not in their homes. In the ’sixties, “guilt” was made into a target, and “acceptance” might be the term today. This does not mean acceptance of all others, for “traditional” Catholics are treated just the same. It means self-acceptance; liberation from guilt. If, for instance, one has sexual appetites of the kind once condemned as perverted, the instruction now is to self-celebrate, to march in a parade as the Orangemen used to do. Morality requires only that you practise “safe sex” with condoms, follow the dietary trends, and maintain an outward show of smiley-face niceness, like a bank teller.

Sex is always news in our mass porno culture, but down below the headline events, it is the same interminable story. What applies to sex, applies less noisily to everything else. It is expressed through omnipresent lifestyle advertising: “You deserve a break today.” Break follows break, and the shards of our civilization are dissolving into dark wet dirty sand. This, as Pope Benedict observed, is the key environmental problem.

That we are living in filth. That we are proud of it.