"The Catholic Pagan"

An interesting interview with Paglia.
You grew up as an Italian-American Catholic, but seemed to identify more strongly with the pagan elements of Catholic art and culture than with the church’s doctrines. What caused you to fall away from the Catholic Church?

Italian Catholicism remains my deepest identity—in the same way that many secular Jews feel a strong cultural bond with Judaism. Over time I realized—and this became a main premise of my first book, Sexual Personae (based on my doctoral dissertation at Yale)—that what had always fascinated me in Italian Catholicism was its pagan residue. I loved the cult of saints, the bejeweled ceremonialism, the eerie litanies of Mary—all the things, in other words, that Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers rightly condemned as medieval Romanist intrusions into primitive Christianity. It's no coincidence that my Halloween costume in first grade was a Roman soldier, modeled on the legionnaires' uniforms I admired in the Stations of the Cross on the church walls. Christ's story had very little interest for me—except for the Magi, whose opulent Babylonian costumes I adored! My baptismal church, St. Anthony of Padua in Endicott, New York, was a dazzling yellow-brick, Italian-style building with gorgeous stained-glass windows and life-size polychrome statues, which were the first works of art I ever saw.

After my parents moved to Syracuse, however, I was progressively stuck with far blander churches and less ethnic congregations. Irish Catholicism began to dominate—a completely different brand, with its lesser visual sense and its tendency toward brooding guilt and ranting fanaticism. I suspect that the nun who finally alienated me from the church must have been Irish! It was in religious education class (for which Catholic students were released from public school on Thursday afternoons), held on that occasion in the back pews of the church. I asked the nun what still seems to me a perfectly reasonable and intriguing question: if God is all-forgiving, will he ever forgive Satan? The nun's reaction was stunning: she turned beet red and began screaming at me in front of everyone. That was when I concluded there was no room in the Catholic Church of that time for an inquiring mind.
I was brought to the Church as much by King Arthur as by Jesus. I remember a book of mythology I had as a boy, which had myths from many cultures illustrated by drawings in the style of the culture which gave rise to the myth. It was Beowulf whose drawings I immediately recognized as my own, not any of the ones from the Middle East or Asia.

It doesn't matter, I think, whether you came for Arthur or Beowulf or some pagan residue. What matters is that you come.


douglas said...

The mother church is multi-faceted, and rightly so I think. There are more ways to be Catholic than I think most people imagine.

MikeD said...

I find it interesting that she so casually shows her racism. She associates everything wrong with Catholicism with the Irish, and even goes so far as to assume "I suspect that the nun who finally alienated me from the church must have been Irish!". Not because she had a brogue, or because her last name was an Irish one, but because she assumes anything negative must come from the Irish.

Grim said...

I wouldn't have thought of an Irish/Italian split as "racism," but I suppose it plausibly is. There's no such thing as race, so you can draw the lines however you want; and I do have a history book entitled "The Story of the Irish Race," now that you mention it.

MikeD said...

I call it such, because she explicitly states that every negative Catholic experience is the fault of "the Irish". And when she is finally "turned off" of Catholicism, it must be because the nun 'responsible' (I put scare quotes around that because it's pretty clear to me she didn't actually like Catholicism, just the art and trappings of it, much like I appreciate the art and trappings of Islam with absolutely no interest in being a Muslim) "must have been Irish!"

Grim said...

It's a shame, though, that the nun reacted as she did. It's a good question, the answer to which I take to be: yes, if Satan wanted to be forgiven.

MikeD said...

If we take the author at her word. Knowing nuns as I did, I suspect that either the question was phrased quite differently, or the answer was given in a different manner as the author reports.

I say this because while I can truthfully say that the only time in my life I was ever slapped across the face by my mother I had merely "expressed my disagreement with her assessment of the situation", that doesn't make that reading of the reason why I was slapped a complete and accurate version of the events in question. I am telling the absolute truth by saying that's "all I did" to get slapped, but it leaves out so much context that it paints my mother as irrational and violent.

Really, I did deserve it, and the fact that it was a singular incident proves that it was a successful deterrent. But again, people lie like this all the time by a jaundiced retelling of events that may be true, are so stripped of context as to make them incredibly deceptive.

Grim said...

Yeah, I deserved it the time my mother slapped me, too. I could describe it as a small disagreement on the subject of an appropriate time to get out of bed on the weekend -- like a lot of teenagers, I liked to stay up late and then sleep all day -- but the form of the disagreement was quite improper on my part.

Well, live and learn.

Joel Leggett said...

What matters is that you come to Christ, not any particular denomination. However, it does matter why you come. The divinity and salvation offered by Christ, not the visual and ritual trappings of any church, are the only reasons to accept Christ.

I am a lifelong Southern Baptist. It is a point of pride for me that I share the more decentralized independent protestant faith of my Scotch-Irish ancestors. That said, I made the individual decision to accept Christ because I believed, not because of cultural tradition.

Although I believe that Catholics can be Christians and I accept them as brothers and sisters in Christ I have serious theological disagreements with the Church of Rome, many of which are the things most admired by Camille Paglia. The mysticism, cult of saints, and rigid hierarchy strike me as more reminiscent of the Roman Empire than the Kingdom of God. I find no passage in the Bible that establishes od’s representative on earth is to be passed down by a vote of the College of Cardinals. I could go on.

It is Christ that matters, not pretty pictures, solemn rituals, or cultural/ethnic traditions.

douglas said...

I hear you Joel- those Catholics who are almost superstitious about it used to really bother me, but I've seen great faith from them too, and I'm less sure than I used to be about just how one should come to Christ. If those pretty pictures, solemn rituals, and cultural traditions serve to bring those people closer to Christ somehow, or create a connection between where there culture is and Christ, who I am I to say that's not the way? Surely it could go out of bounds, but I think there can be great leeway within those bounds.

Grim said...

However, it does matter why you come. The divinity and salvation offered by Christ, not the visual and ritual trappings of any church, are the only reasons to accept Christ.

The divinity alone, I might have said. But there's another reason that is valid, and that is that the divine calls you.

Like you, I always believed. Like you, I was born into the Scots-Irish Protestant tradition -- the more-Scottish part of it, as I was baptized Presbyterian. I converted to Catholicism as an adult, for reasons I think valid.

Paglia came for beauty as she saw it, and left because of ugliness as she saw it. But perhaps she will yet return, either for your reason, or if the Spirit speaks to her. Such things are out of my power.