Watching the nation come to a screeching halt over Pope Francis’ visit, I had a flashback to my childhood in Cincinnati. One day I saw a picture of then-Pope Pius XII on the front page of the evening paper and I was shocked — shocked! I had no idea that anybody in Ohio outside my immediate neighborhood knew who he was.
In our Catholic school, the nuns stressed our isolation, and they kept prepping us to be ready to die for our faith at any moment. Like St. Ursula, who was on a pilgrimage with 11,000 virgins, all of whom instantly chose martyrdom rather than surrender their purity to infidel Huns. (At the time, I just knew virgins were women who hadn’t married, and I had a vision of throngs of young ladies being pursued by barbarians waving engagement rings.)
Or St. Tarcisius, a Roman boy who was carrying holy communion to imprisoned Christians. There are many versions of this story, but in the one my teachers told, the job was supposed to be performed in total silence. When his pagan playmates asked him to join their game, Tarcisius clasped his sacred package to his heart and shook his head. Then the pagan boys guessed what was up and beat him to death.
I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how Tarcisius might have gotten away unscathed. Maybe by pretending to have a sore throat? It seemed important to identify the best strategy, because some modern-day version of the Huns or pagan Romans could arrive at any minute.
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Catholicism was, as I learned after the Pius XII incident, the largest faith in my city. Many of our teachers were probably only a generation away from being picked-on immigrants, and maybe they brought their sense of paranoia with them to the classrooms. That’s understandable, but being both the powerful majority and the persecuted minority is like having your cake and eating it, and then taking over the bakery and bolting the front door.
This brings us back to Francis, a humble man who accepts that he’s very powerful. He may have a little car and a modest home, but when he looks out at the world, his gaze isn’t defensive. He wants Catholicism to thrive – on a planet without global warming. He knows there are places where Catholics are suffering terribly for their faith, but when he looks at an embattled flock, he also sees Muslim immigrants who need Christian countries to open their borders.
Almost everybody appreciates this is a terrific gift to the world. Many people were hoping for a second one: some change in the church’s dogma on sex. This seems highly unlikely. But if Francis can at least change the context, that would be terrific.
Catholic schools don’t focus on sex now the way they did when I was a student. But the current crop of bishops was probably educated in schools like mine, where the subject came up 24/7 . When Clark Gable died, one of my teachers explained that since the actor had had several wives, God knew he was going to hell and had probably given him earthly success to make up for any good deeds he performed in this world.
This was not official Catholic doctrine. The reform-minded John XXIII was pope by then and he would have fainted if confronted by the Clark Gable theory. But it was an excellent example of how loopy things can get if a religion obsesses on consensual private behavior.
I remember one priest who told us that when Christ was dying on the cross, he sadly envisioned us Catholic girls sinning in the back seat of a car.
“Aren’t there any other sins?” I asked one day. I’d be sort of proud of having come up with the question if the follow-up hadn’t been such a failure. I couldn’t think of any other immediate possibilities. Nobody in my school even swore.
“Like …” I groped. “… Greed?” All I knew about greed was cartoons of Scrooge McDuck sitting on a pile of money.
There were obviously a lot of character failings we could have discussed. My friends and I were capable of floating for weeks without seriously directing attention at anything that didn’t involve ourselves. But as long as we kept away from boys’ wandering hands, we felt spiritually A-OK.
This pope is highly unlikely to accept gay marriage, and he'll never give abortion a pass. But in Washington he grouped abortion in a long catalog of wrongs that need to be righted: hungry children, bombing, “immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow,” old or sick people who are treated as a burden, terrorism, war, drug trafficking and environmental devastation.
It’s a long, long way from believing that God looked at Clark Gable’s soul and saw nothing but a guy who got divorced.
Gail Collins writes for The New York Times.