“Tribal Catholic” is my term for a Catholic who is somewhat convinced that Catholic things are somehow better. Even very ordinary things: that Catholic poet, that Catholic scientist, that Catholic shoemaker. Better. Someone who is at least partly of the opinion that all roads lead to Rome, even the ones that never did. The sort who loves the new buildings in town, and cherishes all the old things in the attics of all the misshapen, weathered homes. That ridiculous affection that knows its own strangeness. Its too-much-ness. A Catholic who is loyal to the Church in that odd old way tribes treat their blood-kin: loyalty first of all to blood, often very effectively, sometimes reason be damned.
I call myself a tribal Catholic when I’m about to say something from my heart whose only explanation is my heart. It will be neither an argument nor a claim, only a truth known in what cannot be spoken.
Or when I want to explain the odd ferocity that, say, J.R.R. Tolkien or Dietrich von Hildebrand had for their religion: tribal Catholics, to be taken seriously, and whose extravagance can be both loved and relativized. Other Catholics are diplomats, or clever tricksters, or whatever. I’m not about to offer a typology of Catholics. I’m just explaining a certain way of loving the Church that often finds its way into Catholic self-expression regardless of the personality.
Sometimes, when I want to poke fun at myself, I admit that I am something of a “Hegelian Catholic”: I have never met a truth or a good that I thought the Church couldn’t appropriate. In my mind, she can and will grow to cosmic proportions – and eschatologically, she already (always) has.
It’s often grating, offensive, this Catholic impulse. This clear contortion of perspective. I have learned to soften it, even to conceal it. Never in my life have I tried to convert anyone to Catholicism, nor do I see that in my future. I am very nearly lackadaisical about whether a soul comes to see the countenance of the Church: that is the Spirit’s concern for her, and mine is trusting both of them. I do more still: rarely will I comment as Protestants discuss why they are not Catholic, which often seems to happen around Catholics. (Our tribalism provokes the question without announcing it.) When others tell me their idea of religion, I only listen. If a Catholic says why they are not anymore: quiet attention.
Sometimes my aunt and uncle walk up to me and explain why they’re Lutheran now. More than once, they’ve done so. I’d have never known. They imagine, perhaps, that I think poorly of them. In fact, I think only of the Spirit. He will search us, and I will not.
Catholics can be absurd. We don’t really do everything better, Thomas Aquinas does not answer every question, every single Catholic feels like a bad Catholic (not just you), and we are the worst in the ways we treat each other. I am sure that we confuse the hell out of others, and not just because our words for things are different and our rituals foreign. How odd, after all: the sight of Catholics bickering over whether they love or hate Pope Francis the way that they should – as if that were a real question, a measure of anything, when for the Church herself obedience to the office is the measure. Obedience to the local bishop first.
The sheer vitriol. As if the Church were something to win or to lose.
Or that odd moment: seeing cherished kin across the Tiber, heart to heart, and wanting to punch the Catholic over on this side of the river right in the throat.
I’m too tribal not to know the contradiction, and so tribal that I seriously do not care who wins what. The tribe is the tribe is the tribe. I am here with her. The family brawls behind me on Thanksgiving and I am very pleased with my goddamn sweet potatoes. Only time I’m upset is when a guest laughs at the fight or the meal. Then I drag warpaint across my face and set it like flint.
Mostly I am enamored of the things in the attic and the old things handed over. The crazy family stories and the brave ones. Peasants sprinting from one Mass to another simply to see the elevation of the host; bishops lifted on ordinary shoulders for proclaiming the Theotokos.
I am in the main a Catholic of considerable intellectual sophistication. A theologian cannot help but be so, and it is such a profound aspect of my temperament that I’d be that way even if I were a mechanic instead. (And mechanics are more noble.) Questions have always haunted me. My dad didn’t quite teach me this, but we share the bent of mind. As conflicted about my family as I can be, especially toward the father who was gone so much (even when he was there, too tired), I know this: the fact that he’d give me books and let me sprint far past him was perhaps his greatest act of paternal generosity and humility. Encouraging a daughter to know more than him. That’s hard for men my age, let alone a man who comes from where my dad does. From a family that zealously cherishes the family name and the men who pass it on.
His mother, my grandmother, was very sharp, openly well-educated. She prepared him for such a gift. I am convinced of it.
And she taught me something of Irish Catholic tribalism, gave it to me directly. So did my mom, but in an entirely different way. My mother is a peasant Catholic in that best and most beloved tradition of the Church: the peasant-folk who have always been the life-blood and heart of Catholicism. The ones who are not the treasured lights of a culture, the Augustines and Newmans of the Church. But these not-treasures are the real treasures, the ones that St. Lawrence gathered and offered to the Romans. Augustine, the true Father of the West, is useless to his Church unless he defends these least.
My mom taught me my prayers, and really just the two: Our Father and Hail Mary, simple and true. She was the one who made sure her children all wore a gold crucifix or a medal of a saint. She the one who touched her children’s holy things to relics to make them really holy. Who imagined angels and the Virgin Mary watching us, and said so. My mother of the implacable statement, “God kept you alive.” Neither argued nor explained. A maternal law I’ve never once questioned.
As angry and contradictory as I can be toward the mother who could look and not see so many things in me, her greatest maternal act was to love me into the tangible details of the Faith. The touches and the movements and the places.
As for the rest of me: Catholicism absorbed with baffling alacrity despite indifferent, confused grownup Catholics at the parish; learned at the sides of patient priests; saturated in defiance of liturgical poverty. Despite, indeed, parents who suffered ignorance of their own faith because it had been given to them by a generation perplexed at Vatican II. The generation that wanted to be different and also didn’t, and that is often rather bitter over it. The generation – my grandparents’ – that I least understand. My parents were taught by their confusion. Nevertheless. I am Catholic to my bones, and would be so were I an atheist. This education-despite skewed me enough that I haven’t breathed in all I could of the Church’s life. Not yet. Even had I been raised in a monastery, this would still be so.
God’s unexplained gift to me was my formation outside the confines of my resources. “Unexplained” because He’s never said why He gave me this, and I’ll leave its meaning to the Spirit and the Church.
I always try to embrace the Protestants who sit by me at Mass and cannot receive communion. I try to touch them somehow after I’ve received the Eucharist, and the impulse has something to do with how I think the act comes from the Heart of Christ and the Spirit of the Church. At the same time, I’ll be the first tempted to tackle a non-Catholic for daring to receive the Eucharist without receiving the Catholic Church (her practice is more generous: no one who asks is refused). The treasure of my tribe without my tribe somehow hurts and angers me the most. I don’t understand, can never seem to fathom, why a non-Catholic would dare. Not to have bled for her and yet to grip her heart. I stare at the act as if it were a language I didn’t know. I can’t read it, can’t understand.
The tribe wants to embrace but wants to be embraced, too. The desires are and will always be inextricably twined.
To serve without distinguishing who deserves to be served, because all do. To stubbornly distinguish and guard who serves. These are so innately Catholic, so frequently offensive and misunderstood.
A dear friend of mine mentioned that when next we meet, he might be able to receive with me. I looked at him and tried not to cry, tried not to contrive and convince. Looked at him feeling a desperate desire to have him near. There is a part of me that always wants everyone to be Catholic and never says so. Knows not to say it. It is a burning secret, a letter on the heart. To be able to take and eat with everyone, especially my friends: how desperately I want it, and how fiercely I won’t allow it unless they want it too. To want is to want the tribe, and I know that is hard. We are not so very lovable. Sometimes it seems others don’t join the tribe because of this or that doctrine, which I do vaguely understand. Mostly my heart wants to know whether they can love her, love my gathered blood-kin. All of us. We are all related and we are each other’s. This is what I more readily grasp as something someone can or cannot be.
I would love so much to eat with him. I said only, “Follow where the Spirit leads.” That is the Spirit’s concern and the Church’s too, and the Spirit always paints in the colors of the tribe. This I do and do not understand. I only know that neither the Church nor the Spirit are mine, and this I trust.