Redeemed from Death? the Faith of a Catholic Novelist

By McDermott, Alice | Commonweal, May 3, 2013 | Go to article overview

Redeemed from Death? the Faith of a Catholic Novelist


McDermott, Alice, Commonweal


As I begin what will be my seventh (!) decade as a Catholic, I find that I am less and less sure of what Catholics believe.

Oh, I know our opinions. Especially regarding any topic that touches on politics. I know what prolife Catholics believe and I know what prochoice Catholics believe. I know where the church stands on women priests, contraception, homosexuality, the death penalty, just and unjust war, gun rights (although, actually, I wish I heard a little bit more about where my prolife church stands on guns), immigration--and I'm well aware of how and why and to what divergent degrees my fellow Catholics agree or disagree on all these matters.

I also know our good works. I know that the generation of Catholics that follows mine has embraced social justice in a way that fills me with pride and admiration. I know that among my fellow Catholics there is a quiet and continual spirit of generosity and compassion that feeds the hungry and houses the homeless and keeps vibrant any number of Catholic schools and Catholic hospitals, missions, shelters, organizations, places to come to. I know we strive to be a generous and loving people.

But I suppose what I have become less sure of is why.

Of course, there's the apparent and obvious answer, the whole "whatsoever you do for the least of my people" mandate. Which is lovely, don't get me wrong. It's grand. But surely Catholics, Christians, can't claim that generosity and compassion is ours alone--every faith, every nonbeliever, can make a legitimate claim to loving sentiments and good works.

I suppose it's an occupational hazard of mine--after more than thirty years in this writing business--to apply writing metaphors to any number of things, but lately I have felt the urge to ask my fellow Catholics who are so clear about their various and complex opinions regarding abortion, torture, religious freedom, even charity, the question I often ask myself--and my writing students--when a creative effort threatens to implode under the weight of its own complex plot or loquacious characters or entangled prose: What is at the simple heart of all this palaver? What is it that you believe to be true?

One of the most successful writing assignments I ever gave was to an intelligent class of imaginative and well-read adult students whose circuitous narratives kept spooling away from them. Write a short story, I told them, that begins with these three words: The point is. ...

After all this time as a Catholic, I begin to fear that our politics, our opinions, our complex arguments and arrangements and attitudes have allowed our beliefs to spool away from us too. Like muddled writers, we forget the simple heart of what it was we wanted to say.

We say: We believe in God, the Father Almighty. The Creator. The First Cause. The force that lit the fuse that set off the Big Bang. Whatever. Got it. And in his son, Jesus Christ. Who came down from heaven (down and heaven being metaphorical, yes? no?), entered time by being born of the Virgin Mary, walked the earth, told us how to live, implored us to love one another, and then was crucified, died, and was buried. Historical fact. Descended into hell (metaphor again?) and on the third day arose from the dead. Literally. Walked the earth once more and then ascended into heaven. Sits at the right hand. And his kingdom shall have no end. We've got the rest down pat: The Holy Spirit, the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. ...

The point is: God so loved the world, he gave his only son so we should not perish but live. ...

The point is: Love redeems us. Even from death.

Really?

That's immortality we're talking about. Heaven. Literally. We're saying that we believe that the injustice of death, every single death in human history, is made just by a loving God. …

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