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Lee Siegel
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Worldly wisdom

NEW JERSEY - As a Jewish boy, I envied my Catholic friends. My family and I attended what was known as a Reform synagogue, which meant that the service was for the most part devoid of secrets and mystery. The Catholic mass, on the other hand, was bursting with secrets and mystery.

Lee Siegel, O Estado de S. Paulo

17 de março de 2013 | 02h00

At that time, the mass was still conducted in Latin, and when one Catholic friend or another invited me along to mass or communion, I was swept out of my senses. The beautiful, incantatory rhythms of the ancient language, the smell of incense, the chanting, the wine and candles and wafers-all of it made present and real the invisible, spiritual world that I so ardently hoped existed as a better alternative to the one I mundanely inhabited.

Then, too, there seemed to exist an alternate family that never bickered amongst themselves, that never yelled, and that would never leave or die: Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto. Sicut erat in principio, et nunc, et semper, et in sæcula sæculorum. Amen.

And the taboos-oh, the taboos! They all seemed to come down to one central human experience, sexuality, which just happened to be the one human experience that was bedeviling and perplexing me. How liberating it was to know that the sexual intimacy I yearned for and couldn't attain was actually, by divine law, not supposed to be attained by anyone under the age of what seemed like 100. At the same time, its forbiddeness seemed to justify my constant preoccupation with it. The very fact that an entire holy institution marshalled all its forces against sex elevated incessant thinking about sex from neurosis to dignified obsession. No wonder, I thought to myself, that my Catholic friends' parents never got divorced. Engaging night after night in satanic pleasures kept them together. It never occurred to me that they were not allowed to get divorced.

Even as I grew older and encountered the bitter disappointment of Catholic friends whose faith had lapsed, I retained my old envy of their religion's allure. I was beginning to move in intellectual circles where contempt for any kind of religious faith was customary-a kind of calling card of seriousness. Yet instead of striking similar Voltairean postures, I started publishing in a liberal Catholic magazine called Commonweal. I even toyed for a while with the idea of converting, but I recalled my boyhood friends, and how intensely their Catholicism was bound up with their ethnic roots. Between the Italian Catholics, and the Irish Catholics, and the Polish Catholics lay cultural differences, molded and hardened by family idiosyncracies, that I could never fit into, let alone comprehend.

I was drawn most of all to the Jesuits on account of their intellectual subtlety and skepticism. It seemed close to the Talmudic tradition in which I was-to a mild degree-edcuated myself. Living for a time in Chicago when I was a teenager, I befriended another boy named Francis Byrne, who had been taught by the Jesuits. Kind and compassionate, he enthralled me with tales of the head Jesuit, a man known for his charity and love, who drove a Cadillac, wore expensive, tailored suits, and kept a mistress. This struck me not as hypocrisy, but as the modus vivendi made possible by an old religion, wise in the ways of the world and in the paths of the human heart. Such a faith, it seemed to me, had made it possible for the animal side of human nature to be appeased and neutralized, so that the divine spark in every human being could persist and flourish.

If I may speak as a religious outsider, I still have my faith in that faith. For every appalling revelation of pedophilia, misogyny and complicitness with unnerving worldly power, I know countless stories about Catholics who gave their lives to help people in dark political times, or spent-and spend-their lives helping people survive in the face of grinding poverty and injustice. I could not bear to listen to the journalist Christopher Hitchens drone on about the wickedness of religious faith. It was beyond me how anyone could take seriously Hitchens' trite argument that religion was the opiate of the masses when Hitchens, by his own admission, was drunk every day and night of his life.

Watching the election of the new pope, I could not help but think that somehow the worldly wisdom the Catholic church had once known and practiced-for every venal pope, there was a magnanimous pope, and sometimes one who embodied both qualities-had become abandoned in modern times. If only the church could be as understanding about human sexuality as Francis Byrne's Jesuit teacher and his lenient superiors had been. Without celibacy and the pathologies it often creates, without the institutional barriers erected before women, without tolerance of abusive power existing alongside mercy for the powerless, Catholicism's message of love and hope-unique in human history-would be invigorated and set free. (Of course it is becoming increasingly hard to turn the other cheek when you are online all day and can no longer find your own face.) Without the institutional dross weighing down the Catholic spirit, modernity and the trinity might fit together like the lost pieces of a puzzle.

My Catholic friends tell me that they are torn between hope inspired by the new pope's choice of a name, and by his Jesuit, Latin American background, and despondency caused by his conservatism and by his passive acceptance of iniquitous authority in the past. For all that, I still envy my Catholic friends. They know exactly what is at stake, and what they are fighting for. That is a blessing.

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