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On Super Tuesday, after a blast of last-minute organization, Rick Santorum won the North Dakota caucus. I spent a strange and happy chunk of my kid-hood in the city of Minot, barely an hour from the Canadian border, and I attended the St. Leo’s parish school downtown, just blocks south of the Souris River and the giant red neon sign of the Bridgeman Creamery. Because this was also a time when my parents happened to be grassroots crusaders in the anti-ERA, anti-secular humanism textbook battles of the late 1970s, I feel a sense of déja vu to see Santorum win in North Dakota.

This is another way of saying I watch him win and feel about ten years old.

While the, em, climax of Santorum’s rise may have already passed, his quickly managed victory among North Dakota Republicans doesn’t exactly surprise me, though the success seems less related to politics than regional culture. In my limited experience, Nodaks of all persuasions seem to be  born caucusers: over “hotdish” (which you know as “casserole”) at church basement potlucks, at spelling bees and board meetings and the State Fair, at school fundraisers and Kiwanis dinners and pancake-sausage breakfasts/donut sales sponsored by Knights of Columbus. Nevermind bingo games and, in recent years, casinos.

But as polls show, Santorum isn’t doing so well everywhere. What interests me most is how much time he’s spent drawing attention to his Roman Catholicism–with what could be described as a distinctly Protestant evangelical zeal. Some have been surprised that this hasn’t exactly appealed to Catholics as voters, and much media speculation suggests that Catholic distaste for the candidate has something to do with his comments that John F. Kennedy made him want to throw up.

As a caveat, one must keep in mind James Joyce‘s joke that “Catholic” means “here comes everybody,” so the idea of a monolithic Catholic voting bloc seems laughable on that kind of scale. In my own pilgrimage away from traditional to stray Catholicism, I find that of the most visible and (clichéd) caricatures–the Savonarolan zealot and the recovering Catholic obsessed with mean nuns–both overlook profound subtleties of the struggling “other” zone.

All religions have their muddy, messy margins. But in Catholicism, with all the wrinkly theological doctrines printed out on hundreds of pages and edicts over two thousand years, anyone who self-identifies as “Catholic,” in whatever variation, positions him/herself, consciously or not, in the midst of a living tension between traditional theology and everyday survival. There’s an important paradox, as well. For all its institutional emphasis, post-Reformation, on being “the one true church,” Catholicism rejects the idea of individual “election” by God as destiny.

Thus it amuses me that Santorum seems so bent on proclaiming his elect status to represent people of faith in the public sphere. By contrast, to paraphrase essayist Richard Rodriguez: The more you’re “out” of Catholicism, the more you may feel you belong. Historically, ready disjunctions between Catholic doctrine and quotidian living have been alternately reconciled, radicalized, mystified, or even rendered as a joke. Thus “blasphemous” humor becomes its own kind of high art, prayer, or “high mass.” Think George Carlin, taught by nuns who chided him to use his sharp mind. Think Julia Sweeney, who explains her journey into atheism through her affection for deeply religious people. But consider also the literary treasures of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, whose image appears on the Mexican 200 peso note, and who took on the male church hierarchy about the sexual double standard more than three hundred years ago. Or modernist T.S. Eliot, who converted to anglo-Catholicism at least in part for the aesthetic benefits (a nod here to Seinfeld, who worried about dentists converting to Judaism for the jokes). Think about the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, priests whose badass protests against our war economy did not exactly win favor from fellows at the Vatican–or the FBI.

Santorum seems exceptional in that he is little like any real-time Catholic I have ever met. And it’s not just the sweater vests, which seem more befitting the mega-church pastor who golfs on weekends. All of the large Catholic families I have known were mostly working class folks with jobs at bakeries, in schools, on construction sites, and in their own small businesses. I’ve seen even the most ostensibly traditional parents embrace–without question or fanfare–a severely disabled infant, a pregnant daughter, a gay son. Some certainly had nostalgia for the Latin mass or First Friday novenas, but I’ve known kids whose parents were former priests and/or nuns, too. Homosexual Catholics who attended regular mass. Divorced people, convinced that they can never enjoy certain sacraments again. Priests struggling with alcoholism. Feminist nuns. And plenty of everyday parishoners horrified to realize that, in the 1950s–just as American Catholics settled into the middle class, and at the same time Kennedy made it cool to be Catholic–priests had been quietly enabled to perpetrate sexual abuse on a vast scale.

Santorum’s wife, Karen, as a young unmarried nurse, had a love affair with a divorced father of six who was also an abortion provider. Many media reports sensationalized this tale, taking delicious (and rather sexist) glee in the juicy details. But as Amanda Marcotte pointed out in Slate, the real problem lies in how the Santorums’ public pronouncements about “the right” sexual behavior and family planning choices contradict the personal journey that might have indeed led to these conclusions. By contrast, among theologians, Saint Augustine is elevated as an example of how mortal sin, even the super sexual kind, might lead to sainthood–and, thus, serve some purpose. (If it’s good enough for Augustine, why not the rest of us? Oh wait: He was a man. When he pens the details in his memoir of lusts–and an out-of-wedlock child–all en route to religious conversion, he gets some extra credit for the disclosure.)

For most of my adult life, drifting in and out of mass, perhaps with an occasional (though not very recent) visit to confession, I have been a back-of-the-church Catholic. (I’ll wager that Karen Santorum knows exactly what I’m talking about.) There are a lot of men and women back there, and this human geography is fascinating. Some people file out of the pews to receive communion, and some stay behind. Some pray with their heads in their hands. Some don’t, or won’t, kneel at the appointed moments during services. As a child, I remembered such impressions vividly no matter where I was seated with my parents. Who’s having doubts? Who doesn’t feel worthy? Who’s not “playing along”? Who wants the comfort of being connected to something bigger, but a dose of anonymity, too? Who thinks, in his heart of hearts, this whole thing might be pretty silly? Who has a serious grievance with the church–or with this priest?

This outward signal of potential conflict or disagreement underneath the rituals has both intrigued and comforted me. It didn’t feel like a crisis, exactly. It felt alive. Over time, it taught me not to assume that because people “went to church” they all thought the same, or felt the same about thinking it.

Santorum’s declamations about the evils of abortion or birth control (as “harmful to women and society”) certainly remind me of one priest I knew who included, at every mass, a prayer not for the poor, not for the lonely, but for the eradication of “immodest fashions in our land.” (The same priest visibly chummed it up with my father after he moved out of our house, offering no parallel comfort to my mother, who had taught catechism at the parish for years.) Such patriarchal obsessions may seem perfectly consistent with certain aspects of technical Catholicism, yet they call drastic attention to hypocrisy inside the practice.

I wish sometimes that Santorum would hang out with some Jesuit law professors who insisted that the only way to keep one’s “faith” from becoming a bad habit or a superstition is to subject it to repeated intellectual scrutiny.  Or with Father Andrew Greeley, who has written extensively about how the art and poetry of Catholic tradition frankly transcends doctrinal demands. Or Angela Bonavoglia, whose book Good Catholic Girls explores women’s fight to change the church, especially on matters of family, sex, and female leadership. Or Father Michael Pfleger, whose commitment to African American Catholics at a church in Chicago has occasionally upset the archbishop.

Patriarchy is highly, almost campily, visible in Catholicism, with its pageant of male leaders in glorious robes and capes. But remove the pageant and we see an organization not so dissimilar to other hierarchies or “discussion panels” we know well. The talking stick, or the erection, becomes a comical fetish, a magic wand, a legal yardstick, a microphone, and certainly a cudgel.

Those of us who know what it’s like to occupy the back row may still light candles for sick friends, or thrill (yes, duh: rather sexually) in front of Bernini’s The Ecstasy of St. Therese in Rome, or find ourselves praying a remembered prayer from childhood in times of financial stress, insomnia, grave decisions or, simply, gratitude. Somebody might be surprised to find a rosary in our purse, or a holy card of St. Francis Assisi tucked among family pictures in our wallet. They shouldn’t be surprised.

We may have something to offer those who insist, like Rick Santorum, on public protestations of certainty. For some of us in the back row, or out in the parking lot, questions are part of the gift. Doubts allow room for larger mysteries to unfold, in a way that can be difficult to explain and offensive to codify. We may indeed feel at home, in various alienated ways–alongside and even beyond the margins–though we certainly have no illusions of election.

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Jo Scott-Coe JO SCOTT-COE is the author of a memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute Books, 2010), selected by Ms. Magazine as a Great Read. Her writing on intersections of education, gender, and violence has appeared in many publications including the Los Angeles Times, Swink, Ninth Letter, Hotel Amerika, River Teeth, and Fourth Genre. She received a Pushcart Special Mention in 2009 and Notable Essay listings in Best American Essays 2009 and 2010. Her conversations with essayist Richard Rodriguez and novelist-poet Margaret Atwood have appeared in Narrative. Find Jo on Twitter, at her website, and at the Writer Ninja Podcast, now available on iTunes. She is currently at work on a new book, Tripwires and Trigger Fingers.

3 Responses to “Rhymes with Erection”

  1. marcella says:

    this essay touches a chord with me. i’m a non-practicing catholic that has lately wanted to call on my credentials of baptism, confirmation and marriage by a priest (along with a congregational minister) to provide an alternate view to Santorum’s. Thanks for expressing much of my thoughts so eloquently.

  2. Susan K says:

    I slipped out of the back pew and out the door years ago when my parish exiled an active, committed group of gay catholics called “Dignity” because they wouldn’t vow celibacy. It was the last straw of the hypocrisy I was familiar with from 16 years of catholic education. I’ve since found a church that welcomes diversity and doesn’t claim to know what God wants. I have to admire Ms Scott-Coe. who seems to have what F. Scott Fiztgerald characterized as “first-rate intelligence … the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.” Or perhaps it’s confused timidity, and an inability to let go of Daddy’s hand? At any rate, I’m very afraid of Santorum and the establishment of … what’s the equivalent of Shariah Law if you’re Christian?

  3. Suzanne says:

    This was fantastic.

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