I have a very hard time articulating why I’m (still) Catholic. It’s a question that other people ask me not infrequently – it’s a “do you mind if I ask you a question?” question, an inexplicable part of myself that does not seem to vibe with my weirdo androgynous socialist persona – but nowhere near as often as I ask myself. The Church has committed legions of crimes, and besides, preaches lots of things I don’t believe – that I find positively repugnant, particularly when it comes to teachings around gender and sexuality. Of course gay people should be allowed get married; of course trans people are the gender they say they are; of course women should be ordained as priests. Traditionalist Catholics and the non-religious alike are quick to write off my Catholicism as more or less bullshit: maybe it’s a lie I tell to please my parents, maybe it’s a lie I tell to please myself, a pathetic refusal to admit that all it amounts to is a cultural affiliation. But it’s not bullshit, I know it’s not. I’ve tried not being Catholic, but it’s something I can’t shake, something deep down in the bones of me.
The only answer to the question of why that feels like the full truth is a tautology: I’m Catholic because I am Catholic. My religious feelings – that seem to resonate right in my core, that seem as real as any part of me – are so hard to articulate, even to myself, that I don’t know how to even begin to express them to someone else. And so the best I can do is a kind of scrapbook religion, pointing to other people’s articulations in the hope that a collage of all of them will make me understood: Franny and Zooey and how everyone is Christ; Leo Tolstoy and the Christian imperative of nonviolence; how deeply, impossibly I believe that ‘Anarchy, My Dear’ by Say Anything is a hymn. Most of the best and brightest entries in my scrapbook, the ones that set my heart on fire, are Catholic – more or less. Liberation theology, St. Francis, St. Joan of Arc, St. Oscar Romero, The Exorcist and The Omen, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Brighton Rock, Gerard Way scrawling Catholic across his neck and his arm, Dogma, The Blues Brothers, stained glass windows and Gregorian chanting and what Stewart Lee once described as Catholicism’s love of inane seaside tat. Hitchcock for guilt, Ford for redemption, Rossellini for saints. That I think making fun of transubstantiation is hack when it is so much funnier to make fun of consubstantiation. My favourite director is Martin Scorsese, and a big reason is that no artist’s work has ever resonated quite so strongly with the religious part of my heart: felt Catholic in all the ways that I am Catholic, saturated in everything from The Last Temptation of Christ down to his most secular-seeming genre pictures.
Lady Bird is so many things that I love, like it’s a film made just for me. It follows Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) – who wants everyone to call her Lady Bird – in her senior year at a Catholic girls’ school in 2002-03, as she deals with her relationship with her well-meaning, burned-out mother, her unemployed, depressed dad, turbulent teenage friendships and two love interests. I love teen movies, and Lady Bird wears John Hughes’s influence on its sleeve – but unlike most modern teen movies, it doesn’t scrub away that class conflict that was so central to Hughes’s work. Lady Bird, like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink, literally lives on the wrong side of the tracks. It’s got great dialogue, both extremely funny and always realistic, and wall-to-wall excellent performances, particularly Ronan as Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf as Marion, her mother. Greta Gerwig said she wanted the film to be really specific because that is how you get at the universal, and so it is that Lady Bird feels like a film about me even though our lives were radically different. I had bad acne and dyed red hair and had almost word-for-word the same arguments with my mam, sure, but mostly, I connect with the way Lady Bird talks about Sacramento – the hometown you hate so much and can’t wait to escape until it’s time to leave – with growing up in the shadow of the Iraq War – I’m a lot younger than Lady Bird, but it still feels like a defining thing for me, like I think it does for most millennials – and more than anything, with its Catholicism. The details are different, but it feels like what it felt like, to me, to grow up Catholic. Lady Bird slides so neatly into my scrapbook, into the small, ordinary gaps.
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