Last night I started reading Heather King's Redeemed, her conversion story, which picks up after Parched, the chronicle of her spiral into and final escape from alcoholism. (I read Parched a couple weeks ago and greatly enjoyed it, if that's the right term for a brilliantly written if at times harrowing memoir.)
One of the things that struck me in reading King's account of her conversion is the way in which she describes coming to understand and agree with Catholic moral teaching. She describes how during her time as an alcoholic she had engaged in increasingly promiscuous sex (until her drinking became so single-minded that even sex would have got in the way), taken birth control, had multiple abortions, etc., and how as she was drawn to the Church she came to see how empty and destructive these had been, and how true the Catholic understanding of these topics now seemed to her.
Drama always centers around change, and reading about Heather King's change on these topics both rings true and makes for dramatic reading. Yet it was also striking me how alien this line of discovery was to my own experience growing into an adult Catholic moral sense (something which still requires a certain kind of conversion, or at least adoption.) Both because of her own years away from any kind of religious belief, and perhaps also because she's describing her experience for an audience which is not specifically religious (Redeemed is out from Viking Press), King's growing understanding of morality during her adult conversion is very different from the experience I look back on as I grew from a youthful understanding to an adult one while living within the Catholic sub-culture.
Like most children brought up with a strong moral code, my earliest sense of morality was strictly one of heroes and villains. Bad things were done by bad people, and good people, nice people that you knew, clearly didn't do bad things.
Such illusions cannot last long, and so the next stage was a tribal one. People like us -- people who were Catholic and went to mass and believed in God and such, followed a moral code, and while all people sin, and so one could expect the petty lies and meannesses and betrayals as much in one's on circle as elsewhere, there we things we just didn't do unless we did so in total rejection of all that was good and right. People who did not belong to the tribe, of course, did not know or accept these rules. Those people might join gangs or do drugs or sleep around, but that was because, not being in the tribe, they didn't know (or rejected) what was right.
With a comparatively sedate set of close friends, this kind of illusion can last a long time, but when someone who is "of the tribe" strays, the sense of shock is extreme. How could someone who was one of us and knew it was wrong be so depraved as to sleep around? How could our people have a marriage fall apart? Or get involved in drugs? Or stop going to church?
When your sense of morality is still heavily tribal, the first few times a long-time friend violates the stronger prohibitions of that code the sense of betrayal is extreme. If "people like us" don't do those things, then clearly that friend is rejecting everything you are (and thought he was too) or he was never who you thought he was in the first place.
For me, the maturing process was coming to understand in a human, rather than an intellectual, sense the varying levels of culpability that exist, not only "outside" but within one's own tribe. And seeing that even those "following the rules" often understand them rather poorly.
While for those coming to the Church from unbelief, the difficulty may, at times, be coming to see certain acts (even those as seemingly understandable as using birth control or having sex with the person you love) can be objectively wrong in and of themselves; for those of us who grow up with "the rules" the difficulty is often going beyond understanding the difference between act and culpability to actually internalizing it. Most certainly, some acts are themselves more grave sins than others, and these should be recognized and avoided. But when the great saints accuse themselves of being horrible sinners, this is not merely a matter of excess scrupulosity. The variance in culpability is so great, that there can be those who have committed nearly "every sin in the book" who retain a certain purity of heart, and yearn for God (or, at least, The Good as they know it) while others who externally avoid all major sins can harbor a pride or hate which is no less for being expressed in petty ways rather than epic ones.
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