Editor’s Note: The piece is the second in a five-part series. The first can be found here.
I have been wandering in the desert for so long that I’m not sure where a search for faith should begin. The possibilities seem dauntingly numerous. Should it begin with the wise men of letters — with those famously persuasive witnesses named Belloc and Chesterton and Lewis and such like? Should it begin with the brand-name leaders of institutional religion, in either their homespun or elaborately costumed iterations? Should it begin with the sacred texts of Scripture that have stood the millennial test of time? Should it begin by just looking around, with a window-shopping tour of the houses of worship currently on offer? Or, as long as I’m up and around anyway, should it begin by engaging seriously if not literally with the pamphleteers prospecting at my front door?
My undisciplined answer in recent months has been, as students of the reserved New England personality could have predicted, all of the above. I started by spreading the word round my personal and professional circles that, as I now intended to commence an inquiry of faith, spiritual guidance would be welcome and tales of inspiration would be especially well received. The response has been immediate, torrential, and quite beyond my capacity to absorb. Friends and associates have been crowding in, pressing tracts into my hands, inviting me on “journeys” in bewildering variety, warning me against false prophets (who, it appears, are swarming in ominous numbers), pointing me in the direction of epiphanic possibility. One well-intentioned neighbor insisted that I join him on a tour of the Holy Land where I could “walk in the steps of Christ.” (Whoa. Now I’m intimidated. I’m not ready to walk in the steps of Joel Osteen.) Over these past few months I have been the recipient of copious amounts of instruction, uplift, and prayerful concern, and for all of those good intentions, I have advanced not a single step closer to God.
But I may not be as dumb as I look. Perhaps, just perhaps, I thought, the place to begin is at the beginning. And so I think back to the last fully satisfying religious experience of my life. It had to be that day, soft and sunny, and now more than a half-century past, when I married Miss Jane in a small church in upstate New York. It was a Catholic church and I was, accordingly, present under some duress. After extensive negotiations with the small-town priest, a genial and wily fellow who in the movie version of his life could have been played appositely by Bing Crosby, I now confess that I traded away the religious freedom of my own children. My only defense is that it seemed like a good deal at the time: Miss Jane was present and gloriously nubile, while the children were absent and wholly theoretical. Time would tell a different story, of course, as Miss Jane began to bear Catholic children with impressive regularity.
I mentioned that bit of wedding-day duress. My adoring grandmother, then still resident in the old Moody farmhouse raised in 1690, declined to attend our wedding ceremony. More to the point, she instructed me sotto voce not to send announcements to anybody she knew, lest word spread through northern New England that her favorite grandson was marrying a Catholic. My grandmother had taken an immediate shine to Miss Jane, and as the daughter of outspoken abolitionists, Edna Moody Neal was a determined foe of bigotry in most of its ugly forms. But for a woman set firmly in her ways at (approximately) 90 years of age — in a moment of uncharacteristic vanity, she had erased all documentation of her birth, and then willfully forgot the details — my wedding was simply a covered bridge too far. Even into the middle years of the 20th century, as my grandmother and her sister would recall colorfully for us young ’uns, every old Maine family nursed dark tales from the French and Indian War. These tales no doubt hardened in the telling over the years and, by the time they reached my ears, native Americans never — never — appeared as noble savages or as friendly neighbors or as dimwitted trading partners or even as oppressed minorities. They appeared exclusively as pillagers and scalpers and kidnappers. In some ways even worse, under the malign influence of their French masters, they appeared as Catholics. Dreaded Catholics.
It was thus bowed under the considerable weight of family baggage that I accompanied Miss Jane on an exploratory visit to her local church. She couldn’t have been more pleased. Raised in a fervently religious family, the proud alumna of a convent school, the star lector at her parish, the most diligent student in her Bible-study group, and the mother and grandmother of numerous conscripts into the legions of Rome, Miss Jane is in important respects more Catholic than the Pope (who in his pastoral concerns, to be no more than reportorial, seems to be an elaborately costumed version of Nancy Pelosi). Miss Jane is also the most faithful woman I know. And I intend that term not just in the marital sense, for which I am most grateful, but in the literal sense. She is full of faith, so much so that when she departs this world she expects with unshakeable confidence to enter the next and better world after no more than minimal administrative delay. The old hymn had it right. Miss Jane is a Christian soldier, marching onward.
Despite my high hopes, and Miss Jane’s even higher hopes, our first visit did not go well. I made a rookie mistake and sat way back in some kind of an acoustical black hole. (The star lector sat up front with the elaborately costumed officiants.) The presiding priest was a short, dark man who, thanks presumably to a few years of German education, transposed his v’s and w’s in a particularly offputting manner. Given the hall’s public-address problems, compounded by the teutonic dipsy-doodle, I didn’t understand a single word he said. Not one. And Miss Jane and I didn’t have much to talk about on the way home.
The following Sunday, overcompensating, I sat with the star lector in the front row, no more than ten feet from the priest, whom I now recognized as an Indian of the subcontinental variety. At one point in the homily, he looked directly into my eyes and asked imploringly, “Would you like to renew your marital wows?” I shrugged my lack of interest. I guess all of us who’ve been married a half-century could use a few extra kilowatts in the marital bed chamber, but I wasn’t looking for dating advice, thank you very much, dispensed in a singsong voice by a diminutive celibate. Miss Jane, sensing a communication unconsummated, leaned over and whispered, “He asked if you’d like to renew your marital vows.” Oh, is that it? Now, I’m offended. Why would I want to do that? I meant those vows the first time. Again, there was not much to talk about on the way home.
In the established manner of New England eccentrics, a habit that has left the rest of the country uncharmed for centuries, I then began to talk to myself. The conversation went something like this. First, I reviewed the mental file labeled “Rome.” Yes, as a philosophical proposition, I have long favored the general notion of the mediating structure. But no, it would be difficult to embrace unreservedly any mediating structure that could conceive a program as morally deranged as the Inquisition. Yes, I find much to admire in the principle of subsidiarity. But no, that so-called bedrock principle had been discarded too casually whenever a Crusade promised the raw satisfactions of blood and soil. Yes, I resonated approvingly to both halves of the First Amendment guarantees on the separation of church and state. But no, when Constantine converted to Christianity, the Roman state began to crush the pagan religions of most of his imperial subjects and all of his imperial predecessors. Yes, I was much impressed with Rome’s unflinching opposition to Communist ambition. But no, Rome’s performance in the sex scandals of the priesthood had been unacceptable by any measure. And so it went, back and forth.
That last matter weighed heavily in the balance. I remember dining back in the Eighties with a prominent Catholic theologian. You would know his name. He seemed troubled and wanted to talk. Over a two-hour, no-martini lunch, he told me in excruciating detail about the problems with the seminaries, the problems with the urban parishes, the problems with the hierarchy itself. In his telling, homosexual predation was everywhere. I felt his pain and responded, inadequately, with an incisive glimpse into the obvious: “You’ve got to call them out. You have the platform and the credibility. These problems never solve themselves. They only get worse.” My dining companion was, I thought then and continue to think today, a basically honorable man. But he found himself up against a mediating structure that is universal and apostolic and damn-near impregnable. He did not call them out. And the problems, as you may have read, did not solve themselves.
For me at least, and for now at least, all roads do not seem to lead to Rome. This much I think I know: I don’t want a mediating structure getting between me and my God. I must be some kind of a Protestant.
Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.