Brendan O’Neill

Losing their religion

Brendan O’Neill says that Lapsed, or Recovering, Catholics are wallowing in their victim status now that a traditionalist has been elected Pope

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Brendan O’Neill says that Lapsed, or Recovering, Catholics are wallowing in their victim status now that a traditionalist has been elected Pope

Lapsed Catholics are sorely disappointed that the 265th Pope of Rome, Benedict XVI, is — shock, horror — a strict Roman Catholic. The 20 million lapsed Catholics in America had hoped, according to an Ohio-based newspaper, that the Church would become a ‘friendlier place’ after the demise of John Paul II, and coax ‘hurt, angry and lapsed Catholics’ like themselves back into the pews. Lapsed Catholics in Britain also prayed for a new happy-clappy era under a less dogmatic Pope, who might, a friend of mine hoped, ‘bend some of the old rules’. Perhaps they wanted the Dalai Lama in the top job, or Oprah Winfrey — isn’t it time we had a black woman for Pope? Instead we got Papa Ratzi, and the lapsed have gone into a sulk.

But I have a question for Benedict XVI, should he be reading this: do you really want this lapsed lot — an irritating bunch who have all but set up their own breakaway religion anyway — back in your gang?

Lapsed Catholics get on my wick. In my experience, they bang on about Catholicism — how it moulded them or damaged them or made them into sexual inadequates or guilt-ridden masturbators — far more than practising Catholics do. Many of the observant seem sensibly to have abandoned hope that we heathens might be converted to the One True Path, and thus tend to keep their religion to themselves. But if you have the misfortune to be plonked next to one of the lapsed at a dinner party, there’s a very good chance he will bore you comatose with tales of his time in the bosom of the wicked Mother Church.

I don’t mean ex-Catholics. I am one of them. By an accident of birth I was raised in a Catholic family, attended Catholic schools from ages four to 18 (and before that a nursery run by nuns) and served as an acolyte at a Catholic altar in my boyhood. Yet now I am an atheist. The only occasions I set foot in a Catholic church these days are to witness the union of two friends or to bid adieu to a relative who has croaked (and sometimes when my mother pleads with me — ‘for the sake of the baby Jesus, Brendan!’ — to show my face on Christmas Day). I have never bought into the idea that ‘Once a Catholic, always a Catholic’; I may have been born, baptised, schooled and confirmed one, but I am no more a Catholic now than I am a Tibetan Buddhist.

No, I refer to those who quite deliberately, and with more than a little pride, label themselves Lapsed Catholics (note the capitalisation); to those who carve a knowing identity from their post-Catholicism. There are thousands of them (they are positively omnipresent in the world of journalism) inhabiting a kind of purgatory between Catholicism and atheism: they are disillusioned with, or simply bored by, the Church but seem to lack the wherewithal fully to sever their links with it. And they lug around far more baggage — in the Oprah sense of that word — than the faithful do. You could say that Lapsed Catholicism is one of the few growing religions of sorts, and it expresses the mealy-mouthed prejudices of our age far more succinctly than ever the old religions could.

Lapsed Catholics take a weedy default position, arrived at usually by accident, and often slothfully. No revelatory moment or transformation is required to join the Lapsed; unlike becoming an atheist, it demands no inner thought about the meaning of life or leap from one belief system to another. That is clear from the word ‘lapsed’, which means to come to an end, especially gradually or temporarily, and which is also used, fittingly perhaps, to describe one who has slowly slipped into a coma. The Lapsed Catholic has merely drifted from the Church, out of boredom with the sermons or a desire to sleep in on a Sunday morning rather than as a consequence of some sleepless battle over doctrine or truth. Patrick, a Lapsed Catholic for the past 10 years, says he found ‘better things to do on a Sunday; even shopping became an option’. First and foremost, to be a Lapsed Catholic is to make a virtue of being a lazy git.

Of course, some of them will invent a grand battle over a ‘matter of conscience’ to make their slippage seem more sexy and profound than it is. As Father Hal Stocker, a Byzantine parish priest from New York, wrote in a short, witty piss-take of the Lapsed for the website, entitled ‘How to Become a Lapsed Catholic Quickly and Easily’: ‘Have an ideological fight with the Church. Pick out a ruling and find something wrong with it — pick a fight ... Tell [your priest] why you can no longer be a practising Catholic ...and then tell friends at cocktail parties, people on street corners ... and clerks at checkout counters.’ It would never do to come across as an aimless drifter, so the Lapsed select a justification for their Lapsing from a seemingly set list, taking issue with the Church’s stance on abortion or contraception, or attacking the Vatican’s hoarding of riches, or making banal statements such as ‘I believe Jesus was a good bloke, but I don’t think he had magical powers and stuff.’ They then proclaim these doctrines of the Lapsed to anybody who will listen, almost evangelically (hence those dinner-party ear-bashings) and suddenly their religious listlessness appears as an honourable stance.

Worse, to be a Lapsed Catholic is to wallow in today’s victim culture. In its most extreme form it is informed by the backward belief that we can never truly overcome the ‘damage’ done to us in childhood (and some of the Lapsed seem seriously to think that there’s nothing more damaging to a child than dressing him in his Sunday best and making him sit in a pew for an hour or two). I have heard Lapsed Catholics complain that they are not very good at relationships because of what some priest said 20 years ago about sex being dirty; that they feel guilty about everything (especially masturbation) because of a telling-off they got in a confession box when they were 12. A friend of mine, every time he splits up with a girlfriend, says the same thing to me over a consolatory pint or five: ‘It’s the Catholic in me, it always screws things up.’

Here, the Lapsed disavow responsibility for their adult lives and loves, and blame the difficulties they encounter on having been raised a Catholic. This, of course, is the cop-out de coeur of our therapeutic times: ‘Don’t blame me, guv, it was my demons wot made me do it!’ Indeed, some go so far as to describe themselves as ‘recovering Catholics’ and there are websites to aid their recovery. One says, ‘I use the term “recovering Catholic” to describe myself because, like alcoholism, Catholicism is something that’s always part of you even after you separate yourself from it.’ Catholicism, it seems, is less a religion that one subscribes to or renounces than a sickness that infects us for life, a recurring virus that can apparently stop us from developing fully as sensible adults. The Lapsed and Recovering are not as radical as they think. They have drifted from one religion only to take up with another — today’s oversubscribed Church of ‘Blame Someone Else!’, whose doctrines include: avoid responsibility for screw-ups; always be in a state of ‘recovery’ from something or other; and have a generally low opinion of yourself and everyone else.

At least the Catholic Church ascribes to us a kind of free will (while simultaneously undermining it by making God the final arbiter of our destinies). The Church of the Lapsed and Recovering Catholic, by contrast, follows today’s fashion of dispensing with free will altogether and allowing ourselves to be defined (or at least excused) by the god of past experiences. As a full-on atheist I never thought I’d say it, but sit me next to a fanatical believer rather than one of these moaning minnies any day of the week.

Brendan O’Neill is deputy editor of spiked (