“The thing about American Catholicism is that it both exists and doesn’t exist!” Bill McNamara blurts out these words but then seems surprised by them, as if he had happened unexpectedly upon someone from his past. He tarries a bit, reflecting.
“What do I mean by that?” he asks, now seemingly reacquainted and rightly confident that he has anticipated my next question. “I mean it exists in the sense that it’s an it, something you and I can talk about, and we can identify elements of it and so forth. But it doesn’t exist as some monolithic, unchanging thing. It’s not as if any one person understands it and lives it out the same way all the time or in quite the same way as anyone else.”
Even though Bill was among the very first people I interviewed for this book, I permitted myself an early conclusion: He knows what he is talking about. After many cups of tea and through constant interruptions by Rusty, his seal-point Siamese — whose name, like those of all of the respondents in this book, is a pseudonym — Bill’s account of his life and faith demolished the idea that American Catholicism could be “some monolithic, unchanging thing.”
Born into a working-class family in the early 1930s, Bill grew up in an almost entirely Irish section of Philadelphia. His upbringing was typical of the “urban villagers” about whom sociologist Herbert Gans once wrote so compellingly. The ethnically defined neighborhood, the modest economic means, the large family that included Bill and five younger siblings, the clearly prescribed gender roles to which his contractor father and stay-at-home mother purportedly strictly conformed, the traditional — and, in this case, traditionally Catholic — mores: Bill can recall it all in vivid, if not wistful, detail. The particulars of his religious upbringing are especially memorable to him. He attended nearby parochial schools until he was swayed by an unexpectedly generous financial aid package to enroll in a large public university, where he majored in accounting. He went to church each week without fail, and, unless serving as an altar boy for an unpopular (read: inordinately early) Mass, he was typically accompanied by his entire immediate family. This instilled in him an enduring love for the beauty of the Mass and especially its music, which he still compares favorably to the “cacophonous crap” one hears at other, mercifully unnamed parishes. One of the younger parish priests served as a “friend and kind of mentor” for Bill who could talk to him about nearly anything, including at one point his own — admittedly short-lived — thoughts of entering the seminary. And, of course, there are the stories that seem to be standard fare among Catholics of Bill’s generation. From the accounts of his mentor’s many kindnesses to the somewhat overwrought “ruler-wielding nun” tales, from now-humorous accounts of first confession trepidation (“Hell, it was scary in that little booth!”) to feelings of intense piety while accompanying Jesus along the Stations of the Cross each Friday afternoon during Lent, Bill’s world was Catholic through and through.
However, once he entered his twenties, that world came to an end. “I never had any animosity like a lot of gay Catholics who had bad experiences in school or things like that,” he confides. “I wasn’t against it, but I didn’t feel that comfortable with it anymore.” Always attracted to men, Bill first became sexually active at the age of twenty-six. Then, rather than concealing from others what he considers his “honest, true self,” he moved to San Francisco, where he got a well-paying job with an insurance company and eventually began his new life as an openly gay man.
He closed the door on his Catholicism slowly at first, then finally slammed it shut. This age-old tradition seemed incongruous with his new city and job, new friends, and, after ten years or so, a relationship and then a newfound level of intimacy with Daniel, his partner for eighteen years. Daniel attended weekly Mass at Most Holy Redeemer church in the city’s burgeoning gay enclave, the Castro District. But he went a bit less often when he and Bill bought a house together across the bay in the Oakland Hills. Bill, on the other hand, preferred to sleep late most Sundays.
Everything changed when Daniel contracted AIDS, and Bill became his primary care provider. This tragedy brought Bill agonizing stress and heartache, but it also introduced him to a face of Catholicism that he had not previously known.
The AIDS Support Group at Most Holy Redeemer sent volunteers to help tend to Daniel’s health and personal needs, which, toward the end of his life, required daily visits. Even in his grief, Bill was impressed by these people’s witness to their — and once his — faith. This was not the intolerably dogmatic “Churchianity” that had come to seem ossified and irrelevant to him. Nor, of course, was this the vicious “God hates fags” message he had heard while doing some church shopping before moving from Philadelphia. He found this open-hearted and open-minded incarnation of the faith to be very alluring. So much so, in fact, that Bill began attending Mass at Most Holy Redeemer not long after Daniel’s death and soon became an active member of first the AIDS Support Group and then the parish itself.
Bill’s story might appear to fit the familiar “lapsed Catholic returns to Mother Church” mold, but Bill has not returned to anything; he has begun something new.
On the one hand, he is quite the unabashed Catholic: “I love the traditions, and I love the mystery; I think it’s a very, very, very rich religion.” On the other hand, though, he is adamant about his freedom, even obligation, to mine those riches on his own terms and in accordance with his own needs. He has chosen to be a member of Most Holy Redeemer across the San Francisco Bay rather than of his own neighborhood parish, which he considers less “open and affirming” to gay Catholics. He respects priests enormously (although he is less generous in his assessment of bishops), but he is also a strong advocate for the laity’s role in both pastoral ministry and parish governance.
He is a “greeter” at the main (10 a.m.) Mass on Sundays and has sponsored several Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) candidates. At the same time, he bristles at the thought of being presumptuous enough to even talk to others about faith in a way that might be perceived as inappropriately pushy. He calls himself a “very strong Catholic” but, without hint of apology, eagerly embraces the pejoratively intended moniker “cafeteria Catholic” as a testament to his own religious agency and capacity for discernment. In short, Bill has begun something new as a Catholic in response to developments in his personal life and because he has lived through a period in which the American church itself has witnessed important social and cultural changes. As a result, it has also begun something quite innovative.