Notes from a Not-Quite-Lapsed Catholic on Fat Tuesday

So, hi. I’m Hattie, I was raised Catholic, and I still kinda am Catholic. I’m also a liberal Democrat. I’ll wait for the excessive gasping and swooning to subside. (Ophelia, fetch the smelling salts!) Being a liberal Catholic doesn’t involve quite as much cognitive dissonance as you may think. At least, not any more than most of us have as we carry out our lives. Who among us, liberal, conservative or somewhere in between, agrees with everything our respective governments do? And yet you still live in that country for reasons both frivolous and profound, but perhaps most of all because it’s your home.

Anyway, before I go too far down that particular rabbit hole (though I’d be happy to discuss in the comments!), the point of this post: today is Fat Tuesday. Many cultures have celebrations with different names, like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Carnival. While in the U.S. it’s associated with the bead-throwing, breast-baring revelry that takes place in New Orleans, there are various festivals that take around the world. The original purpose of these celebrations was essentially to get your gluttony on before the fasting and atonement of Lent, which begins tomorrow on Ash Wednesday.

Lent is generally a time for penance, self-denial and charitable giving. Even if your life and upbringing hasn’t been Catholic or Christian, you’re probably familiar with the idea of “giving something up for Lent.” If not, check out, which has an entire section of cards mocking Lent. I’m not saying go there and be offended; those cards are actually pretty funny. This one is my favorite. The idea of Lent is to perform various forms of self-sacrifice, and giving something up is only one part of it.

As I said, Ash Wednesday is the kickoff, and “Good Catholics” are supposed to go to church, meditate on the fact that they’re going to die, and get symbolic ashes applied to their foreheads in the shape of a cross.  I have a friend who refers to Ash Wednesday as Catholic Identification Day, and deservedly so. Many Catholics (and applicable Protestants) who walk into church on Ash Wednesday for the first time since Christmas to get ashes are perhaps a little disingenuous about their pursuit of their faith.

Chocolate bar
I won't be having any of this for 40 days.

In truth, year after year I’ve found that the sermon at Ash Wednesday mass addresses this very issue. It’s kind of funny, the priest is always like “Hey guys, where are you the rest of the year? Who do you think you’re fooling?” He’ll speak of the person who goes to church and makes a big deal about the fact that they’re there, versus the person who devoutly prays in the privacy of their own home or heart.

I guess that kind of touches on my own relationship with my Catholicism. Not to say that I’ve never hurt my brain performing the mental acrobatics necessary to be at peace with my faith, but it generally works for me. I’ve decided that I’m responsible for my own practice of my religion. If I consider myself Catholic ““ if being Catholic is an important part of my life ““ that transcends anyone’s ability to deny it. I know that I believe in my religion, and as far as I’m concerned, the fact that I reject some of the Church’s teachings doesn’t make me a Bad Catholic or worse, not Catholic at all.

Also, have to admit that getting ashes on Ash Wednesday does result in the unique experience of walking around with essentially a big neon HI I’M CATHOLIC sign on your forehead. Unlike in some other religions, there’s generally nothing in the course of your day-to-day life as a Catholic or Christian to identify you as such. Sure, you could wear a cross necklace or what have you, but that’s about it. It’s kind of a weird feeling to get stared at on public transit, and you can see people’s minds working through it: “Oh, that girl has something on her forehead “¦ should I tell her about it? “¦ Wait, isn’t today that day all the Catholics put dirt on their heads? … Why do they do that anyway? … Maybe I’ll look it up on my phone once we’re out of the tunnel.”

So yeah, tomorrow I plan to go to church, set that neon sign in its rightful place, and get to sacrificin’. I’m giving up chocolate as my superficial sacrifice, and I have some other more personal plans as well. As long as I can remember to do so, I’ll avoid meat and gluttony on the appropriate days. It’s not just for show, either. I do it every year and I see it as an opportunity to try and get closer with a sometimes-tricky part of myself. And that’s what matters to me.

11 replies on “Notes from a Not-Quite-Lapsed Catholic on Fat Tuesday”

It’s funny, I grew up Catholic (and went to Catholic school Pre-K through my Jesuit college) in a city with a huge Catholic population. The “old” ethnic groups in the city are primarily Polish, Irish, and Italian, so it’s not at all odd to see people with ashes on their forehead all over the place. Until I moved away for graduate school, I never really considered that the default religion being Catholic was a weird thing.

I’m not Catholic anymore, but now I’m the odd one out.

Thanks for this post. I pretty much identify as a partially-lapsed liberal Catholic myself and it’s been difficult to come to a reconciliation within that identity, but I think this sums it up really well: “If I consider myself Catholic – if being Catholic is an important part of my life – that transcends anyone’s ability to deny it.”

I’m going to try during Lent to really examine my biases and habits of mind, and “give up” the negative ones.

This is a great reflection on what it means to be Catholic and a social liberal.

Mr. Blue is an agnostic and can’t for the life of him understand why I cling to a faith that has so much that we disagree with.

I keep practicing because it’s important to me, because I believe in the God-given rules, if not the ones the popes made up about hating the gays and never using condoms and other stupid things (sigh). The beautiful rituals, the stories and the beauty of God, and the strength I found in that were a major part of my upbringing and helped me become who I am. But because of that tension I abandoned my faith for some time–and I have felt deeply that there was something missing.
So I’m going to use Lent as a time to come back to that. I’m looking forward to it.

I’m a liberal democrat Catholic as well. There used to be an absolutely fantastic priest in our church who seems to have informed a lot of my belief structure.

During the election cycle when John Kerry was denied communion by his bishop because of his votes on abortion? That priest stood up and gave his homily on the meaning of the Eucharist and why it was such an important sacrament that the bishop should not abuse for political purposes. He also made the distinction between what Kerry may believe personally and what he may vote for because it’s in the best interest of the country. Shortly after that he was moved to a different church because some of the older parishioners complained.

There was another priest who served at my church when I was really little. He had been a chaplain in the military during Vietnam and was fantastic! He always started the sermon with “It’s 7:30 and you are loved.” He always ended the sermon by reminding us that even though the mass was ending the meaning of the mass was just beginning (ie – don’t forget everything you believe just because you go out the church doors). This was a priest who (very unofficially) officiated at a gay couple’s commitment ceremony!

Hm, I guess I just wanted to share some of what helps me keep my faith in my faith. I’ve seen a lot of news recently and I generally want to strangle the pope and a selection of bishops and priests, so I find it reassuring that priests like these two still exist.

Oh it’s good to know I am in good, conflicted Catholic company today. I do so agree with highjustice in the more social justice please and the no-thank you to the homophobia.

So we’ll be at Mass tomorrow. The past few (10?15?20?) yrs I haven’t done a superficial sacrifice, mostly due to lack of willpower. I try to make some sort of reflection or improvement instead. Some years it goes better than others.

I’ll do the same thing. But I’ll be giving up elevators. (Yeah, think about that suckfest. All stairs, all the time. I will be avoiding anything higher than 5 floors up.)

And I’ll feel a little hypocritical about it. But Lent is the one time of year I’m a little less lapsed. So I figure it’s good for something. I use these 40 days to think outside of myself, to suffer a little. Not for the Church, for Christ’s sake, but for the world at large.

As for the conflict of being a liberal Democrat and a Catholic? I honestly feel like they aren’t as juxtaposed as they might seem at the outset. Some of the Church’s actual teachings (and not pontificate bs) are in line with what I think. The stuff about caring for the poor and those in your community, about the death penalty, about quality education for all, about sacrificing to a cause greater than yourself, those I can get behind.

(Even though the reproductive rights stance nearly makes null and void any single other good thing they teach.)

I am also a Catholic and a liberal Democrat. Sometimes I call myself a ‘cafeteria Catholic’ a term I first heard at my super liberal Catholic college. Extra helpings of social justice, no thanks to homophobia.

Anyway! The truly important question: do you break your fasts on Sundays? Because you’re not supposed to fast on Sunday! There have definitely been a couple of times when I’ve been that person eating ice cream/drinking soda at midnight. Usually though, I won’t break my fast. I think this year I might resolve to do something like exercise or apply for jobs.

This is beautiful. And the Lent cards are too funny! I’m not
Catholic though I am Anglican so it sometimes amounts to kind of the same thing? Sometimes
either way. for Lent I’m going to try to live in the tension of “giving up” and “taking on”. I’m hoping to live as monastically as I can given my schedule – to give up luxuries and food that doesn’t come from the earth… basically to live as ascetically as I can. it should be interesting…

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