Last week, my wife and I baptized our daughter at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Petaluma. The ceremony was quick, straightforward, and surprisingly modern in its theological focus. Our respective families gathered for picture followed by dinner together. As this faith is not my own, the process gave me ample time to contemplate the role an institution like the church may play in a secular household and the complexities raising a multicultural child.
I am not a Christian. Even when I dabbled in the belief, I could never believe the core precepts of the faith. Christianity seemed like a foreign religion that was forged by a community under specific historical conditions that was far from my own. While my affinity towards European pagan beliefs has intensified, I could never consider myself a true follower of this cobbled faith either. Perhaps I have simply been programed a rationalist from inception.
My wife’s family migrated to the United States from Mexico. Like many Mexicans, they practice the Roman Catholic variety of Christianity to a nominal degree. While they don’t expect their offspring to attend mass regularly or reference pontiff proclamations, the communal aspects of the faith were an implied expectation that we obliged.
I wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming to the baptistery. While my issues with the Catholic Church are numerous, the older I get, the more I am looking for a connection to my people’s past that goes beyond American exercises. A longing for authority that transcended electoral politics is something I cannot escape unfortunately, and so I began to see some benefits to having my daughter nominally brought up Catholic. Even an imperfect order was superior to the consumerism that acts as the default faith of America.
It didn’t hurt that the church in Petaluma is beautiful. Anyone who has seen the great cathedrals of Europe can attest to the brilliance and wonderment these structures instill in those present within them. Protestants have historically condemned the domineering showiness of these Catholic visages, arguing that they replaced the meaning of the Christian faith with material grandeur. As a non-believer, I would rather sit in a striking basilica over the florescent strip mall styled protestant gathering places I grew up with.
While the act of baptism is laced with religious symbolism, once I looked past the decrees made by the priest, the ceremony is essentially quite beautiful. Two extended families gathered to authorize that they were responsible for the well being of this baby girl. It was not the exclusive role of her parents to guide her, but a family and the community around them. This is hardly a revolutionary or exclusively Catholic aim, but to confirm this communal goal through ceremony makes those bonds feel more material than the implicit expectation of community practiced elsewhere. We all made a public confirmation of unity in the service of this child.
I have sympathy with ardent Christians who fear the watering down of their practices to meet the demands of the modern world. At what point does Christianity simply become a theological version of Americanism? When one can adopt any element of the church and reject those they disfavor, it undermines any theological and historical congruity, leaving the flock with an obvious question: why follow the faith at all?
As a non-believer, I am ill fitted to answer that question. If nothing else, it may be a conduit for the overt acts of community that have been generally degraded in our modern capitalist society.
(Image: St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Petaluma)