The Nation's Pulse

My Kingdom for the Pill

Must American Catholics behave like spoiled children?

By 4.27.05

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A certain figure has been looming unexpectedly in my mind over the last month. The adverb "unexpectedly" is the key -- it could not refer to the Holy Father, whose passing gripped the Church and the rest of the world. Pope John Paul II, may he rest in peace.

Rather, the figure that plagues me was provoked by something quite removed from the Pope: whining. And that figure? Veruca Salt. There isn't a person in my generation who hasn't seen "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory." Since the classic is soon to be remade (like all classics), I'm sure another generation will be made familiar with Miss (or Ms.? She might like that) Salt. For the reader who does not know this young lady, I'll make introductions.

While I regrettably have not read the book, I have seen the movie more times that I can count. Forgive me if I unwittingly diverge from Roald Dahl's text! Veruca Salt is one of the youths who wins a tour of Willy Wonka's candy factory. In this strange morality tale, almost every child (and accompanying parent) who wins the contest displays some kind of vice: one boy is obsessed with TV; a girl incessantly chews gum. All are spoiled, and each meets his bizarre demise. But Veruca, at least in my mind, is the most spoiled of all. The child of wealthy, pushover parents, she whines incessantly and throws violent tantrums. When told that she cannot have any of Willy Wonka's golden geese (which, of course, lay golden eggs), she screeches:

Veruca Salt: Gooses! Geeses! I want my geese to lay gold eggs for Easter.

Mr. Salt: It will, sweetheart.

Veruca: At least a hundred a day.

Mr.Salt: Anything you say.

Veruca: And by the way.

Mr. Salt: What?

Veruca: I want a feast.

Mr. Salt: You ate before you came to the factory.

Veruca: I want a bean feast!

Mr. Salt: Oh, one of those.

Veruca: Cream buns and doughnuts and fruitcake with no nuts, so good you could go nuts.

Mr. Salt: You can have all those things when you get home!

Veruca: No, now!!... I want today, I want tomorrow, I want to wear 'em like braids in my hair, and I don't want to share 'em. I want a party with room fulls of laughter, ten thousand tons of ice cream, and if I don't get the things I am after. I'm going to scream! I want the works, I want the whole works, presents and prizes and sweets and surprises of all shapes and sizes, and now! Don't care how, I want it now!*

What in the wide world could possibly remind me of whining, and of dear Veruca, and of those lovely lyrics? I happened to watch the coverage of the Holy Father's death, which included much commentary. Some praised his charisma; others, his love of fellow man. Then there were those who would form their brows into a tragic crinkle, utter a sigh, and lament the fact that the Pope was out of touch with American Catholics. So right-wing! So divisive, with iron fist firmly grasped! This was usually followed with the "wise-up" argument, which went something like this: "you know, most American Catholics don't even follow the Church's teaching on birth control/divorce/premarital sex. We need someone who will move us into the 21st century."

In light of these kinds of laments, I can easily make a broad, extreme, and uncomfortable statement. American Catholics are the most spoiled Catholics on the planet. A Catholic in Baghdad just hopes that his church won't be bombed this Sunday; Sudanese Catholics hope that they can face another day without brutal, unspeakable religious persecution. In many of the dioceses of the world, a roof on the church or running water would be nice. And we, in all of our prosperity, want more ease. We can go to church when we like, say what we like, do what we like. We want, if it's even possible in this world, an easier life, a life less uncomfortable, and one that doesn't involve explaining "arcane" doctrines to non-believers. The idea of prosperous people sliding into laziness and insolence is not unheard of in history. The real outrage is that it is happening to a people who has received teachings that extol sacrifice, humility, fidelity, and love of the helpless and lowly. The excuse "But Zeus does it, too" won't work for us.

And what is so wonderful about this century that we should gleefully embrace it, as so many golden geese? School shootings? Or perhaps large doses of anti-depressants? Exploitation of cheap labor overseas? Pornography? Forgive me if I'm not convinced yet. If the Church had fully embraced the first century, I suppose she would have accepted many of the same issues that face us, and then some: infanticide, contraception, divorce; attendance at bloody Coliseum games, participation at pagan sacrifices. Need I comment on the status of women in that "sexually liberated" era?

Having faith does not mean making Christian morality (as it has been passed down to us from that first century) conform to one's urges. I sometimes want to eat multiple pints of double fudge brownie ice cream. Why should the Church inconvenience me by saying that this activity is gluttonous? Doesn't the Church realize that sometimes young women eat pints of ice cream at a time? Geez, so demanding. If one needs not possess sexual self-control is all its aspects, what other moral teachings can we jettison? I only ask because there's a few other aspects of morality that inconvenience me to some degree, so let me know when we decide to revolt against them, as well.

Those who insist on granting "sexual freedom" to us shackled laity have absolutely no scriptural or doctrinal basis for doing so. Jesus didn't tell the woman at the well to go forth, be nice, and buy only fair trade coffee. He insisted that she sin no more, which for her, meant no more "husbands." Where do our liberators find their sources? This culture, which, like any culture, will pass away, in all its imperfection. Instead of loosening our shackles, they would chain us to a burden that will only weigh us down. Sex and the City will be forgotten in a matter of years, and we'll all look awfully silly wearing plunging necklines and talking about last night's hot date at the nursing home breakfast table.

Indulgence is not the key; we need those "hard sayings" which make us reflect on our lives and act accordingly. Sometimes we fail; but we must try. Which brings me to Veruca: she was given everything she ever wanted, and never had to sacrifice. Those around her never challenged her to self-control or charity. When our eager "freedom"-fighters speak, they remind me of Miss Salt and her laundry list of demands, many of them incongruous. Who ever heard of a bean feast? But which is more incomprehensible: lunching on legumes, or a Christian Catholic who advocates acting in a way that is neither Christian or Catholic?

Veruca's song ends when she jumps upon an egg scale. This scale determines whether a goose's egg is good or rotten: if good, it is wrapped up for sale. If rotten, then it's jettisoned through a trap door. One can easily guess what happens next with this young lady. If only we had a similar scale.

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