In the end it was art that did it -- or rather, the lack of art.
I'm not angry, like so many other ex-Catholics. I don't have a problem with the Catholic Church's position on sexual morality. I didn't have a bad experience with a priest, or resent any nuns that taught me.
In the end, I left the Catholic Church because as an artist I could no longer hold out hope that there would be a place for me in the church. The Catholic Church, which gave the world the Sistine Chapel, Dante, and the genius filmmaker Robert Bresson, has lost interest in supporting artists. God is a dynamic and creative universal force who can be found in movies, rock and roll, and poetry.
The Catholic Church is no longer a relevant player in any of those fields, or in the arts in general.
I was raised by an Irish-Catholic family in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. My father was a journalist, poet, amateur painter, and something of a Catholic mystic. He had gone to college at Catholic University of America in the 1940s, during what was a literary high point for the church. In 1948 Columbia graduate Thomas Merton published The Seven Storey Mountain, a lyrical autobiography that became a bestseller. In 1951 Bishop Fulton Sheen began a hugely popular weekly television show, Life Is Worth Living. That same year Diary of a Country Priest, a brilliant and moving film directed by Robert Bresson, was released. Catholicism and the arts seemed go together.
Then the 1960s happened. Vatican II, the church council convened by Pope John XXIII, exhorted the faithful to go out and engage the modern world. To some conservative Catholics this was disastrous, because the world at that particular time was falling apart.
But to those of us who were kids in the 1960s and 70s, and college students in the 1980s, it looked less frightening. We saw nothing satanic in the music of the Beatles or pagan in the environmental movement. The new grittiness of films like Taxi Driver -- directed by Martin Scorsese, who was raised Catholic -- showed us a world so saturated in sin that people with any moral center risked losing their minds. Scorsese also made a film out of the novel The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis. A flawed film, the novel remains a compelling and daring interpretation of the life of Christ. In all of this I saw art.
After graduating from college in the 1980s, I dedicated myself to serving the church through the arts. Being from a family of accomplished artists -- one brother is a curator, the other an award-winning actor -- I knew that things would not happen overnight. There were steps that led to success -- a produced off-Broadway play, a novel that sells a few copies but paves the way for more, a Catholic fanzine that celebrates the best pop music. Such foundational steps should produce a Thomas Merton, or Fulton Sheen.
What I was not prepared for is how negative, obstructionist, and soul-crushing the church has become when it comes to art. I have asked prominent Catholic scholars and theologians why the Catholic Church has no foundation, think tank, fellowship or even website for the study of popular culture. St. Augustine wrote entire volumes about paganism, and in doing so managed to baptize millions of new converts. Surely something, perhaps a single fellowship at a Catholic think tank, might not be a bad idea?
In reply came only silence -- or worse, contradictory and incoherent arguments. I was lectured that the Kingdom of Jesus is not of this world, and I shouldn't be so passionate about rock and roll, movies, and other efforts of the secular culture. Soon after I would hear that when Jesus said "the kingdom of God is at hand" it meant that Jesus himself had ushered in a new age, that everything was different now, and that God is now present in the world.
If the second is true, then I want to capture it. I want to film it, write about it, and sing about it. And I want to celebrate others in the culture who do the same. Sadly, it's been decades since any of the good ones have been Catholics.