Roger Ebert is the best known movie critic in America. But lately he's been branching out a lot, writing personal essays for the Chicago Sun-Times in addition to his weekly film reviews.
His latest offering, called "How I Am A Roman Catholic," has generated a huge response, both pro and con.
Ebert's essay was sparked by his watching the live television coverage of Pope Benedict's departure from the Vatican.
He writes that watching that made him harken back to his Catholic upbringing at St. Mary's Grade School. Wise Sister Rosanne, he says, would start each school day proclaiming the Church to be the oldest continuously functioning institution in human history, and taking pride in the fact the Popes formed an unbroken chain all the way back to St Peter and Jesus himself.
Ebert spends most of the rest of the essay crediting his Catholic education for not only his moral and political principles but his rich aesthetic ones as well.
What's getting all the attention though is one of his concluding remarks. He writes, " I consider myself Catholic, lock, stock and barrel, with this technical loophole: I cannot believe in God." That line has stirred up a lot of conversation and not a little controversy. It's generated over two hundred comments online, many praising him for his honesty and others blasting him for his hypocrisy.
A couple of representative zingers:
"Saying one is a Catholic who doesn't believe in God is like saying one loves Dr. Pepper, then buys bottles of it, pours the liquid down the drain and lovingly displays the bottles on a shelf."
And "You don't believe in god, yet you embrace a corrupt institution responsible for the deaths of thousands in Africa, the relentless villification(sic) of gay people, the ritual subjugation of women, and the aggressive enabling of thousands of child predators, for no more pressing reason than fond memories of growing up indoctrinated into this cult."
Both well-written jibes.
But what I like about Ebert's column is that he hits on not a universal truth, but a truth a lot of people experience: That one can have a lot of appreciation and yes, fondness for a religion one was raised in and yet at some point find its tenets not quite tenable.
Ebert acknowledges he would not be the man, nor the critic he is, without Catholicism and for that he's eternally grateful. But relishing the benefits of a belief system and buying into that system are two different things - for Ebert and for many others.
I personally benefited from the parochial school system in grade school (Christ the King) and high school (Blanchet) and I graduated from a Jesuit university (Seattle University.)
One of the things I most appreciate about my Catholic education was how well it taught me to think.
I remember hearing about one distraught parent of a fellow SU student who lamented - what good is all this education if one loses one's faith in the process.
I say, it seems a fair trade to me. Lock, stock, and barrel.