Na Na Na (Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na)
Screaming along to the most Catholic band of all time.
"...rather than define the world in relation to the religious phenomenon, it would seem that religion should be redefined in relation to the profane."
-Gustavo Gutierrez in A Theology of Liberation
“Well, are you ready, Ray? (Yeah)
How about you, Frank? (Oh, I'm there, baby)
How about you, Mikey? (Fuckin' ready)
Well, I think I'm alright,
ONE TWO THREE FOUR!!”
-Archbishop Fulton Sheen
There was a piece by Nathan Turkowsky last week on Where Peter Is that’s pretty good. He’s writing on a topic about which I think a lot: the distinction between the teaching authority of the bishops and all of the other powers that the bishops have that aren’t part of the church’s teaching authority; for example, many bishops can hire and fire people, and they can close schools and parishes, and they manage the finances and decide how the church allocates its resources, and they negotiate union contracts, and they set vaccine requirements for their schools, and they are in charge of investigating sexual abuse allegations, and they tell people how to vote and donate the church's money to support ballot initiatives, and they interview Shia LaBeouf on their terrible YouTube show. Unlike serving as the teaching authority of the church, these other powers and responsibilities aren't things that Jesus formally established with the Apostles. And that's important, because these things directly affect people's lives and a lot of bishops are extremely bad at these things and they shouldn't be allowed to do these things:
"Whether or not the charism of ordained ministry includes special insight when teaching on faith and morals is a matter of belief; if one does not hold that belief, plenty of avenues to work that out are available, up to and including ceasing to adhere to Catholicism. Whether or not the charism of ordained ministry includes special talent (or even competence!) when it comes to administration, oversight, interpersonal tact, or the ordained person’s own moral behavior is, however, an empirical question. It can be proven or disproven, and in case after case has been disproven to any rational observer."
Right! Absolutely! Now, I don't always like how the bishops use their teaching authority either, but I agree that they actually have it and it's actually their job to use it. But everything else? That shouldn't be theirs. They've had their chance, they blew it. The laity should have those powers, and it should be controlled more broadly and democratically. Or, if the bishop holds on to it, he should have lay oversight heavy enough and meaningful enough that those powers are de facto controlled by the laity anyways.
Turkowsky doesn't necessarily go all the way there in his essay (it's reasonable to assume I'd be more extreme than he is on this topic), but he does provide plenty of examples of bishops falling short on these responsibilities. He even cites Pope Francis as an example, and he's right: even though plenty of people, including Turkowsky, like the guy, Francis still screws up in very important ways. See if you can guess which clause resonated the most with me as a reader, which part of the below passage inspired me to write this essay:
"Pope Francis, the man this website supports and defends, has made a number of baffling, negligent, and even deeply disturbing governance decisions himself. The Barros case in Chile is the foremost example. That case did ultimately set in motion a chain of events that led to positive reform, but this is a bit like saying that ultimately 9/11 set in motion a chain of events that led to some great pop punk albums. And this is the strongest possible defense of a high-profile decision made by a Church authority whom I and the other contributors to this website generally support and defend. We shouldn’t desperately trot out half-baked utilitarianism to paper over truly inexcusable decisions. We can be grateful for the pope’s change of heart after the Chilean people and press confronted him, but his refusal to listen to the survivors until he had no choice was a concrete failure on his part."
As you have likely already guessed, this is the point in the essay in which I will abandon any remaining discussion of episcopal authority and instead focus on pop-punk music that arose after 9/11. Turkowsky just used that as a throwaway line to make a point, but he should have dug into it a lot more. Yes, great pop-punk albums did come out in response to 9/11, and no, that doesn't make 9/11 "worth it" (I think?). But more importantly, there was one very specific pop-punk band that was formed explicitly as a response to the 9/11 attacks, and they happen to be the most Catholic band of all time, and I think we all know who I'm talking about.
On September 11th 2001, Gerard Way was a young up-and-coming comic book writer on his commute to his job in Manhattan. He saw the towers fall on his way to work, and quit his job. If life was this fragile and scary, he didn't want to be a comic book writer anymore, he wanted to be a rock star. Amazingly, he succeeded.
Way recruited some of the best musicians from the New Jersey punk and metal scenes, and then also recruited his brother, to form My Chemical Romance, a band that had an outsized influence on pop-punk for the next decade. If you're around my age you can probably still sing the entire first half of "Welcome to the Black Parade". I can't possibly take you through the full mythology of the band - which is dense and has, like, prequel comics tied to specific albums - as I'm a relatively recent fan who came to the band as a result of their recent reunion and my best friend's obsessive fandom. But oh man I really love this band. I love them so much that my goal for G.O.T.H.S. in 2023 was to sneak in at least one MCR reference to each piece I published this year, which I have actually been doing:
1/3/23 Subhead of the piece is "Honey, this throne of Peter isn't big enough for the two of us", a parody of the 2002 song title "Honey, This Mirror Isn't Big Enough For The Two Of Us"
1/9/23 The sentence “Whole-lifers can try and bring their love to the March For Life this year, but the Nazis will still bring their bullets” is a play on the album title I Brought You My Bullets, You Brought Me Your Love.
1/12/23 When Joseph Strickland says "I'm okay now, you really need to listen to me, because I'm telling you the truth, I mean this, I'm okay, trust me", he's quoting the bridge of hit single "I'm Not Okay (I Promise)".
Now, when I call MCR "the most Catholic band of all time", I don't mean they're practicing Catholics ministering to us through music that expresses their wonder at the paschal mystery. I mean they're all Italian-American boys from Jersey which means they all grew up in Catholic families so their music is all soaked in Catholic imagery. On their first album, you'll find song titles like "Our Lady of Sorrows" and "Headfirst for Halos", and references to saints and relics and rituals and vampires (the most Catholic of the classic monsters). Way often performs at MCR's gothic and theatrical live shows in costume, including sometimes as Joan of Arc:
So they're Italian, they grew up Catholic, they're obsessed with 9/11: obviously, this was always going to be one of my favorite bands. And to be clear, MCR, as a band, explicitly exists because of 9/11. Their first song, "Skylines and Turnstiles", is about 9/11.
Again: Gerard saw the World Trade Center get hit right in front of him. He decided he needed to start a band. And the first line of the first song he wrote is him screaming "YOU'RE NOT IN THIS ALONE". He wanted to change everything he was doing with his life to scream that out into the world. He wanted to play that song at shows where people could scream it together. And after repeating "tell me where we go from here" a few times, he continues:
"And after seeing what we saw
Can we still reclaim our innocence?
And if the world needs something better
Let's give them one more reason now."
If you were living in a world that appeared to be decaying at its societal foundations, and if you in fact had seen a violent explosion of that decay firsthand and then had to keep waking up and being a person every day after that, how would you go about doing that? What would you tell people about how you were trying to live in the world?
A year ago, I was working on this writing project where I was trying to explain, mainly to myself, why I was still Catholic, and what "being Catholic" actually was to me, you know, since I complained about the church so much, and since the church often felt like it was doing more harm than good in this era. That project turned into six essays, and in each essay, I read one work of Catholic theology and one very not-Catholic work of not-theology, because I always enjoy trying to dig for deeper meaning in explicitly non-theological works. I think it comes from my high school years, when I got introduced to the Jesuit principle of "finding God in all things" and, being the little stinker I am, loved testing that principle as much as I could with "well could you find God in THIS". My point is, I posted all six of these essays here in 2022, so here you go, this is how I arrive at Catholicism:
You start with boredom, the default mode for any life in a sufficiently developed society. You can just sit with boredom and meaninglessness forever - which is terrifying when you realize you're just marking time until you die - or you can gamble - and it is, at best, a gamble - that there is some level of meaning or they're, even if you can't see it. That became this essay, where I read a famous work of French Enlightenment theology and a pretentious novel from the 1970s.
If you decide there's more to life than boredom and meaninglessness, the next thing you'll inevitably notice is that there is suffering out there in the world, out there in front of you. And I do think that if you're going to be a Christian of any kind, you have to push your life out of "responding to boredom" and into "responding to suffering". That became this essay, where I read a memoir by a future saint and watched a mid-2010s Comedy Central show that nobody remembers.
If you notice suffering, you'll probably have questions as to where that suffering actually comes from, if there's something causing that suffering that you can try to address. That became this essay, where I read one of the foundational works of liberation theology and listened to a 2016 punk album.
If you try to address those causes of suffering, though, you will probably feel like a failure sometimes, maybe a lot of the time. You have to do it anyways because you aren't the one who gets to decide what failure is. That became this essay, where I read a very famous homily and also a 1970s underground comic series.
But, of course, trying to address suffering means encountering suffering people, which is miserable work that will inevitably grind you down, even though you have to keep practicing it over and over to get good at it. That became this essay, where I read a recent book on moral theology and class inequality, as well as a very bad self-published novel by a very bad author.
This is miserable work, so you probably shouldn't try to do this alone. You need a church around you. That became this essay, where I read a few works on clericalism in the church and also a novella about aliens.
Thing is, if I don't go all the way to "you need a church", the whole thing falls apart for me. You can gamble on there being meaning out there, but it's easy to collapse under the weight of suffering and oppression and failure, and then you're right back where you started, at boredom and meaninglessness. I have to get all the way to "you need a church" in order to live with anything beyond boredom and meaninglessness. Of course, I'm also watching the leadership of that church collapse very slowly, and I still have to get up every day and be a Catholic through all that. I still have to convince myself that it's worth pursuing options like compassion or selflessness or solidarity and not just waiting to die while I sit in the boredom and meaningless, even though the church that is supposed to teach me that it's worth it isn't very good at teaching or living it.
So even if you get all the way to "you need a church", this is hard. Choosing to make your life a response to suffering, one where you encounter people that others won't touch, one where you will feel like you're failing, one where you are waking up and being a person every day in a world, and in a church, that is very obviously decaying right in front of you, is a hard choice. But every other choice is worse.
MCR’s second album was Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge, which had multiple charting singles (“Helena”, “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”) that helped the band reach a wider audience. Their third album, The Black Parade, was their highest artistic achievement. They followed their “concept album about death” with a “concept album about a post-apocalyptic rebellion” in Danger Days: The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys, as well as a compilation of other one-off singles collectively titled Conventional Weapons. And then they broke up.
Look, I won’t pretend this band and this music is something bigger than it actually is. These are songs for angry teenagers. But they are extremely good songs for angry teenagers, because Gerard Way has a very thorough artistic vision and great ear for writing melodies, and Ray Toro and Frank Iero are both outstanding guitar players (bassist Mikey Way looks like he’s having fun too, good for him!). But these songs for angry teenagers were, very specifically, made as a result of a horrifying attack that killed thousands of people, made so that listeners in a decaying world could be told that they weren’t in this alone. That is a very noble purpose for music, even if it’s music for angry teenagers.
By the way, since the 9/11 attacks, it’s not like things have gotten a lot better. Things appear to still be decaying. Just to throw out an example: about twenty years after 9/11, we started losing a 9/11’s worth of people a day to a virus, and a large part of our political machinery told us that this was not only acceptable, but something we should be totally cool with because it meant we were still free to get haircuts and eat at Ruby Tuesday’s. And now we still have to wake up every day and choose how we want to live in that decaying world.
I suppose if you had to find a similar event in the Catholic church, particularly the American church, from the early 2000s, that indicated that the world as we knew it was actually decaying, you could think of one pretty quickly; this is, of course, congruent to the comparison Turkowsky made. And you could also think of plenty of examples of things in the church getting worse since that catastrophic event, thanks to the problems with the bishops' authority that Turkowsky identified in his piece. And you might feel angry, and you might be desperate for someone to tell you that you're not alone in feeling that way, to be told "if the world needs something better/Let's give them one more reason now." And when I find a band that gives me that message and can cut through all of the decay around me, they might strike me as the most Catholic band of all time, even if they aren't practicing Catholics.
The last song MCR wrote was "Fake Your Death", which was released as the first track on their greatest hits album.
The lyrics lay it out: this chapter is over, it's time for things to end, who knows if we accomplished anything but we tried to have fun and we hope we took some of your pain away for a little bit:
"Cause even heroes get the blues
Or any mystery you choose
You like to watch, we like to use
And we were born to lose
I choose defeat, I walk away
And leave this place the same today
Some like to sleep, we like to play
Just look at all that pain"
It's a great song and a great coda to MCR's career. Admittedly, this one doesn't map very neatly onto the extended metaphor I'm trying to pull off comparing "MCR lyrics" to "why I still care about being Catholic". Because if it did, there would be a point where I would "choose defeat" and "walk away". And I suppose I've done that before; as I'm fond of saying, I have permanently left the Catholic church four different times. But I can't do that anymore. Not if my life is supposed to be a response to the suffering of others. I have to keep forcing myself to encounter others, to help relieve that suffering, even when the work is miserable, even if the church is falling apart around me, even if I feel like a failure.
And, as you might expect from a band that named their final song "Fake Your Death" and broke up, they aren't broken up anymore, and "Fake Your Death" isn't actually their final song.
MCR reunited in 2019. While their reunion tour was delayed significantly due to the pandemic, they are now back to touring globally. In May 2022, they released their first new music in years, the single "The Foundations of Decay."
MCR returned to a world far worse than the one they had left, knowing they had to do something but battered by everything still falling down around them:
"See the man who stands upon the hill
He dreams of all the battles won
But fate had left its scars upon his face
With all the damage they had done"
And the temptation to just lie down in the ruins and wait to die was very strong:
"And so tired with age, he turns the page
Let the flesh submit itself to gravity
Let our bodies lay while our hearts will stay
Let our blood invade if I die in pain
Now, if your convictions were a passing phase
May your ashes feed the river in the morning rays
And as the vermin crawls, we lay in the foundations of decay"
Oh sorry, I forgot to mention: this song is also explicitly about 9/11:
"He was there the day the towers fell
And so he wandered down the road
And we would all build towers of our own
Only to watch the rooms corrode
But it's much too late, you're in the race
So we'll press and press 'til you can't take it anymore…
You must fix your heart
And you must build an altar where it swells."
Gerard Way watched the world end right in front of him. He watched that happen twenty-two years ago. We watched our church fall apart right in front of us, and we're still watching it decay. Way could have laid down in the hole at ground zero and waited to die, and instead he decided to scream "you're not in this alone", he decided to tell people to press and press till the other guys can't take it anymore, to tell people to fix their hearts and build altars. It was a hard choice, and every other choice was worse.
We can sit around and wait to die if we want, or we can choose to keep encountering the people suffering in front of us, keep telling the people around us that they're not alone, keep pressing. Because the band that started their catalog with Gerard Way screaming "you're not in this alone!" now ends their catalog with him screaming "GET! UP! COWARD!"
The author wishes to thank Nadia Vazquez for introducing him to My Chemical Romance and double-checking this essay’s references to MCR’s history.