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Ransoming Pagan Babies

There is something to be said for the disadvantages of Catholic education, at least as it was in San Francisco of the logy, foggy 50s. For one thing, in grammar school I learned about ransoming pagan babies. We had to save our dimes to ransom the poor unbaptized creatures of China. To facilitate the financial aspect of this spiritual transaction, we purchased savings certificates—watermarked in the fuzzy purple of the nuns’ hectograph machine and resembling somewhat Blue Chip Stamps—which were popularly known as “Pagan Baby Stamps.” When we had accumulated sufficient markers, we were assured that a yellow pagan baby of our choice would receive a Catholic baptism. We also got to name it, with a saint’s name, of course. It cost $5 to ransom a boy, and $3 for a girl. The good Sisters explained that girls came cheaper, since the Chinese routinely drowned girls at birth, like baby kittens, because there were so many of them. This led to considerable discussion about the relative value of boys and girls, and provoked a compromise, arranged by the nuns, which was widely considered a bargain: for ten dollars we could ransom one boy and two girls.

The Catholic umbrella under which I grew up shaded a vacuum-sealed, middle-class and unflinchingly white ghetto. We all went to Catholic schools and our parents paid their dues and regularly received the sacraments, as did we kids, but it was more routine than a leap of faith. The Church seemed everywhere. Authority incarnate, yet it didn’t really connect. It was authority largely without terror. The Church I knew was not the Church of Savonarola, nor of James Joyce—it was too settled and comfortable to summon the fire and brimstone for Stephen Dedalus-type retreats. The priests who weren't stuck in the confessional box on Saturdays put on Pendleton sport shirts and went off to play golf at the Irish Catholic Olympic Club. Our confessors did scare us a little by warning we could lose our minds and maybe even our hair if we touched ourselves, but suggested that if we pulled hard on an ear it would dispel temptation. Naturally we tugged our ears, but otherwise the operating principle was to accept everything the Church taught while paying as little attention to it as possible. Thus we went to Mass on Sundays and sinned on Mondays and went to confession on Saturdays so we could receive Communion on Sunday and be in a state of grace to sin again on Monday.

I came to accept the Church for the tinsel, lazy, corrupt and at the same time appealing thing that it was. During those gray and quiet years, the Church was like some pervasive closed system dominating an endless science fiction novel, wherein it seemed the fate of the mutinous among us was to do continuous, dubious battle against it; there was great fun in the rum of rebellion, and we fought on in the not unpleasant expectation of losing. Changing the Church was no more real than changing the ocean.

This background ill prepared me for the liberal Catholic reformers with whom I became involved in the early sixties. I was astonished to find that there were Catholics abroad who actually thought that unyielding institution was going to improve itself and thereby improve the world. Most of the reformers I encountered had not endured sixteen years of Catholic education as I had, but had escaped to prep schools and secular colleges far removed from the bad breath and pimples of the workaday Church.

I found it difficult to believe that these earnest people were attempting to make a blushing bride of that fine old whore, the Church. While these reformers were shocked to discover how materialistic the Vatican really was, I had learned in grammar school that profitable moneychanging was the natural condition of the priestly calling. Our pastor used to stand in front of the altar during collections at Christmas Mass and exhort the faithful to “make it a green Christmas.” The reformers were freshly aglow with the illuminating theological proposition that the Church was as much human as divine. I knew that was the truth back in the third grade the first time I heard a nun fart.

I later watched the priests cream these well-meaning liberals: Lions 14, Christians 0. The odds were lopsided from the start. Just as the tougher, peasant Stalin made a better revolutionary than the more bourgeois and intellectual bolsheviks, these starry-eyed Catholic reformers with their idealized view of the Church were no match for the crafty and possessive priest-Pachucos who gave out karate chops instead of blessings. Most of the young priests who rushed to the aid of the reformers were likewise clobbered and have long since left the Church, along with a good percentage of the reformers. They succeeded in vulgarizing the Mass and making some other niggling reforms, and then drifted off to various new enthusiasms—anglicism, agnosticism, even astrology —leaving confusion in their wake, like little kids taking apart some gigantic radio set to improve the reception, then tiring of the project but not knowing how to put the set back together. These thwarted reformers then became bitter at the Church for doing what came naturally to preserve the monolith. The difference in my expectations of the Church of Rome and that of many of the liberal intellectual Catholics of the early sixties was that of 16 years in Catholic schools, which were susceptible to all the analogies of Stalag 17.


  1. KB April 18, 2023

    from Wikipedia via KB: Warren James Hinckle III was an American political journalist based in San Francisco. Hinckle is remembered for his tenure as editor of Ramparts magazine, turning a sleepy publication aimed at a liberal Roman Catholic audience into a major galvanizing force of American radicalism during the Vietnam War era. Wikipedia
    Born: October 12, 1938, San Francisco, CA
    Died: August 25, 2016, San Francisco, CA
    Children: 3
    Education: University of San Francisco, Archbishop Riordan High School
    Movies: Breakout
    Spouse: Susan Cheever (m. 1989)

  2. izzy April 20, 2023

    Still on this side of the grave here.
    The Pagan Babies thing brings it all back. I did two years in parochial school in a wealthy NJ suburb back in the late 50s, spanning fifth and sixth grades. My parents’ idea, not mine. I was just old enough to smell a rat, and the exposure was brief enough to spare me the total indoctrination. Our parish priest was a raging alcoholic, and the nuns in the classrooms ran the gamut from young sweethearts to child-abusing old hags. Much of it just didn’t make a lot of sense. Pagan Babies? Original Sin? – WTF? Now we’ve moved on to systemic White Guilt, a more secular and all-purpose version. Crazy belief systems appear to be a recurring feature with our kind.

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