Review: Sarah Bacalleron Monica Dux

Scars Formed in Healing

In Lapsed, Monica Dux attempts to come to terms with her Catholic upbringing. Having contested and rejected the moral and ontological authority of Catholicism since her teens, Dux is utterly discombobulated when her young daughter unexpectedly expresses the desire to become a practicing Catholic. The catalyst for this memoir, this event raises for Dux the spectre of her Catholic childhood and a reckoning with its lasting influence on her life. What Dux wants to know is this: Is there a Catholic shared identity that continues in those who are lapsed? And if so, what should she do about it? And so, this memoir of family life is interwoven with research into the history of Catholic theological and social tradition, particularly in Australia.

Dux revisits thoughtfully and carefully the structures of belief and ritual that shaped her early life in East Ryde in Sydney. Dux’s Catholic mother ensured that her children were raised Catholic – and Dux recounts her own early religious fervour with great animation. Her childhood involvement with the parish of Spiritus Sanctus (now Holy Spirit North Ryde) is contrasted with her rebellious teenage reaction to the parental edifice of faith. However, it emerges that this ‘falling away’ or ‘lapsing’ was not as complete as Dux would have liked to think.

In the prologue, Dux recounts her acting debut when, aged 10, she is cast as Jesus in the Parish Easter play. A tongue-in-cheek celebration of her over-enthusiastic liturgical dance routine becomes an invitation for readers to ask, alongside Dux, what lapsed religious identity means for anyone who has moved beyond previous versions of themselves. In a tone consistent throughout the book – not quite graceful, but certainly visceral – Dux reflects:

Like sand in your swimsuit, up your bum and in your crotch, no one else can see it, and it’s quite insignificant, just tiny grains. Yet it’s always there, impossible to ignore. Discomforting. Infuriating.

But what is it, really, this lapsed Catholic identity? Who are we? What unites us? And why does it all seem to matter so much?

We then encounter Dux and her family in Rome (where else?) as six-year-old Meg staunchly asserts Catholic faith. Dux’s depiction of this scene is amusing – and it highlights how parenting can force us to face parts of ourselves we thought we’d left well behind, the angry scars we’d forgotten. And yet, it is also care for our children’s best interests that compels us to consider seriously what those scars mean for the future. Dux seizes the opportunity to think about her own existential formation, and to be intentional about what she takes forward and what she leaves behind. Rather than denying, ignoring or bemoaning her Catholic upbringing, Dux invests energy in understandingthat upbringing and reshaping what it means for her now.

In Dux’s account of her own ‘rebellious’ teenage self-definition, she recalls a sense of a joyous liberation from Catholic strictures. She clearly delighted in provocation – why else would she have dressed up as a giant penis for science class at a Catholic school? But the adult Dux who writes her memoir has moved on from teenage rebellion. She is now able to recognise the potential value of naïve faith and the social purposes of religion, even as she recognises too the variegated destructiveness of religion. Embedded in this maturation of perspective, we can also detect a sense of loss, poignantly articulated when Dux’s daughter expresses fear of death:

As much as I now rejected the Church, I remembered the tremendous certainty and reassurance my religion had given me; the sense of order, and of community. This thing I so badly wanted to rid myself of had once provided me with so much comfort, silencing all the scary, unfathomable questions with neat answers …. I wished more than anything that I could give this comfort to my beautiful daughter. But I knew I couldn’t, not without becoming a hypocrite.

There are times when Dux’s humour echoes with grief. Ironic, yes – because why would one grieve losing a faith no longer valued or believed in? Yet grief here is for the certainty that came with those beliefs. The beliefs are now gone, and certainty has been lost with them.

Participation in any religious community is maintained through relationships; relationships mediate and shape stated beliefs and norms of behaviour. So, while we tend to use beliefs and behaviours as primary markers of religious participation, relationships are their medium. After all, to believe is an act of (relational) trust; our actions have intended outcomes that are often relationally situated. All this is to say that Dux’s relationships are primary in this self-reflective movement through and beyond religious belief. Dux’s daughter Meg is a catalyst for Dux’s narrative quest; her own mother was Dux’s entry point into Catholic faith. Dux’s young religious enthusiasm, her teenage break from faith, and her adult reflections on Catholicism seem as much a mode of determining and shaping this primary relationship as they are a religious journey. Interestingly, Dux’s own maturation process is mirrored in her mother’s. Towards the end of the book, Dux’s mother looks back on the enculturation of her children into Catholicism, and her reactions to their rejection of it (‘I was a bit hard wasn’t I?’ she says, speaking of the time she called Dux a prostitute for her moving in with her boyfriend). She too seems to reach a point of complex acceptance; she and Dux can mutually recognise the constructive and wildly destructive aspects of their experiences of faith, as well as religion’s continuing enigmas.

A question hovers over Dux’s relationship with her mother. Dux intentionally rejects what her mother has so deliberately inculcated. Does Dux’s rejection of Catholicism therefore amount to a rejection of her mother and of other Catholic family members? Nowhere does the mature Dux express anger in relation to her mother, even if she cannot understand or would never replicate her mother’s choices. Dux is clear that at times, she and her mother have been separated by wide emotional distances, echoing with rejection and anger. But in the space in which she writes now, her sense of self has consolidated to the point that she can engage constructively with her mother despite their differences. Maturation has led to an acceptance of complexity in this relationship; both women have become more than their stated beliefs or their religious (non)-identification.

Lapsed makes the history and development of Catholic (and more widely, Christian) tradition in Australia accessible to readers. This is essential for informed social critique. It is staggering to read now of the divide and animosity between Catholics and Protestants in Australia only sixty years ago; now, Christians of most denominations tend to band together in solidarity as the site of a non-dominant social narrative. Understanding these historical social dynamics becomes part of Dux’s ongoing identity development.

To ‘translate’ or interpret with any degree of efficacy requires fluency in two languages, cultures and ways of thinking. Dux’s memoir bridges the worlds of Catholic and secular life in this way. Hers is a reconciliatory narrative, even if it involves passionate critique of religious injustice and abuse within the church. For this reason, the book feels to me weightier than any external condemnation of religion or Catholicism, because Dux, lapsed though she may be, is deeply connected to Catholic belief. (She’s on less firm ground in her occasional digressions on Protestantism, particularly when summarising the work of sociologist John E. Tropman – but then, Dux never claims experiential knowledge here). Dux’s memoir is immanent critique: she understands what belief means to believers. Her narrative also goes beyond much post-Christian life-writing, which differentiates itself from more orthodox forms of traditions, but still attempts to retain some vital ‘core’ of Christian faith. This makes it harder for memoirists to grapple with the implications of destructive theological beliefs because they want to rescue them instead. Dux doesn’t need to do that. But neither does she want to crucify her past self, or those with faith with whom she feels a sense of identification. This is paradoxical, and necessarily so.

Dux is flamboyant and irreverent. If learning to laugh at ourselves and our inconsistencies is an opportunity for growth, Dux provides ample opportunity for believers and ‘lapseds’ alike. Her humour spices up her genuinely solid and ethical considerations of the implications of Catholic faith, but there is a precarious balance here. Integrating social critique and comedy, the latter might be a bit close to the bone for readers who still hold some sense of identification with Catholic faith. They may well end up feeling like the butt of Dux’s jokes. Non-religious readers on the other hand, will have a bit of a laugh at the expense of Catholics, or anyone with old-fashioned, superstitious beliefs. Is there a lack of cultural sensitivity here that ends up harming those ‘almost-lapseds’ whom Dux may most want to connect with?

Ultimately Dux is looking for answers. She wants to know what or who ‘The Catholic’ (as she and her brother Matt call it) really is. What is that social and cultural Catholic spirit that they imbibed in their childhood? This essentialist approach risks duplicating the errors — or reproduces the problematic logic — that Dux is contesting in Catholic faith. Is it not precisely the search for ‘ultimate’ explanations and final answers that Dux is decrying in Catholicism? But isn’t that what she wants in this memoir, only from the other side? In the end, Dux can’t find ‘The Catholic’ and this feels fitting. And so Lapsed reads as an impassioned exploration of belief that uses humour to deal with the serious issues it addresses and the sadness this involves. There is no doubt that practising Catholics (or even Protestant Christians) may have trouble reading this book. Dux treats as absurd ideas and practices that people hold very dear. But in a way, this is precisely the point. Dux has held these ideas and practices dear too. She doesn’t anymore. Perhaps she is making as much fun of herself as she is making of everyone else.

For Dux, to have lapsed is to have taken a stand. Lapsing here is not just rejection or abandonment of faith; it is an intentional leaving behind that is not only deconstructive, but generative of new trajectories. Being ‘lapsed’ stands for something in this book.

Ironically, this constructive shift from ‘turning away’ towards ‘turning to’ echoes a motif sometimes used as a corrective used within Christian circles: ‘Rather than being known for what we are against, let’s be known for what we are for!’, a well-meaning preacher might say. I have heard this many times in Christian contexts. But if such an ethos can be used for ‘lapseds’, atheists and believers alike, it points to a shared human striving towards thoughtful living and constructive forward-movement, shaping values beyond the gratification of impassioned destruction.

Lapsed exhibits the dialectical nature of selfhood and belief, of loss, gain and growth – ad infinitum. Dux finds herself somewhere, attempts to make sense of that somewhere through contesting it, and then develops the ability to integrate that somewhere and its negation into a coherent, but not necessarily contradiction-free sense of self. This means that Dux is an active agent in responding to life; she does not play the victim in an existential lottery. Writing and researching her memoir have been part of the process of creative agency. Undoubtedly, Dux hopes that this intentionality will become etched into the constellation of her children’s lives, resourcing them with what she has painstakingly learned.