Catholicism used to be a huge part of my life. I was baptized in the Church. I attended Catholic kindergarten and elementary school. I was ecstatic to receive my first Communion. I enjoyed being an altar boy, even when it meant dragging myself out of bed extra early to help with the morning mass. I even thought about attending seminary. I don’t think I was an exceptionally devout child, but between mass and school, religion was a constant presence, and I liked the rituals, the stories, the traditions, and the affirmations.
When I chose to attend the local public high school, I went from a class of 18 people to one of over 600. I suppose the traditional narrative would be that I met a lot of different people from different faiths, expanded my worldview, had a crisis of faith, proceeded to look at my own faith through a more critical lens, and became a better and wiser person as a result. Well, no. Some of that did happen, sure, but it is not so tidy a story. While I can’t recall a singular moment of crisis shattering my beliefs, I can recall a bunch of tiny moments and questions that, over time, chiseled and molded my belief into something else. My parents were fairly liberal and my pastors never too dogmatic, so it was easy to reconcile the inconsistencies between my own developing morality and the Church’s teachings (i.e. “I think God is actually okay with gay people,” or “I don’t think God would want Hell to exist, so it probably doesn’t”). But eventually there was a tipping point, and I realized that the more I redefined my personal God, the less I needed Catholicism to define God for me. And soon after that, I questioned why I even needed the concept of God in the first place. And so I rejected religion entirely.
Which brings me to my main point: anime.
Maria the Virgin Witch is one of my favorite shows of the year. I love its cast (which includes a dickless incubus who can transform into a ridiculously cute owl blob), it’s got an appealingly bawdy sense of humor (as evidenced by the previous parenthetical), and it has a meaty story propelled along by action, romance, and witches. It’s also a story about reexamining one’s moral center and relationship with God, with all the knots and tangles involved in such important questions. Our protagonist Maria begins with an unwavering sense of justice and an absolute rejection of God and His Church. So you might now be piecing together why I connected with this show.
Maria spends a fair amount of its runtime dunking on the Catholic church, and I don’t think you can fault it for that. It brings up many of its famously atrocious and hypocritical actions, such as the Inquisition, the burning of witches (obviously), a wealthy and corrupt clergy, and the overall subjugation and mistreatment of women. I wish the show had a better title, but it’s true that Maria’s name and virginity are important thematic facets. Of course there’s a heretical winking attitude that goes into naming the protagonist witch after the most important woman in Catholicism, but there’s more going on than that. After a confrontation with the archangel Michael, Maria stands to lose all her magical powers should she lose her virginity, and it’s hard not to tie that to Catholicism’s own valuing and fetishization of virginity. Maria is also a teenager and thus awkward enough about sex as it is, so the Church really doesn’t help here. I was once a Catholic teenager, so I can attest to this myself.
But Maria doesn’t have all the answers either, although naturally she thinks she does at first. She hates war and takes it upon herself to intervene and stop any battle she can.(since she’s living in France during the Hundred Years’ War, there’s plenty of opportunity for this), but she never stops to reflect on her actions. Maria believes totally and completely in her ideology until God Himself intervenes and threatens to take both her powers and her life should she continue to interfere with the natural law of the world. At first this makes her even more stubborn and rebellious, but as the show progresses she sees the unintended consequences of her actions and questions her once unwavering sense of righteousness. She begins to see herself not as the sole arbiter of justice but as a part of a much bigger and more complicated picture.
I’ll avoid major spoilers, because I wholeheartedly recommend watching the show, but Maria’s conclusion manages to be both wonderfully satisfying and nuanced. Neither Maria nor the Church come out of the show as the pure ideological victor. Instead, they come to terms with each other, and reach a point of some understanding and acceptance. Maria still believes in peace and the Church still believes in upholding what it considers the natural law, but Maria decides to work as part of the community instead of as a lone vigilante, and the Church decides not to persecute her anymore. The world is large enough for the both of them, and they can make each other better as a result.
I had my militant atheist phase, but I’m glad to be beyond it now. Part of its appeal was the certainty. The certainty that God didn’t exist. The certainty that people were wrong for believing in God. The certainty that religion was bad. The certainty that they were wrong and I was not. It’s really not that much different from religious dogma. The weird persecution complex, the smarmy attitude of some of the community’s leaders, and the alarming amount of Islamophobia eventually rubbed me wrong enough that I stopped considering myself part of that community. I don’t know if God exists, but regardless of that I think being kind, helping others, and cherishing this planet are good things to do for the time being. There are benefits to an atheistic worldview, just as there are benefits to a Catholic one. I haven’t returned to the Church and I don’t know if I ever will, but I don’t totally reject it anymore. It’s still a part of me and my upbringing, and it still has shitty and destructive attitudes towards women’s rights, contraception, gay people, and so on and so forth. But just as there is space for me to continue to evolve into a less hateful person, I believe there is space for the Catholic Church to change for the better.
Author’s Note: I’m new to this kind of personal writing (on this blog at least) so please enjoy the following gif of Maria’s face.