By Karen Hall


My neighbor, Jan, went to the doctor the other day with a self-diagnosed case of bowel cancer.  

Jan admittedly has a flair for physiological drama. There are no stomachaches or headaches; there are only tumors and rare blood diseases. And feeling bloated, along with diarrhea (as any hypochondriac with a good search engine will tell you) can only be bowel cancer.

Jan's regular doctor was on vacation, but his stand-in assured her that death was not imminent. He looked over her record and asked her a lot of questions about her recurring stomach problems; stared at her chart for a few minutes, then he looked up and asked,

"What religion are you?"

Jan's response was the only sane one: "What the hell does that have to do with anything?"

"Humor me," the doctor said.

Jan explained that she had no religious affiliation and had been raised by atheists. The doctor looked skeptical.

"Are you sure?"

Jan laughed at him and assured him that she had never been exposed to organized religion in any form. Unless he wanted to count the three years when she lived with her Catholic grandmother and was forced to go to Mass every Sunday.

"Aha!" the doctor said, adding that he had "never been wrong about this!"

He informed Jan that he'd been studying this phenomenon for years, and that whenever a patient had inexplicable chronic bowel problems, he always, without exception, found Catholicism in their background. Her problem, he explained, was that she had Catholic Bowel Syndrome.

Now, I have lived in Los Angeles for almost twenty years and I thought I'd heard it all, but Catholic Bowel Syndrome is a new one. I've also heard the Church taken to task for everything from the Inquisition to the demise of patent leather, but this is the first time I've heard it blamed for a case of diarrhea.

My knee jerk reaction was to laugh and lay the blame on this flake-magnet region of the country. On second thought, I began to wonder if maybe the guy is on to something. If stress has been proven to damage the immune system, what kind of havoc has been wreaked by years of systematic, ritualized guilt? As I started to think about my circle of Catholic friends, I realized that Catholic Bowel Syndrome could be a bigger factor than any of us realize.

I'm not sure it's as simple as the good doctor thinks, though. It seems to me that CBS is actually an umbrella for all sorts of more specific strains of this insidious disease. For example, since Jan had all but blocked her bout with Catholicism from her memory, she obviously is a victim of SCBS. (Subconscious Catholic Bowel Syndrome.) God only knows how many victims there are -- all sorts of people out there gobbling up Imodium caplets, when what they really need is a good Unitarian shrink!

Then there seems to be a large faction suffering from Post Vatican II Bowel Syndrome. These are the people who think there hasn't been a valid Mass since "they" turned the altar around, and the pope should be impeached for being too liberal. These people suffer only a mild form of the syndrome, though, since their sphincter muscles get such a workout. On the other side of the coin we have Liberal Catholic Bowel Syndrome. These folks probably enjoy the disease, since they are primarily masochists anyway. (Otherwise, they'd be Episcopalians by now.) They spend their bathroom time with legal pads, re-writing the liturgy so that the language is inclusive and the Eucharistic prayer doesn't mention Jesus.

I have a couple of friends who are victims of a strain known as FPBS. Former Priest Bowel Syndrome. One of them has been in remission ever since he got married. The other assures me that the proper combination of comfortable clothes, a good sofa and ESPN II can control the symptoms. He only has occasional flare-ups, brought on by play-off games or extended sports-related labor disputes.

Personally, I am a victim of CCBS. Catholic Convert Bowel Syndrome. This is a more predictable form of the disease, which acts up on Holy Days of Obligation or whenever the pope issues an encyclical. (On the other hand, since I was not raised Catholic, I guess it's highly possible that what I actually have is Methodist Bowel Syndrome. It's just like Catholic Bowel Syndrome except that the diarrhea is merely symbolic.)

I'm new at the study this phenomenon, so I can only imagine varieties such as Lapsed Catholic Bowel Syndrome, Cafeteria Catholic Bowel Syndrome, or the most dreaded strain of all, Lifelong Practicing Catholic Bowel Syndrome. Those guys must just live in the john!

And God help us, what if the disease mutates into Evangelical Protestant Bowel Syndrome? Will they feel compelled to share their personal testimonies with the rest of us? Will they tell us that we're not sick unless our symptoms are exactly the same as theirs? Perhaps they will explain that this is all part of the conspiracy of the New World Order. Indeed, bottles of Pepto Bismol contain tiny microchips that we are unwittingly swallowing. (This is not a very effective plot, since we know where those chips are going to end up. But the secret society that controls the U.N. has been too busy spending Ted Turner's money to notice the fatal flaw in their reasoning.)

That's all paranoid speculation, of course. Jan's doctor is convinced that this disease is not likely to move beyond the Catholic population. So here's what I want to know: why haven't I read about this in Our Sunday Visitor? Where is the Curia? Are they trying to keep Catholic Bowel Syndrome a secret, for fear of widespread panic? (Or worse? Are they part of the conspiracy?)

I say forget all this hoopla over the priest shortage or the growing movement to have Mary declared part of the Trinity. Never mind the Third Secret of Fatima, or any of the Marian apparitions that serenely assure illiterate peasant children that the all-loving and benevolent Father is getting ready to send the big fireball if we don't start praying the rosary more often. And who in the world cares how long it takes Mother Teresa to become a saint? We have to start dealing with the REAL menace.

We have to find a cure for Catholic Bowel Syndrome!