Sunday, January 30, 2011

The loss of Catholic culture


One topic that has broached the surface of the Catholic blogosphere in the last week is the loss of Catholic identity. The issue has appeared in First Things, in Fr. John Zuhlsdorf’s What Does The Prayer Really Say and in Fr. Dwight Longenecker’s Standing On My Head.

I touched on this topic back in October; however, I treated it solely as a doctrinal issue, as part of my general “close the cafeteria” rant. While the various attempts to water down or actively corrupt Catholic doctrine is part of the problem, and no small one either, it isn’t the whole problem.

A lot of the focus is on regular Mass attendance. There’s been no end of despair in the last forty-three years over the difference in number between those who claim to be Catholic in national polls and those who actually have their butts planted in the pews every Sunday and holy day of obligation.[1] The primary cause of this disparity, however, is depressingly simple: Lousy homilies.

As Fr. Bill Casey says in his excellent rant (and I urge you to play the YouTube clip I’ve embedded; it’s so powerful I almost shouted “Hallelujah!” the first time I watched it), “Catholics are sick and tired of lukewarm, watered-down preaching. They have had enough of … ‘Catholicism Lite’.” While this does go back to doctrinal content, in that a lot of priests don’t preach the hard truths of “meat and potatoes” Catholicism for fear of losing congregants, it’s also true that many priests don’t know how to exhort or inspire. It may be that they don’t even know exhortation and inspiration is required. Nevertheless, there’s an Iron Law of Homilies to be observed here: Lukewarm preaching leads to lukewarm Christians.

(“I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew you out of my mouth” [Rev 3:15-16].)[2]

But the loss of Catholic culture goes beyond regular Mass attendance. Just now, I can’t find the reference point—you want plenty of links, right?—but one of the combox responses included a story of a café near a dockside where the writer went for lunch every day. Most of the people who went to this café regularly were Catholics; when the noontime Angelus bells rang, he recollected, all activity died as the faithful quietly knelt and prayed (“Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae; /Et concepit de Spiritu Sancto …”). Even the non-Catholics fell silent, not because they were joining in the prayer but because they knew demanding service at that moment would be futile and rude.

What’s the big deal about the Angelus prayer? Well, it was a thrice-daily reminder of the great “yes” Mary said to God that changed our history: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord; let it be done to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38). (“Blessed … are those who hear the word of God and keep it” [Lk 11:28]!) From the “yes” of the Blessed Virgin Mother “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14); so from our own “yes” to God the Word comes to dwell within us, a “yes” we must say not just once but every day of our lives. (“Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” [Rev 3:20].)

Let’s consider another lost artifact: meatless Fridays. As a matter of fact, the 1983 Code of Canon Law still requires abstinence from meat on all Fridays inside and outside Lent from ages fourteen to sixty (CIC 1251-1252). However, in the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Pastoral Statement on Fasting and Abstinence (1966), the binding on pain of sin was remitted, and has not been held contrary to canon law.[3] The timing couldn’t have been worse, as it came in the midst of a whirlwind of experiments and changes in the collision of Vatican II and the coming of age of the “baby boomers”. The pious hopes of the bishops’ conference that the faithful would continue to do from love what was once done from compulsion went mostly ignored.

What was lost? First, the practice is a kind of ritual mortification; it was tied to Fridays because the Crucifixion happened on a Friday, thus giving us a minor suffering in sympathy with Christ, and helping to “fill up what was lacking” (Col 1:24). Second, it’s a distinctive point of identity, a public and quiet way of “flying our Catholic freak flag high”, like bearing the dark smudge on your forehead on Ash Wednesday.[4] The point is not making a public exhibition of piety (cf. Mt 6:16-18) but of being a public witness (Gr. martyr) to the faith through one’s practice. By contrast, wearing a crucifix instead of a cross around your neck is little more than “Catholic bling”, and losing even that significance as non-Catholics—even non-Christians, such as fashionista Japanese[5]—frequently show up with them.

However, reinstituting the penalty of sin wouldn’t solve the problem.

For one thing, as I hinted a little earlier, the surrounding social and economic context has changed, making an idealized 1940s Going My Way-style Catholic piety difficult if not impossible to sustain. While the urban Catholic neighborhood hasn’t disappeared yet, it has suffered as a result of Catholic upward mobility, population shifts to the suburbs and the gradual change in the job market which has discouraged staying with one employer in one city for more than a few years. The transience of modern residential patterns, besides decimating the Catholic neighborhood, has also practically ended the extended family as a support structure.

The over-representation of Catholic students in the universities, an established fact for almost fifty years, has come with a price of its own: the social pressure and seduction to adopt the prevalent university culture, with its current emphases on materialism, scientism, subjectivism, moral relativism and sexual libertinism. As a result of this, the uncritical acceptance by most Catholics of the “contraceptive culture” and the assumptions which underlie it—not to mention the increased social and economic pressure to have fewer children—has damaged Catholic marriages and families to almost the same extent as non-Catholic marriages. The poor quality of homilies has only reinforced this damage, as has the degraded quality of Catholic religious formation, which too often runs from the merely ineffectual to the blatantly heterodox (often ineffectual because heterodox).

Now, all this seems a lot to overcome, and (as I said above), some elements that we can associate with Catholic culture will end up being artifacts in the same sense as potsherds from an archaeological dig: irretrievably lost, save in record. Believe it or not, though, so much of this can be overcome if our priests and deacons only learn to preach effectively.

Many Catholics end up drifting away, especially to Evangelical congregations and “mega-churches”, not because they’re against the hard teachings of the Church but because they feel they’re “not being fed”. To argue that only the Church offers the true Body and Blood of Christ, and that should be the only food and drink we require, is to miss the point entirely. The superficial, over-generalized, namby-pamby happy talk of “Buddy Christ” preaching is precisely what’s turning them off. But then, so is the dry academic disquisition, no matter how impeccably orthodox. And so is the wandering, stream-of-consciousness ramble that leaves the faithful puzzled and irritated: “Just what the hell are you getting at, Father?”

And so is the barely-disguised political platform. I remember a story Fr. Andrew Greeley once told of an elderly monsignor who delivered a lot of fire-and-brimstone sermons, especially on adultery. One day, a fellow priest asked him, “Why don’t you preach about the immorality of nuclear weapons?” The monsignor replied, “Many of my parishioners would like to commit adultery. I don’t think any of them would like to commit an atomic bomb.”

First rule of speech-making: Know your audience.

Once priests and deacons grow backbones and start delivering “meat and potatoes” homilies, we’ll start to see more butts in the pews; the ones who leave because offended will be replaced and exceeded by those who come back more regularly than Christmas and Easter. Already new networks, taking full advantage of the new media, are developing at grass-roots level to help Catholics grow and sustain their faith. And as Mass attendance begins to grow again, a lot of the traditional practices will also come back, supplemented by new (yet orthodox) cultural artifacts that will survive in today’s soil.

Effective preaching isn’t the only thing we need. But it would be a damn good start.


[1] The weekly Mass requirement is the first of six precepts, or obligations pertaining to all the faithful, of the Catholic Church (CCC 2042; cf. CIC 1246-1248). You’ll find a quick list of the precepts (in Latin and English) here, and a list of the holy days of obligation in the US on the USCCB website.
[2] As usual, all Scriptural references are from RSV.
[3] Since abstinence is a discipline and not a dogma, it doesn’t reach the issue of infallibility.
[4] Ironic that the generation which gave us the expression “fly your freak flag high” didn’t see abstinence in this light, that they saw it as just one more instance of conformity.
[5] Considering how many gaijin have tribal tattoos featuring kanji pictographs, I can’t complain.