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The Shame of the Catholic Subculture

The Church can't live on pop tarts.

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February 10, 2014
The Shame of the Catholic Subculture Gbozik Photography Gbozik Photography
Come on.  You have noticed it too. The Catholic Church, which once evoked the phrase “Here comes everybody” (James Joyce) now brings to mind a narrow, fairly homogenous fragment of a slice of a piece of mankind. Sure, if you’re using the phrase sociologically, or even to include all the people who go to Mass more than twice a year, you can still pretend that the Church contains a wide swath of humanity, from illegal immigrant landscapers with Guadalupe tattoos to shark-suited neoconservatives working for military contractors on K Street, and everything in between. In that sense, the beer-sodden Kennedy voters at Boston’s Fenway Park are every bit as a Catholic as the pope.

But let’s use language a good deal more precisely, in a doctrinally rigorous sense. How many people in America actually believe all the central truths of the Catholic Catechism?  Public opinion surveys have revealed that high percentages of Sunday Mass-goers do not hold, or perhaps never learned about, transubstantiation (the change of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist). Depending on which faction of the Catholic fragment you belong to, you can chalk up that ignorance to either the collapse of Catholic schooling, the dumbing down of the liturgy, or even to the suppression during the 1970s of the “unconscious catechesis” that used to occur every time the most unlettered peasant knelt for the Host and reverently took it on his tongue from the blessed hands of a priest. 

I don’t know that public opinion surveys have asked “Sunday Catholics” what they believe about the physical resurrection of Christ, or the Immaculate Conception, but if average Catholics believe what I was taught in my Catholic high school, then they are heretics – and probably don’t even know or care.

Practice is not a perfect mirror of what we believe, but surely it tells us something that the rates of divorce, premarital sex, and cohabitation are not a whit lower (and in some cases higher) among Roman Catholics than among most churchgoing Protestants. The explosive growth of annulments is partly an outright abuse on the part of bishops, and partly a recognition that many Catholics enter the sacrament with “defective intent.” Remember that if either party going into a marriage considers divorce and remarriage a possible option it invalidates the marriage. So most of the annulments given out nowadays are quite likely valid – unlike too many Catholic weddings. 

There are simple, radical, unpopular steps our bishops could take to stem the collapse of Catholic marriage, but we can see from the case of the German bishops the course they are far more likely to take: to throw out the principle of indissoluble marriage altogether, and shrug off the jurisdiction over marriage that the Church took on at the Council of Trent, leaving it to individual consciences to discern whether one’s first Catholic marriage was invalid, and his second civil marriage in fact sacramental. 

The elephant in the bedroom, of course, is contraception. The highest, the very highest, number I have ever seen cited for Catholics who accept and obey the Church’s ban on artificial contraception is 5 percent. Now, you could argue that there are large numbers of Catholics who admit that the Church is right on this subject, but they just find the teaching too hard to practice, and so they flout it. I don’t buy that argument; a Catholic with such a conscience, who believed that he was regularly committing a mortal sin, would know enough to avoid Holy Communion.  Short Communion lines and long Confession lines would be the direct result. 

Outside of Latin Mass parishes where most families include five children or more, I have never seen such lines. Have you? Then scratch that theory. Most Catholics who practice contraception have convinced themselves or been convinced that they can do so with a clear conscience. 

The implication of this sad fact is clear:  On a grave moral issue where several popes have invoked their full moral authority short of making an infallible declaration, 95 percent of U.S. Catholics (the number is surely higher in most of Europe) have rejected the guidance of Rome. They are not “bad Catholics” so much members of a new, dissenting sect – which happens to occupy most of the seats in most of the churches, and many of the pulpits and bishop’s offices, too.
Come on.  You have noticed it too. The Catholic Church, which once evoked the phrase “Here comes everybody” (James Joyce) now brings to mind a narrow, fairly homogenous fragment of a slice of a piece of mankind. Sure, if you’re using the phrase sociologically, or even to include all the people who go to Mass more than twice a year, you can still pretend that the Church contains a wide swath of humanity, from illegal immigrant landscapers with Guadalupe tattoos to shark-suited neoconservatives working for military contractors on K Street, and everything in between. In that sense, the beer-sodden Kennedy voters at Boston’s Fenway Park are every bit as a Catholic as the pope.

But let’s use language a good deal more precisely, in a doctrinally rigorous sense. How many people in America actually believe all the central truths of the Catholic Catechism?  Public opinion surveys have revealed that high percentages of Sunday Mass-goers do not hold, or perhaps never learned about, transubstantiation (the change of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist). Depending on which faction of the Catholic fragment you belong to, you can chalk up that ignorance to either the collapse of Catholic schooling, the dumbing down of the liturgy, or even to the suppression during the 1970s of the “unconscious catechesis” that used to occur every time the most unlettered peasant knelt for the Host and reverently took it on his tongue from the blessed hands of a priest. 

I don’t know that public opinion surveys have asked “Sunday Catholics” what they believe about the physical resurrection of Christ, or the Immaculate Conception, but if average Catholics believe what I was taught in my Catholic high school, then they are heretics – and probably don’t even know or care.

Practice is not a perfect mirror of what we believe, but surely it tells us something that the rates of divorce, premarital sex, and cohabitation are not a whit lower (and in some cases higher) among Roman Catholics than among most churchgoing Protestants. The explosive growth of annulments is partly an outright abuse on the part of bishops, and partly a recognition that many Catholics enter the sacrament with “defective intent.” Remember that if either party going into a marriage considers divorce and remarriage a possible option it invalidates the marriage. So most of the annulments given out nowadays are quite likely valid – unlike too many Catholic weddings. 

There are simple, radical, unpopular steps our bishops could take to stem the collapse of Catholic marriage, but we can see from the case of the German bishops the course they are far more likely to take: to throw out the principle of indissoluble marriage altogether, and shrug off the jurisdiction over marriage that the Church took on at the Council of Trent, leaving it to individual consciences to discern whether one’s first Catholic marriage was invalid, and his second civil marriage in fact sacramental. 

The elephant in the bedroom, of course, is contraception. The highest, the very highest, number I have ever seen cited for Catholics who accept and obey the Church’s ban on artificial contraception is 5 percent. Now, you could argue that there are large numbers of Catholics who admit that the Church is right on this subject, but they just find the teaching too hard to practice, and so they flout it. I don’t buy that argument; a Catholic with such a conscience, who believed that he was regularly committing a mortal sin, would know enough to avoid Holy Communion.  Short Communion lines and long Confession lines would be the direct result. 

Outside of Latin Mass parishes where most families include five children or more, I have never seen such lines. Have you? Then scratch that theory. Most Catholics who practice contraception have convinced themselves or been convinced that they can do so with a clear conscience. 

The implication of this sad fact is clear:  On a grave moral issue where several popes have invoked their full moral authority short of making an infallible declaration, 95 percent of U.S. Catholics (the number is surely higher in most of Europe) have rejected the guidance of Rome. They are not “bad Catholics” so much members of a new, dissenting sect – which happens to occupy most of the seats in most of the churches, and many of the pulpits and bishop’s offices, too.


Before the doctrinal tumult of the 1960s, almost every sociological Catholic was also, insofar as he gave the matter any thought, a doctrinally orthodox Catholic.  That doesn’t mean that the Church was rife with saints, of course. Human nature was always as flawed and fallible as it remains today.  But Catholics of every level of religious practice, however their lives might diverge from the Church’s teachings, pretty much acknowledged what those teachings were. They realized that they were sinners – or fancied themselves as “realists” – rather than becoming doctrinal dissenters. 



Some questions of human behavior are best mapped on a bell curve, but the spectrum of faith looks much more like an umbrella leaning against a wall – a slow rising incline with a sharp upwards curve at the top. The people down at the tip of the umbrella are those least interested and informed on questions of faith, while those up in the handle are the most devoutly doctrinal. So in 1930, down at the umbrella’s tip you might find Mafia hit men, prostitutes, thieves, and superstitious peasants. Moving up, you’d see the level of knowledge and interest gradually increase, until it suddenly spiked – and up in the handle you’d find saintly mystics, fearless missionaries, as well as self-righteous bigots and Jew-baiting cranks. In between, you’d find all the ordinary people one might expect in a Church intended to serve and save the great mass of humanity, the people Chaucer pictured as pilgrims to Canterbury.

All these people along the umbrella differed in their levels of commitment, but their creed was the same. Al Capone was, and knew himself to be, a Catholic murderer. He did not proclaim himself a “dissenter” on the “life issue,” and align himself with friendly Jesuits whom he found more “open-minded” about the commandment he chose to break. Capone did not sponsor a group like “Catholics for Free-Fire Zones.”

With the controversy over birth control, the handle came off the umbrella. With the mass rejection of the natural law teaching presented in Humanae Vitae, the only people technically remaining as consciously orthodox Catholics was that 5 percent deeply interested in and committed to orthodoxy. There were saintly, self-sacrificing priests and laymen who suffered for their beliefs – and self-congratulating Pharisees who enjoyed being part of the “saving remnant.” There were working-class people who accepted the discipline of remaining open to life, or the ascetical practice of Natural Family Planning – and there were “white trash” Catholics who used the Church’s teaching as a pretext for going on public assistance. (A shocking number of self-consciously orthodox Catholics whom I have encountered, most of them graduates of small, fervently Catholic colleges, take advantage of food stamps and Medicaid, while patting themselves on the back for being “counter-cultural” at their neighbors’ expense.) 

It’s a very mixed bag. And a small one. A good friend of mine who works for a major Catholic publisher reported to me the results of some very pricey market research his company undertook, to turn up the actual size of the “orthodox Catholic market.” Many thousands of dollars later, his company learned that if you count Catholics who go to Mass more than once a week, or spend a single dollar on Catholic books or other media, or volunteer for any parish activity, the grand total for the United States of America is no higher than 1.2 million

That is the whole Catholic market. No wonder there isn’t enough revenue to go around. All the quarrels between traditionalists and Novus Ordo conservatives, between the lovers of Dorothy Day and fans of John Courtney Murray, are fights for pieces of this tiny pie. A pop tart, really.


And pop tarts aren’t health food. It isn’t normal for the Church to consist just of saints and zealots, ascetical future “blesseds,” and Inquisition re-enactors. Faith is meant to be yeast that yields a hearty loaf of bread. But since 1968 there has been nothing left to leaven, and we find ourselves eating yeast. (My apologies to English readers who love their Marmite.) The last time I was at the Catholic Marketing Network, which includes all the leading companies in the orthodox Catholic market, most of the attendees seemed to be people who’d bought their own booths – so the whole day was spent watching vendors try to sell each other their stuff.  (“I’ll trade you three copies of The Secret of the Rosary for one of those 3-D Divine Mercy holograms.”)

Man cannot live on yeast alone, and the Church cannot weather the storm with only the handle of the umbrella. We need to encounter a broader range of humanity than can be found in that doctrine-conscious 5 percent – which I’m sure is no odder or more dysfunctional than it has always been throughout Church history.  But we used to have the whole umbrella. 

The weirdness, bitterness, crankiness, and the general mediocrity that pervade the Catholic subculture – from its newspapers to its TV shows, from most of its tiny colleges to the poorly-penned books, and sloppy, sentimental blogs that flood the tiny market of conservative Catholic readers – is the direct result of having few people to choose from. Right off the bat, 95 percent of potential applicants for any position have disqualified themselves for doctrinal reasons.  Beyond that, it’s such a pleasant surprise to find a fellow orthodox Catholic. (“You mean that you’re 100 percent full-blooded Latvian, too?”) It’s tempting not to ask too many more questions – for instance, about the person’s qualifications, talent, or temperament. 



If he checks off the same doctrinal boxes, we accept him as a fellow Party member, and bend over backwards to think the best of him – at least until we get in argument with him over liturgy, doctrine, or economics. Then we spend all our time combating his errors, convinced that we are somehow helping to turn the tide of history, when in fact we are making waves in the kiddie pool.

Is this Church of the Umbrella Handle, with its much smaller set of human types, the “smaller, purer Church” of which Pope Benedict XVI spoke – or is it the subset of “neo-Pelagian immanentists” against whom Pope Francis warned?  Of course, it is both, and the wheat is irretrievably mixed up among the tares. But one thing is certain: It is as inbred as a pack of captive cheetahs, with all the dangers of deformity and disease that that implies.

What’s the answer to all of this? We need that other 95 percent. And given that the key issue on which most dissent hinges today is contraception, we need to do a much better job conveying the Church’s position to ordinary people. 

It’s a hard sell already, because the argument hinges on rediscovering and accepting that there is teleology in nature – that bodies and organs have purposes, not merely “functions” dictated by evolution. But that argument can be made, and we might start by boning up on how teleology and what Aristotle called “final causes” pervade the natural world. (For the best arguments on this subject, see Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition.) 

Next we can show people how, without some notion of natural law, we cannot make the case for human rights – much less for legal rights, or filigrees like anti-discrimination laws. (The best introduction to natural law is J. Budziszewski’s What We Can’t Not Know.) 

Finally, we can point to the miserable outcomes produced for children by parents who treat their sexual powers as toys in a selfish game of utilitarian hedonism. The statistics on children of divorce and of single parents are eloquent on that topic, and Charles Murray summarizes it concisely in Coming Apart

All of these truths can be argued without any reference to Jesus or the Church. They depend not on revelation but nature. And it is only by moving people toward a healthier sense of human nature that we can win them back to the mainstream of the Church – and thereby make the Church itself a healthier, more natural environment. 

I’m not saying that better arguments for natural law andHumanae Vitae will help make orthodox Catholics out of everyone – even though that’s precisely whom the Church is meant to encompass, from drug dealers to crooks on Wall Street. But we have to start somewhere. 

The Church as righteous subculture is unappealing to nearly everyone – including the kids who grow up inside it, who despite all those years of homeschooling and chapel veils frequently flee for what look like saner pastures. We need to stop treating people who don’t “get” the Church’s teaching on contraception as if they were clones of Judas, or heretics like Arius whom St. Nicholas rightly slapped. 

They are people who don’t understand a complex intellectual argument based on the remote implications of natural law reasoning, which is based on an older view of nature that modern science has not so much disproved as simply dismissed. Given the massive implications of this Church teaching for their personal lives, they aren’t willing simply to take the argument on authority. So arguing from authority won’t convince them; it will simply discredit the authority. 

Many Catholics oppose abortion, and treasure the sacraments, and love their spouses, and even have decent-sized families – all of it without understanding or accepting Humanae Vitae. Millions of psychologically normal, hard-working, well-meaning people have blundered into dissent, and ended up in the same camp with bitter heretics like Charles Curran, over this single issue. That single dissent softened them up to drift away from the Church on other issues, as well. 

We shouldn’t count these people out of the Church as we would those who willfully accept abortion or polyamory. We need to listen to their real questions and objections and do a much better job explaining ourselves. Or else that’s who we’ll go right on talking to – ourselves.  

 
John Zmirak  is the author, most recently, of  The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Catechism . His writing is archived at  The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall .

This article first appeared on the website The Catholic Thing. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.
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