Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

The Anarchic Character of Modern Catholicism

The confluence of several different news stories related to American Catholicism struck me as underlining how the Church has changed since Vatican II. 

One was the commencement address that launched a thousand hot takes, given by Kansas City Chiefs kicker Harrison Butker at Benedictine College. The wider world went into a tizzy because the football player, who is also a traditionalist Catholic, said that many of the women in attendance might find themselves treasuring their vocations as wives and mothers more than their careers. But in Catholic circles, the speech drew anger from some because it mentioned in passing various opinions about the Church: that NFP was "Catholic birth control" and should probably not be used, that people should not be too close with their parish priests, that the bishops were  misleading their flocks, particularly about Covid, etc.

Another was the AP feature story about Catholicism in America (which despite coming out ten days before the commencement happened to pick on Benedictine College, among other places, as an example of American Catholicism taking "a step back in time".)

And a third was a twitter post from Amy Welborn, which talked about how for a time in the '70s and '80s, basic devotions such as the Rosary and Eucharistic adoration were so much seen as part of the past which should be abandoned after the Council, that Bishop Barron talked about how he took up Eucharistic adoration from the seminarians he taught at Mundelein, because it simply hadn't been a part of his own formation.

Throw all these together, and what strikes me is the extent to which Catholicism in the post Vatican II age, at least in the US, has become increasingly anarchic even as it has become more orthodox and conservative.

In the era directly after the Council, there was a sort of implosion. An institution which has long been famous for certainly suddenly gave the impression that all was up for grabs. In Frank Sheed's 1974 book The Church and I he writes: 

"The Church itself has been turned from a teacher into a question mark. These last dozen years there seems to be no assertion or denial that Catholics in good standing do not hold themselves free to make: so that one is left wondering what is the point or even the meaning of membership of the Church." (p305)

And later, on the very last page, this bleak uncertainty:

"What lies ahead of the Church? This book is about the Church as I have experienced it and I have not experienced the future.

"Glance at today's questions. Will celibacy become options for priests? A priest friend of mine has not desire to be married but is convinced that marriage is his priestly duty, indeed that in future only married men will be ordained. Will that happen? Will there be women priests, they too married? Will there be part-time priests, all working at another profession? Will there be less centralization and on what lines? Will the laity be given more to do? Will there be a return to unity between us and the Orthodox and what changes will that make necessary? How far will Ecumenism take us with Protestants?

"All these may roughly be called structural questions. The Church will re-shape itself, more or less ideally.  It always has. I do not know what the new shape will be. I don't even know what I want it to be." (p384)

So many things which had seemed age-long had changed, that even one of the great Catholic apologists of the 20th century, a man who had got his start with the Catholic Evidence Guild, standing on free speech spots and answering questions about the faith from all comers, did not feel he could say anymore what was changeable and what was not.

In the Catholic parish life of the 1980s and early 1990s, as I was growing up, it wasn't just that you needed to educate yourself about the faith if you wanted to have any understanding of it.  It was that priests, catechists, and diocesan publications were often providing active disinformation.

But sorting correct information from false information was hard because there was controversy about what was even a good source of faithful Catholic teaching. Any source written before the Council could be waved away with "oh, but the Council changed all that" and among recent books or articles, there was not a clear measuring stick of orthodoxy.  Should you believe Fr. John Harden's catechism or Fr. Richard McBrien's books and articles?

That measuring stick became available with the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1994.

Side note: I was fascinated, when looking up its dates, to see that John Paul II had ordered the development of a universal catechism as a result of the synod of bishops he called in 1985 to assess the results of Vatican II twenty years after the closing of the council. Maybe it's because I remember 1985, but somehow the years between 1965 and 1985 seem like a lot more time than the years between 2004 and 2024.

Even so, for quite some time it tended to be the case in many parts of the country that if you were a well educated and faithful Catholic, it was because you'd researched everything from doctrine to Church music and art yourself.

The result is that for the post-Vatican II generations of orthodox Catholics, many have learned to trust their own reading over what they received from the local Church institutions. This has allowed a number of good and vibrant ministries to spring up with the purpose of providing good Catholic information.  But it has also allowed a whole spectrum of hucksters and kooks to take root as well.

The same instinct to do your own research and find sources of information on the faith when your local parish is not providing good formation can, if one lacks the ability to choose well between good sources and bad, lead one far down some very strange rabbit holes.

And this is the tough and weird thing about modern Catholicism.  Of course progressive Catholicism is individualistic, with people wanting to believe that the Church will change to adopt their views on whatever issues.

But because of the three decades of institutional freefall after the Council, orthodox Catholicism too is anarchic in its own way: used to assuming that the hierarchy and institutions of the Church may be wrong, and that you need to instead do your own research to arrive at the truth.  Because, in the chaos after the Council, that was true.  And yet, at some level, the Church which we who are attached to what the Church has historically been yearn for is a Church which in its institutions both teaches the truth and punishes error. We want that, and yet at the same time we have been trained to ignore those very same institutions in order to protect the truth -- from them.  How do we then hand the control back to them, when we're used to the idea that the self-trained laymen is often going to be more faithful than the person who went through the Diocesan-approved masters in theology?

And yet, as the priests and bishops of our own generation move into positions of authority in the Church, and hear the appeals of the laity for better quality in catechesis and in liturgy, the only way they know to achieve greater quality is through institutional enforcement.

For instance, years ago in our parish in Texas, I was the "NFP guy" for the RCIA program, because no one else wanted to have to talk about the Church's teaching on sexuality.  (The other topic they always called me in to talk about was death, judgement, heaven, and hell. It seems so appropriate that the topics I was asked to cover were death and sex.) And then, under a new bishop, the word came down: no one was to give a talk about NFP, sexual ethics, or the theology of the body unless they had gone through the multi-semester diocesan catechetical training.  If you didn't have someone with that certificate, you had to show an anodyne approved video instead.

In one sense, the diocese was doing exactly what orthodox laity kept asking: trying to enforce quality in catechesis.  But what the orthodox laity wanted was not to shut them down in favor the retirees who'd had the time to take diocesan classes, they wanted the bishop to somehow just make unorthodox teaching in parishes not happen.  And unfortunately, bishops don't actually have a good way to do that. What they do have a good way to do is require credentials.

I do not know how all this changes, and ecosystem, once thrown into chaos, heals only through stages. But in the meantime, even (or perhaps especially) among those most attached to the Church as it once was, there is an anarchistic streak which evolved as a means of self preservation, and which now is a deep part of the character.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024

The Home as Public Space

A Public Space

Friends will be happy to know* that as of this Saturday, the eldest Darwin is now a full-fledged college graduate. Her sister, at the same time, has finished up her 12th-grade classes at the local community college, and is now a high school graduate, making us 3/7 in the post-grade-school department. We plan to hold a party of Hobbit proportions for them both some time in the summer (all the more necessary since the college grad finished high school in 2020 and so had no celebration at the time). You're all invited, of course. I do sometimes wonder (in my tired moments) why we should bother throwing a specific shindig, since it seems like we have so many people passing through this house on a daily and weekly basis that every day might as well be a grad party. The House As Public Space has been my frequent topic of meditation of late.

As anyone who talks to me for two seconds knows, we are in the throes of rehearsals for The Music Man. Most of our rehearsals are held in the basement of a local church, pastored by a dear friend (and cast member). Hospitality is a great charism of this congregation, and the basement, with its kitchen, is used by many different groups. There are tables, chairs, a nursery, and any kitchen utensil your heart could desire (in triplicate). Each group who uses the area has the honor and responsibility of resetting the space in readiness for the next comers, who will in turn refresh it for the group that follows. Many of the organizations that use the basement, like our community theater company, are not specifically affiliated with the congregation, but simply need a Public Space in which to meet.

Our house, to a lesser degree, is a Public Space. The dining room is not merely a place where our family congregates to dine a few times a day. It is a Schoolroom, an Office, a Meeting Place, an Acting Studio, a Game Room, and a Sitting Room. The population of the house, both residents and guests, varies from day to day. I am not always entirely sure how many people will be sitting down to dinner, or how many of them will be actual denizens of this household. 

Given this public use of space, I've been trying to be deliberate in resetting the room for the next use. Have we cleared the table after dinner? Have we removed the serving dishes from sideboard, and put away the leftovers? Are the schoolbooks, if not put away, pushed to the end of the table or moved to the shelf under the windows? Do the vases of flowers that appear at intervals need fresh water? Are the extra chairs put away? Is the floor vacuumed? Is the table vacuumed? (Yes, I've cut the Gordian knot of housework, and use the vacuum for every even remotely applicable purpose.)

This is not to say that the room is immaculate. There are game boxes on the window sills, buckets and jackets and someone's set design project on the chairs that line the wall, decks of cards tucked on the display shelves of the china cabinets, and hay under the guinea pig's cage in the corner. But if the main body of the space can be usable on short notice for some other purpose, we have done our job. 

Family life ought to be a training in resetting for the next users, though often we get too comfortable to bother. How many times have I walked in the kitchen to get ready for dinner and found that someone made cookies and left everything sitting out? How many times have I walked in the dining room in the morning and found that nobody put away last night's dinner? How many times have I come into the living room after the teens had a movie night to find popcorn bowls and seeds all over the rug, and forks and mugs shoved behind the curtains? There's an ease that makes family life pleasant and informal, but sometimes that immediate ease hinders a future chance to make someone else at home in your house. I often find myself resetting in the morning, and that's okay, but wouldn't it be nice if after each use, the rooms were reset so that they were pleasant to walk into, and presentable when the next person suddenly drops by? 

This is a family house, well-lived-in, and we like to live comfortably with each other. At the same time, everything we have is given us in trust, for others. Our house doesn't just belong to us, but is held and administered so that we can share what we've received. And we have received much -- how much, I realize more and more as the years go by. Any family blessed with happiness, stability, and mutual love has an obligation to open themselves, within prudence, to others who yearn for these things themselves. I do say "prudence", because each family has their own gifts and strengths, and their own boundaries which must be maintained for the flourishing of its members, especially the children. 

And speaking of the children: a bonus shot of Mrs. and Miss Darwin, commencing the commencement.

*This statement, now a family catchphrase, often headlined the society announcements in the newspaper of the small Mississippi town where my grandparents lived.

Tuesday, May 07, 2024

Shields Up

Several times lately I've had cause to be reminded of my deep seated tendency not to talk in person about what I really believe on various topics: faith, politics, etc.  (If this seems odd from someone who has written a blog on precisely these kind of topics for nearly 20 years: congratulations, you are reading my long term pressure release valve.)

Thinking of Rome many times a day -- and also Facebook's weird tendency to show a blogger link as censored if I don't include an image.

There is, of course, the conventional wisdom about topics not suited to dinner conversation, with religion and politics topping the list. No one wants to be at the dinner table where someone throws out a conversational gambit like, "So, what do you think, should Israel just ethnically cleanse Gaza?"

Certain topics are recognized as being contentious and so we tend not to bring them up in situations where we don't want to have contentious conversation.

But I think there's a deeper sense in which society is pretty good at teaching us that if we're far enough off the beaten cultural path, people will not like you if they know what you believe. And having internalized this pretty thoroughly, even when I'm talking with people who are also interested in topics like religion, it takes a sort of effort to say something like, "The Catholic Church teaches that using artificial birth control is wrong, and that's in some ways hard and frustrating to live by at times, but I also thing it's true and important, and so we do that and would not want it any other way."

There's a feeling of incredible relief when you meet another person under circumstances that make it clear you actually agree on such topics and can discuss Church teaching openly on any topic without feeling like you're suddenly going to be attacked and have to defend yourself.  It's not that I'm averse to arguing (again, look at my online activities, though I don't have the energy I once did) but the sense that "other people don't like people like us" is so strong that one doesn't necessarily want to spoil an otherwise congenial social relationship.

Additionally tricky is that for most of my life, just because someone goes to the same Catholic parish and is active in the parish doesn't mean that they actually agree with the Church on any number of topics, or indeed that they don't hold Church teaching in contempt.

Indeed, growing up in '80s parishes in California, it was pretty much the assumption that everyone from the catechists on down thought Church teaching was misguided at best and evil at worst.

In the intervening 40 years, a lot of those people have physically left the Church, as they had intellectually long before.

But even so, one often feels one needs to look for clues before one knows whether one is talking with someone who thinks cohabitation, sterilization, abortion, and euthanasia are normal and reasonable things or moral evils.

The result is both that I usually find myself living behind a shield, and feeling especially close and grateful to any group which makes it clear to me its possible to let the shields down without fear of being suddenly labeled as some kind of a moral freak.