Ever since discovering Arturo Vasquez’s blog I have found myself thinking a great deal about Catholic culture: what it is, what it should be, and how we can achieve it. I want to go over the issue in more depth soon, and I am really hoping to start blogging on a more regular basis. However, for now I wanted to re-post something that I commented to Mr. Vasquez’s blog, on this post about “Vintage Catholic Culture.” I am concerned about the fact that to find Catholic culture in our modern world it is sometimes necessary to rush in in a “cafeteria” like manner. However, I wonder how important it really is that our (small “t”) traditions be authentic. To use a commonplace example, even if your parents never put an orange in your Christmas stocking, it still might be nice to do it as a “tradition” for your children. Particularly for people who are lost in a sea of modernity, without any authentic traditions of their own, building some or taking some from other people might be the only options. So, for now and without further ado, here is what I posted to Arturo Vasquez’s blog:
I’m finding that this discussion seems to revolve around two false opposites. On the one hand, Arturo Vasquez points out that many white American Catholics, even Traditionalists who profess to care about culture (in a way that “Conservative” Catholics never seem to), but are loath to accept and even sometimes denigrate the Catholic cultures around them, usually Mexican and Filipino. On the other hand, Jeff Culbreath seems intent on building a Catholic culture out of existing Anglo-American culture, a kind of retroactive conversion of a long-Protestant tradition. A sort of inculturation, only with “divorcee” rather than “virgin” cultural elements.
I think I see problems with both approaches, but they are difficult to pin down, and I think they are rooted in aesthetics and even mere preference to a large degree. Culbreath, and many others (including me some days) don’t want to lose the good things that are part of “American culture.” Things like good old-fashioned music, picnics, Fourth of July celebrations, the whole “apple pie” Americana is attractive, particularly to fully assimilated Americans without a competing set of cultural traditions. Unfortunately, these American traditions are tainted with both Protestantism and consumerism: they come from old Protestant America, and were perpetuated and perhaps altered beyond recognition by the consumerist culture. “Catholicizing” them might be even more difficult than converting the Celts or the Aztecs (in their respective times) was: the Celts and the Aztecs, for all their faults, had not heard of the Church and were thus not immunized against it. That old-fashioned American culture has the twin disadvantages of having grown up in an anti-Catholic environment that knew what the Church was and rejected it, and of being largely extinct or co-opted by people who want to make money off of it.
However, to Mr. Vasquez I have to say that we are not all lucky enough to have a tie to Catholic tradition in our own families. Some people convert out of a real desire to become Catholic and receive the Sacraments, but have no where to go for culture. I read somewhere that Senator John Kerry’s grandfather, a Polish Jew, converted under such circumstances. His answer was to “turn Irish” by adopting an Irish name and trying to blend in with the largely Irish Catholic community. Now, perhaps this was easier for him than trying to create some kind of “Jewish Catholic” culture that has never actually existed (a project that, while interesting, would be fraught with danger). However, it seems odd for a man to give up his own traditions so thoroughly, along with his old religion. I know for one that I, a white Catholic convert living in California’s Central Valley, would be laughed at by everyone if I tried to “turn Mexican.” Thankfully for me I have a connection, more tenuous I suppose than Mr. Vasquez’s but more real than a typical convert, to real Catholic culture: my mother was the “broken link” in the Catholic chain, and so I have grandparents from the “Catholic ghetto,” as well as family that still remembers the “old days” of Irish American Catholicism.
However, many American converts don’t have even that. They have nowhere to go but the hard road that Jeff Culbreath proposes. As much as they might like to lay claim to the sorrows and glories and agonies and joys of Mexican, or Portuguese, or Irish, or Filipino, etc., Catholicism, they simply don’t have access to it. If they try to make their Anglo culture “Catholic” they are pretending and making something up that never was. But if they try to join some other culture, they are pretending to belong to something that really doesn’t include them. I know that Mr. Vasquez doesn’t have the answers, and neither do I, but it is a very real and pressing problem for converts.