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Archive for June, 2009

Reading this article on William Luse’s blog has gotten me thinking more and more about some recent events.  The article, actually an interview transcript, is from 1981 and reproduces a conversation between William F. Buckley and Malcolm Muggeridge.  In this conversation, Muggeridge discusses his reasons for not being Catholic (he did eventually convert, but that is beside the point).  His reasons for not becoming a Catholic, despite his belief in purgatory, papal infalibility, the Creed, his own admiration for the saints, his own opposition to contraception, etc., is that he did not see the Church as actually believing what it said about contraception.

This is quite problematic.  This problem is not one of simple, conventional hypocrisy.  That kind of hypocrisy is easily resolved: a man with the highest and noblest of principles will undoubably fail to live up to them at times.  Some people try to make this an excuse to abandon those principles altogether, but it is fairly transparent that this is incorrect.  The shock at discovery of hypocrisy comes from the failure, not from the thought that one would have such principles to begin with.  The hypocrisy that Muggeridge seems to have seen is different.

It is a lack of moral honesty.  Muggeridge saw a Church that taught against contraception–with a wink and a smile.  A Church where officials were concerned with making sure that their own alleged beliefs were not carried out.  It is not that the priest in question, who wanted Muggeridge to allow the distribution of contraception, believed that contraception but failed to live up to that believe.  Rather, he did not believe that it was wrong to use it, and he attempted to subvert the very principle that he, as a Catholic priest, was required to believe.  In short, he was a liar.

Now, when Obama spoke at Notre Dame, I had a conversation with a formerly-Catholic agnostic who has shown a great respect for the Church and Her teachings in the past.  This agnostic told me that she no longer thought that the Catholic Church was “good at all.”  Though in fact many bishops did speak out against Obama’s speaking at Notre Dame, this fact did not erase the reality that the many priests at Notre Dame did not do anything to stop Obama from speaking there and receiving an honorary degree.  In fact, they brought it about.  For someone who is not already a member of the Church, but who respects the Church for Her stance against abortion, this is a crushing blow to that respect.  Suddenly the Church is not an organization that opposes abortion, but an organization that can’t get its act together and that talks out of both sides of its mouth.

I have, and I’m sure any readers who might happen upon this post have, met priests and other “officials” in the Church who do not believe and even who act against what the Church teaches.  These are not hypocrites who fail to live up to their own high standards, but rather hypocrites and liars who try actively to undermine the truth.

I am not saying that they are “not real Catholics.”  That is an easy dodge of the issue.  They are real Catholics.  Some of them have studied, gone to seminary, and been ordained.  Some are even trusted by the Church with sensitive issues like the religious education of children.  Yes, they are heretics, but they are Catholics to themselves and to the world.  Thus, it is vitally important that when we discuss Church issues with anyone, that we remain true to our Catholic principles.  Little, weaselly words like “well I don’t agree with the Church on everything ” (perhaps you mean an issue like who to appoint Bishop of San Diego or something) is heard by the non-Catholic listener as “it’s okay to disagree with the dogmas and doctrines of the Church.”  By accepting the name Catholic and receiving Holy Communion, we acknowledge the truth of the Church’s teachings.  If we believe otherwise, we are creating a scandal, whether we wish to do so or not.

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A picture of John Paul II among religious images.

A picture of John Paul II among religious images.

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.

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