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Seeking an Aspirational Catholicism

Seeking an Aspirational Catholicism Jeffrey Bruno

Jeffrey Bruno

Daniel McInerny - published on 01/22/14

How can the Church encourage people to aspire to live by her challenging teachings? Only one thing can inspire such commitment.

I have had occasion to praise in one or two recent columns Dom Jean-Baptiste Chautard’s Soul of the Apostolate, a book that is essential reading for anyone seeking to put into action the program Pope Francis sets forth in Evangelii Gaudium. If you will permit me yet another reference to the book, I’d like to draw your attention to a story Dom Chautard tells in it about Pope Saint Pius X. At a meeting with several Cardinals, Pope Pius is reported to have asked them: “What is the thing we most need, today, to save society?” One of the Cardinals said, “Build Catholic schools.” Another: “More churches.” A third suggested speeding up the recruitment of priests. But from all these answers the pope demurred. “The most necessary thing of all,” he said, “is for every parish to possess a group of laymen who will be at the same time virtuous, enlightened, resolute, and truly apostolic.”

In a recent blog post, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a Catholic, discussed the challenge the Church currently faces of making its teachings attractive to a society increasingly distanced from them. The Church’s problem, writes Douthat, is first that of making its “hardest rules seem like aspirations rather than just judgments,” and, second, that of dealing with “the many fine personal gradations that can exist between orthodoxy and apostasy, fidelity and dissent.”

As a means of encouraging an aspirational Catholicism, Douthat extols the value of a certain kind of “cognitive dissonance,” one between the Church’s “hardest rules” and the actual practice of Catholics. The Church’s teaching on contraception, for example, is one that is flaunted, or badly misunderstood, by more than a few U.S. Catholics. For many, a “space,” not to say a yawning cataract, exists between the rule and action. How can this be a good thing? Douthat’s argument is that such tension has often been “a spur toward spiritual growth and more serious practice.” As a witness to this claim he turns to Jewish writer Daniel Gordi’s recent piece in the Jewish Review of Books explaining how Orthodox Judaism gained ground on Conservative Judaism precisely by allowing for such tension between rule and practice. “Conservative Judaism,” writes Gordi, was never “sufficiently aspirational.” When in the 1970s Conservative rabbis dispensed with the prohibition against driving automobiles on Shabbat, the practice of walking to shul for worship simply died out. Orthodox rabbis, meanwhile, consistently condemned the practice, even though many people in their congregation drove to synagogue, secretly parking their cars around the corner. Gordi remarks that few Orthodox Jews today drive to synagogue, thanks in large part to rabbis who held the line. Yet “cognitive dissonance” persists, he observes, in other areas of Orthodox life, such as in eating dairy or fish from non-kosher restaurants. Yet the inconsistency is productive, he maintains. Those who break the kosher restrictions “live with the tension between what they do and what they know that Jewish law, and their rabbinic leaders, demand of them. The ensuing tension means that Judaism—like their marriages, their roles as parents, their professions—demands that they grow.”

So the narrative Douthat is interested in is not the “familiar religious-conservative argument” that the congregation that holds to traditional teachings flourishes, but the subtler point that such dissonance between rule and practice can be “a spur toward spiritual growth and more serious practice.” Douthat suspects there are many so-called “liberal” Catholics “who want something like what [Goldi is] describing in Modern Orthodoxy from their church. That is, they want room to dissent from a teaching or fail to live up to it in practice, but they don’t necessarily want the church to change that teaching so that the dissonance or tension they feel simply goes away.” Some gap, he concludes, “between what individual Catholics believe and what they want the papacy to teach, might not be the worst sign for the future of church.”

But all this is woefully to misunderstand how an “aspirational faith” really works. First, it’s not at all clear that today’s generation of Orthodox Jews walks to synagogue because their parents were “allowed” (Douthat’s verb) room to dissent. Their parents were “allowed” nothing of the sort, they simply did what they felt like doing. And there is no necessary, causal connection between one generation’s disobedience and the next’s obedience. There could be many reasons why today’s Orthodox Jews refrain from the disobedience of their parents, one of the more likely candidates being the attractiveness of the example of their rabbis standing on principle. The “room to dissent,” which is not something the Church offers but is rather an unfortunate tension created by the disobedience of some of her members, is in itself not a spur to anything but further disobedience. It is not a creative space; it is a lack of love.

Indeed, love. That is what is missing from Douthat’s considerations of what is needed to make the hard teachings of the Catholic faith something that people want to aspire to today. We aspire to anything because we love it, which means that we desire to conform ourselves to it. This is what Pius X understood in talking about his groups of laypeople and Chautard by what he called “shock troops,” small bands of spiritual elites who give off in their example, to use Chautard’s phrase, the odor of Christ. Such apostles attract the love of others because there is no “cognitive dissonance” in their lives, because they embody a devotion to the “hardest rules” that is noble and heroic and which speaks these words directly to the heart: “Come and see.”

My evidence for this claim is the happy hordes of young people who will be sleeping on the hard floors of high school gymnasia across the Washington D.C. metropolitan area tonight, having traveled many long miles by bus and car to attend Wednesday’s annual March for Life. These young people have aspired to a Catholicism which answers to their deepest desires for truth, beauty, and goodness, and they have found it in a Church which, as the cultural seas roil around her, stands firm in her convictions.   

Daniel McInerny is the editor of the English edition of Aleteia. You are invited to contact him at, find him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter: @danielmcinerny.    

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