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The Shame of the Catholic Subculture

Gbozik Photography

John Zmirak - published on 02/10/14

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.

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