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The Shame of the Catholic Subculture

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John Zmirak - published on 02/10/14

And pop tarts aren’t health food. It isn’t normal for the Church to consist just of saints and zealots, ascetical future “blesseds,” and Inquisition re-enactors. Faith is meant to be yeast that yields a hearty loaf of bread. But since 1968 there has been nothing left to leaven, and we find ourselves eating yeast. (My apologies to English readers who love their Marmite.) The last time I was at the Catholic Marketing Network, which includes all the leading companies in the orthodox Catholic market, most of the attendees seemed to be people who’d bought their own booths – so the whole day was spent watching vendors try to sell each other their stuff.  (“I’ll trade you three copies of The Secret of the Rosary for one of those 3-D Divine Mercy holograms.”)

Man cannot live on yeast alone, and the Church cannot weather the storm with only the handle of the umbrella. We need to encounter a broader range of humanity than can be found in that doctrine-conscious 5 percent – which I’m sure is no odder or more dysfunctional than it has always been throughout Church history.  But we used to have the whole umbrella. 

The weirdness, bitterness, crankiness, and the general mediocrity that pervade the Catholic subculture – from its newspapers to its TV shows, from most of its tiny colleges to the poorly-penned books, and sloppy, sentimental blogs that flood the tiny market of conservative Catholic readers – is the direct result of having few people to choose from. Right off the bat, 95 percent of potential applicants for any position have disqualified themselves for doctrinal reasons.  Beyond that, it’s such a pleasant surprise to find a fellow orthodox Catholic. (“You mean that you’re 100 percent full-blooded Latvian, too?”) It’s tempting not to ask too many more questions – for instance, about the person’s qualifications, talent, or temperament. 

If he checks off the same doctrinal boxes, we accept him as a fellow Party member, and bend over backwards to think the best of him – at least until we get in argument with him over liturgy, doctrine, or economics. Then we spend all our time combating his errors, convinced that we are somehow helping to turn the tide of history, when in fact we are making waves in the kiddie pool.

Is this Church of the Umbrella Handle, with its much smaller set of human types, the “smaller, purer Church” of which Pope Benedict XVI spoke – or is it the subset of “neo-Pelagian immanentists” against whom Pope Francis warned?  Of course, it is both, and the wheat is irretrievably mixed up among the tares. But one thing is certain: It is as inbred as a pack of captive cheetahs, with all the dangers of deformity and disease that that implies.

What’s the answer to all of this? We need that other 95 percent. And given that the key issue on which most dissent hinges today is contraception, we need to do a much better job conveying the Church’s position to ordinary people. 

It’s a hard sell already, because the argument hinges on rediscovering and accepting that there is teleology in nature – that bodies and organs have purposes, not merely “functions” dictated by evolution. But that argument can be made, and we might start by boning up on how teleology and what Aristotle called “final causes” pervade the natural world. (For the best arguments on this subject, see Edward Feser’s The Last Superstition.) 

Next we can show people how, without some notion of natural law, we cannot make the case for human rights – much less for legal rights, or filigrees like anti-discrimination laws. (The best introduction to natural law is J. Budziszewski’s What We Can’t Not Know.) 

Finally, we can point to the miserable outcomes produced for children by parents who treat their sexual powers as toys in a selfish game of utilitarian hedonism. The statistics on children of divorce and of single parents are eloquent on that topic, and Charles Murray summarizes it concisely in Coming Apart

All of these truths can be argued without any reference to Jesus or the Church. They depend not on revelation but nature. And it is only by moving people toward a healthier sense of human nature that we can win them back to the mainstream of the Church – and thereby make the Church itself a healthier, more natural environment. 

I’m not saying that better arguments for natural law andHumanae Vitae will help make orthodox Catholics out of everyone – even though that’s precisely whom the Church is meant to encompass, from drug dealers to crooks on Wall Street. But we have to start somewhere. 

The Church as righteous subculture is unappealing to nearly everyone – including the kids who grow up inside it, who despite all those years of homeschooling and chapel veils frequently flee for what look like saner pastures. We need to stop treating people who don’t “get” the Church’s teaching on contraception as if they were clones of Judas, or heretics like Arius whom St. Nicholas rightly slapped. 

They are people who don’t understand a complex intellectual argument based on the remote implications of natural law reasoning, which is based on an older view of nature that modern science has not so much disproved as simply dismissed. Given the massive implications of this Church teaching for their personal lives, they aren’t willing simply to take the argument on authority. So arguing from authority won’t convince them; it will simply discredit the authority. 

Many Catholics oppose abortion, and treasure the sacraments, and love their spouses, and even have decent-sized families – all of it without understanding or accepting Humanae Vitae. Millions of psychologically normal, hard-working, well-meaning people have blundered into dissent, and ended up in the same camp with bitter heretics like Charles Curran, over this single issue. That single dissent softened them up to drift away from the Church on other issues, as well. 

We shouldn’t count these people out of the Church as we would those who willfully accept abortion or polyamory. We need to listen to their real questions and objections and do a much better job explaining ourselves. Or else that’s who we’ll go right on talking to – ourselves.  

John Zmirak
 is the author, most recently, of 
The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism
. His writing is archived at 
The Bad Catholic’s Bingo Hall

This article first
appeared on the website
The Catholic Thing. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission.

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