“I don’t see many examples of rich involvement in public spaces that are open to strangers and friends alike,” says a millennial writer named Erin Lane, interviewed in the Evangelical magazine Christianity Today. “That’s one of the unique features of the church, at least right now, that it offers a common space between your private friends and the larger community. I think we’re losing some of those rich public spaces where anyone can show up, regardless of fitness or food preferences or economic status and ability to work.”
Serious Catholics — by and large and in my own experience — don’t spend a lot of time in public spaces. By “serious” I don’t mean the man who goes to the early Mass every day before work, or the group who come to say the rosary on Wednesday evening, deeply faithful as they are, but those of us who care about Catholicism as a thing: the people who read the Catholic press, keep the Catechism by their computer, argue over Francis, can parse the distinction between the ordinary and extraordinary magisterium, mentally grade the homily, take sides on Scott Hahn, follow church politics and fret about the state of the Church, or fuss about those who fret about the state of the Church. Some of them do it for a living.
I speak as one of them. We wear the Church on our sleeve. It is, as I say, a thing for us. The Church is a life and a family but also something external, something we analyze and examine. This is especially true for converts, who make up a higher percentage of this group than they do of the Church in general. For us, the public space we inhabit tends to be the space we choose and the spaces we choose tend to be filled mostly with people like us, which is to say, other serious Catholics.
“We’ve forgotten how to belong — to institutions, to one another — and we need to recover some basic practices that remind us of our interdependence,” Lane says.
She describes the alienation of the affluent who, however anxious and alienated they feel, are at home and comfortable in the world. That’s the world in which the serious Catholics live. We have, can afford to have, “lifestyle enclaves.” Find almost any male Catholic who writes a lot for Catholic websites and magazines and the odds are you will find a beer snob who only drinks high-end coffee and may make his at home in a French press. (Although, oddly, men who know their IPAs sometimes dress as if their clothes were chosen by their mother — in 1982.) The life in our enclave includes the attitude to the Church I described.
It is not quite the Catholic life God intends for us because we tend to live the truths in a disembodied way and outside the Church’s primary public space, the parish. This has struck me strongly, looking at my own life, and I apologize if it does not apply to others in the same way. As a writer it is easy to say, “This is my calling, which I have to pursue by myself, and doing well what I have been called to do takes a lot of time and energy. I have to choose my other engagements wisely. I do my part for the parish by going to Mass and putting money in the plate. I have my family and friends and readers and they’re enough of a critical public, thank you.”
To some extent that’s obviously true. I can think of some writers who have failed their vocation, and their readers, and therefore the Church, because they would not pry themselves away from other good works. Other serious Catholics have different reasons for disengagement.
Blessed John Henry Newman described what life in the public space of the parish required. Let me stress that he is not only talking about the Church as a mystical body but of the Church as you meet it in real people. It is the “rich public spaces where anyone can show up.”
“Socrates wished to improve man, but he laid no stress on their acting in concert to secure that improvement,” Newman observed in “An Internal Argument for Christianity.” For Christians, “Fellowship between His followers is made a distinct object and duty, because it is a means, according to the provisions of His system, by which in some special way they are brought near to Him.”
We will be called to judgment on our own, he wrote in the Grammar of Assent, but “among the media by which we are prepared for that judgement are the exertions and pains taken in our behalf by others.” By what he calls the “vicarious principle,” we all “suffer for each other, and gain by each other’s sufferings; for man never stands alone here. . . . Here he [man] is a social being, and goes forward to his long home as one of a large company.”
The parish is the primary place for living the vicarious principle, for gaining from and suffering for others. It is that in great part because it is where the Church gathers, but also in part because you don’t get to choose the people you join and most will fit no mold you’re comfortable with.
They are not only sinners — your best friends are sinners — they are sinners who don’t sin like you and whose sins may particularly annoy you, and yours them. They probably don’t care about the things you care about, and that may annoy both of you. They may be separated from you by class, race, ethnicity, education, taste, history, status in the parish, community, and almost every other possible human distinction. But they are yours to care about and live with anyway.
Let me give a practical example of the benefits. Even your email enemy is like you in caring about the issues you’re arguing about. Bring up one of the issues with the man working beside you at the parish work day and he may well give you a look of blank incomprehension.
He may be wrong not to care, which gives you one kind of challenge, or the issue may be one he is not called to care about, which gives you another, or it may be an issue neither of you is called to care about, which gives you a third. All present you the challenge of being his friend and not a jerk, of exercising real charity. Even if he should care about it, he offers you with the useful challenge of showing him why and you may find your answer from the apologetics books doesn’t work at all. He may see something you don’t or be wiser than you in all sorts of ways you will not be able even to guess until you talk. In all these cases, the attempt to practice charity will change you a little.
The serious Catholic’s main public space should not be the local pro-life group, the homeschool association, or ecumenical Bible study, or even overtly Catholic groups like the specialized fellowships with which the Catholic world abounds — much less a political party, trade association, social club, or other congenial secular enterprise. The serious Catholic would do well to join the guys in the Knights of Columbus and the people organizing the Lenten fish fry or the parish festival, or sing in the choir, or help people to their seats at Mass, or teach RCIA or CCD, and stop being so serious.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng. This article was first published in Touchstone and is reprinted with permission of the author.