How serious is too serious?
“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.