No-Exit Catholicism

By | April 9, 2014

It is understandable that some people cringe at the idea of Catholicism being reduced to an existential condition or a religious disposition, a cultural or folkloric aesthetic.  There is something too soft and sentimental, too theologically unchecked, about these forms of “cultural Catholicism.”  George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism is a good example of a direct argument against it.  Fr. Robert Barron’s approach, in his popular Catholicism series, is a very measured way of implicitly making the same point.

It would seem, then, that it is all or nothing.  Full-force kerygmatic Gospel proclamation, rooted in the sacraments and liturgy, or a secular “none.”

But is it true?

There is an argument to be made that it is patently false.  Others have made this point before in different ways (von Balthasar, Maritain, and Gilson all come to mind, but they seem to be mostly forgotten, misunderstood, or ignored nowadays), but more concrete examples abound.  For instance, consider the vast canon of the public presence of art in the West.  There is a very real cultural anthropology present, especially in the art of Europe, that cannot be described as generically religious.  It is distinctly Catholic.  In many ways, the analogy is direct: Much of that art was commissioned by and for the Church, and directly took up Catholic images and themes because of it.  Then there are the oblique and indirect ways that these works of art create an aesthetic consciousness that became embedded in the culture itself.

To live amidst Catholic art is to be affected and educated by it.  This is public pedagogy in its most refined and effective state.  Religious architecture, for instance, has geographical and ecological effects, leading to a spatio-temporal affect in the human person who dwells within the literal beauty of the church (which, of course, is not to be confused with the figurative, but every bit as real, beauty of the Church).

Public religious art is, perhaps, too weak a case study to measure the more concrete confessional and dogmatic creeds that are oftentimes claimed—especially by a certain class of converts (Ross Douthat, Rod Dreher, et al)—as being the sine qua non of Catholicism.  However, it is precisely the weakness of this aesthetic and affective environment, this fragile ecology of sorts, which makes it hard to deny altogether.

A soft breeze.

Another, more personal, example:

My story begins as the son of a lay Catholic evangelist, raised in a missionary family, steeped in a rigorous and mendicant upbringing in the practice of an evangelical Catholicism, leading to my undergraduate studies at Franciscan University of Steubenville.  The “essential content” of the core Gospel message, the basic proclamation of the Good News, in the power of the Holy Spirit, rooted in the tradition and teachings of the Catholic Church.  It is hard to imagine a more evangelical Catholicism than this.

At the same time, my Catholic story began long ago.  Longer and deeper roots than autobiography.  I am a cradle Catholic, with an ancestry of colonial blending of blood and culture in Texas and the Southwest, leaving me with thick Catholic roots, watered with Mexican folklore.  Posadas and Guadalupe.  I learned about my faith from my father, the evangelist, but I lived my faith with, and in many ways through, his father—my abuelito, a simple Catholic man of flesh and bone.  Both were necessary, to be sure, but one was prior and indispensable to the other.

Cradle Catholics can be arrogant and self-important, especially when relating to converts; of this there is little doubt, and I am no exception.  But this fault seems to be a general expression of nativism—albeit a shameful, nasty and off-putting one—and the binary assumption of the cradle versus convert is not without its exceptions.

Nonetheless, cradle Catholics are sometimes misunderstood, I think, when it comes to issues like doctrinal orthodoxy and the evangelical tenets of Catholicism.  What may seem to be apathy may, in fact, be a different expression of the lived experience of being Catholic from womb to inevitable tomb.  Ancestry and culture.  In other words, when doctrine is not the sole hinge of a genealogy of belief, often because of an aesthetic ecology of religious practice and lived beauty, it is perhaps understandable, I think, when doctrine doesn’t rise to the level of supreme importance.

In my own experience, the Catholic Church resembles the Hotel California.  “You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.”  This is a no-exit Catholicism.  Its cultural affectations are useful in describing its external details, but they fail to capture its powerful grip over the imagination, a life, and the soul.

In many cases the expression of this no-exit Catholicism is through the arts and culture.  No wonder, then, why it is abundant there, even through negation—even an atheist who has felt the Catholic imprimatur will show it sometimes.  Contemporary artists, for instance, cannot seem to help themselves, despite the hegemonic rise of a smug and cynical secularism.

Recently, in the mostly secular academy where I do my work, I have noticed a remarkable number of people who have this “no exit” sense of Catholicism.  People cradled, raised, and/or educated by the Church who intentionally left or just drifted away, but never ceased to think and even express themselves through a Catholic lens of some kind, in serious ways—even serious jokes.

Even the rather anti-Catholic cliché of being a “recovering Catholic” expresses the same truth we know of all addicts: You never stop being an addict; it stays with you forever; you can only manage to recover by degrees and proportion.  Odd as it may seem, this notion of “recovery” is, perhaps, a more faithful, albeit inverted, expression of the Catholic universal call to holiness through continual and constant conversion.

None of this is to suggest that a “no-exit” Catholicism is sufficient on its own terms.  This is not to replace one zero-sum game for another.  After all, the public cultural dimension, and the personal lived experience, are often torn and fragmented with the increasing loss of a religious culture, truly public and common ground, and a holistic sense of the family, leaving the door open to a terrifying and total exit.  And, even when things are mostly intact, as I experienced, there is still a facile reduction that can minimize the radical, incarnational reality of the Gospel, with the power to transform and heal.

This sense of Catholicism acknowledges the place for the cultural and aesthetic anthropology of the Church, with the genealogy and lived experience of the cradle Catholic—and the convert, too; I’ve heard many converts talk about how they “felt” Catholic long before they converted.  It is not necessarily a threat to, or critique of, an evangelical Catholicism.  Just the opposite: A no-exit Catholicism affirms a fundamental desire that is complementary and even, in some ways, identical to the evangelical desires of orthodoxy and magisterial fidelity.

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  • kv

    Thought provoking. I am all that you describe yourself to be regarding your experience with Catholicism. I am still intricately involved in all aspects of the Church and the culture of Catholicism. I am NOT a recovering Catholic, although I know lots of them and actually sympathize with them to some extent for leaving the liturgical communion of the Church. So I ask myself, if I were a recovering Catholic what would I be like? My mind runs to the story in John’s gospel (the bread of life discourse) where the followers were happily listening to Christ speak of himself as the bread of life and he who eats the flesh of the Son of Man and drinks his blood will have life within them. The followers are horrified and state that this is a hard teaching. They eventually walk away , yet I am sure , have been ‘touched’ by their experience with Christ. Does that ever leave them? Are they now hateful to Christ in their discussions with others? Do they wake up at night and ponder what the experience was all about? Maybe later, they actually came back to the young community after the resurrection. I get what you are trying to say regarding the process of encountering Christ by peering at the fullness of Truth as found in the Catholic church , wrestling with it and maybe always being on the periphery. Maybe being attracted to the amazing beauty and cultural effects of the faith over the centuries, yet never being able to accept the dogmatic, apostolic stream. Many times in my life I have been part of the mystery of watching someone come into the fullness of the truth and enter the communion of the church It is always a mystery to me how it happens. Yet it is so cool to see it happen and know full well, the conversion was a process of cooperating with the Holy Spirit. I was once asked by a couple that was preparing my husband and I for the sacrament of marriage, if I could see myself as anything but Catholic. I emphatically stated no. When asked why, I responded, because what happens on the altar at every Mass, happens nowhere else in the world, and I could never walk away from that. For me this is the final challenge as it was for the disciples in John’s gospel, can I accept that I must eat the flesh and drink the blood of the son of man or have no life within me or is the saying too hard? In the end we are all challenged by this reality and either stay outside wrestling or we enter in the banquet hall. I am saddened that so many have not been able to accept this vast mysterious love that the great lover has offered to us and walk away because it is so disturbing. Yet, the Holy Spirit is always working, so I will evangelize until I take my last breath.

  • Thomas Storck

    Before I was received into the Church (in 1978) I had two different things pulling me toward the Faith. One was the essentially Catholic understanding of Christianity that I’d imbibed from High Church Anglican writers, the other was my contact with lived Catholic culture and with historic representations of that culture, e.g., art. I experienced this especially in Santa Fe and at the Assumption pilgrimage at Our Lady of Consolation in Carey, Ohio. Both of them, doctrine and Catholic culture, are essential to a full Catholic sensibility, I think. We cannot reduce the Faith either to a set of propositions in Church documents or to a cultural or familial tradition. We need both.

  • Eric Scheidler

    Your article puts me in mind of the claim often made that so-and-so (usually a politician) is “Catholic in name only” (a phrase borrowed from the even sillier “Republican in name only” — as if “Republican” has an intrinsic meaning other than the “name” of people gathered in that party).

    I reckon is someone is a baptized Catholic, they’re Catholic. Maybe a bad Catholic, maybe even one whose public dissent from the truth Catholicism proclaims is scandalous, but still a Catholic.

    The Catholic faith has some kind of hold on people, even when their lives seems to be almost completely unmarked by any overt Catholic identity. You saw it on display last year during the papal election — all these folks suddenly proud to say they’re Catholic, and taking a stake in the election of Pope Francis.

    Yes, I’d rather every Catholic were fully engaged, living out a vibrant faith. But better membership in “no-exit Catholicism” than banishment among the secular “nones,” I say.

  • Bob

    I realize that my question is going to reduce the richness of what you are getting at, but is there anyway to quantify, evaluate, or judge the cultural aspects of Catholicism you are describing?

  • SamRocha

    I think the expression “I know it when I see it” applies here, too.

  • Ralph Coelho

    The original enlightenment was of a few, literate and
    educated scientist s, some of whom saw them almost sons of god with superior competence.
    While they fought with the clergy of the day they were unintelligible to the
    masses. And so the Enlightenment failed.

    Today’s Enlightenment covers every person, literate or not
    through the pervasive electronic media. What is called family entertainment today
    centres around homosexuality, fornication, sexual liaisons lasting from a
    lunchtime incident to years, “erthy” language rather than innuendo that are
    freely spoken in the hearing of small children?

    It takes a brave person to even show disapproval; worse,
    some people actually think that by accompanying this people by using their
    language they establish a relationship that they will use to influence them to
    change.

    Catholics have to express their disapproval because they are
    offended in themselves and not because the Church teaches them otherwise. This is
    based on the belief that they must believe is their hearts what the church teaches
    is right because they feel it and not because the Church claims it is the will
    of God.

  • http://rosarynovice.stblogs.com/ Augustine

    I was born in the largest Catholic country in the world. Unlike in the US, the central town square is not where the courthouse is, but where the mother church is. Even to this day, when it remains the largest Catholic country mostly nominally, Catholicism permeates daily life. Churches still proudly toll their bells both to mark the passing of time and to celebrate the Eucharistic Transubstantiation at one of the handful of daily masses attended by pious widows clinging to their rosaries with bony fingers.

    Unlike you though, my parents did not raise us in any faith, except when hatching, matching or dispatching. They never took us to Sunday Mass. Yet, through a baptized culture, the Faith always exerted an influence on me, a sense of belonging to the Church as if within, though outside.

    I guess that such state can remain latent for a lifetime, as I can attest to based on my own extended family. But, as in my case, it can truly blossom an active faith life, supplementing the family passing on the faith.

    When Catholicism permeates the culture, it’s not quite the cause shaping customs, norms of conduct and laws, but another manifestation of what drives such orientation of a whole society: the Sensus Fidei. It is like the sinew that binds the members of the Body of Christ together under the Head.

    I have certainly had people who influenced and helped me to grow in the Faith, including a certain Father of the Church whom I took as my Confirmation patron and whose name I took as my Internet nickname, but it was a Catholic culture that opened for me the doors, not the entrance doors, but the narthex doors to the Church’s spiritual treasure.

  • Jonathan Quist

    As a convert to Catholicism I can say that I think the evangelical side of Catholicism is what initially drew me in, particularly the doctrinal unity and sacramental reality. But now after about a decade I really think the cultural side is what sways me and holds me in place. I think that the evangelical side can often be too reductive and almost barren, I’ve found this particularly after spending a year instituting Life Teen into a parish which almost destroyed any religious sentiment in me. I want something of the Catholicism of the old Irish man who I worked with when I was plumbing who in-between raucous, dirty jokes told me how donkey’s have a cross on their backs because that is where Jesus rode on Palm Sunday.

  • Bill Maniotis

    I would worry less about “fitting in” if certain “Catholic” ideas were “permitted” in the public square/Academy. I don’t have your philosophical background, so I’m not sure I will be able to express myself in the proper fashion, but it seems to me that ONE major problem our secular institutions don’t seem to “allow for” is the notion that human beings are a mix of good and evil (as is the world we inhabit). That “Catholic” notion helps me fundamentally understand much of what goes on around me. Unfortunately, I am a doctoral student in Education, and the dominant presupposition held by most at my (Catholic) University is that good/evil do not exist (at least in any discernible way), or, more often, that we are fundamentally good and society makes us bad. I would be fine with those “lenses” if it weren’t a heresy to ground my research in the aforementioned “Catholic” lens I generally use to “see” the world. How do we make room for such Catholic stances in such a hostile environment, Sam? I find myself saying things like “I agree that we construct our own understanding of reality, but not that reality itself is a construct.” You can imagine how that statement goes over when I am in the presence of a social scientist of any sort. I also annoy my professors when I suggest that philosophy and theology cannot be banned from my research projects–and the school of Education–without a serious “skewing” of our understanding of how to educate human beings. Because I can’t devise an experiment to prove such a statement, I am dismissed as “conservative” or an “Orthodox loon.” How will I survive in the Academy if I can’t convince myself to “convert” to its dominant lenses?