No-Exit Catholicism

By Sam Rocha
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.