Sunday, April 29, 2007

Another reason why I am no longer a Catholic

Charles J Chaput castigates Christans and secluarites alike for the sorry state of society in FirstThings:

Unfortunately, I think the current American debate over religion and the public square has much deeper roots than the 2006 and 2004 elections, or John Kennedy’s 1960 election—or the Second Vatican Council, for that matter. A crisis of faith and action for Christians has been growing for many years in Western society. It’s taken longer to have an impact here in the United States because we’re younger as a nation than the countries in Europe, and we’ve escaped some of Europe’s wars and worst social and religious struggles.

But Americans now face the same growing spiritual illness that J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Romano Guardini, and C.S. Lewis all wrote about in the last century. It’s a loss of hope and purpose that comes from the loss of an interior life and a living faith. It’s a loss that we can only make bearable by creating a culture of material comfort that feeds—and feeds off of—personal selfishness.


You would think that pointing out the people who were describing the West's spiritual illness and loss of hope in the last century would clue Chaput in to the observation that despite such gloomy lack of purpose Western society's surviving another century and thriving to boot puts paid to the notion that those sages of yesterday were on to something. Either they were crying wolf or the presence of wolves in our social pasture is an expected and livable condition.

Bernanos had an unblinkered vision of the “signs of the times.” Remember that, just after the Second World War, France experienced a Catholic revival. Recovering from a global conflict and the Holocaust, the world in general and France in particular seemed to turn back—briefly—to essentials. It was during that hopeful season that the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council gave us Gaudium et Spes.

But Bernanos always saw the problems beneath the veneer. He wasn’t fooled by the apparent revival of Catholic France. And so his work is a great corrective to the myth that our moral confusion started in the 1960s. As Bernanos makes clear, our problems began with the machine age—the industrial revolution—but not simply because of machines. They were the fruit of a “de-spiritualization” that had been going on for some time.


Well, we aren't going to de-industrialize. Any spiritual regimen that can't survive the technological progress of society just isn't useful enough to keep around. This isn't far from Richard Weaver's contention in his critique of Western society "Ideas Have Consequences" that the West's moral decay can be traced to the victory of nominalist over realist theology in the Medeval church. If our doom rests on such remote and unavoidable developments, then any prescription for same is undoubtedly futile.

Bernanos argues that the optimism of the modern West is a kind of whistling past the graveyard. The Christian virtue of hope, he reminds us, is a hard and strong thing that disciplines and “perfects” human appetites. It has nothing to do with mere optimism. Real Christian hope comes into play as the obstacles to human happiness seem to grow higher.

Bernanos takes it upon himself to show us just how high the obstacles to real human freedom have become, even in liberal democracies. He argues that our modern optimism is a veneer over a despair bred by our greed and materialism. We try to fool ourselves that everything will turn out for the best, despite all the evidence to the contrary—crime, terrorism, disease, poverty—and we even concoct a myth of inevitable progress to shore up our optimism. American optimism in particular—Bernanos refers to the United States bitterly as “the Rome, the Mecca, the holiest sanctuary of this civilization”—is really only the eager restlessness of unsatisfied appetites.


The problem is that there is little evidence to the contrary. The evidence largely supports American optimism. Bernardos' singling out of America's deleterious influence on the world through the spread of optimism reinforces two negative conclusions that I have made about the Catholic Church: one, that it promotes a worship of suffering; the second is that, at the institutional level at least, it does not sit well with Americanism.

It seems that the Catholic faith that Chaput is arguing for is the opposite of a "hothouse flower". It can only exist in the worst, the most hopeless of social conditions. Once a society gets the crazy idea in its head that conditions can be improved by the application of hard work and human ingenuity, the intense focus on suffering necessary to keep this faith alive becomes harder to maintain.

Christians are always proclaiming the "good news" of the Gospels. But Christianity has always been a bad news, good news proposition. The good news is only revelatory after one has bought in to the bad news. And the bad news brought by Christianity is very bad. Man is universally fallen, corrupt and irredeemable. People aren't naturally born with such a negative disposition toward themselves, it has to be drilled into them. Chaput and Bernardos are complaining that Christians have been lax at drilling in the bad news. They've been too distracted by the "false" good news of human progress. Once the terrible news of inherent, irreversible and irredeemable human depravity is no longer widespread across society, then the good news of the Gospel becomes superfluous.

26 Comments:

Blogger monix said...

Your reaction to this article confirms what you said in an earlier post about liking what you like. You read the article and find another reason to reject the Catholic church, I read it and am reminded why I cling on in there!

April 30, 2007 3:01 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

Monix,
I don't begrudge you your faith for a second. Faith is such a particular, such a personal thing that I think it is futile to expect everyone to agree on a single faith position, either for or against religion.

But I think Chaput is emphasizing a side of Catholicism that is just out of touch. Optimism may not always be warranted, but he almost makes it sound sinful. I don't think that many Catholics, at least here in the States, share his love of pessimism. Chaput is railing against Catholics as much as he is against secular optimists.
But as the two posts I linked to demonstrate, optimism is winning the day.

April 30, 2007 7:23 AM  
Blogger monix said...

I thought he was making a distinction between optimism and hope, either of which would preclude pessimism.

April 30, 2007 7:39 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

'bred by our greed and materialism. We try to fool ourselves that everything will turn out for the best, despite all the evidence to the contrary—crime, terrorism, disease, poverty'

Hmmm. If 'greed and materialism' is a vice, then poverty ought to be a virtue.

That was, in fact, what the Catholics taught me. The best of us, we were told, could only hope to be good enough to take a vow of poverty.

That was not one of the reasons I gave up on Catholicism, but it would be a very good raason to do so.

April 30, 2007 8:30 AM  
Blogger monix said...

Duck and Harry, you obviously had a different experience of catholicism from mine. Without even trying, I can come up with a hundred reasons to give up on it, but you have to get the basic tenets right before objecting to them. The eradication of injustice and poverty is a basic aim of Christianity. Practice falls short of the preaching but that's the fault of human behaviour, not the teaching.

April 30, 2007 9:06 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Man is universally fallen, corrupt and irredeemable. People aren't naturally born with such a negative disposition toward themselves, it has to be drilled into them.

It's been my experience that the best driling is done by ordinary people, and it occurs regardless of what religious leaders are teaching.

But venality and evil don't depend on deprived circumstances; when we're living in the Star Trek-ian future of freedom from want, (and we eventually will be), we'll still find that there are some people who are willing to take advantage of others, for reasons of their own - status, political power, self-aggrandization...

Bernanos is a fool, and also projects his own internal mental anguish on society as a whole.

Modern optimism is not "a veneer over a despair bred by our greed and materialism", it's a rational response to a history of ALWAYS PREVAILING over adversity.

We try to fool ourselves that everything will turn out for the best, despite all the evidence to the contrary—crime, terrorism, disease, poverty...

When has there not been crime, disease, poverty, and the threat of war or other violence ?!?
By historical and global standards, modern advanced nations make Pangloss look like a depressive.

It's ahistorical, ignorant, and possibly depraved not to recognize that NOW is the best possible time to be alive, if one is especially concerned about abating disease, poverty, and even crime.

Bernanos refers to the United States bitterly as “the Rome, the Mecca, the holiest sanctuary of this civilization.”

Thank you, thank you very much.

April 30, 2007 8:25 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

I cannot agree that eradicating injustice and poverty has ever been a goal
of the Roman church. Creating injustice has been more like it.

However, that's just me.

But IF eradicating paverty is the goal, then why disparage materialism?

Last week, my wife and I revisited the Cloisters in Manhattan, which we had
visited on our honeymoon 40 years ago. As I walked around the magnificent
structures and artwork, all I could think was: Considering the level of
consumption in the Middle Ages, these people would have been better served,
down here at least, if they'd spent all that energy on devising piped water
and cleansing the streets.

I don't see anything just about taking widow's mites to build gigantic
useless edifices or put gold plate on an elephant tusk for the greater glory
of the Big Spook.

We also visited the Museum of the American Indian and I had the same
thoughts about the pagan religious objects there.

Why does being spiritual always involve transferring gold to priests?

April 30, 2007 8:47 PM  
Blogger monix said...

"Why does being spiritual always involve transferring gold to priests?"

That's one of the hundred reasons I mentioned earlier. I'd say it's because throughout the history of the church an awful lot of men entered the priesthood for reasons that have nothing to do with faith. It's a great institution for the ambitious, but just once in a while you meet a really good one who makes the Gospel meaningful. I've been lucky enough to encounter enough of those people to help me ignore or tolerate the things that drive most people away.

I'm highly selective and make the distinction between faith and religion. My family tell me I'm not a real Catholic but I say that I am the authentic one and the majority are getting it wrong!

May 01, 2007 2:33 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, but why does the church (any of them) preach against having and consuming?

Why is not having and not consuming considered more spiritual?

Except, of course, what Jesus said about rich men.

Jesus didn't work. He was a consumer and not a producer.

Why is that thought of as more worthy?

I'm not talking about undershooting an ideal. I'm questioning the ideal.

May 01, 2007 9:13 AM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

And lo', the wisdom of the Socrates of Northhampton was revealed.

May 01, 2007 9:48 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

What Harry said. Chaput and Bernardos remind me of those Quebec Catholics who strove to keep French Quebec in a time capsule of rural poverty under the rubric of Survivance. During the industrial revolution Church leaders railed against the move from farms to cities by hard-pressed habitants. Even when they emigrated to New England, as my great-grandparents did, to work in the bustling mills, the clerics followed to set up French parishes where they hoped to keep their flock in the idealized cultural mould of the French Ancien Regime as seen through the lens of survivance. When the Rhode Island legislature passed a bill in the 1820s mandating that all students graduate at least the 10th grade, Quebec clerics protested. To them education meant assimilation to the hated, materialistic American culture.

I've used the term "worship of suffering" to describe the mindset that values poverty over affluence. I've also linked this mindset with an over-appreciation of societal aesthetics. This mindset has much in common with that recent conservative heresy "Crunchy Conservatism", especially seeing that many in the crunchy camp are Catholics. I've written about the passing of aesthetic judgments on society here and here. It also reminds me of Orrin's creepy vision of a "lovely society". I think more people have suffered and died in the service of making society lovely than any other reason.

May 01, 2007 10:50 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

That should read "When the Rhode Island legislature passed a bill in the 1920s mandating that all students graduate at least the 10th grade.."

May 01, 2007 10:51 AM  
Blogger monix said...

I'm finding it fascinating to see the different experience in different countries of the so-called universal church.

I come from immigrant Irish stock who were treated very badly by the Protestant English. There used to be notices in lodging house windows saying 'No Irish, no Blacks, no dogs.' It was the clerics and religious who established schools among the poor Irish to help them out of poverty.

May 01, 2007 12:12 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

monix:

You have to understand the source of the Duckian antipathy to faith. They all harbour simmering rages that, instead of wasting all that time, God didn't just start with the 2007 versions of Maui and Minneapolis.

May 01, 2007 1:28 PM  
Blogger Duck said...

God has nothing to do with it Peter. You're the one who looks at human malfeasance and sees God at work. I see humans at work. No reason to blame God when there are som many guilty humans.

May 01, 2007 1:35 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Yes, yes, Duck, I know. But you must admit there is a feel around here of: "We don't believe in God, but if we did, are we ever mad at Him".

May 01, 2007 4:32 PM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

As an ex-catholic will state:

Catholicism was child abuse to a v. bright and multi-talented child.

To the sincere members, Catholicism as well as some other religions seems to develop mental illness or flawed Use of Reason at minimum. Won't elaborate here.

For one example, didn't take me long as a kid to realize how the princes of the church lived vs. the nuns way of living. etc. etc. etc.

Now, preference for Deism.

May 01, 2007 7:58 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

That's an interesting point by monix about Catholic education, of which I was a victim.

Taken all in all, Rome has preferred to keep its acolytes ignorant and controllable. See Latin America or Sicily.

But the church, which is primarily a racket, has also been pragmatic enough, in places where it did not dominate society, to see that education was a tool to allow its acolytes to compete against an oppressive dominant group.

The vast American Catholic educational system, huge but of very low quality, like a Mars candy bar, was/is a defensive reaction against the
anticatholicism of 19th c. American Protestants. Nast's cartoon of bishops as crocodiles climbing out of the riverbank mud to chomp on American values
neatly sums up the situation.

My sister was at one time very close to an Irish priest in Virginia. He visited my parents' home often, and once I had a chance to talk with him
about Catholic schools in Ireland. At the time, late 1960s, there was a miniscandal about Irish girls working as mistresses of the mighty in London.

The priest told me that his bishop in Ireland had commented that the
Catholic schools there produced nuns or mistresses, nothing in between.

May 01, 2007 8:38 PM  
Blogger monix said...

"The priest told me that his bishop in Ireland had commented that the
Catholic schools there produced nuns or mistresses, nothing in between."

So, Harry, you never encountered Irish humour before?

May 02, 2007 1:57 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

The priest was not smiling. He was upset.

May 02, 2007 11:11 AM  
Blogger Duck said...

So who were all the Irish Catholic men marrying?

May 02, 2007 11:16 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Notoriously, nobody. Eire had by far the highest average age at marriage in Europe, well over 30 years.

May 02, 2007 2:25 PM  
Blogger monix said...

No, really Harry, that joke is as old as the one about the Irishman caught smuggling brandy on his way home from Lourdes.

May 02, 2007 2:28 PM  
Blogger Peter Burnet said...

Darn it, monix, you've just condemned us to a tirade from Harry on how for two thousand years the Church stole booze from the poor.

May 03, 2007 3:08 AM  
Blogger Alexandra said...

Likely too late for readers, but
feel an Addendum is in order as a recovering ex-catholic. Couldn't leave until left area as an adult due to family constraints, i.e., respect for family.


Religions develop myopic thinking at minimum.
Think the Catholic church(as well as some other religions) should have been sued for practices and beliefs indoctrinated that constitute child abuse from Neuroscience perspective...input and networks developing little brains and all the formative years.


Geeze, a God who sees and knows all to ...talk about developing paranoia.

Absolutley depressive ceremonies practices, and beliefs.

And the Mass? How many thousands of times have to repeat the same prayers, etc. over and over the same everything ...
the same medieval level ...

An authority hierarchy taking the cream off the top of donations.

Suffering for the sake of suffering
(pagaentry for hierarchy who live like princes)

Rules for the sake of control.

Forcing confessions on little kids.

Making millions miserable by forcing them to have unwanted children than they could afford with its absurd birth control rules.

Lying and covering up about pervert priests for decades.

May 03, 2007 10:00 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Actually, for me, being forced to confess was sort of liberating. None of us was conscious of any serious wrongdoing, so we bent our unformed minds to inventing plausible sins to confess to.

Learning that the priests couldn't tell the difference may have been the first signal that I understood that religious claims were crap.

May 03, 2007 3:23 PM  

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