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The life of Catholic culture

James Matthew Wilson | Friday, March 30, 2007

Any hack may write of the death of Catholic culture in a newspaper column, because it is in the papers that obituaries appear. It is more difficult and embarrassing to speak of the life of something still living. Death is for the broadsheets, life for the narrow intimacy of the confessional.

In our climate, people confess endlessly, but nobody goes to Confession. We divulge our sordid affairs in public, conforming ourselves to the form of spectacle, whereas the only justifiable reason to recount one’s history is if one can form it into a story, giving it a structure that leads to edification and change. With some reluctance, I wish to recount part of my own life in the tentative twilight of a Catholic culture and then offer a few lessons derived from it.

Like many children born into a Catholic family during the last decades, I was raised in a prosperous suburb and attended Catholic elementary school. Before school each morning, all students attended Mass. The statue of the Virgin Mary, trampling the serpent under her bare foot, stood in every classroom. She arrested my imagination, because she seemed the most beautiful woman in the world, and because the crushing of the serpent seemed such a dramatic symbol of the conflict of Good against Evil.

The moral dilemmas of privileged children run – or at least ran – along fairly simple lines, and I had no difficulty interpreting the world through the basic catechesis we received in religion class. Everyone I knew was Catholic, except for the kids in my neighborhood; I recall being puzzled by my best friend and neighbor’s Lutheranism. Once, after learning about the Reformation and the anti-Catholicism pervasive in American history, I sat in Mass day-dreaming of becoming a Crusader to protect St. Thomas Aquinas Parish from the invasions of the … Puritans?

My parents were active in the Parish and exemplified the practices of devotion to the Church in myriad ways, from my dad’s visiting the inmates of a nursing home every Sunday, to my mom’s running the inevitable “religious goods” shop in the coffee bar at Church. So long as I was in Catholic school, their actions reinforced what I learned in the classroom, and what I studied in school articulated – often in awe-striking formulae – the atmosphere through which I moved.

After the fifth-grade, I transferred to public school. There, the behavior of the students shocked my sensibility, and at first I had no difficulty critiquing their acts and language in light of the moral formation I had already received. My parents’ examples of devotion and charity did not necessarily wane, but since they did not actively explain the meaning of their actions, they became in a sense unintelligible to me. In the meantime, the deeds of my classmates became perfectly comprehensible, and I was soon fluent in the vocabulary of juvenile venery and of that adolescent concept of rights, freedom, and indulgence taught not in schools, but during the afternoon hours of 3 to 6 in the latch-key world of broken homes.

Near the end of my high school years, I recall walking home past St. Thomas one autumn afternoon. I thought, “What I do and what is right is between me and God, and it’s not for anyone to judge.” Desire for a God in which I had once believed lingered, though I more or less believed the world a chaos of objects and options that I might choose without consequence. I had reconfigured that desire so it would not stand in the way of those choices.

Nothing contested that configuration until I encountered two things in college. First, I intuited that the student culture in Ann Arbor was at once libertine and careerist, an amoral desire for success confirming an amoral hedonistic nocturne. Second, for some reason, I signed up for a class on Dante. Reading the “Divine Comedy” brought me into a world at once familiar and foreign. More importantly, what was “foreign” about the poem seemed as if it should be native to me, as if it were not just another world, but a worldview to which I belonged.

I loved the Catholic world of Dante but could not believe in it at the expense of the college world of hedonism. One Sunday, suspecting at last I had become an atheist, I decided to test the hypothesis by going to Mass at St. Thomas the Apostle (Doubting Thomas) Church. At Communion, I approached the altar, prepared to receive my unbelief like a seal. When the bread and wine touched my tongue, I received rather my belief as a sacrament.

From that moment, I was once again a Catholic in mind and heart, but also in isolation. My life in the Church entailed solitude at Mass and the private devouring of theology and devotional books in my bedroom. It was life in the “upper room” not “on the mount.”

What conclusions have I drawn from experience? Mostly obvious ones, I am afraid. We must reverse at whatever cost the waning of Catholic schools. Every priest at the pulpit and every half-devoted Catholic should feel obliged to exhort parents to enroll their children in a school where they will learn the meaning of the sacraments.

There is much bad theology in the Church and it flows more easily into the lives of relatively unschooled Christians than the good, because it resembles more closely the pagan culture in which we live. The pious and the intellectual should feel obliged not only to support Catholics schools financially and to enroll their children, but also to work or volunteer there. Even if one has no children, one has at present this responsibility.

Following John Paul II, parents must learn to make intelligible the meaning of Catholic doctrine and practice to children whose everyday lives may not have a vocabulary to express the divine, or any self-transcendence save that of consumer gluttony. We all must do this – without bowdlerizing that practice into the alternative consumerism of “spirituality.”

Catholicism is an inherently communal religion, meant to extend as wide as civilization itself. And so Catholics will always struggle when they constitute a minority religion in a pagan society. And yet struggle we must, for the time being, to be a mark of contradiction. Even those of us consigned to the suburbs must strive against the individualist insularity they encourage. On this score, we will perhaps have succeeded when Saints’ feast day festivals fill our suburban streets as they once did the ethnic neighborhoods of our cities, and when we once more chart our calendar not in terms of wage-slave weekdays and weekends, but in terms of the feasts of those martyrs who suffered that our everyday lives might be as filled with symbol and meaning as their own deaths.

James Matthew Wilson is a Sorin Research Fellow who always looks on the bright side of life. He can be

martyred at jwilson5@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the authors and not

necessarily those of The Observer