"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Monday, October 06, 2008


There are many such lies, but today I can only call attention to three. One is simply American; two are American and Catholic.

First, as I contemplated the tanking economy today, I was reminded by the Spirit of these words from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 6: 13-15):
Small and great alike, all are greedy for gain; prophet and priest, all practice fraud. They would repair, as though it were nought, the injury to my people: "Peace, peace!" they say, though there is no peace. They are odious; they have done abominable things, yet they are not at all ashamed, they know not how to blush. Hence they shall be among those who fall; in their time of punishment they shall go down, says the LORD.
Such, I believe, is contemporary America. Small and great alike, we have lived beyond our means for many years and allocated resources unjustly. Small and great alike, we are now starting to pay the piper. But rather few of us "get it" yet. The small say it's the fault of the great, the people with the "real" money and the "real" power, not regular folk like us. It's supposed to be the fault of the people who say, from their multi-million-dollar homes, that everything will be basically alright and back to normal once we get the credit flowing again. Well, the great (or those whom the Brits call "the great and good") are full of it. But so are many of the little guys and gals. What's happening now will get worse before it gets better, and it's the fault of everybody who assumes there's nothing wrong with living beyond their means while countless others scrape by with next to nothing. And let's face it: that assumption is a lie which most Americans, from rednecks to high-rollers, love to tell themselves. They rationalize it with an optimism inherited from a simpler time, taking for granted that the toys and other indulgences one cannot pay for now can always be paid for later when things will be better. We need to be weaned from that lie, and "getting back to normal" once we get through this embarrassing part of the boom-bust cycle isn't going to cut it. "Full of fraud," the majority say "peace, peace" when there is no peace. We "know not how to blush." We do not fathom the injury done to God's own people.

Among God's people are the voiceless unborn who are slaughtered in vast numbers so that their parents' lifestyles, or life-plans, will not be ruined by their birth. Among God's people are the workers and farmers around the world who are paid pittances so that we can buy things from them which many of us could not afford to buy if made by our fellow Americans. But God's people are paradigmatically those who, whether they have money or not, are ever striving by grace to be detached from this world's allurements and focused on becoming for eternity the lovers of God and neighbor they were created to be. In the economy of salvation, there is always a saving remnant of such people. If one believes, as I do, that the Catholic Church is the Church, then one believes that such people should be centered on the Catholic Church. In some parts of the world, they are. But American Catholics as a whole are actually worse than America as a whole precisely because they aren't much better than America as a whole.

With the exception of one hour on Sundays, the lives of most American Catholics are indistinghishable from those of other Americans. On one end of the political spectrum, such Catholicism-in-name-only has for decades been facilitated by clergy—the Drinans, the Hesburghs, the Mahonys—who show by their actions that they consider it more important to uphold the Democratic Party platform than the clear, constant, and irreformable teaching of the Church. That there are so many Catholic Obamabots today is a symptom of that legacy. A good antidote to their rationalizations is Dr. Mark Lowery's pamphlet "Catholic Voting and the Seamless-Garment Theory".

But there's also a problem with many of the more "conservative" Catholics. I don't mean the homeschoolers, the Latin-Mass attendees, the NFP enthusiasts, the parents of special-needs children they could have aborted, and the unsung others who make real sacrifices to lead authentically Catholic Christian lives. Such are clearly among the people of God who are screwed by the way America in general is today. I mean the many Catholics I've encountered who are theologically orthodox, and might even be willing to die for the faith if it ever came to that, but who haven't considered sacrificing anything major in their comfortable lives, as led in either the secular world or the Church, so as to become more effective witnesses to the power of the Cross in the here-and-now. The sex-abuse-and-coverup scandal was the fault of both left and right, laity as well as clergy. Just as the false moral theology of the "liberals" helped many priests to rationalize the ephebophilia seen in so much of the abuse, so the complacency and institutional loyalty of the "conservatives" enabled the problem to be denied and covered up for as long as it was. Some of the latter like to point out that there is an equally grave problem of sexual abuse of minors in the public schools. That is true, and we hear relatively little about it because people hold the world to lower moral standards than the Church. But by and large, American Catholics don't live up to "higher standards." Some don't get why they should; others are too far gone even to acknowledge the higher standards as standards.

Hence, just as many American Catholics love the specific lie that the American lifestyle of heedless materialism is nothing to be ashamed of, even more love the general lie is that it's OK to settle for mediocrity. If one can be saved by avoiding the grossest and blackest forms of evil, squeaking into purgatory as a smug mediocrity, then there isn't much motivation to be different from most of the rest of the world. The trouble is that once one settles for mediocrity, one becomes insensibly but thoroughly complicit in the real evils that pervade one's culture and society. That is what happened to the Catholic Church in Germany before World War II. It happened inAmerica at all levels after World War II, and continued merrily on for the next forty years. As a result of the butt-kicking we got from the abuse scandal, and the backbone the American bishops seem to have started acquiring since Ratzinger became pope, there are some rumblings of change. But we have a long way to go before most of us are ready to give up the lies we love.

For that we need unity around the truth. But we are far from there yet. Priests and bishops like to pretend there's unity, but it just ain't so. This is the third big lie American Catholics love, and it's perpetrated largely by the clergy. They say "unity, unity" when there is no unity. The theological and the political polarization are still great enough to constitute an internal schism, and anybody with perspective on and interest in ecclesial matters can see as much.

A symptom of that was what I heard, or more precisely didn't hear, at Mass yesterday. It was the evening Mass for the students at a Catholic college. The problem wasn't so much the music; that was was the standard Haugen-Haas stuff, which I generally dislike, but which you have to expect at such occasions. The problem wasn't the ritual of the Mass itself, which was done more rubrically than I expected; the priest did omit the lavabo at the Offertory, a common fault which has irritated me for thirty years; but I have long been accustomed to saccharine music and minor liberties taken with the rubrics. What really appalled me was the homily.

Technically, it was brilliant: well-delivered, intelligent, pertinent to the bible readings. But the priest took no note of the fact that yesterday, or what was then "today," was both Respect Life Sunday for the Church in the U.S. and the opening of the worldwide Synod on the Word of God in Rome. Both events have been well-publicized in the MSM; the Pope himself has even begun reading the entire Bible over the radio. But from this homilist you would never have got the impression that such events were worth attending to. Instead, he took the day's biblical theme of "the vineyard" as metaphor for the people of God, and said that the walls of the vineyard should not be used to "keep people out." I don't know how many of the students got the message, but I sure did. Perhaps that's because I've heard it all before, way too many times. "Respecting life" does not mean denying communion, and thus "full communion," to anybody who supports "abortion rights." Celebrating the Word of God does not mean denying full communion to people who interpret the Word of God differently from how the Church herself does. How could I not get that message from the homily, if I knew what was going on in the wider Church and could put two and two together?

Such is how unity is undermined by the very celebration of the sacrament of unity. I've seen many other examples of this. The Devil counts on most of us not recognizing the lie. But the Spirit is saying, and not just to me, that the time for lies is growing ever shorter.
blog comments powered by Disqus