Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Parable of the Sower is the Parable of the Soil

The blogopshere is brimming with the issue upon which I last posted.

Since Mark Shea recently published a comment by Sherry Weddell of the St. Catherine of Sienna Institute lamenting the death of the Catholic Church in America (as far as statistics are concerned), bloggers everywhere have jumped on the bandwagon. From Fr. Z to Fr. Longenecker to everywhere in between, the discussion has heated up – as well it should, for this is the elephant in the living room – or more accurately, the corpse in the corner, the zombie among us, a dead faith in our midst.

The issue, the posts and the comments are fascinating. Everyone agrees there is a problem and is arguing about what the solution might be, and while all sorts of things are being said, the gist of the debate has taken a definable form.

Which is this. Sherry argues that the solution to the problem is to go out and make disciples, for, as she points out, hitting an admirable and inspired rhetorical pitch, “Our deepest, most fundamental problem is that the vast majority of those baptized as Catholics, whether they are practicing or not, are not yet disciples. Disciples pray. Disciples worship. Disciples study. Disciples give. Disciples serve. Disciples discern vocation. Disciples obey. Disciples repent. Disciples are transformed. Disciples are increasingly filled with faith, hope and love.”

She couldn’t be more right here; what we are seeing in our midst cannot be called Christian Discipleship. For we shall know them by their fruits, and how many nominal Catholics bear these fruits? Most of us and our fruits are lukewarm at best, anti-Christian at worst. As Fr. Longenecker points out, “… the Apostles knew their targets [for conversion] were pagans and the pagans knew they weren't Christians. We're dealing with a huge population of Americans (Catholics and Protestants alike) who are pagan but who think they're 'good Christians.' It is very difficult to evangelize people who already think they're fine just as they are.”

Indeed, Erin Manning chimes in via a combox to say that, from the conversations she’s had on her blog with Catholics who dissent from Church teaching on contraception, these heretics think that they’re just fine, thank you, and can be excellent Christians and solid Catholics while doing exactly what-they-want-how-they-want-when-they-want. I had a so-called Christian actress who, at a social event with an Evangelical, started to sing the praises of abortion. When he told her she could not support abortion and be a good Christian, she said, “How dare you say I’m not a good Christian! How dare you judge me!”

Well, of course, we cannot “judge” the way Christ will judge; we know that the tares will be mixed in with the wheat until the end of time. But we can discern; we must discern; and when we see the Church in America on the verge of collapse – meaning the only Church, the Catholic Church and its Protestant members who are not in full communion with it – we must be bold enough to point out what it does and does not mean to be a Christian – or as Sherry would say, a Disciple. Supporting abortion means you are not only a bad Christian, you are probably not a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word – though technically your baptism may have brought you into the Church. Therefore, when Sherry makes a distinction between “Christians” or “Catholics” and “Disciples”, she seems to mean that one’s identity is a mixture of both passive and active elements. One may be baptized as an infant – saved by grace in the most passive way possible; one may passively receive this new identity, and yet as an adult, or even as an adolescent, have actively refused any participation in this identity. This is why Confirmation developed in the Church. There was a recognition, from the earliest centuries, that salvation combines both passive and active elements; that Baptism (subjectively speaking the passive aspect of salvation) must be affirmed and accepted in Confirmation (subjectively speaking the active aspect of salvation).

This is a version of the old Faith versus Works controversy. Works without Faith are meaningless; Faith without Works is dead. St. James tells us that we demonstrate our Faith by our Works. Thus, when we look around us and see a Church whose Works are empty, we know its Faith is dead – and these empty Works include bad homilies, gay music, offensive art and architecture, anti-Christian catechesis.

Therefore, those in this discussion who focus on improving catechesis or reforming the liturgy or reviving Catholic Culture, Sherry would claim, are focusing on Works. Instead, she would argue, we must focus on Faith, on spreading the Faith, and on planting the seed of Faith, which will eventually produce the harvest of Works.

Obviously this is true, as far as it goes. And it answers the self-congratulatory and hollow cant of “Catholic Schools Week”. Teachers, principals, parents, shut up. You can’t pass on a Faith you do not have.

At least not any more.

At one point, “Catholic Identity” and “Catholic Culture” did a lot of the work for us. When the Body of Christ existed as a general atmosphere of belief and when Christ was present in the very soil of the culture cultivated by the cult (fidei cultoribus – as the Mass puts it – “of the faith of those who practice and deliberately cultivate the belief”), then our Catholic Identity was infused by the culture at large and was, from our point of view, more passive and more easily received.

These days, however, as Sherry Weddell points out, it has become a rite of passage for young people deliberately to reject the faith formation of their childhood (if they had any) and to strike out on their own in search of something.

And yet this is not new. When Bl. Dominic Barberi was called to evangelize England in 1841, he expected his challenge would be defending Catholic doctrine to Protestants, arguing the intricacies of theology. What he found, instead, was that he spent his time trying to convince people that there was a God. And fifty years before that, Louis XVI objected to an Episcopal appointment, saying, “Surely the archbishop of Paris must at least believe in God” – which the bishop appointed to that post did not. And of course, long before modern times, the whole world once groaned to find itself Arian.

So Sherry is right in as much as Faith precedes Works, and personal Faith must be actively asserted and lived, while the faith one receives from culture or social identity is more passive and is more easily ignored.

But of course both are important. As many of the commenters in this debate point out, it does little good to make a Disciple if that Disciple will wither and die in a shopping mall parish that won’t nurture his Discipleship.

For the main point of Our Lord’s Parable of the Sower is that it takes Good Soil to nurture the seed, which is the Word of God. And here’s the kicker – Good Soil is not simply an individual affair. Good Soil is cultivated, it is worked and hoed by others; and the growth of the seed of God is watered and nurtured by others.

Yes, individual Discipleship is key, Sherry is right. No, individual Discipleship is not a matter of the individual alone, and Sherry is not right enough in acknowledging this. We must spread the Seed; we must cultivate the soil to receive that seed, we must nurture the seed once it has sprouted. If we look toward Discipleship alone, we err on the Protestant side of Rugged Individualism; if we look for Catholic Culture to do the trick alone, we err by being blind to the fact that Catholic Culture is now dead.

Only Discipleship will bring it back; and only Catholic Culture can nurture and nourish Discipleship.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Sham Christ

Our friend Stanford Nutting, liberal ex-theologian who Stands-for-Nothing, feels that the heart of the Christian faith can be summed up in the words, “Jesus was nice; you be nice, too.” He has taught that in RCIA and CCD classes for decades as an ad-hoc DRE at suburban parishes, ever since he dropped out of seminary in the 70s because seminary in the 70s was “too judgmental” for Stanford’s taste.

The problem with “Jesus is nice; you be nice, too” is twofold. First, Jesus was not nice. You don’t get crucified for being nice. He loves us, and love is a much more troubling thing than “being nice”.

That brings me to the second problem of this philosophy: “being nice” is a hollow parody of Christian love. “Being nice” is a dumbed-down version of Courtesy, itself a kind of holy condescension, a virtue aflame, abiding in the heart of a Christian knight, who, as a warrior in the great battle, honors and protects those who are weak and in danger. The medieval notion of Courtesy included love for the poor and defenseless and a willingness to sacrifice oneself for their sake, informed by a love of Christ and a desire to imitate Him. Its parody, the modern notion of “niceness”, includes no self-sacrifice beyond the banal suppression of testosterone and is informed not by a love of and imitation of Christ but by the relativist dogma that since all opinions are equally wrong, all people must be equally tolerated with a kind of patronizing tepidity. Our “being nice” is just a form of sanctimonious pride.

It’s hard for me to write about this stuff without becoming like Stanford Nutting’s identical twin half-brother Williamus Filius Johani (aka Bill Johnson), a furious mad trad who has been driven clinically insane by the hollowing out of the Church (Bill and Stanford can both be seen here). Bill, for all his flaws and his erroneous descent into Puritanical reactionary vitriol, sees what Stanford and his liberalist ilk have done to the Christian Church. What they’ve done is summed up here by Kenda Creasy Dean as she gives bullet points of the so-called Christian faith of the average teenager in America (that small group of believing teens who aren’t fad-atheists like most of their peers). Dean tells us that Christian teens today believe

* A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.

* God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions.

* The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.

*God does not need to be involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.

*Good people go to Heaven when they die.

Remember, these are the beliefs of teens who actually believe in God. And yet these teens believe not in the Christian Faith but in the Co-Exist bumper sticker. They are not Christians; they are Co-Existians. (I still want to design a bumper sticker with the cartoon character Calvin peeing on the Co-Exist logo the way you’ll sometimes see him peeing on the Ford or Chevy logo on the backs of certain cars and trucks – but I digress.)

What’s wrong with what these kids believe in? It’s good and not bad. It’s nice and not naughty. It’s better than sex, drugs and rock and roll, ain’t it?

Well, no it’s not. At least the new pagans of our day, the hedonists who destroy their lives on sex, drugs and rock and roll, are either cold or hot. They are not lukewarm and fit to be spewed from the mouth of Christ.

What’s troubling about Co-Existians is that they have a false idol, and its name is Oprah. It’s not the worst idol a young man could build, for at least the shape of the Oprah-idol is human and humans are the image of God – but it’s an idol that represents an insidious lie, all the more dangerous for the elements of truth that it hollows out and parodies.

If all the Christian faith is is “be nice and tolerant and feel good about yourself and others” then let me be the first to say – and I meant this quite literally – to hell with it. If that’s what our faith really is, then I’ll hop on the bandwagon of all those shallow-thinking fad-atheists out there (with their ipod headphones in their ears to shield them from real experience and genuine human interaction) and we’ll have a big party and burn all the churches, our isolation intensified by the different song each individual will be listening to as we torch them, downloaded legitimately or stolen off of bootleg song sharing sites. We know that the Marty Haugen / David Haas music is gay; well, this pretend-Christianity is gay, too. If we follow it, we’ll become far less than Christian, we’ll become far less than men. We’ll become eunuchs in the temple of Oprah, and I’ll burn the shopping mall church up the road before I become one of those. I’ll return to my days of actual-atheism and make fun of the fad-atheists out there who don’t have enough heart to believe in the head, to acknowledge the metaphysical reality of Reason and Truth. I’ll try to enjoy the pagan pleasures of sex and cruelty, but my heart won’t be in it. Once the false temple of Oprah is smashed and the Co-Existians are allowed to flounder aimlessly (a fitting punishment), I really won’t have anything else I’ll want to do.

OK, I need to calm down.

There. I took a breather. Sorry about the rant.

The problem here is this all comes from a very disturbing post on Mark Shea’s blog in which Sherry Weddell of the St. Catherine of Siena Institute discusses the disturbing statistics about the Catholic Church. In short, it turns out that only one is six baptized Catholics will attend Mass regularly as adults. And of those 15%, one has to wonder how many understand the message of Christ as being anything other than “Co-Exist”, “Sit down and share with Oprah”, “Jesus was nice; you be nice, too”. If only one in six cares enough about the Faith to make an attempt at the most basic means of following it (regular Mass attendance, which is only a start), and if half or more than half of those share the bullet-point tenets above, then WHAT THE HELL HAS HAPPENED TO US?

Of course, it is not our job to judge, and we know the tares are sown in with the wheat. Our job is to know Christ and follow Him, to shout from the housetops, to sow his seed in the fields and byways, and to let who follows follow. And as Dean points out in her interview, the problem is not with today’s teen Christians, but with their parents. If Mom and Dad died to themselves to live to Christ, the faux-faith of their children might not be so disturbingly bland; for to witness is to live the Faith, and how many of us really do that? This is, of course, the cause of the problem.

So my point here is not to point fingers and not to claim I’m a better Christian than my neighbor. Indeed, some of the best Christians I’ve ever met don’t think they’re in the Church; and you’ll often find more Christian charity among non-believers than in the parish down the street. God reads our hearts; we cannot read one another’s hearts. But at the same time we are to know the true from the false among us by their fruit, and when a Church retains only one out of six, and when probably more than half of those one out of six have any serious understanding of who Christ is and what He taught, and when the best among us, our young people who have a desire to love and serve Christ, are not loving or serving Him in any way that can be distinguished from the well-intentioned secularists who surround them, then something is very very wrong.

But in moments like these when it all seems to be a mess that’s beyond human help (which it very literally is), when it’s so tempting to say, “If following Christ is this meaningless, what am I in it for?” when even those with the best intentions go so terribly off the mark, in the midst of these temptations, there’s only one thing that works for me: look at the saints. Look at what the Protestants call a “relationship with Christ” does to people who follow Our Lord and not some man-made idol they substitute for Him.

Look at the zeal and love-unto-death of St. Paul. Look at the patience of St. Thomas Aquinas and his lifelong task, savoring and explaining the epiphany of Christ. Look at the self-giving love of the poor of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta. Look at the home-schooling mom sacrificing herself out of love and trying to do her best by Him.

Christ transforms. He makes all things new. He is Real and the source of all Truth and Reality. He will transform us, make us anew, and make us more Real and True in Him, by Him and through Him.

But first we must smash the false idols and serve the One True God.

First we must destroy the false-love and replace it with the true, painful and disturbing as that may be to people in and out of the Church.

For it is only by practicing true love that one takes the awful risk of being crucified.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Romanticizing Chaos

In this current issue of the St. Austin Review, there's an article by me in which I mention a leftist I know who's devoted to a notion of what he calls "anarchy". By this he seems to mean not mere disorder and chaos, but the destruction of centralized order, and in its place an atomized order; laws and rules decided from person to person, family to family, clan to clan. In other words, tribalism or what we currently have, say, in the streets of North St. Louis or areas of Mexico where drug lords have replaced central or local governments with their own decentralized rule. Of course it's a rule of brute force - but hey! It's decentralized.

In the same issue Dale Ahlquist reviews John Ferrara's book The Church and the Libertarian, and discusses the inevitable result of the libertarian philosophy, anarchy.

In other words, this bizarre idea of something called "anarchy" (which is technically not "anarchy" but relativism applied to the social order) is tugging strongly at the hearts of idealists of both the far left and the far right. The self-contradiction of anarchy, which serves for so much humor in The Man who was Thursday, is lost on them - meaning they don't get the joke of "organized chaos", nor do they see the folly and danger of an atomized social structure. Don't they realize that this is in fact not a revolution but an atavistic devolution, a return to the age old system of might ruling meek? Apparently not.

And foremost among these earnest defenders of what would amount to bully-ocracy are the far rightists of the Austrian School of economics, who have decided that "Distributism is for Dummies" and whose philosophy I deal with here. Note at that link the bizarre defense of anarchy in the comment boxes by the Austrian Schoolboy Keith. I try to enlighten him: "In your anarchy, there are many more laws than in our current system – there’s a set of laws for every clan – perhaps for every person; perhaps for every person for every day of the week or moment of the day ... You are like a choir director who abolishes all harmony and tells his singers to go off and find their own melodies."

But it does no good. For relativism is not just taken for granted; it is not just the default philosophy of the day. It is beginning to be loved and sought after, to be idolized and idealized. This is very dangerous.

The main social challenge of the 21st century may not be the threat of militant Mohammedism. The threat will not come from afar, crashing into us with airplanes. The threat will come from within, will spring up deep in the breasts of our children and the most idealistic among us, who will long for disorder, who will yearn for a radical individuality in society, because they do not believe there are any unifying social principles, and therefore anarchy equals liberty. Like the shooter of the Arizona massacre, they will believe words have no meaning and that nihilism bears fruit. And, as in Arizona, the fruit will be bloodshed - to the delight of some but to the horror of many, including those who are beginning to romanticize Chaos.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Fruits of Fiction - Cardinal Newman, Flannery O'Connor and The Unreal

The word is “unreal”.

I had been looking for this word for a long time. You see, we have a few odd linguistic quirks here in St. Louis, where I live. For one thing, we use the word “hoosier” to mean “urban white trash” – the only place on earth where you’ll find this word used in this way. And when I was growing up we used to use the word “fruit” to mean not what “gay” means now, but to mean “contrived, artificial, self-indulgent in a stupid way”. For instance, the music of Marty Haugen is “fruit”. Catholic Schools Week is “fruit”. Movies on the Hallmark Channel are “fruit”.

And for a long time this was the only word I could use to describe what was wrong in the Catholic Church.

I had come into the Church having been inspired by the writings of G K Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, and so by the time I was Catholic and regularly attending Mass and sending my kids to the parish school and especially after experiencing nine months of purgatory with our RCIA non-faith non-formation non-classes, I began to say to myself, “Why is this all so fruit?”

This really is a mystery, on par perhaps with what St. Paul calls the “mystery of iniquity”.

And again. Today the priest at Mass preached on the Wise Men and Epiphany. “We’ve all got our own star we need to follow,” he said. “What’s your star? That’s what you need to find out! What’s your inner star?” Now this is just fruit. Why would anybody sit through this, you have to wonder. The only good word for it is “fruit”.

But there’s another one. “Unreal”.

It comes from Blessed John Henry Newman, who uses it a number of times in his Plain and Parochial Sermons (most of which I have recorded for Ignatius Press Audio Books). But while Newman uses the word rather sparingly, the concept permeates the book.

Newman apparently saw his primary task as preacher one of encouraging his flock to lead a truly Christian life and thus to avoid the greatest pitfall to that, which is when both holding the Faith and living the Faith become unreal.

How easy it is to understand what this word means. How often in our own breasts do we seem to be only going through the motions when it comes to prayer or self-sacrifice or what have you. A certain inability to realize God’s grace is endemic to our fallen condition. But more than that, the true danger of Unreality is when you stop struggling against it, when on the contrary it becomes an idol. The danger is kicking out the Real and replacing it with the Unreal.

When devotion is replaced with platitudes, it’s Unreal. When the Gospel is replaced with vague pop psychology affirmations, it’s Unreal. When the pungent and dangerous virtues of Christ are replaced with “just be nice”, it’s Unreal.

And the liberalists are guilty of all of the above, but the traditionalists don’t get off free either. When externalized ritual-by-rote replaces worshipping in the Spirit and in Truth, it’s Unreal. When following rules replaces circumcision of the heart, it’s Unreal. And when art, drama and literature becomes saccharine, dull, and pedantic, it’s Unreal.

The last business is what prompted me to write this blog post, for over on Facebook a fascinating discussion ensued over a quote I put up from Flannery O’Connor (this is the post and the discussion, though you may have to “friend” me to see it here. )

O’Connor says, “It is when the individual's faith is weak, not when it is strong, that he will be afraid of an honest fictional representation of life; and when there is a tendency to compartmentalize the spiritual and make it resident in a certain type of life only, the supernatural is apt gradually to be lost." This comes at the end of an essay (quoted fully here ) in which O’Connor is toying around with literary theory as applied to the question “What is Catholic Fiction?”

And her answer is, in so many words, Catholic fiction must deal with life as it is and not as we would wish it to be. It must deal with the messy truth of sin and the awesome and uncomfortable truth of God’s grace operating in the midst of a world that’s full of sin, in hearts that are devoted to sin. In other words, Catholic fiction, and all Catholic art, must continue the work of the Incarnation.

I have myself, elsewhere, written about the Catholic Ghetto mentality (most recently here ) and this is related to the fact that once you begin to ask the question, “What is Catholic Fiction?” you are already admitting that there’s a ghetto, that the culture at large is no longer Catholic. If it were, Catholic fiction would be all around us; it would be a natural product of the soil of the society, its culture. Thus, prescinding from the question of Shakespeare’s religion, his plays are entirely Catholic, for they are a product of a late Medieval worldview not yet turned Protestant and secular, despite the official established church and politics of the day. They are naturally Catholic for they spring out of a culture that was wholly Catholic.

Of course this is a question I’ve often considered from the point of view of my production company, Theater of the Word Incorporated. As I wrote on Facebook, “So can you create Catholic Drama that is overtly evangelistic when your audience is expecting your work to be sanctimonious compartmentalized artificial non-offensive tripe, and hence (if they're normal) they will avoid it? If you call it Catholic or Christian doesn't that alone telegraph, ‘Oh, it won't be very good. It certainly won't be real. Nothing about Church these days seems very real. I'll go if I have to, but real life is found elsewhere.’”

The question comes down to Reality. Whether in theater, short stories, novels, or films, the question comes down to how best does this work of art reflect and honor the hidden truths of Reality? In so far that a work of fiction fails to do this, the work is Unreal. When the secular film The Big Chill glorifies adultery and “open marriage” and overlooks the pain and sickness that goes with such behavior (as at the end when the husband beds another woman so she can conceive), such a film is Unreal. When the Protestant film Facing the Giants indicates that with Christian Faith comes worldly prosperity and riches (the protagonist gets a nice new car once he’s confessed his Faith in Jesus), such a film is Unreal. When viewers of EWTN complain so that the network is reluctant to air anything that deals with the fact that priests sometimes struggle with their faith and their calling, such a situation is Unreal. When Puritans confuse the depiction of sin with the endorsement of sin, such a situation is Unreal. When the cartoon version of Moses (a Disney film, I think) has him kill the Egyptian accidentally, such a story becomes Unreal.

And when people in their hearts really don’t believe, then at Mass you find bad music, insipid homilies, desecration of the Eucharist, and priests devoted to the sin of sodomy. You find Catholic Schools run by female principals who have no principles and who bully parents to shut up about their kids being taught to love the great Earth Goddess in “faith” class. You find normal people avoiding church and power-hungry volunteers with miserable home lives trying to take over the lay council and run things for their own agendas.

In short, it all becomes Unreal.

This post will be mirrored at The Ink Desk