Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Catholic Ghetto Defined

Since the phrase Catholic Ghetto has been around for a while, lots of people use it to mean lots of things, and not everybody knows what I mean when I use it.

To clarify what I mean by Catholic Ghetto ...


  • There are some Catholic children's television programs that are literally un-watchable.  But Catholic moms force their homeschooled Catholic kids to watch them and be satisfied with them because they're orthodox and there's no Catholic alternative.

  • There are Catholic audio CDs of orthodox Catholic talks where the quality of the recording is so bad it's sometimes impossible to make out what's being said.  Many of these talks will simply end in mid-sentence, leaving the listener hanging.  But they're distributed free, so who can complain?


  • I've been to a Catholic family retreat center that is so poorly maintained (leaking roofs, chipping paint, dingy buildings) that one wonders how families can enduring staying there; there's also a creepy cult-like atmosphere among the counselors and staff.  The patrons gladly put up with this and are thankful to be there.

  • Some Catholic novels are hailed as brilliant by a very narrow but devoted group of readers.  Such novels are at best pretty good and at worst pretty awful; some even contain moments of brilliance.  But they are a far cry from the Catholic novels of a generation or two or three ago - O'Connor, Chesterton, Belloc, Waugh and even Greene could write and write well enough to be appreciated by a wide and secular audience.  Modern Catholic writers write generally mediocre but always orthodox works which only a very small fan base appreciates.

All of these things are examples of an economic phenomenon as well as a spiritual one.

There's only a very small market for self-consciously orthodox products; consequently producers can't afford to invest much time or money into producing for this market, and the market can't afford to pay for true quality in the products they wish to consume.  After a while, the vicious cycle does its work and the market forgets what quality is and becomes happy with the rats and cockroaches the slumlord provides for them.

But in no case would normal people who live in the real world patronize or appreciate the Catholic Ghetto.

So when we become inured to living in it, and when we start to shelter it defensively as a protective bubble, we do ourselves and the normal people living in the real world great harm.

6 comments:

victor said...

And don't forget the rather sorry state of most Orthodox Catholic Music. The situation has gotten better over the last 3-5 years or so, but most of it is still on beyond maudlin.

Leo Schwartz said...

Kevin, I'm glad you took the time to define your meaning, because you're right that different people use the term to mean different things. Your definition of the current Catholic ghetto is certainly different from the historic Catholic ghetto in America during the 19th and early 20th centuries. When I use the term, I am usually speaking of a *new* Catholic ghetto.

The internet has become an important tool in connecting those Catholics who strive toward orthodoxy, but it isn't a perfect replacement for physical proximity. I meet and befriend many people over the internet, but it can still be a lonely experience. It's what makes the ACS conferences far more fulfilling than Dale's monthly internet meetings. The internet meetings have their place and are a good step forward, but a video conference would never replace a physical one. I am happy to have you as a friend on Facebook, but even happier that I have had the opportunity to break bread and drink beer with you.

Likewise, my idea of the "new Catholic ghetto" is to see deliberate communities created not as a place to shut ourselves into but as a place for us to gather strength and encouragement from one another as we venture out. So, my Catholic ghetto would not be Ave Maria, FL and its sheltered setting, but rather a broader community where we can live in the world and engage it, but have one another around when the times get tough and we are in need.

Does that make sense?

Joey G. said...

Interesting post, Kevin.

For my part, I've always looked at the Catholic ghetto defined more "ad extra" than "ad intra." What I mean is, it's not something that can be understood (or maybe even realized) from within - not necessarily a place of low-culture, low-brow Cathoicism, or a kind of "cultural Catholicism" (even if that culture be homeschooling culture, say) - although of course, cultural Catholicism is very linked to this idea to be sure.

But cultural Catholicism - what we think of, say, when we think of the Catholic ghetto as a historical reality, in the ethnic neighborhoods of Philadelphia or New York, the Italians and their festivals and the obligatory rosary beads on the rear-view mirror - well, these attachments are rather excrescences and growths and not the essential form of the thing, because the form of the thing comes from formal cause. And what was - what is - the *cause* of the ghetto, then as now?

Well, the cause comes from outside. The cause is imposed, as it were, by where the culture "puts" Catholics, by the cultural expectations, by the way in which the culture wants generally to deal with Catholicism as a fact, and the tension which that expectation creates against the identity of Catholics on the inside. Thus, the first thing I look for in understanding the Catholic ghetto is the verb-action involved in inaugurating the phenomenon: the ghettoization of Catholics.

Catholics were ghettoized by a culture that thought Jesuits were spies for Rome, nuns were free-labor sadists, Catholic mothers were tamed and unambitious brood mares. They were ghettoized by the fact that before JFK no Catholic could've dreamed of holding the highest office in our land, that even his holding that office was met with no small amount of suspicion and distrust, that his Catholicism was well attenuated in order to make it at all palatable to to the culture at large.

Today, there is a return to the Catholic ghetto of which maybe homeschooling and our bad TV is a function, maybe a result, maybe something that pre-existed the present ghettoization (or somehow remained from the previous ghettoization all along and is not folding into the new phenomenon) - but the return begins not in the agency of Catholics, but our culture.

The HHS mandate, Biden v. Ryan,... it's all over, take your pick.

The test-case for me somehow is anecdotal and experiential. The best way I have of explaining what it is is to relate how, for me personally, it works: as my years of life creep on, I find more and more that perhaps the best way I can effectively introduce myself to somebody and give them the best expectations for what I'm going to be to them and what views and words they might be finding in me is to say, "Hi, I'm Joe, I'm a Catholic." The more that becomes the best introduction of myself, the more I know that the ghettoization is moving onward. That's becoming more and more the essential "difference," what makes me "other" to society - because it is becoming more and more an "othering" factor.

Michele Quigley said...

You make some good points Joe. I heard a priest give a talk last year (to a group of homeschooling mothers) along these lines. He talked specifically about the Kensington Riots and the part they and other events like them played in the establishment of the Catholic ghetto. Like you said, a cause from the outside. Homeschooling in many ways has taken the same track as many of us started as a reaction to something we saw as being spiritually dangerous to our children. Sadly in many cases (my own family's included) that wasn't just school and the culture it promoted but a "Catholic" school.

It felt good, great actually to finally be part of a group that WANTED to live a Catholic life, that cared about the Faith, wanted desperately to teach it to their children and were able to give one another support in that. 20 years later it's still good for that, but there's a mentality that I find increasingly frustrating. I call it a fortress mentality. The idea that's it always us vs. them. Us against the diocese, us against the local parish, us against the world. I will admit that in many ways it feels that way because those groups do regularly give us a hard time when all we really want to do is give our children the faith and it's annoying to no end to constantly be questioned in our ability (or even our right) to do so.

Still, there's also this idea among some (all too many) that we must shelter our children at all costs. There is a mistaken idea that if we do all the right things, watch only the right shows, use only the right curriculum, etc. then our children will become saints and we will have done our job. This of course allows no room for free will and sets the parent up for some pretty big disappointments --especially if you have a large family, statistically speaking somebody's bound to make a wrong choice or three. :)

What I don't see enough of that concerns me is an active engagement in the world. There's a good bit of hiding one's light under bushel baskets and burying of talents though. Social justice? Forget it. We're not working in a soup kitchen or allowing our kids to get anywhere near a Catholic Worker house because they might be "exposed" to something. Never mind that when you teach your children what the Church teaches and they start talking about it you just might get accused of being a socialist or communist. Given how small your community is that's certainly not fun. But I digress. . .

Leo, I very much like your vision of the "new Catholic Ghetto". I'd like to see that too. Perhaps that starts with you moving more in this direction --I mean that literally of course. :) I agree too that Facebook and all the online communities are great but you are right in that they can be lonely and there is simply no substitute for physical proximity.

John C. Hathaway said...

I agree with all that, with three exceptions. 1) As I've noted previously, "Catholic ghetto" has two different meanings, much as the word "ghetto" itself--one being the original sense of a "separate cultural milieu," not necessarily impoverished by segregated, which is the sense in which liberal Catholics use the term to condemn Latin, popular devotions, etc. The other sense is your sense of "poor quality, cheap, impoverished." 2) "Didactic propaganda" has a role. I've never understood when people complain about "books that have people sitting around talking about apologetics; books should represent real life." For me, "real life" is "sitting around talking about apologetics." So I don't understand the problem. I *do* understand the other problem's with fiction such as Macfarlane's (never read M. O'Brien), and where MacFarlane was at his best, he himself did not realize where his strengths were located, and that all I believe ties into and foreshadows his own personal downfall. 3) I agree that some shows on EWTN kids are unwatchable (as far as the other Catholic networks, most of them show secular and Protestant kids' shows), but so are most of the shows on PBS, Disney & Nickelodeon. I've always raised my kids to expect both quality and values, though I'm not as elitist as some (cough, cough) in terms of the quality side. Some of the others are quite good, though, and their main problem is a lack of production values.

Campbell said...

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