Friday, May 23, 2008

The retreat of American Catholicism

The recent visit of Benedict XVI to these shores served in no way to disguise the fact that the Catholic church in America has been losing ground for decades. Long ago the Legion of Decency and its sisters in Comstockery lost their ability to deter the faithful from attending certain movies. As for the Index of Prohibited Books, does it even exist? If it does, it would best serve as a list of good reading along the lines of the Chicago Great Books.

Most significantly a large segment of American Catholics have become protestants to all intents and purposes. They no longer pay attention to the hierarchy when it comes to such matters as contraception, abortion, and homosexuality. The recent attempts by some clerical neanderthals to deny communion to John Kerry because of his independence on these issues were widely derided.

And one mustn’t forget the clerical pederasty scandals. The problem was not simply the abuse itself but the coverup by the church authorities. My own view is that these hypocrites should be prosecuted under the RICO statute.

Things were very different in the fifties when it almost seemed as if the country was turning Catholic. Today it is hard to imagine the appeal of this trend, which seems a kind of last ditch attempt to stop modernity in its tracks. By the beginning of the 1950s it was clear that we were to be locked in a prolonged conflict with the Communist powers (the Cold War). Many saw the Marxist ideology, in some respects comparable to a religion, as a great source of strength for the other side. How could we respond? The usual answer was democracy, but this seemed too diffuse, and anyway the Communist states claimed to be “peoples democracies.” For some, only a return to Christianity could arm us sufficiently to wage this war of ideas. And it must be maximum strength Christianity, that is Catholicism. Too be sure, anti-Catholicism lingered in some parts of the country, especially in the South. If one could see beyond this, it appeared that Neo-Thomism, the official philosophy of the Roman church, offered a coherent world view--in fact the only form of Christianity that could stand up to godless Marxism. Among the neo-Thomists Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson had a significant following among the intellectuals, while Monsignor Fulton J. Sheen purveyed Catholicism for the masses in the new medium of television.

The roots of the modern Catholic revival go back to Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. At that point Europe’s resurgent traditionalists seized the opportunity to restore the alliance of throne and altar.

There were significant cultural consequences, seen above all in the cult of the Middle Ages. The Gothic Revival generated buildings throughout Europe, and not just churches, as the parliament buildings in London and Budapest attest. Writers like Chateaubriand and Victor Hugo, Walter Scott and Alfred Lord Tennyson profited from the new enthusiasm for the Middle Ages. Thinkers in various parts of Europe championed a revival of Scholasticism. To all intents and purpose, by the end of the century Thomas Aquinas had become the official philosopher of the Catholic church.

These indications were not exclusively Catholic, since in Germany and England some protestants joined in. However, the center of gravity lay in the Catholic church. Accordingly, when Pius IX issued his antimodernist Syllabus of Errors in 1864 a new tone set in. This led to what has been termed the Reactionary Revolution of the late nineteenth century in which writers like Léon Bloy and Joris-Karl Huysmans openly espoused anti-modernism.

Gradually, this first Catholic revival ran out of steam, although Charles Maurras (a proto-fascist) and Jacques Maritain (a political liberal) gave it some new impetus in France in the 1920s.

After World War II a new trend emerged. The five years of the domination of the European continent by National Socialism (1940-45) had left a void. Many felt that this void could only be filled by a revival of the human spirit, specifically in the form of Catholicism. It was no accident that the three politicians who emerged to craft a new Europe--Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gaspari, and Robert Schuman--were all believing Catholics. In the cultural realm the new trend shed its reactionary tradiionalism, as the chapels of Ronchamp and Vence showed. Le Corbusier and Henri Matisse, the creators of these impressive structures, were not believing Catholics, but that fact only underscored the power of the new orientation. In music Olivier Messiaen created an impressive, if eclectic modernism with mystical overtones. In the English-speaking world the novelists Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh explored Catholic themes. Among the intellectuals, T. S. Eliot and Arnold J. Toynbee exercised a vast sway. The last two were nominally protestants, but they went a long way in the direction of embracing the Roman faith.

As I have noted, the Catholic revival after 1945 was intended to replace the despair and spiritual emptiness left in the wake of Nazism with real content. It also served as a bulwark against Communism. It was this aspect that struck a chord in America, where many felt that we needed a “strong” ideology to oppose the enemy. As the so-called loss of China in 1949 showed, Communism was on the march, massively so.

In Cold War America the importance of Catholicism was demonstrated by an impressive roster of converts, including Mortimer Adler, editor of the Great Books series; the playwright Claire Booth Luce; the musician Dave Brubeck; Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement; the mathematician John von Neumann; the novelist Walker Percy; and (even) John Wayne, the actor.

During the ‘fifties the prestige of Catholicism was pervasive enough to become seductive, even among those who ought to have known better. Of course, there were personal factors as well. My own circumstances were somewhat unusual. As members of a far-left sect, my parents were atheists and they raised me to be one too. Except for the occasion of my grandmother’s funeral, I was never taken to a house of worship. When I finally read the Bible at the age of twenty I had the usual reaction of such late-comers: “aren’t there a lot of quotations?”

During my atheist phase I sent for some literature from an old-line organization founded by Colonel Ingersoll. Going through this packet of material, I was struck by how impoverished the arguments were. The simplistic mantras of the atheist propagandists seemed simply to reflect the dogmatism of Christian apologists in a kind of mirror reversal. Another thing that struck me was the fact that so many intelligent people could be believers. I remember reading Dante’s Divine Comedy and thinking, “wow this guy is so smart, surely he must have written the book as a satire.” Christianity with its cathedrals and sung masses (not to mention old Dante) has been immensely fertile culturally; atheism has not been. It is an arid creed. The writings of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens are sometimes eloquent and sometimes persuasive. But reading them has not altered my view that there is not much to this stuff.

Still, these conclusions were not enough to induce positive belief. Not very originally, perhaps, I came up with the following formulation. There is no certainty that Christianity is true. By the same token, there is no certainty that it is false. We can therefore accept Christianity in a tentative way, because it COULD be true.

So I found my way to a respect, at the very least, for Christianity. In college I majored in art history where a knowledge of the Bible narrative and of the saints is essential for understanding many works of art.

But why Catholicism? I think my idea was that if you are drawn to a particular ideology, you should adopt the full-strength version. I may have been unconsciously influenced by my parents’ who scorned “wishy washy” social democracy which they held could not compare in rigor with true Marxism. Rigor, that was the thing. Similarly, many who have taken up psychiatry insist on the Freudian version, rather than some watered down “humanistic” nostrum.

Some of my Christian friends were reading Kierkegaard. I tried a little of it, but found that the Danish thinker usually worked best for those who were already protestants. I did not want to become a protestant. Had I discovered the penetrating texts of Karl Barth at that time, I suppose protestant neo-Orthodoxy might have won me over. Sometimes I think that Barth, unlike puny Maritain and Gilson, had the answer to everything. Sorry Sam and Christopher. At all events, that was a road not taken.

Despite my view about the superiority of the Roman church, I never converted. And that is just as well, because later would have come, almost certainly, the complex process of “divorce.” I did influence my best friend Chuck M. to convert, though doubtless he did this of his own volition. One of our friends, a scientist, became a monk.

Did my hesitation to convert reflect the fact that formal adoption of the religion would get in the way of my being a practicing homosexual? I don’t think so, for this was a kind of cognitive dissonance I didn’t confront. Religion I saw as mainly an intellectual affair, a matter of the head. Sexuality was a matter of the heart.

At all events, I took evasive action. For me matters took an aesthetic turn, and I became a specialist in medieval art. Together with many others, I detected formal similarities between medieval and modern art, in that both tended to disregard the naturalism of the Renaissance tradition. In this way my medievalism, I believed, transcended historical nostalgia.

As a friend points out, the Catholic decline is very obvious in France. Sixty years ago, the intellectual and dultural life of French Catholicism was rich, as such names as Mauriac, Bernanos, Claudel, Marcel, Maritain, Gilson, Danielou, and Du Lubac remind us. Today, it is hard to think of a single French writer or thinker of their stature who is Catholic. The decline is pervasive in Europe. Recently the NY Times reported that the whole of Ireland ordained just nine priests last year, with only one ordination in the archdiocese of Dublin. The Church's future, such as it will be, seems clearly to belong to the Third World. This relocation, as it were, will in all likelihood cause even further alienation in the advanced, Western world. Perhaps China, where religion is reviving, will achieve a synthesis of a sort. Maybe the the Jesuits who sought to evangelize the country beginning in the sixteenth century will finally get their due. Or perhaps not.

Be that as it may, what was the main reason for the decline of Catholicism in America since its brief high-water mark in the ‘fifties? To some extent it reflects the process of cultural fading. In a society perpetually questing for something new, Catholicism came to seem old hat. To be sure, with the vernacular mass and other reforms the religion took on a new face in the wake of Vatican II. But not enough to compete effectively with other trends of the era.

The principle reason, I believe for the retreat of Catholicism in North America lay in a momentous change in American culture that undergirded the shift from the ‘fifties to the ‘sixties. Put in its most basic terms, this was the change from the culture of conformity to the culture of expressivity. Only to a limited extent could Catholicism address the fever for “doing one’s own thing.” It decidedly did not endorse the idea of “different strokes for different folks.” While not strictly incompatible, Catholicism was not really in synch with LSD. It was done in by the availability of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Such at least was the experience of Jack Kerouac, who abandoned Catholicism for home-brew Buddhism. Few would endorse the song lyrics “Shakespeare’s a hack; we read Kerouac.” All the same, the author of “On the Road” beats Maritain every time.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Let's see: Aristotle, Epicurus, Marcus Aurelius, David Hume, Adam Smith, Francis Hutcheson -- all "non-believers."

I think what has happened is that the burden of proof to disprove a negative -- logically impossible -- assumes the atheist/agnostic unintelligibly in a mirror of theism. Harris and Hitchens seem less inclined to defend their atheism and more inclined to subject theism to critical analysis. Sure. Gothic cathedrals are pretty amazing. But what about "life" of those who built them? Reading Jocelyn of Brakeland is humorous for its pettiness. The thinking of the Middle Ages made not a single advancement since the Fall of Rome. Dante's brilliant epic is as much a political humanistic attack, using the church's eschatological scheme. Clever and imaginatively MODERN.

The Church has served some of the humanities well (music, art, architecture), but as a vehicle for great expressions to go beyond. Looking at the remnants of Greco-Roman Civilization versus the impoverishment that followed until the Renaissance is the millennial medieval vicious circle to nowhere The Rebirth of Civilization started the world again after a dull interregnum -- other than wars and crusades to liven the Onward Christian Soldiers -- when Shakespeare, Michaelangelo, Galileo, Bacon, woke humanity to itself without the Church's template. They may have been patrons of Holy Mother Church, but their talents are entirely their own.

11:59 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home