On Giants' Shoulders

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Just Like Teenagers

One of the pronounced tendencies of teenagers is to go along with whatever the in crowd is doing. I've never been sure how the in crowd becomes the in crowd, or who decides what the latest fad is, but I've sure known when I was behind the times, starting with not wearing pencil skirts in 3rd grade, or not knowing who Fabian was in 5th. The tendency doesn't go away for a lot of people when they become grownups. It's hard to buck the crowd. It doesn't even matter which crowd you're bucking. It wasn't easy to become Catholic when it meant listening to someone tell me I would go to Hell as a result. There have been a lot of those moments in my life. The odd thing is that when I was in high school I wanted more than anything to be acceptable to the in crowd. I had parents that forbade a lot of the activities the in crowd was doing, and I went to a Pentecostal church that pretty much guaranteed that I'd never have in crowd status, but, man, it's what I wanted.

Somewhere in my late twenties or early thirties something flipped in my brain. I'm not sure whether it was marrying into the weird Swift family (known for being not exactly conventional in some respects), deciding to breastfeed for longer than 3 months, or deciding to homeschool. However, something happened, I became no longer quite so concerned about what "they thought." Well, that is, I wasn't quite so concerned what the general public thought, I still wanted to fit in my nice evangelical community, in my nice LLL group, and in my friendly homeschool support group. Over the years, however, I've had moments where I've had to become a pariah in each of those communities as well. Increasingly, I've become less and less concerned about what any of "them" think and more concerned with what God wants me to be doing. Sometimes that means standing up for unpopular ideas with a minority of people, sometimes it means flat out standing alone.

Recently, I sent some book suggestions to my Methodist minister cousin who was about to chair a forum on how Christian churches should respond to the gay marriage law in NY state. They weren't about gay marriage, but they were about how to figure out what orthodoxy means. Not unremarkably he didn't respond to my suggestions. I hope that doesn't mean what I suspect it does. However, I was even more bothered to find that the Cardinal of our own archdiocese apparently is beginning to figure out how to make some accommodations with the Rainbow people as well. Good to know that we don't have to believe that Cardinals always make the right decisions.

It seems to me that the Protestant churches and even the Catholic clerics who are trying so hard to nuance things so they don't sound like fuddy duddies are just like I was in high school. They're desperately trying to hold on to who they are while trying to still be socially acceptable to the in crowd. Back in the 1970's when the in crowd was declaring pedophilia to be a mental defect that could be treated with counseling (or in the case of at least one of the guests on one Phil Donahue show, simply something that was being treated with prejudice while adult/child sex was not harmful at all), the bishops went along with the in crowd. They sent their "kiddy loving" priests off to counseling and then on to a new assignment. Well that worked out really well. They also allowed their priests to teach parishoners that their own conscience should inform them as to whether they could use artificial contraception or be divorced and remarried. Now we have a panel justifying its decision that contraception should be required in all insurance plans by the observation that 98% of Catholics in the U.S. contracept. That worked out really well also.

We have young Catholic couples who are trying so hard to keep up with the secular world and its standards that they are losing track of what the Church really teaches about openness to life and the value of sacrifice. Pre-Cana classes are convincing couples that using NFP will guarantee them the same sort of spacing that their secular counterparts are achieving with a combination of artificial contraception and sterilization. When that doesn't happen some couples are feeling like the Church has sold them a bill of goods. In some respects, they're right. Telling couples that NFP will allow them to have the same frequent sex and no babies as their contracepting counterparts isn't always accurate. In some cases it means less sex to have no babies, in other cases it means more sex, but more babies as well. Better that the Church should be honest and say that marriage entails sacrifice. It may be the sacrifice of a significant amount of abstinence if you have a serious reason to delay pregnancy, or it may mean the sacrifice of serving a little person when you'd rather be enjoying a high power career or dinners out at a fancy restaurant. But to be honest like that is to admit that to be a serious Catholic means to not follow the in crowd. It requires carrying a cross, it requires remembering that the way to destruction is broad and the way to life is narrow.

For a lot of years in America anti-Catholicism wasn't all that evident. Oh, sure, not many people wanted to become Catholics, but Catholics had begun to be treated like just one of the many flavors on the Christian list. In towns all around, the Catholic priest was part of the local pastors' association, and there were lots of ecumenical services. Church Women United included Catholics as well as Protestants. And, you know what, the Catholics kind of liked it that way. They didn't have to feel so different anymore. But the times they are a changing. It's no longer the Calvinists and the certain Baptists who are anti-Catholic, it's not even the atheists. Mainstream Protestants are starting to level their guns at the Church as well. Gay marriage may well be the issue that brings back anti-Catholicism in full force. Or, it may be the call for priests to be required to violate the confessional as is being proposed in Ireland. There are those within the Catholic community who are still desperate to hold on to the "gains" they made. They really liked being part of the in crowd. They have already started clamoring for the Church to change with the times. They don't want to be different. They don't want to stand out. They don't want to be seen as the frumpy fuddy duddy when everyone else is dressed up in brand new stylish clothes. The fact that the clothes are really those of the emperor in the fairy tale doesn't even seem to occur to them.

Unfortunately, our bishops lost a lot of their credibility with the whole abuse scandal. Now there may have been fewer Catholic priests than school teachers guilty of abuse. There may have been no more Catholic priests than Protestant ministers, but the fact is the world expected more of Catholic priests. The world knew that Catholic priests and bishops were supposed to be different. Bishops made a major error when they used worldly wisdom to deal with pedophiles rather than the moral teaching of the Church. But in the same era worldly wisdom was being offered to problems like usury, contraception, divorce and remarriage, and the political stance on abortion by Catholic priests, and even bishops and Cardinals. It's no wonder that now some of the faithful feel that the bishops are only playing politics with the Eucharist rather than having a genuine concern for souls.

It's going to take a long time for the bishops to regain their credibility, but the only way that will happen is the way of the cross. They are going to have to cease any attempt to play ball with the in crowd. They may have to live with a loss of tax exempt status. They are going to have to stop running their dioceses like business entities with business men with secular ideas as their advisors. They are going to need to be radically Christian like the bishops of the early Church. Being Catholic may be about as popular as it was when Elizabeth Ann Seton became a Catholic or perhaps that's too hopeful. It may be as popular as it was in the time of Nero, or Mao. The numbers in the pews may well shrink if the bishops hold fast to what the Church teaches. The Episcopal Church may well gain members as the culture Catholics find it a more in crowd sort of place. The bishops and the faithful may find themselves having to be like Jesus Himself, who was spat upon and reviled by the in crowd.

If you grew up desperately wanting to be one of the rich kids, one of the popular kids, one of the kids with clout, the idea that you might choose to identify with a people who lack worldly power is a pretty scary prospect. It's a lot more fun to think you might actually play your cards right and become one of the movers and shakers of the world. It's easy to believe that you can have it both ways. It's easy to believe that you can be part of the in crowd and not lose your soul in the process. The time is coming soon, if it isn't already here when people are going to have to choose. It's hard to stand up against a lie. It's hard to be charitable and still speak the truth. It's hard to feel the criticism of those around you when you don't follow the culture. At the end of it all, however, it's not the culture that's going to judge us. Far better to be despised by the world and hear the words, "well done, good and faithful servant" than to be part of a crowd that hears, "depart from me." Simply being a Catholic isn't going to cut it, simply being a priest isn't going to cut it, simply being a bishop isn't going to cut it. There's a reason that Dante put some clerics in the Inferno. Only obedience is going to be enough and sacrificial obedience isn't popular with the in crowd.

Around 1987 (long before I really contemplated becoming Catholic) I had a day when I got a glimpse of the future. The thought went through my mind that my grandchildren might well have to be Catholic because only the Catholic Church was remaining faithful to so many of the clear teachings of scripture. Now my evangelical friends would doubtless argue that wasn't true, but I saw even then a shift in the attitude about divorce and remarriage, and a less than consistent teaching on abortion. In the past twenty years or so things have gotten worse. In 1987 I never imagined that ten years later I'd be Catholic. I was pretty upset at the idea that my grandchildren might need to be Catholic. Now I am immensely grateful to be Catholic, despite the problems, despite the truly bad bishops, or the less than wise ones. It's clear to me that despite the bumps in the road that the Church is still not backing down and denying the faith. There may be dissident priests, and dissident bishops. There may be those in the Vatican who play politics, but at the helm there's a Holy Father who's really trying to call all of the Church back to fidelity. It's not an easy job, it's as difficult as trying to rein in a household of rebellious teenagers who've gotten a taste of being part of the in crowd, but he's holding firm. I truly have no desire to go back to the drifting Protestant world where entertainment passes for worship or where political correctness trumps orthodox faith. It's not always easy to be Catholic, but at the end of the day I'll take the Church where Jesus is front and center at every Mass over any Protestant congregation where the Real Presence isn't there at all. And frankly, it's a lot more satisfying than trying to be part of that illusive in crowd.