Some thoughts on the "weirdness" of Catholicism

Some thoughts on the "weirdness" of Catholicism

I have been thinking about the best way to respond to Ross Douthat’s “Make Catholicism Weird Again” (NYT May 8, 2018). His column is a hot take on the Met Gala, where Catholic hierarchy mingled with Hollywood A-listers dressed out in Catholic-inspired costumes and regalia.

My patron saint is Genesius of Rome – a somewhat mythic figure who was only Christian for a few minutes before he was martyred. He was an actor, who entered into a farce of baptism for the pleasure of the emperor, and emerged from the waters not in mockery, but – through the mysterious action of the Holy Spirit – a person of true faith. The very model of “fake it ’til you make it.


In other words, for my understanding of Catholicism, there is a sense that mockery and “going through the motions” can have a welcome place, because those who engage in that are now close enough to the Truth that the Truth might grab them.

Douthat and his compatriots have a different sense of things. During a different persecution from the one that killed my patron, the predecessors of Douthat et al were known as the Donatists. They prized the purity of the Church above all else. So much so, in fact, that they were willing to excommunicate the majority of the Church’s membership for the sake of their strict view of the faith.

It was a question of hospitality: Is the Church a welcoming refuge for sinners to come and be forgiven and made well, or is the Church a bastion for those who manage the continued appearance of being holy (or, at least, holier-than-thou)?

A figure of no less eminence than Augustine weighed in. His writings were decisive, and won the day for hospitality. The Church has been working hard to forget that lesson ever since.

It is always hard for me to reconcile a Church with more than a billion members being described as “struggling.” And yet, Douthat and company seem to genuinely believe this is the case. I think what they mean instead is “we no longer have hegemony.” And this is true – we don’t. And really, we never should have had it in the first place.

If Douthat does not like the fact that some in the Church are culturally Catholic, or that we can see examples of folks putting on costumes of faith and going through the motions of faith, his problem is not actually Vatican II or modernism. His beef is with Constantinism. When Christianity became fused with empire, a whole bunch of folks realized the way to curry favor in the court of public approval was to adopt the trappings of the faith, but not the faith itself.

The failing in the imagination of Douthat and his kind is that they forget that only God knows the heart. They believe there is some litmus test beyond showing up and saying “Amen.” They imagine a Church more resolute, more rigorous, more pure than the Church which actually confronts them in the physical world. In short, they claim to be the truest of Catholics, but in actuality, they are acting a lot like Protestants.

It is worth taking a moment to ponder one of Douthat’s points in detail:

For this, as for his doctrine-shaking innovations, Francis has won admiring press. But as with the last wave of Catholic revolution, there is little evidence that the modernizing project makes moderns into Catholics. (The latest Gallup data, for instance, shows American Mass attendance declining faster in the Francis era.)

Here Douthat makes the same mistake that he accuses the costume-wearing attendees at the gala of making. He assumes that the proper metric of being Catholic is showing up at Mass. Now, that is certainly an important metric (and – since it is put forth as a stringent requirement in the catechism – it served at one point as a certain metric of obedience generally), but it is not the only metric.

To wit: there are a lot of younger Catholics who don’t show up every week, but are keeping the more “weird” parts of Catholicism. For example, the Friday “meat fast” is no longer a requirement, and yet Catholics are maintaining the tradition. The attendance at mass is a requirement, and yet Catholics are foregoing attendance.

(And, it should be noted, the data for decline should be read as “in America and the west in general.” The data we can get from the two-thirds world shows that in many areas, mass attendance is on the rise. Then again, all this data is anecdotal. It is based on Pew and other polling organizations asking participants to self-report their recent attendance. It is not based on actual Church rolls – and no one takes attendance or head-counts at mass)

My old friend, the late Phyllis Tickle, would remind the Douthats of our age that the breakdown in Mass attendance is not a Catholic problem alone. Every Church that holds on to the older, institutional styles of worship (everybody gather *here*, at this *time*) is feeling the weight of millennial indifference right now. Tickle talked about the new emergence of a different sort of Christian faith – one that is not so bound to place and time, but is more a part of the rhythms of our daily lives.

I am not a millennial, but this is also my lived experience of Catholicism. I do not go to mass as regularly as I am commanded to, but my faith informs a good deal of my bodily life. Like millennials, I do not eat meat on Fridays. Even more, my Catholic faith informs the work I do to engage with and feed the homeless persons that I meet.

What Douthat misses is what the psychologists would remind us is this difference between an extrinsic and an intrinsic motivation. In an extrinsic behavior, an external force compels you to an action, and the action is visible and measurable (thing: homework, performed and turned in for a grade). An intrinsic behavior, in contrast, is done for the rightness or the love of the thing itself, and may not leave a visible trace (think: learning for the joy of learning).

What we are seeing is not a turn away from Catholicism, but a turn away from extrinsic faith to intrinsic faith.

And this does not mean that we are seeing a collapse of communal faith into individual ecstasy. Quite the opposite. The data that we get about the ways millennials are engaging with faith is very communitarian.

So Douthat has hit on a genuine problem – but not a new one. The Catholic Church has always had to wrestle with the reality that there are poseurs in our midst. From the time of the apostles to the present day, we’ve always had our rich young rulers. They come close to Christ for the glamour, not the Gospel. But, as the Gospels and the history of the Church continually remind us, in coming close, the Holy Spirit can begin its work. As the wedding at Cana reminds us, the gala is only the start of things. There is still a lot of ministry – and weirdness – to come.

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