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Christianity, Collapse, & The Benedict Option

Bad news for the future of Catholicism in America, according to the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, and his colleagues. In their new book Young Catholic America, they build on social science data showing the following about young Catholic adults: They don’t understand their faith well enough to pass it on to any children they […]


Bad news for the future of Catholicism in America, according to the Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, and his colleagues. In their new book Young Catholic America, they build on social science data showing the following about young Catholic adults:

  • They don’t understand their faith well enough to pass it on to any children they may have
  • They believe that their own subjective beliefs and experiences are a more important arbiter of truth than the Church
  • They pick and choose what they want to believe, discarding the parts that they dislike (e.g., in particular, teaching on sexuality)
  • They are less involved with the Church as an institution (e.g., don’t go to mass as often), and feel more loosely tied to it than previous Catholic generations
  • They tend to believe that the Catholic Church is just one church among others, with no special claim to the truth
  • They affirm a Catholic identity, but reserve the right to define that as they want to; plus, they see their Catholicism not as being at the center of their identity, but one facet among others
  • They are unable to articulate a coherent case for what it means to be Catholic

I don’t have a copy of the book in hand, but reading the excerpt available on Amazon, the authors say that the collapse of Catholic identity in the US had a lot to do with the collapse of catechesis after the Second Vatican Council; with a determination among leaders of Catholic universities, which had been important custodians of Catholic identity, to assimilate into the mainstream; and the widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical in which Paul VI reaffirmed the Church’s historic teaching outlawing contraception. The authors are careful not to blame HV for this, but simply to say that once American Catholics decided that they didn’t have to obey the Church on this teaching, a cultural and psychological Rubicon was crossed.

The authors say that the hinge of modern American Catholic history was the generation born in the 1950s and 1960s — the first one to be raised in postconciliar Catholicism. Generally speaking, they were poorly taught, and poorly formed in the habits of Catholicism. They have proven to be terrible at passing on Catholicism to their children. According to Smith et al., social science studies have repeatedly shown that the most important factor in passing on religious faith to the next generation is the practices of parents. This is even more important than one’s pastor. If parents don’t know and live out the faith, it is unlikely that their children will. It takes only a generation to greatly increase the likelihood that the faith will be lost to all subsequent generations. In the past, when there were cultural constructs that were recognizably Christians, parents could at least theoretically afford to be less vigilant, trusting that their kids would be more or less catechized by the ambient Christianity in the culture. Those days are long gone, though.

Smith and his co-authors say this is a rule of thumb for all parents with regard to religious education of their kids: “We will get what we are.” That is, the faith of our children will not be determined by what we profess to believe, or what idealize, but by what we live out every day in our families and communities.

Here’s the important, not-to-be-missed point from Smith’s work: everything that has gone wrong with American Catholicism and its young adults is pretty much equally true of other Christian churches, with the exception of Mormons. 

True, there are particular reasons for why this has happened in Catholicism, and why it happened the way it did. But what Catholicism has in common with Protestantism in this sense is far more important than how it differs. As I’ve said here before, some intellectually-minded Protestants — often Anglicans — who despair over the freefall of their own churches on questions of faith and morals look to the rock of Rome as an ecclesial and epistemological shelter from postmodernity, which has hit the churches like a firehose gushing acid. What they usually find, at least in this country, is a church whose ideals are quite far from what is lived out. Generally speaking, American Catholicism at the popular level — that is, outside of relatively small groups of orthodox Catholic intellectuals and the journals to which they contribute —  pretty much as Protestant as any other church.

(And lest you think I’m implying Orthodox Christian triumphalism here, let me say up front that I am not aware of any data on the religious attitudes of young adult Orthodox Christian Americans, but I have no reason to believe they would differ substantially from the data on young Catholics and Protestants.)

The trends are clear, for those who have eyes to see: Christianity itself is collapsing in this country (as, by the way, is Judaism, outside of the small and close-knit circles of the Orthodox). It won’t happen overnight, but barring divine intervention, it will happen. The direction of the culture is unmistakable, and it is difficult to identify any significant countervailing forces at work. In fact, one of the key obstacles to taking effective measures to save one’s own family and local faith community from this trend is a refusal to recognize what’s going on, and why it is happening.

Last night at bedtime, I settled in with a new copy of the leading Reformed theologian James K.A. Smith’s influential book Imagining The Kingdom: How Worship Works.  Here’s an excerpt from a review of the book:

In Section One, Smith suggests we have an embodied way of “knowing” and intuiting our world, an inner posture predisposing us to action. He argues that most of our actions have their origins somewhere between intellect and instinct: that we have a “feel” for and natural disposition to the world that is shaped gradually, slowly, and implicitly from our experiences in the world. This feel is to a great extent “the effect of stories that have captivated us, have sunk into our bones—stories that ‘picture’ what we think life is about, what constitutes ‘the good life.’ We live into the stories we’ve absorbed; we become characters in the drama that has captivated us”.

Section Two argues that embodied knowing is formed by shared communal practices and stories. As social creatures, we find ourselves adopting what Smith calls a habitus— a “handed down way of being” shared among a community”. Here he leans on the philosophy of Pierre Bourdieu, whose work studying “practice as practice” sought to “recognize the centrality of habitus, of habituated inclinations that spawn meaningful action”

Section Three argues that both our embodied knowing and also our habitus are motivated and formed by our imaginations—by metaphor and narrative. The world as Smith sees it is liturgical; he defines liturgies as:

those rituals and practices that constitute the embodied stories of a body politic. If liturgies are “rituals of ultimate concern” that form identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and that do so in a way that means to trump other formations, they do so because they are those story-laden practices that are absorbed into the imaginative epicenter of action and behavior. 

It’s through these liturgies—stories, images, and visions of “the good life”—that our desires are formed and our actions are motivated. These stories capture our imagination and have a way of orienting our lives. “We don’t memorize the Story as told to us,” Smith writes. “We imbibe the Story as we perform it in a million little gestures.”

I didn’t know this at all last night when I opened the book; I just looked this up online, in fact. All I knew last night was that people had been saying to me for a long time that I needed to read Jamie Smith’s work, and so I had ordered the book from Amazon to take with me to Grand Rapids so the author could sign it when we met, but that Amazon had not delivered it in time. It was waiting for me when I got home last evening. Too tired to start the book from the beginning last night, I opened it up to a random page, and serendipitously found Smith’s discussion of habitus. Here’s an excerpt from Imagining The Kingdom:

The language of habitus has a philosophical echo that reverberates from Aristotle’s account of virtue, in which habits are those dispositions that incline us to a certain end. Bourdier’s invocation of the term activates that echo, but also stretches it in new directions. Note that habitus is shorthand for what he calls a “system of structured, structuring dispositions.” But dispositions toward what? Well, dispositions to construct (or constitute) our world in certain ways. We aren’t just blank slates that passively “record” the world, as empiricism and materialism would have us believe; we constitute and construct our world. But contrary to intellectualism, that constitution happens “in practice” and is oriented toward action (a “practical function”), not mere observation. Habitus, then, is shorthand to refer to those “dispositions” we have to constitute the world in certain ways — the habitual way that we construct our world. And those dispositions and habits are not primarily intellectual or rational; they are certainly not something we “think about.”

Thus Bourdieu glosses habitus to emphasize this point that a habitus is always sort of bigger than me — it is a communal, collective disposition that gets inscribed in me. It is always both personal and political.  … [A] habitus is both durable and transposable — something that endures over time and is communicable, able to be shared and passed on. In this sense, a habitus is a kind of embodied tradition, not as some external “deposit” of data or content but as a handed-down way of being. It is in this sense that a habitus is a “structured” structure — it is something that comes to me, from outside me, conditioning and enabling my constitution because it inclines me to constitute the world in certain ways, conditioning my construction of meaning.

This is why habitus is intertwined with institutions. …

If you’ve been reading my Dante blogging, you will recognize this word habitus. It’s central to Dante’s understanding of what it means to recover oneself and one’s relationship to God. In fact, the entire Purgatorio can be read as an exercise in building a good habitus. Dante wrote the Commedia as a response not only to the collapse of his personal life — his forced exile and impoverishment, owing to the chaotic politics of his day — but at one of Western civilization’s great turning points: the beginning of the collapse of the culture of the High Middle Ages. The literary critic Erich Auerbach observes that the Commedia, as a thoroughly Christian work, is both the summit and the apogee of that culture. Here’s Auerbach, from his must-read Dante: Poet Of The Secular World:

As we have repeatedly stressed, his poetic genius was inseparably bound up with his doctrine. But his doctrine did not endure. The Comedy represented the physical, ethical, and political unity of the Scholastic Christian cosmos at a time when it was beginning to lose its ideological integrity: Dante took the attitude of a conservative defender, his battle was an attempt to regain something that had already been lost; in this battle he was defeated, and his hopes and prophecies were never fulfilled.  …

Dante’s Thomist world view, and their consequence was not the worldwide humana civilitas for which Dante hoped, but an increasing fragmentation of cultural forces; it is only after the imperial ideology and the Christian-medieval conception of the world, shaken by internecine struggles, were swept away by the rationalism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that a new practical view of the unity of human society began to take place. … The radical shift in values [from Scholastic to Humanistic] that has taken place is made clear by the example of Petrarch, who was only forty years younger than Dante. Petrarch was not actually of a different party, he was not opposed to Dante’s strivings; but what had moved Dante, the whole attitude and form of his life, had grown alien to him. He is distinguished from Dante above all by his new attitude toward his own person; it was no longer in looking upward … that Petrarch expected to find self-fulfillment, but in the conscious cultivation of his own nature. Although far inferior to Dante in personality and natural endowment, he was unwilling to acknowledge any superior order or authority; not even the authority of the universal world order to which Dante submitted so passionately. The autonomous personality, of which Petrarch was to be the first fully typical modern European embodiment, has lived in a thousand forms and varieties; the conception takes in all the tendencies of the modern age, the business spirit, the religious subjectivism, the humanism, and the striving for physical and technological domination of the world. It is incomparably richer, deeper, and more dangerous than the ancient cult of the person. From Christianity, whence it rose and which it ultimately defeated, this conception inherited unrest and immoderation. These qualities led it to discard the structure and limits of Dante’s world, to which, however, it owed the power of its actuality.

In other words, the Commedia was written out of the experience of a man who was living through the collapse of his personal world, but through the collapse of the philosophical and theological world in which he passionately believed, owing in large part, it must be said, to the moral collapse of the late medieval church. Here’s the thing: the Commedia did not save Scholastic Christianity or Dante’s world. But it did save Dante! That is, the imaginative experience it so stunningly recollects is the one that saved Dante the man from perishing spiritually as the scaffolding of his world fell down around him.

This is why the Commedia is so vitally important to us today — Christians, especially, but also everyone who is lost in the ruins. Like all great art, the Commedia is not so much an argument as a revelation, a manifestation of stunning charisma to those with eyes to see. Auerbach again:

Finally, we must mention a fourth aspect of the configured truth: it demands acceptance; the poem that contains it must be compelling. The authority of the witness who with his own eyes has seen what is most important in a man, namely his true person and his ultimate fate, must be so strong that the reader cannot doubt or be left indifferent, but is convinced and carried away.

Dante’s particular power comes through the extreme mastery of his artistic form, but also because he poured into that form his molten self, tried by the hottest fire. As Auerbach says, the journey through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven is so compelling because Dante makes you feel at every turn the stakes for him and for us all. By the time you finish the Commedia, you feel that Dante really has come back from the dead with a story to tell — and that in some mysterious way, it is the story of our lives.

One of the most important things he has to tell us is of the critical importance of habitus in shaping our lives and our eternal destinies. Yesterday, I wrote at length about how this emerges in Canto XIV of Purgatorio, about how the private sins of one generation draw suffering onto future generations, in large part by destroying their habitus, such that our children and our children’s children can’t even make sense of truth and virtue. This is where we are today. Here is one of many, many examples.

And so we come to what I’ve been calling the Benedict Option. When I write about it, people have this idea that I’m talking about everybody running away to a compound in Idaho to wait out the deluge. I’m not, not at all. True, I am talking about the possibility of doing things like that, though not so radical — I wrote a TAC story about it last year — but for the great majority of us, that’s not possible, or even desirable. It must not be forgotten that the early Benedictines did not bunker away behind monastery walls, with no contact at all with the outside world. Rather, they constructed a way of life for themselves — a habitus, but one that in their case required a particular material structure (the monastery) — that allowed them to live out the faith and to carry on with the moral life in community, passing it on vertically, to future generations of Benedictines, and horizontally to the peasants to whom they ministered over the centuries and the generations. Without knowing what they were doing, they laid the groundwork for the rebirth of civilized life in Europe.

For Christians living through the current collapse, this is our most important task. It will necessarily have many facets, but it’s the kind of thing that all of us — Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox — have to be working toward, together. I was so thrilled to see on Monday afternoon how excited Jamie Smith was to learn about what Dante had to say to us about this, and thrilled to learn last night how much work Smith, as one of the leading Protestant theologians of his generation, has done to show his people why habitus is so critically important to us all, and why worship, which he says includes “forming us in ways that elude conscious awareness,” is more important than intellection.

We will get what we are. What we are is what we do. And what we do is determined not so much what we think, but by the metaphysical dream that we live by — that is, by what we imagine.

You know what I think, reading Dante and James K.A. Smith? That the rediscovery of Dante is going to happen among a creative minority of American Christians, and he is going to be a touchstone for us in ways we can only barely see now. “Normally it is creative minorities who determine the future,” said Pope Benedict XVI. Take up Dante, folks, and read.

By the way, good news today on that front, at least for me. I spoke to an editor at a major publishing house today, and my proposed book How Dante Can Save Your Life has passed the first hurdle there. It went out to a bunch of other editors at other publishers on Friday. I might be wrong, but I think this might actually happen.

UPDATE: Let me clarify something: when Alasdair MacIntyre says that we await “a new — and very different — St. Benedict,” what I take him to mean is that our time and our place will require a different kind of figure, one who can devise a different habitus within which the life of faith and virtue can be sustained and passed on here and now. This is the great task facing Christian intellectuals and ordinary Christian families and individuals right now. The habitus to which we have become habituated over the last 50 years is not working. The center is not holding; we’re losing ground very fast, and for Christians, that means losing souls.