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The ‘Yes We Can’ Catholics

Pushing back against self-satisfied spirituality

The indispensable Catholic journalist John L. Allen writes:

As the synod rolls into its second week, yet another way of understanding the fundamental divide is coming into focus: The gap between those who believe the demands of classic Catholic teaching on sex, marriage, and the family may be unrealistic or inappropriate for some share of the contemporary population, and those convinced that it’s widely attainable in the here-and-now.

Perhaps one could call the latter position the “Yes We Can!’ brigade at the 2015 synod.

(Presumably, the irony of applying Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan to a bloc of folks who would generally be seen as cultural conservatives isn’t lost on anyone.)

Many in this camp suspect that advocates of a more “pastoral” approach on matters such as homosexuality and divorce have quietly thrown in the towel on the idea that it’s reasonable to expect lifelong faithful marriage to be the norm, or that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics shouldn’t be sexually intimate, and so on.

The “Yes We Can!” faction wouldn’t deny that many people don’t actually live those teachings, but they insist that it can be done, and fear that by not encouraging people to do so, the Church clearly risks selling them short.


The “Yes We Can!” camp, however, believes Church teaching isn’t just an ideal, but a practical way of life, though without minimizing the sacrifices it may entail. As they see it, the synod’s message ought to be, “You’re called to this, and we’re going to have your back in pulling it off.”

Boy, did this ever make me want to cheer. When I became a Catholic in 1993, I committed myself to living chastely, as the Church required. This was a desert experience for me, who was not used to denying himself in this way, but it was a desert experience that brought me out of bondage to my own disordered desires. It was hard, but it was necessary, and it was necessary because it was hard.

At virtually no point did I believe, or have reason to believe, that the institutional church and its ministers had my back. In fact, the silence from the pulpits was total. There is, or was, no sense in contemporary American Catholicism that asceticism is a normal part of the Christian life, and that we might help each other bear those burdens. One of the reasons I sympathize so instinctively with gays and lesbians like Wesley Hill and Eve Tushnet, who keep raising the issue of the Church needing to make affirmative space within its life for same-sex attracted Christians who seek to live celibacy, is because the loneliest and most difficult period of my life as a new Catholic was the four years in which I struggled to be celibate, before I married.

I didn’t need Father to remind me every week in his homily to keep my pants up. That’s not the point. What I could have used was any sign that the life to which I had submitted, in obedience to what I believed was the truth, mattered to the Church. The message I constantly received from the silence in the parish(es) was: You are wasting your time trying to live out these teachings. Nobody here cares about this stuff, so why should you?

I knew what kind of Egypt I had been delivered from, and that memory, plus a strong prayer life, strengthened me in the journey. But the institutional Church was worthless in this struggle. I knew I had a strong ally in Pope John Paul II, but Rome was very far away. Thinking back on it, the heart of the problem was the culture of the American church, in which the idea of dying to self to live in Christ was an alien concept. I was deeply struck the other day by the e-mail I received from a young Catholic I met in Charlottesville, and posted here. This part:

The Church’s shedding of Her ancient liturgy, ascetic and disciplinary practices, and the destroying Her sacred buildings and art leading up to, during, and after Vatican II is one of the greatest losses to Catholicism and to the West in recent history.

… comes especially to my mind when I think about the “Yes We Can” Catholics. Last night, on the flights home, I read a short but dense book a reader sent me, a work of social science analysis called How Societies Remember, by Paul Connerton, a social anthropologist at Cambridge University. It is one of the most important books I have ever read, and one I now see as key to the Benedict Option. I’ll post on it later today, but for this discussion, I can say that the book shines a Klieg light on the Catholic reader’s observation above. Connerton describes modernity, driven by the logic of capitalism, as a “worldwide clearing operation” regarding historical memory. Modernity, he says, is a condition of  “deliberate forgetting.” Connerton writes:

Under the conditions of modernity the celebration of recurrence can never be anything more than a compensatory strategy, because the very principle of modernity itself denies the idea of life as a structure of celebrated recurrence. … The operation of this system brings about a massive withdrawal of credence in the possibility that there might exist forms of life that are exemplary because prototypical. The logic of capital tends to deny the capacity any longer to imagine life as a structure of exemplary recurrence.

In everyday language, Connerton is saying that living in modernity makes it all but impossible to believe that there is a way of life that we should follow — that is, that our desires should be ordered around a certain ideal, one given to us instead of chosen, and that we should observe certain practices to incarnate that ideal in our own lives. “Life as a structure of exemplary recurrence” means living as an order one submits to for the sake of conforming to a sacred ideal that comes down to us from the past. Note well that Connerton is writing not as a theologian, but as a social scientist. What he’s saying at bottom is that the very structure and logic of modernity is radically antithetical to anything like historic Christianity. “[I]nvented rites … are palliative measures, façades erected to screen off the full implications of this vast worldwide clearing operation.”

Reading the book — and I’ll explore this more fully in a subsequent post — I felt the full weight of the young Catholic’s statement. You hear these kinds of things from Traditionalist Catholics all the time, but thinking of it in light of the “Yes We Can” Catholics, gave me a certain perspective on my own experience. The institutional church in America, by and large, does not care to produce holiness, but rather happiness. It embraced the “worldwide clearing operation” of modernity in the Sixties, and turned away from the rites and practices that formed Catholics by teaching them to experience life as a structure of exemplary recurrence. People like me didn’t fit into the new, this-worldly church order. This was a difficult thing to come to terms with.

Fortunately, there are within the Catholic Church communities of resistance — joyful resistance, even. The amazing Leah Libresco, for example, is a one-woman dynamo of joyful resistance, and it’s impossible to spend any time around her, as I did this past week in Washington, and despair about the future of American Catholicism. In the early part of the last decade, a priest friend in New York grew weary of listening to me and another Catholic pal griping about the failures of the institutional Church. He said, in effect:

“Everything you say is true, and if you two sit around waiting for the institutional Church to get its act together, you’re sunk. But you don’t have to do that. You have the Catechism. You can go on Amazon.com tonight and order a library that would have made Aquinas envious, and have it at your home in a few days. You in the laity can do this on your own. What are you waiting for?”

His point was that by remaining grumpily docile, we were collaborating in our own spiritual ruin. He told us that his parents raised him and his siblings through the catechetical and spiritual disaster of the immediate post-conciliar era, when you had to be radically countercultural, even in the face of the institutional Church, if you were going to form Catholic children properly. Today, the priest said, we have far more resources to draw on to fight the disorders of modernity, especially as they manifest themselves within the institutional Church. We only lack the courage and the imagination to lay hold of them, and put them to use.

That priest was right. Is right. I think about how radically different my experience of Catholicism as a single man would have been had I had people like Leah around — or, to fault myself, if I had known back then how much I would need community to walk this difficult path, and opened myself up more to the opportunities that were there at the time (CL, for example), instead of being standoffish, because I was getting my sea legs as a new Catholic, and wasn’t sure what to do. That life cannot be re-lived, and in any case, I have found in Orthodoxy what I thought I was going to find in Catholicism when I converted. Still, the Connerton book has helped me to understand more deeply why the Church was a lonely place for me as a new, single Catholic who wanted to live out the countercultural truths of Christianity, especially regarding sex and sexuality.

Here’s a story from Crux about a young Catholic now at the Rome synod on behalf of Catholic orthodoxy. Excerpts:

And then there are those Catholics who hope that bishops talk about challenges such as divorce, gender theory, and homosexuality not because they want the Church to liberalize on these issues, but because they believe Catholics must find better ways to engage a skeptical world about the beauty of traditional Church teaching.

Alix Verdet is in the latter camp.

She’s come to Rome from France on behalf of the Association pour la Formation Chrétienne de la Personne, a Catholic organization that promotes the teachings of St. John Paul II, based at a Benedictine abbey dating back 1,000 years in Solesmes, France, a village about 150 miles southwest of Paris.

Solesmes. There’s your Benedict Option, folks. More:

“The doctrinal and the pastoral are the two sides of a single mystery,” she said. “They can’t be separated.”

If bishops go soft on doctrine, even in the face of opposition from the laity, she fears the Church will be seen as wishy-washy to its most devout adherents.

“If the teaching of the Church would change because of fashion, I wouldn’t be interested in it, because it would be like politics,” she said.

Still, she hopes that the synod is able to articulate creative ways to engage those whose lives might not be in accord with Church teaching.

“We all have friends who are divorced, who are gay, and we are asking God, ‘What is the response you want us to give them?’” she said. “I’ve met some gay people who have asked 10 priests for help, but they couldn’t help. Nothing. That’s not normal.”

Oh, but it is.

See, this is why the Synod worries me greatly, even though I’m not a Catholic, and even though I think Pope Francis is not necessarily wrong in wanting to reform some of the procedures for pastoral reasons. If these proposed reforms were to take place within a church culture that still valued the ascetical element of Christianity, one that still believed in fasting, and that had a robust culture of practices that helped its people order their lives according to God’s revelation, instead of the modern world’s preferences, there would be little problem. As it is, though, Alix Verdet’s point about the Church devaluing eternal verities is a powerful one.

Liberal Catholics and their fellow travelers look at orthodox Catholics and see people who just want to punish gays, lesbians, and heterosexuals who don’t want to conform their sex lives to the Church’s teaching. What they do not and, I think, will not see, is that orthodox Catholics believe that these teachings, however hard, are both true and liberating. “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” said Christ. What did he mean by that? He meant that the only real freedom is freedom that we find when we live our lives, and order our loves, according to His teaching — which, for Catholics, is revealed in Scripture authoritatively interpreted by the Roman Church. In my own case, the three or four years I lived as a single Catholic, struggling with chastity, were very, very difficult. A time in the desert, for sure, a period of suffering and loneliness that made no sense to me at the time — but in the end, it helped save me. In How Dante Can Save Your Life, I talk about it this way:

By the time I was received into the Catholic Church in 1993, I had committed to live chastely until marriage. I was twenty-six years old. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done — and one of the best.

Many Catholics think the Church makes too big a deal about sex; some think the Church should say nothing about sex at all. But practicing chastity after my experience with sex, I understood the wisdom of the Church’s teaching. All the lies I had told myself, and that our culture tells us, about what sex is for left me feeling hollow and unsatisfied.

I didn’t want sex; I wanted love. I mean, yes, I wanted sex, but when it was decoupled from love, that desire was a counterfeit, a false idol. It was destructive to me and to the women I had been with. I realized around this time that by trying to banish that guilty feeling so I could be as free as I wanted to be and thought I had a right to be, I was killing off the most humane part of myself.

When I embraced chastity, I had no idea if I would ever get married. The thought that this might be a lifetime thing filled me with dread. But the prospect of going back to the Egypt from which I’d just been delivered was worse. So on I went, trusting that God knew what was best for me, and that I would rather die to my body with him than live in my body without him.

I was not entirely successful in those first years, but I was a lot better than I had been. Prayer and the confessional helped me with my repentance. Learning to tell myself no was a new thing, and an important one. I learned to steer myself away from getting involved with women who didn’t share my faith and my commitment to chastity before marriage.

My secular friends thought I was a very odd duck because of this. But I didn’t care. I knew what I was being saved from. I knew the kind of man I was and the kind of man I wanted to be. By practicing chastity, I began to understand better the workings of my own heart, and how I had fallen into self-deception (and deceived others) in past relationships.

On October 11, 1996, I was introduced in an Austin bookstore to the woman who would become my wife. I was instantly smitten; we were talking about marriage only days later.

How in the world had that happened, and happened so quickly? Sure, I’m a hopeless romantic, but I am convinced that if my own heart had not been purified by those three years I spent walking through the fire, I would not have recognized the smile of the beautiful, pure-hearted woman who was my own Beatrice, for whom I had been praying and longing for years.

So when the pilgrim Dante meets two condemned lovers in the Circle of Lust, they were not strangers to me. I could easily have been one of them.

Read the whole thing, amici. In the book, I talk about how the seriousness with which Orthodoxy takes asceticism (that is, practices that help us die to our own passions so we can live in Christian freedom) as a normal part of daily Christian life brought me out of myself, de-centered me from myself and re-centered me around God, and healed me. Lust is not a sin I struggle with today as I did back then, but Wrath is, and so is Gluttony, and many others. Orthodoxy is very imperfect in the parishes in this country, but the liberating gift the ancient church’s spirituality gave me was to say:

Welcome to the Way of the Cross. This journey is hard, and you are going to fall over and over on this walk. But there is no other way. Your priest will be there to guide you and to hear your confession when you fall, and to help you get back up and keep going. Everybody else in the church is on the same journey. The structure of our liturgical life together, and the practices of fasting and all the rest, will keep you on the straight path, if you truly submit to them. The church is a hospital for souls, but if you went to a hospital that only gave you anesthesia for your broken arm, you would never get better. This is going to hurt sometimes, but it’s the only way to be truly healed. This is the way passed down to us from the early church. You are free to ignore it, of course, and many do, but if you truly want to save your soul, if you truly want to live in Christ, this is the sure path. The faith is not an electric blanket; it is the Cross.

In parishes where it hasn’t been taken over by tribe-at-prayer ethnicity, or an assimilationist ethos (two cradle Orthodox friends of mine lost their Orthodoxy because of this), Orthodoxy is still serious about this stuff. The Roman Catholicism I encountered mostly is not. Don’t get me wrong: there are many, many Catholics who are serious about this stuff, and find in the Church the resources they need to help them on the Way of the Cross. I know Catholics like this, and they are my brothers and sisters in Christ. We are walking the Way together. But they often have a harder walk than I do, because the modernized Church has lost confidence in its own teaching, and too often conveys the message that the Way is too hard, and doesn’t have to be attempted. I’m surprised by how much this gets to me, even today (the Orthodox equivalent is reducing the Way to ethnic enthusiasm), because it leaves so many of us walking wounded out on the battlefield instead of bringing them into the hospital for triage.

The good news is that these Yes We Can Catholics exist — may their tribe increase! — and are standing up to offer a counternarrative to those within their own Church who sing the siren song of self-satisfaction, a counterfeit way that can only lead to shipwreck and captivity. Those Catholics are the ones who are going to make it through what’s coming. In fact, any Christian — Protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic — who wants to make it through will have to be a Yes We Canner.

UPDATE: A really good, balanced post about suffering, joy, and the Church, by Erin Manning.



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