Catholicism in America
If were to ask you what some Catholic traditionalists and some radical leftists had in common, you might be left scratching your head for a few moments. On most matters you wouldn’t expect them to agree on much of anything. But there’s one issue they do tend to converge upon, and that is their take on American history.
When I read some Catholic trad descriptions of American history and Catholicism’s place in it, I find myself wondering if I’d accidentally picked up and began reading something by Charles Beard or Howard Zinn. I’m not associating these tendencies in order to delegitimize the Catholic trad critique – which contains, as do most critiques which catch on with at least some people, elements of truth. But the trad critique, in its shrillness and its refusal to engage historical facts that may falsify or at least cast reasonable doubt upon its substantive claims, deserves to be set alongside the vulgar leftist critique of American history. And bear in mind, I say this as a Catholic trad myself, albeit one who is more of a romanticist than a true reactionary.
I also say it as someone who once bought into this whole idea. As a young man emerging from a long and involved commitment to Marxism, both academic and political, into Catholicism, a religion I had little to do with since the age of 13, I had sort of stumbled upon this narrative on my own. There was still something romantic and alluring about rejecting “Americanism”, now from a Catholic perspective.
After all, the two critiques often make use of a lot of the same themes – a rejection of individualism, of bourgeois Protestant values, a savage critique of the Enlightenment, invocations of slavery and other manifestations of racism and inequality, and perhaps more specific to the Catholic angle, reminders of Freemasonry and the Illuminati (though to be fair, Mozart was a Freemason too, back in the days when it wasn’t yet forbidden by the Church. I don’t think that’s ever stopped a trad from enjoying his Requiem, but I digress).
Now, given the popularity of this critique, not only among trads, but also among the Catholic left, the “peace and justice” crowd – of course, for much different reasons and to much different ends – one would surely expect to find a solid foundation or at least an implied resonance within Church history, tradition, and teaching.
If you hold that expectation, prepare to be utterly disappointed. Or delighted, as the case may be.
This Christmas my local parish was something to behold. Midnight Mass began with light only from decorations on the Evergreen trees, the Priest, escorted by the Deacon and members of the local Knights of Columbus, processed through the Pews with an icon of the baby Jesus to be laid in the Manger. The entire Church was silent and it was beautiful.
As is typical of Christmas and to a lesser extent Easter Masses, the Church was full. This is an unusual circumstance for my parish, as on any typical Sunday the Church is probably half empty. In New England, people who don’t usually come to Church come to Church on Christmas. This is a disheartening aspect of Catholic life in America. Is there anything that can or should be done about it?
I suspect that my family was hardly unique among serious Catholics in the 80s in that my parents often found working around our parish to be key to bringing their children up with a strong appreciation of the Catholic faith. When I was in 2nd and 3rd grade my mother helped teach CCD for a while, until the point where a fiat was handed down from the DRE on lent: There will be no discussion of Christ’s suffering and death and crucifixes should not be on display in any classrooms for the younger kids — that would be too scary. (I believe this was the same DRE who gave an inspirational talk about how one of her deepest spiritual experiences was cutting shapes out of construction paper. Nice lady, but not what you’d call a deep thinker in matters of religion.)