Yes, Make Catholicism ‘Weird’ Again. But Not Stupid and Tribalist.

By John Zmirak Published on May 16, 2018

In a column reflecting on the trainwreck that was the Met fashion gala featuring half-clad actresses dressed up in Catholic vestments, Ross Douthat tries to squeeze some lemonade out of lemons. Yes, we weep that New York’s Cardinal Dolan arranged for this scandal. (Big donors to the archdiocese serve on the Met’s board, you see.) But Douthat dries his eyes and tries to see something deeper. A crowd full of campy, secular New Yorkers wanted to gawk at copes and chasubles. That tells us something. We need to “make Catholicism weird again.”

I agree. We Catholics should stop dumbing down the liturgy. Watering down doctrines. Apologizing for every aspect of the Faith that makes us stand out from other post-modern Americans. We should be marching Corpus Christi processions down New York’s Madison Avenue. Make it complete with Gregorian chant and silk canopies. Solid-gold monstrances that display the Body of Christ. We should scrutinize ourselves, see all those times when we deep-sixed devotions and customs that once powerfully passed on the Faith. Everything from question-and-answer catechisms to praying grace in restaurants should be back on the table.

Embracing the Strange

All that is true. I devoted a series of Bad Catholics’ Guides to promoting just such a project. I cover the wackiest saints’ days, the most outrageous customs, and the many types of alcohol that monks have made over the centuries. And I don’t soft-pedal doctrine. Quite the contrary.

By all means, let’s embrace those “weird” externals that edify believers and transfix outsiders. For one thing, most of them are intrinsically worthy. For another, they counter a culture that is dying anyway and mostly deserves to: a secular West that has abandoned not just faith but reason and even beauty.

Catholicism as an Angry, Incoherent Ideology

Alas, a column by Matthew Walther to which Douthat linked as an example of “making it weird” does something quite different. In it, Walther questions the value of Catholics cooperating politically with evangelical Protestants. He claims that this alliance is responsible for Catholics abandoning their principles. The result?

Forty years of infanticide, economic exploitation, and spoliation of the Earth as the forces of capital and technology disrupt all our settled customs, habits, convictions, and affections, at an increasingly rapid pace.

He pounds on the table claiming that Catholic politics should be guided by the construct he calls a “social Magisterium.” Which in fact does not exist as he imagines it. It’s just a myth.

Reading Walther reminds us that there are aspects of old Catholic culture that aren’t worth digging back up. We can make the Faith “weird” again without making ourselves bigoted, mindless tribalists. And that was part of the mix in the past, make no mistake. When I helped organize traditional Latin Masses in New York City, I’d run across people who clung to old outrages against reason, common sense, or simple charity. That’s the dark shadow cast by the wholesome desire to recover what’s good that we lost.

Real Catholics share far more in common with Robert Jeffress than we do with liberal Jesuits.

Most people I met at those beautifully chanted, reverent Masses were earnest, bourgeois believers. Others were delightful eccentrics. Still others were cranks. They would urge me to read the books of Fr. Denis Fahey. He’s the Irish conspiracy theorist from the 30s who warned that “organized Jewry” is the “synagogue of Satan.” Others would press on me the broadcasts of pro-fascist radio celebrity Fr. Charles Coughlin. Or the works of E. Michael Jones, who today talks of Jews as “the mystical body of Antichrist.”

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Contempt for Fellow Christians

I also found in such circles an easy, unthinking contempt for Protestant fellow Christians. By this I don’t mean considered criticisms of Luther, Calvin, or even contemporary Pentecostalism. No, I heard constant, flippant, lazy rejection of people who sincerely live their faith. Who agree with orthodox Catholics on 80-90 percent of traditional Christian doctrine, compared to the 5 or 10 percent we share with the Jesuits at Georgetown. Protestants, by the way, do much of the heavy lifting nowadays defending innocent life, the family, and basic American liberties. Too many bishops are busy replacing the 40 percent of U.S. Catholics who apostatize with shiny new immigrants. Or chasing federal contracts for their “charities,” while equating the sale of aborted baby parts with Medicaid cuts.

Getting drunk on mindless tribalism is a great way to get key facts grossly wrong. And to keep Christians helpless, divided among themselves just long enough for the secularists to silence us.

From brainier types at the Latin Mass coffee hour, I’d hear arguments like Thomas Pink’s. He suggests that Catholic bishops have the right to use force to “coerce” every baptized Christian into repeating Catholic doctrine or staying silent. Or Fr. Romanus Cessario’s, who wrote in First Things, defending Pope Pius IX for using such authority to kidnap a baptized Jewish child and raise him in the Vatican.

Tribalism Makes You Stupid

None of this is “weird” in the amiable sense that Douthat meant it. No, it’s repugnant, on a profound and visceral level. It offends what natural law theorists call the “deep conscience.” That’s the foundation of every moral insight. It’s the part of your mind that tells you that Jewish children belong with their parents, who should guide their religious education. That terrorizing people with prison for their deepest beliefs is evil. Whether it’s done by the Spanish Inquisition, Elizabeth I, Iranian mullahs or Chinese commissars.

Worst of all, perhaps, such attitudes make you stupid. They let you breeze past complex arguments, avoid serious questions, and cling to faith’s externals like some comforting tribal totem. You can spurn real allies and rally around real enemies, just because they check some comforting boxes.

Walther did just that when he demanded the reinstatement of House Chaplain Fr. Patrick Conroy. That’s the guy whom conservative Catholic Rep. Paul Ryan, with the support of other conservative Christians, sought to remove. And, as it turns out, Fr. Conroy is a pro-LGBT activist who politicized his ministry. Stream columnist Joseph Sciambra (a Catholic) wasn’t too blinded by sectarianism to find out Conroy’s views. But in an eruption not of Catholic citizenship but blind tribalism, Catholic groups rallied to Conroy, and now he’s back. The Catholic League embarrassed itself by weighing in reflexively for Conroy. It demanded that Ryan’s chief of staff  be fired for opposing him, and requesting a Protestant chaplain for a change. Pro-choice House Democrats ate it all up.

Tribalism makes you stupid. It lets you breeze past complex arguments, avoid serious questions, and cling to faith’s externals like some comforting totem. You can spurn real allies and rally around real enemies, just because they check some comforting boxes.

Mainline Protestant Catholics

Real Catholics share far more in common — believe more of the same things I mean — with Franklin Graham or even Robert Jeffress than we do with the likes of Conroy. That’s just a fact. Conservative Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox have disagreements, of course. Important ones. But nothing like the yawning gap that divides us from the post-modern posers we variously label “Mainline” Protestants or “progressive Catholics.”

Getting drunk on mindless tribalism is a great way to get such facts grossly wrong. And to keep Christians helpless, divided among themselves just long enough for the secularists to silence us. Giving into that isn’t “weird” or countercultural. It’s just lazy and scandalous.


Note: The Catholic League has issued a response to this piece. It appears below.

We did not weigh in “reflexively” as you state. We cautiously AVOIDED jumping in immediately, concluding that Fr. Conroy’s forced resignation was NOT based on religious grounds. As such, we saw no role for the Catholic League, and stayed out of it.
·         That changed when Rep. Walker, one of the leaders of the search group selected by Speaker Ryan to find a replacement for Fr. Conroy, appeared to pointedly exclude celibate Catholic priests from consideration. That clearly WAS a matter for the Catholic League to speak out about.
·         We did not demand that Ryan fire his chief of staff “for opposing” Fr. Conroy. We called for his firing for a similar remark attributed to him, that it was time to find a chaplain who wasn’t Catholic.
·         At no time did we weigh in “for Conroy” as you erroneously state. We weighed in AGAINST assertions that Catholic priests in general are not qualified to be U.S. House chaplain.  
·         Your assertion that “Pro-choice House Democrats ate it all up” shows your lack of understanding of the role of the Catholic League. Our mission is to defend the Church and individual Catholics against defamation and discrimination from wherever they emanate. Suggestions by powerful members of Congress—from whichever party—that Catholic priests should be  disqualified from serving as House chaplain smacks of such discrimination. Failure to address it would have been a betrayal of our mission.
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