Monday, January 28, 2019

Why is There so Little Catholicism on This "Catholic" Blog?

It's a question that I think must sometimes occur to my readers, and I'll try to answer it as fairly as I can.

First off, I have a great awe of the Bible verse, "Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly." (James 3:1). I'm very careful what I present as Church teaching. Whenever I present anything as Catholic teaching, I like to be absolutely confident in its orthodoxy.

And I'm becoming ever more cautious in this regard. For instance, a few years ago I remember being very impressed by the homilies of a particular priest. I thought they were very scriptural and solid. Today, I often find myself wincing during his homilies, and thinking: "Well, that's not really true", or: "I wouldn't say that." Perhaps this comes from an over-critical or over-fastidious mind. After all, the Bible often speaks loosely. (Think how often Protestants have made hay of the verse, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God", Romans 3:23, in arguing against the impeccability of Mary.)

Another reason I find myself backing away from making positive claims about Catholicism is because I'm trying to avoid a certain genre of Catholic writing. I might call it the "spirit of Catholicism" genre. I have perpetrated it in the past, and I'm now eager to avoid it.

We all know the lines from Belloc:

Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine
There's always laughter and good red wine...

Well, I'm increasingly sceptical of any "spirit of Catholicism"-- other than the Holy Spirit itself. The Catholic Church is universal. Trying to identify it with any culture or atmosphere is a mistake, in my view, and leads to distortions.

I think even G.K. Chesterton could be guilty of this. His eagerness to distance Catholicism from puritanism may have gone too far (although in some of his articles in the twenties and thirties, he himself says that the anti-puritan reaction is excessive). His name is now attached to a kind of rip-roaring, beery, party-hearty Catholicism."Break the conventions, keep the commandments" is a motto that some Chestertonians have distilled from the novel Manalive, although it's not an exact quotation, and it's not put in the imperative there. I personally think it's a stupid motto, and that conventions should generally be respected. Indeed, Chesterton suggests the same thing in his analogy of the fence.

Catholicism is, in my view, far too often identified with particular national cultures (usually Mediterranean), or with a particular era (the High Middle Ages), or with good taste and antiquarianism (Brideshead Revisited, Pugin enthusiasts), or with anti-bourgeois sentiment (Flannery O'Connor), or with left-wing activism (any number of leftist nuns and Jesuits), or with High Tory conservatism (Joseph De Maistre fans), or with some other sectional hobby-horse. And then there is the political divide, with some Catholics hailing Donald Trump as a second Constantine while others denounce him as an anti-Christ. In the same way, a figure like Nelson Mandela is presented as a kind of secular saint, despite having a terrible record on abortion.

What about the controversies in the Church? I can't find much justification for wading into these. I imagine the vast majority of my readers share my views on Amoris Laetitia or Fr. James Martin SJ, for instance. The arguments have been well-rehearsed elsewhere. What is gained by dragging them up yet again?

Another reason I so rarely write on explicitly Catholic topics is because I think it's hard to say anything really interesting or new to practicing, thinking Catholics-- at least, as far as the doctrinal level goes.

I would argue that the Catholic faith is pretty simple. Of course, nothing is simple in that everything is capable of almost endless analysis and debate. When dissident Catholics claim that the Church has complicated Jesus's simple message of love, the answer is obviously: "Well, it's not that simple." Nothing is that simple. And certainly there are nooks and crannies and hard cases which could be discussed exhaustively, and indeed exhaustingly.'s fairly simple.

I admit that most Catholic writing or programming bores me. Do I really need to watch another video explaining why pornography is wrong? Or why we need to actively participate at Mass? Or whether Catholics worship saints? Do I need to be told, for the millionth time, that worship is not a matter of emotions? I realize this might sound arrogant, and I don't mean it like that. It's just that nothing is more boring to me than somebody trying to convince me of something I already believe, or tell me something I already know. I imagine most readers of this blog are at the same stage in their faith.

Casting about for something new or original to say has its own dangers, which I am also trying to avoid. More on that in a bit.

Insofar as I enjoy Catholic media now, it's generally something like the podcast Jimmy Akin's Mysterious World, a podcast all about unsolved mysteries, which is presented from a Catholic point of view. And that is my same view of this blog. It's from a Catholic point of view, and that is how I justify calling it Catholic.

I do think that there is a place for such writing, as I wrote in this blog post. There, I am talking about a conservative rather than specifically Catholic point of view. As I say in the post, I think there is a great need for spaces where we can talk about life in general, and everything life has to offer, from a conservative perspective, as opposed to writing about conservatism. And I think the same is true in the case of Catholicism.

Let me return to the topic of "casting about for something original or new to say". This often takes the form of trying to help people grow in their Faith by recommending some extra devotion or discipline or way of participating in the Mass, or a course of study (perhaps Latin or patristics), or some such thing. Or perhaps it is a would-be helpful warning against pitfalls in the spiritual life.

In my view, one of the dangers here is that Catholic writers, bloggers, etc. might add to the stresses of life. I think this is a danger, not only when it comes to Catholicism, but when it comes to pretty much anything.

Reader, are you stressed by the tidal wave of advice that comes to you all day long, every day? It seems that we are bombarded with news stories and articles and radio interviews, and goodness knows what else, telling us that we're doing everything wrong. We're brushing our teeth wrong. We are having the wrong things for breakfast, and eating breakfast the wrong way. We shouldn't listen to the radio while having breakfast. And probably we shouldn't be sitting on a chair, but cross-legged on the floor. In fact, a quick Amazon search on the subject of one's morning routine came upon these book titles:

My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired

Morning Routine: 7 Morning Habits Of The Most Successful People To Take Control Of Your Life, Get More Energy, Productivity & Results In Your Day

The Miracle Morning: The 6 Habits That Will Transform Your Life Before 8AM

Morning Routine: The Secret to Master Your Life Before the World Wakes Up

Well, there many more, but you get the message.

I'm aware that the writers of these books would doubtless argue that they reduce stress in the long run. Well, maybe. But even reading the titles makes me feel stressed in the short run.

And it doesn't stop at breakfast. All day long, whatever you do, there are any number of articles and videos urging a "life hack" or "one simple tip" on you. More forbiddingly, there are those articles which tell us the five things we should never say to an introvert, or the three things that we should never say to a depressed person, or some other number of things that we should never say to some category of person, at the risk of causing irreparable psychological damage.


Then there are the "boot camps", the lunch-time sessions, the holiday reading lists, the hundred movies you have to see before you die, the hundred places you have to go before you die, the hundred books you have to read before you die, and all the other checklists you have to tick off before you gratefully collapse into your death-bed.

Admittedly, the goal of the spiritual life is to get to Heaven, and this is worth any amount of effort. But it's not just a matter of stress. I also think there's a real danger of undervaluing what people are doing already.

Let me take the example of priests. I often feel sorry for priests. They are the hapless recipients of constant and often conflicting advice. For instance, we want them to take a strong lead, but we also want them to eschew "clericalism".

As a matter of fact, I think most priests (I don't mean dissident priests) do a very good job. And yes, that includes the priest whose homilies I criticized earlier. Most homilies bore me, but so what? Every priest can't be St. Augustine.

Here's an example of the excessive criticism to which (in my view) priests are subjected. I watched a video by Fr. Mike Schmitz of the Ascension Presents channel, who was talking about a particular priest's first Mass. For this Mass, the priest had printed up cards which featured the words: "The Master has need of you"-- a reference to the ass which Jesus commandeered for his approach to Jerusalem. Fr. Mike Schmitz was praising this priest's humility, and incidentally complained that a priest's first Mass is too often an occasion for pride, for a focus upon the priest rather than Jesus.

And I couldn't help thinking: "Give priests a break!". Is it really so terrible if a first Mass is a time for congratulation and, God help us, praise? How much time will the priest have to spend deferring to married couples, and parents at baptisms and Communions and Confirmations, and grieving relatives? Does his entire life have to be a mortification? Is it so bad if he feels some innocent pride on this once-in-a-lifetime occasion?

In the same way, I worry that an avalanche of advice to Catholics on how to advance in the spiritual life might have unfortunate effects. We are often told that, if we are not advancing in the spiritual life, we are falling back. Perhaps that is true, and there are Scripture quotations to support it: "Be thou therefore perfect", "I must decrease, and he must increase", etc

But surely there is also a danger of demoralising the faithful by demanding more, more, more, and all of it NOW! (Of course, this will not demoralize the occasional church-goer-- it will demoralize the committed Catholic.)

Here is an example, to show my views here are not (I hope) simply self-serving. People have congratulated me on my knowledge of the Catholic faith. I think it's not arrogant to say that I would be fairly knowledgeable on Catholic teaching, theology, history, and so forth.

So I'm not thinking of myself when I suggest there may be too much emphasis, sometimes, on the need for a more catechized laity. Shaming Catholics for not being able to list the cardinal virtues or the Ten Commandments, or explain what they believe by Transubstantiation, or never having read the Confessions of St. Augustine, is a bit cheap.

Please let it be understood I'm by no means suggesting ordinary Catholics shouldn't be encouraged to increase their knowledge of the Faith. I'm really talking about the element of shame, of pressure, of stress. I think we should always be cognizant of the fact that people face so many other pressures, too. Just getting to Mass might be a huge effort. Just getting out of bed might be a huge effort (no joke).

I think this applies retrospectively, as well. Since the effective collapse of the Catholic Church in Ireland, all sorts of accusations have been made against the preceding generations of Irish Catholic prelates, priests and laypeople. I'm not talking about the abuse scandals here. I'm talking about the frequent claims that the Irish Catholic Church was triumphalist, complacent, anti-intellectual, puritanical, insular, etc. etc. etc. and that it contained the seeds of its own destruction.

I don't believe any of those accusation are true, and I think there is a great danger of demoralization here, as well.

What do you leave people if they have neither the present nor the past? Think of all those millions of Irish people, down the centuries, who sacrificed so much for their Faith, who attached their dearest hopes to it, who often made it the very centre of their lives. Think of all the decades during which Mass attendance among Irish Catholics was almost one hundred per cent, seminaries were overflowing, and the country sent missionaries all over the world. If we devalue all this, what is it but a tacit admission that no apparent success is ever anything but a sham? Would it not be better to emulate the Irish Catholicism of the past, to take it as an inspiration, even if we criticize it in this or that particular?

Incidentally, I think the same applies to the religiosity of America. Whenever I praise America as a more religious culture than Europe, I am told (often by Americans) that the Christianity of America is "a mile wide and an inch deep". Perhaps it is. Isn't it good that it's a mile wide, at least? Shouldn't we be grateful for that-- and careful to support it, as far as we are able?

All of these cases are examples of the same phenomenon-- of making the perfect the enemy of the good.

For my part, when it comes to writing, my goal is to inspire rather than shame, or demoralize, or cause stress-- whether I am writing on Catholic subjects, or on some other subject from a Catholic point of view.

I can imagine someone, at this point, pointing out to me that the Church has declined since Vatican II precisely because its pastors lowered the standards they demanded of the laity. Or I can imagine somebody quoting to me Pope Benedict's famous words: "You were not made for comfort. You were made for greatness."

But to say this would be to misunderstand what I'm talking about here. I'm not suggesting we should lower standards, or cease to seek Christian perfection, or to urge one another towards it. Not at all. I'm simply suggesting we should be more concerned not to demoralise people, or to devalue what they're doing already, and not to beleaguer them incessantly with a multitude of simultaneous demands from a hundred different directions.

Imagine someone looking out an open window at a horizon that stretches away into the distance. She might look at it with delight, as the promise of an endless adventure. Or she might look at it with dread, as the prospect of an endless ordeal. My suggestion is that we should help her to see it as the former, rather than the latter. That is what I try to do, in my own poor way.


  1. I just read about someone who ties in a bit with your subject today.
    I've often wondered whether the church should show down a bit with all the sainthood causes of people who died young, as it almost seemed to become mandatory for a pious youth to have a cultus in recent years, but I'm sure on the other hand ,that they all have their meaning and it was the first I'd heard of Ven Carlo Acutis (1992-2006) who will possibly be the first blogger-saint, after starting a Eucharistic Miracles website. Fancy that

    1. Fascinating! I'll have to look him up. I see nothing at all wrong with sainthood causes of anybody...the more saints the better, as long as they are really saints! Which they are if Holy Mother Church so proclaims!

  2. "Think of all those millions of Irish people, down the centuries, who sacrificed so much for their Faith, who attached their dearest hopes to it, who often made it the very centre of their lives. Think of all the decades during which Mass attendance among Irish Catholics was almost one hundred per cent, seminaries were overflowing, and the country sent missionaries all over the world." This is both important and fresh. How many of us would not be better off by paying some tribute to our deceased, if only by realising they once did an effort for you and for me? Also what you weighted on the beneficial rather than shaming, this is precisely what my Irish godfather has done for me. It can even be attributed to this 100 per cent Irish personality! So yes, you all have a lot to be proud about. Even Swedes have that, however deprived of Catholicism we have been for ages.

    1. I find it hard to understand how people DON'T wish to honour their ancestors and to continue their traditions! Even Sweden's post-Catholic Christian history, I'm sure, has much to be proud of, in its own way.