Note: This article was first published February 17, 2013, by The American Conservative.
In his column today, Ross Douthat — who, you should know, is an orthodox Catholic — observes the end of what the late Fr. Neuhaus once called “the Catholic Moment,” a time in which Catholics, once marginalized in American society, could make their mark on public life by bringing a distinctly Catholic vision to bear on our affairs. That’s definitely over now, says Douthat. More:
The fact that the Second Vatican Council had left the church internally divided limited Catholic influence in some ways but magnified it in others. Because the church’s divisions often mirrored the country’s, a politician who captured the typical Catholic voter was probably well on his way to victory, and so would-be leaders of both parties had every incentive to frame their positions in Catholic-friendly terms. The church might not always be speaking with one voice, but both left and right tried to borrow its language.
If this era is now passing, and Catholic ideas are becoming more marginal to our politics, it’s partially because institutional Christianity is weaker over all than a generation ago, and partially because Catholicism’s leaders have done their part, and then some, to hasten that de-Christianization. Any church that presides over a huge cover-up of sex abuse can hardly complain when its worldview is regarded with suspicion. The present pope has too often been scapegoated for the sex abuse crisis, but America’s bishops have if anything gotten off too easily, and even now seem insufficiently chastened for their sins.
The recent turn away from Catholic ideas has also been furthered by a political class that never particularly cared for them in the first place. Even in a more unchurched America, a synthesis of social conservatism and more egalitarian-minded economic policies could have a great deal of mass appeal. But our elites seem mostly relieved to stop paying lip service to the Catholic synthesis: professional Republicans are more libertarian than their constituents, professional Democrats are more secular than their party’s rank-and-file, and professional centrists get their encyclicals from Michael Bloomberg rather than the Vatican.
I think Ross is right, up to a point. It is too convenient to blame the execrable behavior of the bishops in the abuse scandal for the end of the Catholic moment (to be clear, Ross is not doing that here, only pointing to that behavior as a contributing factor; I know some readers will not be so discerning). The rotten behavior of the bishops, among others, hastened the decline of Catholic authority in American life, but if we’re honest, we will have to admit that even if the bishops had been luminous saints to the man, the second coming of the Apostles, things wouldn’t be all that different from where they stand today.
The fact of the matter is that Roman Catholic Christianity (also Orthodox Christianity, and some forms of Protestantism) cannot be reconciled with the expressive individualism that is the hallmark of late modern civilization. Spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, a former Catholic turned atheist, lamented Pope Benedict’s resignation as a kind of capitulation to our degraded culture:
What the resignation really points to – or rather what the congratulatory reaction reveals – is how uncomfortable our society is with the idea of vocation. In the back-slapping for Benedict we’re really witnessing the breathing of a mass, global sigh of relief that pretty much the last institution which elevates its own needs over the needs of its occupant, which demands unwavering, total, literally Christ-like commitment, has now allowed the reality of frailty to creep into its hallowed halls. Today’s fashionable allergy to the pope, and to the Catholic Church more broadly, is driven more by a petit-bourgeois disdain for firm commitment to a cause and belief in something bigger than ourselves than it is by a grown-up critique of Catholic theology. Ours is an era in which people are implored to cultivate their self-esteem, or to focus obsessively on preserving their bovine physical wellbeing, rather than to give themselves fully to a cause or a mission or even another individual. We’re so hostile to the idea of vocation, and to its underpinning: commitment, that we have pathologised self-sacrifice, now referring to it as the psychological ailment of ‘co-dependency’: ‘placing a lower priority on one’s own needs while being excessively preoccupied with the needs of others.’ In such a narcissistic era, where ‘one’s own needs’ are everything, the idea of a man remaining married to his mission forever is extraordinarily alien, and so we cheer like crazy when even the moral descendant of St Peter elevates his own physical wellbeing over his devotion to something bigger.
I don’t think that’s a fair judgment of Benedict’s act, or an accurate consideration of his motives, but I take O’Neill’s general point, and it’s akin to Ross’s more generous (to Benedict) conclusion in his blog reaction to the papal abdication:
Yet these benefits need to be balanced against the longer term difficulties that this precedent creates for the papacy’s role within the church. There is great symbolic significance in the fact that popes die rather than resign: It’s a reminder that the pontiff is supposed to be a spiritual father more than a chief executive (presidents leave office, but your parents are your parents till they die), a sign of absolute papal surrender to the divine will (after all, if God wants a new pope, He’ll get one), and a illustration of the theological point that the church is still supposed to be the church even when its human leadership isn’t at fighting trim, whether physically or intellectually or (for that matter) morally.
Leaving Benedict’s resignation aside, who will argue with O’Neill that our culture is hostile to the idea of vocation — and, more broadly, with the idea of sacrificing individual desire to higher truths, or causes? Our entire culture is built around the apotheosis of the Self, of the self’s will, the self’s desires, the self’s autonomy. This has required a progressive liberation of the Self from rules, mores, institutions, and customs that bind the Self. We are well within a cultural era in which truth is believed — whether or not people recognize it — to be determined by emotion far more than reason.
I don’t entirely condemn this, because in some cases, it has resulted in a more humane condition, and in any case I am as personally formed by and implicated in this condition as anybody else. The point here is neither to condemn nor to praise, but simply to recognize it for what it is. This is not something temporary or sudden, but rather the culmination of centuries of social development in the West. Philosopher Charles Taylor, in A Secular Age, writes of the rise of “expressive individualism” as central to our collective understanding of the moral order now embedded in our culture. Taylor observes that the emergence of expressive individualism — that is, the emancipation of the Self — has been a gradual process in the West since the Enlightenment, but really took off after World War II, and, with the Sexual Revolution, became general in society. “This is obviously a profound shift,” he writes. He describes the religious manifestation of this shift thus:
The religious life or practice that I become part of must not only be my choice, but it must speak to me, it must make sense in terms of my spiritual development as I understand this. This takes us farther. The choice of denomination was understood to take place within a fixed cadre, say that of the apostles’ creed, the faith of the broader “church”. Within this framework of belief, I choose the church in which I feel most comfortable. But if the focus is going now to be on my spiritual path, thus on what insights come to me in the subtler languages that I find meaningful, then maintaining this or any other framework becomes increasingly difficult.
The end result of this process has been the severing of what was widely considered to be the necessary connection between faith and civilizational order. Taylor says religious conservatives still assume this connection, and much of their (our) political anxiety is a reaction to this cultural revolution.
This is why, on same-sex marriage, both sides talk past each other. We religious conservatives believe that the secular order must be dictated by the sacred order, however attenuated. Many others — most others, I would say — believe that there is no such thing as a sacred order, at least not one knowable to and share-able by all. The desiring Self is the sacred thing — something I say not as a criticism, but as an observation. In this worldview — which I believe is thoroughly mainstream — to deny the legitimacy of the Self’s desires is felt as a denial of personhood, and of rights. The moral order, then, must be built around the ongoing expansion of individual rights, especially when it comes to sex and sexuality, because Truth emerges from the individual’s heart, not from an external source of authority, such as the Catholic Church. We can’t have a meaningful conversation because we cannot agree on the source of moral order.
I’ve gone a bit far afield here, so I’ll close with this conclusion: there never was a possibility for a Catholic moment in America. Not even American Catholics agree on what it means to be Catholic, and what is required of them as Catholics. From the outside, Catholicism looks unitary, but from the inside, Catholicism (in America, at least) is just about as fragmented as Protestantism. This is why you have the spectacle of Garry Wills denying the sacramental priesthood and the Real Presence, but still presenting himself as a Catholic, and being received by many Catholics as Catholic. Catholicism in this country has lost its distinctives, because many, probably most, actual Catholics have no sense that the faith they profess calls them to accept and to live by a set of theological and moral precepts that they may struggle to accept, but must accept because God revealed them authoritatively through His church.
One may say this is a good thing, this Protestantization of Catholicism, or one may decry it as a bad thing. But I don’t see how one can credibly say that it doesn’t exist. Catholicism, understood on its own terms, is radically opposed to American culture, and to the essence of modernity. Catholicism, as understood by most American Catholics, is not. There’s the problem with the Catholic moment, and why it was never going to happen. Of course, the behavior of the bishops in the abuse crisis didn’t help, but ultimately it was beside the point.
Though no longer a Catholic, I would have dearly loved to have seen a Catholic moment. The thing for non-Catholic Christians to understand is that we are past the point of there being a “Christian Moment,” in the Neuhausian sense. Many Christians don’t understand this yet, but they will.