Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Smaller, Purer Church: Observations from the Life of a Catholic Family

By William D. Lindsay

My interest in the smaller, purer church that Pope Benedict XVI has sought to build is more than academic. I’ve watched this restorationist theme play out for some years now in the life of a Catholic family close to me, and my reactions to the movement have much to do with the effects I see it having in this family’s life. These effects are, on the whole, destructive. And they’re accelerating, in part, due to the election of a president they regard as close to the anti-Christ, and in part, due to the hardened ideological lines the pope’s restorationist movement is creating all through their lives.

The Crisis of Vatican II

Let’s call this family the Schwanns. They’re a large Midwestern Catholic farm family, the kind often regarded as idyllic by those looking at their family life from the outside. Even as the birth rate of Catholic families in other regions of the country declined in the post-World War II period, theirs remained high — an expression of their unquestioning fidelity to church teaching, while the rest of the world had begun to critique aspects of Catholic teaching, and, in particular, sexual teachings.

Vatican II and its aftermath produced crisis for such Catholics. In key respects, they had been living in an ethnic, religious enclave up to Vatican II — and happily so. They didn’t have to pay much attention to what was going on outside their own world, which was totally Catholic, completely demarcated by ethnic and religious lines, so much so that their Lutheran neighbors were exotic to them, people they knew when they went to town, but with whom they didn’t socialize. And whom they definitely didn’t marry.

In one sense, Vatican II opened the Schwanns and their neighbors up to a new perspective: a new perspective not only on the church, but on the world. Since the council was underway as their children started going off to college, one of the usual effects of sending children off to school — the opening of a family to new friends and new experiences through connections the children form at school — was exacerbated by Vatican II. Several of the children went to Catholic colleges, where there was a new enthusiasm for social activism, travel, meeting and talking to those different from oneself.

For a time, this process created a small, quiet revolution in the Schwanns’ sedate Catholic-enclave farm life. They hosted exchange students from exotic places — Japan, Switzerland, Germany, France. Their children went to some of those places and brought friends home from their overseas jaunts. A number of the children even reached outside the ghetto to marry “outside” — Catholics, but Catholics of different ethnic backgrounds, Eastern European, French, Irish.

Two sons came out of the closet and announced that they were gay. Another married outside the church. Half of the children no longer go to church. The half that do go to church have retreated back into the shell with a vengeance. One of these, along with her family, has actually joined SSPX and had considered Benedict a schismatic until he rehabilitated her sect. Another wants to participate in SSPX but is forbidden by her husband, who considers it beyond the pale (plus, he has a position in the community to consider), though he likes and prefers the Latin Mass celebrated by a non-schismatic priest.

The Schwann family lost a key member last year who was a point of stability and moderation for the entire family. Without him, and in response to this year’s presidential election, the members of the family who affiliate with right-wing Catholic movements have, in recent months, slammed the door shut with a vengeance on anyone (including members of their own family) outside their chosen religious ghetto. They have pulled their mother, who was previously only on the fringes of the right-leaning religiosity of some of their children, into their cultic form of Catholicism.

Obama: the beginning of the end

To them, the election of Obama signals the beginning of the end, and is a signal to step up the devotions they have added to the usual Catholic ones. For some years now, they have been at war with their parish priest over the issue of perpetual adoration. They wanted (and finally got) a chapel for perpetual adoration in their church, and it is, in some sense, now their private chapel—theirs and that of like-minded neighbors.

One of the agreements they had to make with the parish priest to have the chapel set up was that they would maintain it, so that it would not be a burden to him, since he already serves an increasingly large parish as smaller priestless parishes around his close and he becomes pastor of those communities. This is to their liking, the perpetual adoration group: they had seen the chapel as theirs from the outset, in any case.

They arrange for the around-the-clock prayer sessions and the Friday devotions. They open and lock the chapel and decorate it. It’s their church inside the big church — a smaller, purer church co-existing with a lax larger church of dubious piety and orthodoxy. The chapel is a place in which they can prostrate themselves if they wish to do so, without fear of censure from other parish members.

Fridays are a big day for the group. No one has told me this, but I suspect the Friday devotions are centered on some belief that perpetual adoration before the Eucharist on the day Jesus was crucified somehow holds back the arm of the wrathful Father God in a world run amok with sin. I suspect this because I know, from what right-leaning members of the Schwann family say about political and cultural issues, that they believe this.

That is, they believe that God is intent on punishing America because abortion is not outlawed everywhere in the land. They also have distinct views about homosexuality, ever-hardening ones, but about those, they are less publicly vociferous, since two family members are openly gay.

Highly fetishized

Their piety is, in general, focused on select and highly fetishized aspects of Catholic piety. As the Friday devotions suggest, one big aspect of their piety is the crucifixion, mortification, suffering, the need for atonement in a world seen as dark and sinful. The SSPX branch of the family made a big fuss at a recent family funeral since the parish priest had replaced the “real” crucifix in the parish church with a resurrection crucifix — one they regard as not real, not a true icon of the real message of the crucifixion, which is about death and suffering, not life and resurrection.

They insisted that their dead family member wanted to be buried with the “true” crucifix behind the altar, and they got their way. For this funeral, the priest grudgingly redecorated the church. He would not, however, give in to their demand that a “real” pall — a black one and not the white one now used following Vatican II — be placed over their loved one’s coffin.

The rosary and Mary loom large in the piety of the right-leaning branch of the Schwann family, too. But a particular form of the rosary and a particular devotion to Mary: Mary and the rosary have everything to do with abortion and repressive right-wing politics, with the fixation on holding back the arm of the wrathful Father God by appeasing that God through constant prayer.

To the traditional recitation of the rosary, they have added flourishes and para-devotions, chaplets of mercy and pleas for the wrath of God to be stayed through their prayers. In some sense, the recitation of the rosary — the “real” rosary, the anti-abortion one — is an assertion of their identity as “real” Catholics. Lax Catholics no longer say the rosary, and if they do, they do not kneel on the bare floor without benefit of kneelers, and they do not say the endless round of mercy pleas that these purist believers have added to the devotion.

The rosary, and how they pray it, lets others know that they do not belong to the inner circles of the right-wing members of this family. It is a religious weapon, used not merely to pray but to banish fellow Catholics (and family members) who do not buy completely into the worldview of those praying the rosary in this particular way.

Latin is the only way for the right-leaning members of the Schwann family. The SSPX branch will not go to the parish church at all. Some of the others go only grudgingly, because their spouses refuse to permit them to boycott Sunday Mass if it is not in Latin.

True believers

The devotions are supplemented by cultural practices that increasingly set these true-believing Catholics apart from those who are not true believers, including members of their own family who do not endorse the right-leaning Catholicism these members have adopted. The women wear long skirts, and they insist that even their small daughters do so, even when they work on the farm. In church, they veil themselves. They do not eat meat on Fridays, and they expect other family members to go along with this preference, even when those family members do not partake of their rigid pre-Vatican II religious views.

Interestingly enough (or predictably?), the men do not adopt any particular practices or forms of dress or demeanor to set them apart from mainstream culture. Only the women.

These families home-school their children, and they have many children: they have replicated their parents’ choice to have a large family, in a period when such families are almost heard of among most Catholics even in their rural Midwestern community. They do not want their children to have computers or access to television, and have allowed these technologies only grudgingly, when the home schooling seemed to require them. When their children have decided to go on to college, they have sent the children to the most right-wing and cultic places available in the U.S., colleges that proudly proclaim that they are keeping the “real” and “true” Catholic identity in a church losing its identity.

And as inevitably happens when children of such sheltered worlds grow up and try their wings, occasionally one of the children sent out into the world comes home troubled and confused. One of the daughters of one of these families went away for part of a year last year, and came back seriously depressed.

No one could understand her problem. She became seriously withdrawn and talked about the need to go to confession in order to cleanse herself. She stopped eating and picked neurotically at her skin.

One of her aunts decided that the problem had to be demonic, so she contacted an exorcist in a nearby state. But before they could take the family member to be exorcised by that priest, her parish priest asked to hear her confession. After she had spent five hours confessing to him, she came out and announced she was healed, so the exorcism was set aside.

Rosary crusades

With the election of Obama, all these expressions of piety have been ratcheted up. Talk to any of the right-leaning members of the family, and you hear an endless litany of reasons this new president displeases God. The family has already been participating in (and helping organize) rosary crusades in their community, which are dedicated to praying the rosary more or less exclusively to hold back the arm of the Father God as the nation permits abortion. The pro-life signs at these rosary rallies never mention the war in the Mid-east, for instance. A special Marian statue circulates for these crusades.

Now these crusades are being organized with a vengeance, and the Marian statue is wandering the countryside more and more. And the lines are hardening around the issue of homosexuality, even when there are family members who are gay and who are likely to experience pain due to this hardening of lines. There are laments about why God has chosen to give the family such a heavy cross to bear: not one but two gay members! The smaller, purer church that has already produced a smaller, purer parish inside the larger one is now producing a smaller, purer family, a family of the saved and upright, who cannot and do not wish to affirm their unsaved and non-upright members.


In this family, it’s clear to me, the movement of Benedict XVI to a smaller, purer church has been antithetical to some of the key principles of catholicism—principles like including everyone, welcoming and affirming those who are different, refraining from looking inside the hearts of others and judging their worth in God’s eyes. In the life of this staunch Catholic family, the smaller, purer movement has set brother against sister, mother against children.

The restorationist movement, in the life of this Catholic family, has also resulted in the near deification of one political party, with a total blindness to its shortcomings in many respects, from the standpoint of Catholic values and an ethic of life. It has resulted in a quasi-apocryphal form of religion that centers almost exclusively on the notion of a wrathful God preoccupied with sexual morality and abortion, and intent on punishing those who do not toe His line.

And Vatican II? Not a blip on the screen, for these particular Catholics, except as a blip to be abolished by those retrieving the church as it should be, as God meant it to be. As they believe it should be.

William D. Lindsay is a theologian who writes about the interplay of belief and culture. On his blogsite, where this article was first published, William writes: “My life partner Steve (also a theologian) and I are approaching our 40th year together. Though the church has discarded us because we insist on being truthful about our shared life, we continue to celebrate the amazing grace we find in our journey together and love for each other. We live in hope; we remain on pilgrimage.”


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Off topic, but something that needs to be said.

    Many are upset that the Vatican has created a group to examine the role of female religious orders in the United States.

    The fear is that Rome will crack down on them and make them revert to pre-Vatican II rules and regulations.

    If the Vatican truly wanted to do that, why would they bother to make the effort. Most of these female religious orders will disappear in thirty years or so if nothing changes.

    In case you haven't been looking, the average age in these orders is over 60 now and new members for most orders are almost non-existent.

    Might it just be possible that the Vatican would like to help these religious orders change to make them more attractive to young women?

    Or should the Vatican just watch as most orders disappear, irrespective of all the great things they have done.

    Don't these women care that all that they have done will then soon be forgotten as if they had never happened?