But I often find it hard to live like a Catholic. Part of the problem is that I am a convert. Going to Mass and sitting through dirge-like hymns, masticated liturgy, and boring sermons doesn’t come naturally. I was raised a Baptist, and although I rejected it in my teens, I am starting to realize what an impact it had upon me. As a personality type, I am a fire and brimstone evangelical.
I should stress that theologically I am strictly Catholic. But, o, what I’d give to hear a bit of gospel! A sermon with shouting! A tambourine! A bass guitar! And-a-one-two-three-four – “Majesty! Worship his Majesty! Unto Jesus, be all glory, honor, and praise!” To anyone not born within the sound of righteous clarinets, this probably all seems bizarre. But I was twelve years old when I saw my first demon being cast out. I am cut from a different polyester.
Much of modern Catholic culture lacks the certainty that I was raised with. As a child, I was taught that everything you need to know about God and man is found in the Bible. If the Bible had said Newt Gingrich was a virgin, we’d have believed it. Faith was a matter of black and white, right and wrong. Sunday School wasn’t a thoughtful flick through a “moral matters” textbook, it was a trial of fire. God was everywhere, always watching you. Failure to feel His presence was your fault – your lack of faith. There was no slowing down for doubters.
The most ubiquitous phrase was “God willing.” It articulated an almost Islamic faith that God was behind every action and consequence. “I’ll pass my exams, God willing.” “I’ll get a job, God willing.” “I’ll be out in nine to ten months, God willing.” God willed it and it was done. And you didn’t ask any damned questions about it.
My upbringing made converting to Catholicism difficult – although not in the way that I expected. I accepted the theology totally and without equivocation. But without any ethnic link to Catholicism (my father’s family are Irish Catholics, but totally out of practice) I found it a bit of a culture shock.
Baptism reinforces its tenets every day with aggressive proselytizing. Not so Catholicism. Catholicism is a religion of silence and contemplation. That’s fine and understood, but sometimes – and, yes, this is a subjective judgment – the modern Church is a little too quiet for my taste. Bishops, it can feel, prefer tolerance to truth. Many parishes have a limp sociability that papers-over cracks of disbelief. Priests bend over backwards to reassure people of other faiths but are reticent about pushing the validity of their own. Evangelism is a strict no-no. All too often, it is lay people who have to pick up the banner of social conservatism; the church hierarchy seems scared of it.
All of this is a long winded way of articulating why I’m so frustrated with polls that show that American Catholics are overwhelmingly in favor of contraception. Public Policy Polling reports that, “There is a major disconnect between the leadership of the Catholic Church and rank and file Catholic voters on this issue. We did an over sample of almost 400 Catholics and found that they support [Obama’s mandate for contraception coverage in Catholic healthcare plans] 53-44, and oppose an exception for Catholic hospitals and universities, 53-45. The Bishops really are not speaking for Catholics as a whole on this issue.”
This is the phenomenon of “I’m a Catholic but…,” and it really makes no sense to a former Baptist. No Baptist would ever say, “I’m a fundamentalist but I don’t believe in all of it.” That would be a contradiction and a rejection of faith and might even get you excluded from the church. But in the contemporary Catholic Church, it is something I hear from the laity all too often. It makes no sense. For what is a Catholic except someone who accepts Catholic doctrine? Isn’t that what defines us?
There are many complex reasons why the “I’m a Catholic but…” phenomenon is widespread. But a good insight into it is offered in a fine blog post by my friend and colleague Peter Foster. Peter is a Catholic, but he writes in the Daily Telegraph of his dislike of Rick Santorum thus: “I can’t escape the whiff of the witch-hunt about Mr Santorum, who is of a breed of Catholic unfamiliar to us English: a man of the strictest Catholic theology … whose message is transmitted through a distinctly evangelical amplifier … I’m afraid I can’t find much that’s terribly sympathetic or merciful in Mr Santorum, and I’m not sure that’s a particularly good quality in a man who wants to assume the awesome responsibilities of the US presidency.”
Peter’s problem with Santorum is partly his opposition to government funded pre-natal testing. Peter concedes that Santorum’s critique is “truthful”, but what disturbs him is the presidential candidate’s tone. He writes, “Perhaps it is because I was brought up as a middle-of-the-road English Catholic – show up on Sundays, eat fish on Fridays (more expensive than meat now, of course) and don’t ever sing the hymns too loudly (that’s a vulgar habit Anglicans have) – that I find Rick Santorum so, um, scary.”
I don’t find Santorum scary. In fact, I find his tone on moral matters refreshingly clear. But here is the likely difference between me and Peter. I was raised in an evangelical culture that is largely imported from America. He was raised in a cradle Catholic community that is steeped in the modern Catholic culture of sober reflection and ecumenical goodwill. Yet – acknowledging the cultural differences – I still struggle to empathize with Peter’s reaction to Santorum’s rhetoric. Do you believe that Santorum is right or not? If yes, then what’s the problem?
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve sat with Catholic priests, listened to them talk softly about the problems of the world, and wanted to scream, “What do you believe, man?! Identity it, testify it, and let’s save some souls!” But instead, everything is deadened by another cup of tea and a sleepy rosary by the fire. Naturally, there are priests who are thrilling and compelling – men who wage a permanent war on apathy and indecision. But there is, in many quarters, a scent of death about the Catholic Church. We are waiting for our extinction at the hands of barbarians or old age.
It wasn’t always like this. My new biography of Pat Buchanan explores an age when Catholics were confident and outspoken. In the 1950s, American Catholics filled whole stadiums to pray for the conversion of Russia. They believed that they were right and they weren’t afraid to say so. Santorum represents a revival of this spirit.
I shall close on a quote from Buchanan’s memoirs, Right From the Beginning: “There was an awe-inspiring solemnity, power, and beauty about the old Church, which attracted people who were seeking the permanent things of life … Not only did we proclaim ourselves to be “the one holy Catholic and apostolic Church,” under the watchful eye of the Holy Ghost – with all others heretical – we were gaining converts by the scores of thousands, yearly … Ecumenism was not what we were about; we were on the road to victory. Why compromise when you have the true Faith?”
Pray for me during the Lenten season, a sinner also.