In this remarkable column, a Catholic priest from Maryland interviewed 50 young adults whose names are on the roll of his parish about why they don’t go to church. As he notes with commendable honesty, their answers revealed deep alienation from Catholicism; they are not ignorant about the church’s teaching as much as they simply disagree with it. The church’s positions on gender equality, homosexuality and birth control are top turnoffs, along with complaints about the service—too much sitting and standing, not enough modern music—and a more general sense that the church doesn’t “get” modern life.
These are all familiar complaints, but they have different status. General dissatisfaction with the religion one grew up in seems to be fairly common, and is the reason some evangelicals who grew up in deracinated, theologically shallow, and pop-culture saturated churches convert to Catholicism; it is also the reason some Catholics, Lutherans, and Methodists, having grown up feeling that church was a rote social performance, are attracted to the intensity and interiority of evangelicalism. The political questions, though, seem deeper and increasingly divisive. To varying statistical degrees they apply across all Christian denominations. Increasingly, it becomes impossible to be associated with a religion that is seen as a bastion of reactionary social positions, even for those who have no other problem with the substance of religious belief.
What has been my own reason for not going to church is simpler and (apparently) more rare: I stopped believing in God. While that might seem like the most slam-dunk reason not to attend church, I no longer find matters so obvious. Many Catholics, including the philosopher Gary Gutting, continue in their commitment to the church despite their deep disagreements with it and even despite being atheists. For them, the church is much more than a list of theological propositions one assents to; it is the earthly embodiment of an aspiration, a utopian ideal of human ethical community, learning, and questioning. It is something like a “total work of art” in that it unites the highest ideals with the most mundane aspects of daily life. Particularly given the intellectual ferment and dissent within the church itself, how one interprets the ideals is less the point than participation itself.
There are powerful reasons, though, to be unmoved by this interpretation of religious observance, above all the fact that it is at odds with the self-understanding of the Catholic church. Gutting freely admits this: the current corruption of the church, he says, “largely arises from failing to give practice the religious priority it deserves. The Catholic church lets indefensible doctrines about papal infallibility and hierarchical authority interfere with its fundamental ethics of love.” Gutting’s interpretation of the “fundamental ethics” of the church, while hardly alien to Catholic theology or tradition, is far from the organizing principle of the institution. The church regards the literal truth of its doctrines to be paramount, the existence of God to be a settled matter, and itself to be the arbiter of crime and punishment in earthly life. While it is plausible to hold that there is a “spiritual” or “philosophical” essence embodied by the church, and even a political promise to its practice, this is so far from typical Catholic belief—among both the clergy and devout parishioners alike—that someone holding a position like Gutting’s could easily feel just as alienated inside as outside it. Especially if one sees the importance of community and ideological practice as a necessity for emancipatory politics, then it is difficult to stomach the idea of hitching one’s wagon to an institution that has been and remains one of the most reactionary institutions in world history.
However, and this is perhaps my main point, it should not be underestimated how bleak the field of alternatives is, and how ultimately devastating that might be for people who don’t wish to helplessly live out the atomistic ideology they oppose philosophically or politically. Any political effort that doesn’t want to remain an adolescent fantasy has to acknowledge the virtual impossibility of challenging large, near-omnipotent institutions from a position outside them. The Catholic church as a structure alone has virtually no contemporary rival in terms of history, coherence, and comprehensiveness. That has enabled it to hold on centuries past its ideological expiration date. A contemporary ideology like secularism, as Philip Kitcher has argued, primarily faces institutional obstacles: it hasn’t been around long enough to accumulate loyalty and establish practices. One might determine that building those things is worth the difficulty, and will grow easier as (or if) the social plausibility of religion declines further. But at present, efforts to build secular institutions are too closely aligned with liberal scientism to offer much hope.
The latter point might be another one in the church’s favor, a juncture at which history has turned its conservatism to radicalism. While the Catholic church’s destructive opposition to key scientific advancements should never be overlooked, the church has also perhaps been most resistant of all global institutions to the stranglehold pseudo-scientific and economic classifications increasingly place on human life. The church remains the closest thing to a massive anti-capitalist institution the world has ever seen. It is difficult to imagine Catholic education embracing the end-oriented schemes that have infected public education in the U.S.; at my own Catholic institution, we still require all undergraduates to take a broad-based humanistic curriculum that includes history, philosophy, and theology. In terms of graduate education, while general academic trends are equally applicable to Catholic universities, those universities continue to be generous supporters of the humanities, and it is simply understood that our disciplines are on equal footing with others. Even as an atheist graduate student, enduring the “crisis of the humanities” at a Catholic university makes it hard to ignore the church’s historical role as a repository of humanistic inquiry. (At Boston College, we even have some pretty sensational homegrown examples of no-holds-barred Catholic free-thinking.)
None of this, of course, is to suggest that unbelievers should head immediately to the nearest mass. The point is that political emancipation in general, and particularly resistance to the current trends that have put us on the path to ecological disaster, is an unimaginably arduous task. It’s not a job that will be accomplished by the occasional occupation, die-in, or state-sanctioned protest. Organizing political movements, especially around labor and environmental concerns, is of course an important challenge, and one that can give birth to a measure of real-world solidarity. But for countless others, whose inclinations or life situations put them at a certain remove from the activist life, solidarity remains simultaneously crucial and very difficult to find. While it is by no means clear that the answer is “yes,” the question is whether it makes strategic sense to ignore or oppose an institution as large or as favorable (in some respects) to leftist politics as the Catholic church.
Against this backdrop, it’s easier to take stock of the responses Fr. Peter Daly got when he asked young people why they didn’t go to church. Some of the respondents are grappling with the strongest challenge to participation in the Catholic church: the fact that it far too often embraces exclusionary political positions based on an obsolete understanding of the human person and the “teleology” of society. The role that indefensible doctrines play in church life remains the biggest obstacle for people like me who might be able to see Catholic practice as a practical embodiment of philosophical ideals. But for the other young complainers, it’s hard not to note that they want the church to reject what makes it such a radical critique of contemporary American life. Its social, ritualistic, and exterior character can resist the laughably atomistic, self-help pseudo-psychology that pervades evangelicalism, and the notion that a church service should be a cafeteria for individual consumer choices. It may not be possible for us unbelievers to ever make peace with Catholicism, but if you’re already a Catholic who just wants to “rock out,” get over yourself and go the @#$% to church.
Update: In a generally positive response to this post, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, who is perhaps most responsible for keeping Catholicism consistently in my face, complains about my “suffocatingly dreary monomania that sees everything through the lens of political-ideological struggle.” On the one hand, it is a classic aristocratic-conservative posture to pretend there is an outside of political-ideological struggle, that ugh, we should shut up about politics and talk about the higher things like culture and values and aesthetics. (Because of course there’s no politics at those lofty heights.) On the other hand, it’s worth saying that the argument I made for going to church is not motivated only by political utilitarianism; in fact, there is a lot more to say about what I see as the positive aspects of the Catholic liturgy, its calendar, etc. I didn’t go further mostly in order to avoid revealing my ignorance. But to put it very briefly, I recognize that there are important individual-psychological reasons that the Catholic religion could be recommended that are only tangentially related to politics. The church recognizes, unlike society at large, that people live in various modes, and need rhythms and seasons and experiences to thrive. Everything shouldn’t be work, discipline, and seriousness; we live desiccated lives when we are forced to operate in a single mode all the time without variation or relief. Catholic theological awareness of human frailty and limits may be based on a notion of sin or creaturehood I don’t believe, but it gets something essential correct — something desperately lacking from our relentless, rigid, pressurized, unforgiving social and professional environments. At least in its liturgical practices, the church holds onto a practice of being human that is, at its best, radically at odds with the free-market individualism that leaves many of us unsatisfied. I think that’s a positive argument in its favor that could be recognized regardless of one’s politics.
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