My good friends at Catholic Answers in San Diego invited me to be a guest on their excellent radio program last Monday to discuss the tensions between being a “good” American and “good” Catholic. You can listen to the show at their website, although in one short hour, host Patrick Coffin and I hardly scratched the surface of this complex and undertreated subject. The Americanist heresy came up, and the near convergence of that discussion with the start of Lent brings into focus for me the problem with a practice present even among tradition-minded Catholics. I am referring to each person’s selecting his or her own private sacrifice to observe during this holy season. Mom gives up TV while her teenage son gives up video games. Little sister gives up chocolate, and Dad gives up booze.
The family in the example illustrates one problem with this idea: the temptation to spiritual pride. Obviously the father is going to believe that his sanctity far outstrips that of his whole family combined since his is the only real sacrifice. There is, however, a deeper difficulty, and no, I do not mean that we should “emphasize the positive.” I am not about to suggest that instead of giving up something, you should smile at a stranger or compliment three people each day, although, truth be told, some of us would find those actions strenuous. The difficulty is that everyone’s selecting his own private mortification is individualistic. It is Americanist.
When Pope Leo XIII, reacting to a biography of transcendentalist-turned-priest Fr. Isaac Hecker, took to task Cardinal Gibbons in Baltimore and Archbishop Ireland in Saint Paul in 1899 with his encyclical Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae, he was rejecting a growing enthusiasm among the American clergy and episcopacy for conforming the practices and tenets of a dogmatic, hierarchal, and corporate Church with liberal democracy and with the error that is at its core: individualism. (It cannot be an accident that one of Fr. Isaac Hecker’s Paulists today runs an organization vainly trying to square Catholic Social Teaching with liberal economic theory.)
While everyone’s choosing his or her own Lenten sacrifice is not as bad as priests making up their own version of the Mass or Catholic university presidents permitting the staging of lesbian-advocacy plays in the name of individual expression, we can see how Pope Leo saw that a little democracy would go a long way. A long way toward chaos, that is, and the best defense against chaos is unity, which word has the same root as universal, which, as any Catholic grammar school child of my father’s generation could tell you, is exactly what “Catholic” means.
And when my father was a child, all Catholics, all good ones, anyway, observed the same rules for fasting and abstaining throughout Lent, and these proscriptions were demanding and worthy of Christian persons who were serious about growing in holiness as they prepared for the greatest of all the liturgical feasts. The merits of the old rules are easy to understand. They are, first and foremost, designed to help us to express our love of God for creating us out of nothing and for, through a continuous act of His will, keeping us in existence. They are designed to help us conquer the passions that ever try to take over our hearts and fog our minds. They are given from the top down for those of us—myself, chief among them—who would seek some easier course. And they are given to all men so that in and by their common practice all men are more closely united in the Mystical Body of Christ.
Catholics today, all Christians, really, very much see the world as the world sees itself, not as the Church sees it, which is as God does. We have, as Fr. Feeney observed, “adopted, more than we are willing to admit, the moods of the pagans and the manners of the heretics in whose midst we live.” Fr. Feeney wrote at a time when Catholics lived much more apart from the world than do we; they were the odd folks who ate fish (actually, abstained from meat) on all Fridays, not simply those of Lent. Catholics once stood so apart from the general culture that their power to influence it was immense: a once-thriving parochial school system and the control that the Legion of Decency exercised on the film industry are two examples. To be sure, no age is perfect, and the martyrs who transformed Rome in Christ would have a thing or two to show pre-conciliar American Catholics about transforming a culture, but we have come so far from unity, that a united front is out of the question, whether it unites against the moral rot of our unbelieving age, an unjust foreign policy or economic practice, or against Islam.
More than a century ago, Leo XIII anticipated what few Catholics today even recognize: the wretched effects of individualism on the Church. The admirable “Catholics Come Home” campaign launched earlier this year will bear fruit if Catholics recognize that individualism leads to insanity. As the female half of the morning team on a “lite rock” station that will remain unnamed explained on Ash Wednesday to her co-host, she wanted her children to have religion and believe in God and all that, but however and in whatever way they saw fit, and so she left the Catholic Church with all its rules and rituals to become a Methodist, but no, she does not go to church very often, and no, certainly not, she does not give up anything for Lent.
We are not so far from the age when everyone gave up the same thing for Lent and on the same days, and there are yet places where one can see the uniting effects of common mortifications, customs, and practices. Two that are dear to me and to The Rockford Institute are Saint Gregory’s Academy and St. Michael’s Abbey. Saint Gregory’s is a boy’s boarding school outside of Scranton run by the unflappable Howard Clark and his band of merry men. Every boy plays rugby, every boy knows scores of songs by heart (some know hundreds), and every boy learns to serve the Mass of Pope Saint Pius V.
The prior of Saint Michael’s Abbey in Trabuco Canyon, California (which also runs a magnificent school for boys), is Fr. Hugh Barbour, a regular bright light at our Summer Schools and in the pages of Chronicles. If you ever visit Southern California and are able to spend some time in the company of the Abbey’s confreres, as I have had the good fortune to do many times, you will see how a life of common song, practice, and worship creates a Christian solidarity that can stand as the “sign of contradiction” Our Lord requires of us. And what culture is in greater need of such a sign than Orange County, California?
There is no good reason why the laity of the Church today cannot enjoy that same unity and solidarity that a few pockets of Christian sanity do. A revival of common Lenten mortifications would be a first and also a great step in that direction.