As we grow older, we spend more time roaming the corridors of memory, for
we grow less interested in acquiring new experiences and more intent upon
assigning meaning and imparting order to the life we have lived. As I have
been bumping about among my own recollections, the consciousness of how vastly
different my early experience of the Church is from that of my children has
possessed my thoughts of late. We older Catholics raised in happier times
of family piety often forget that generations have now grown up in a cultural
landscape we could not have imagined in our youth. How solid, how immense,
how immaculate seemed that noble edifice of Catholicism in the 1950s. And
how appealing it was to ponder the possibility of one's having a vocation.
To enter that great City of God as one of His chosen ones was a thought that
used to thrill and, in some measure, frighten us. The fright came from the
terrible responsibility that such election brought with it; the thrill from
the prospect of the spiritual romance. I never considered that I had a vocation
to the secular priesthood, but I cherished the notion that I might be summoned
to join one of the religious orders. It was these men in their ancient habits
that we looked upon as spiritual heroes, God's athletes, knights pursuing
the holy grail of perfection.
The corner of my boyhood room used to be stacked with pamphlets and letters
describing the various religious orders. I used to clip the recruiting
advertisements from the Sunday Visitor and mail them in; I passed many an
evening poring over this literature, trying to discern whether I had a particular
calling. I finally settled on the Carmelites and was accepted to a minor
seminary; then relented, deciding to test my vocation by attending the local
high school for a few years to see if my desire for the religious life endured.
If it did, the religious orders did not, for those were the years of the
Second Vatican Council and its aftermath. I entered high school in 1963;
by the time of my graduation, in 1967, the Church had changed radically;
the Latin Mass was no more; there had been numerous defections among the
ranks of our priest-teachers; the religious orders were hemorrhaging.
But through it all I never lost my admiration for the ideal of the religious
life, This has always been for me the highest form of romance, and by romance
I mean a life lived in ardent pursuit of a noble goal; a life of moral and
mystical adventure, of determination and self-sacrifice, endurance and bravery,
a life dedicated to realizing and requiting the purest and most exquisite
love of God.
As I have been pondering, in some perplexity, how to imbue my children with
this sense of life as spiritual romance in our present circumstance, it occurred
to me that the antithesis of the religious ideal of a fully integrated life
is the modern tendency toward sentimentality, that is, a tendency to live
amid a jumble of superficial and disconnected feelings rather than strive
for a unified vision to which all feelings must be subordinated. This
sentimentality, endemic to the media, has infected every part of our body
politic. Most of us no longer think in logical sequences, we feel in disjointed
episodes. And I am afraid the institutional Catholic Church has not been
immune to this anti-intellectual virus, which makes our emotions the measure
of all things, and thus lifts doctrine off its base of objective truth and
drops it into the rnorass of subjective feeling. It seemed to me that the
religious orders, with their comprehensive view of life and the ordering
of all things to a supreme purpose, offer the perfect antidote to modern
sentimentality. But, with the exception of a handful of "irregular" houses
loyal to tradition, the religious orders have largely ceased to exist. I
know that the major orders are still operating in some capacity, but their
rules have changed, their numbers have shrunk, corruption is rampant and
their condition can only be described as moribund. Barring a miracle, they
will not long endure.
So I concluded that to present the ideal of the religious orders to my children
in its erstwhile and pristine form could amount to little more than nostalgia.
And there is no point in exciting a desire that cannot be fulfilled. If the
professional baseball leagues ceased to exist, there would be no sense in
trying to inspire a young boy to aim at a major league career. So too, if
a young man or woman wanted to be a Dominican or Carmelite in the classic
manner, he or she might not find a place to exercise that vocation, for the
religious houses that bear those venerable names no longer abide by those
As I pondered the loss of the religious orders, I came to recognize that
their demise constitutes an enormous part of the general dissolution of the
institutional Church, which in its turn has led to the moral dissolution
of Western culture. For the Church has always served as the moral compass
of the Western World, and it has, until recently, always pointed due north,
that is upward, in a vertical line that intersects time and joins it to eternity.
The religious orders provided much of that vertical magnetism. The compass
needle appears to have lost its magnetism and wobbles haphazardly; consequently,
we have lost our way, both as a Church and as a civilization.
These are rather grand and sweeping statements, but they are also obvious
truths to anyone still possessed of the sense of the Catholic faith, and
they present an obvious problem. How might those of us who would live a Catholic
life and, in some way, rescue that romance of the soul from modern
sentimentality, achieve our purpose?
We must first admit that we are living the faith in exile. I will make what
I hope is a warranted assumption that all of my readers have a clear idea
of what the faith comprises, but the meaning of the term "exile" in our context
might require definition.
Exile as a punishment for crimes against the state no longer finds a place
in our penal codes. In the ancient world, when men esteemed their household
gods, exile was a terrible punishment, reserved for the most serious offenses
against the homeland. The ancients conceived of no greater suffering than
for a man to be cut off from the consolations of the family hearth and the
company of friends. Even death was in some way a lesser penalty, for in ceasing
to be, there is at least an end to earthly suffering, but in exile, only
an indefinite endurance.
As Americans, we generally have no great attachment to place. We are, the
tumbleweeds of the cosmos; the flotsam and jetsam of the world washed onto
these shores where we forever wander about looking for more ways to make
money. Our place of birth is an inconsequential accident. This makes it somewhat
difficult for us to appreciate the anguish of exile, and when we read the
Divine Comedy, it is only with a considerable effort of imagination that
we can empathize with Dante's abiding sorrow arid bitterness over being exiled
from Florence. Were I to be exiled from my native town, Philadelphia, I can't
say that I would be much disturbed, for I never loved Philadelphia. I recall
once talking to a Frenchman who told me that the trouble with Americans is
that we move around too much; we have no sense of belonging to a particular
patch of ground. If we would only stay still, he said, we might pull our
lives together and make sense of them. I suppose he had gotten hold of some
piece of the truth about us, but there is little I can do to remedy my
rootlessness. Like that of my countrymen, my patriotism, such as it is, is
rooted in ideas rather than in the soil. So for be to be exiled from my country
comes down to my country's adopting ideas and practices to which I cannot
subscribe. My exile can only be conceived as cultural, not geographical.
My greater patria is the Church. I have from earliest memory loved every
part of Her: from what Cardinal Newman called "the smells and bells" to Her
most sublime teachings. The Church is my home, even more than my country.
But I, and those who share my feeling, have been dispossessed of that home.
We are exiles in a double sense, secular and ecclesiastic: neither our country,
nor the institutional Catholic Church any longer offer us a homeland.
The truth of our secular exile is plain to be seen. We have recently added
to our national infamy of being a land of legalized abortion by including
in the category of protected rights the practice of homosexual sodomy. We
are now the land of the free and the gay. Homosexual marriage is the logical
terminus of the direction the Supreme Court has taken. The response of our
conservative, born-again president was the rather bland and guarded statement
that the court had opted to respect diversity. It should be obvious to any
thinking Catholic that we have no representation in government, nor in the
media. We are political pariahs, ideological untouchables, cultural exiles.
Concerning our position within the Church -- and when I say our position,
I mean that of traditional Catholics -- we also find ourselves strangers
in a strange land. I will go into this in more detail later, but my assertion
is already proved by the fact that I have had to use the term "traditional
Catholics" to distinguish those who believe what the Church has always taught
from those who do not. The term Catholic can no longer be understood
unequivocally, for we have two religions -- the traditional and the modernist
-- both using the term. For those who still need to be convinced of this,
there is ample statistical and documentary evidence available, but we all
know that we cannot presently have any certainty about what a person believes
when he says that he is a Catholic.
These are dark words, but I do not intend to revel in gloom. There are some
wounded souls who, feeling betrayed by both Church and country, indulge in
apocalyptic rhetoric. They will talk about an inevitable economic collapse,
ensuing social chaos, war, famine, the great chastisement, and so on. I once
attended a Traditional Mass Chapel where one poor fellow who found great
pleasure in contemplating disasters would always sidle up to me in the hall
after Mass and in a soft, foreboding tone say, "You got your blessed candles
ready? It's coming." -- meaning the three days of darkness when the sun and
the moon will go black and only blessed candles will light. I do not wish
to deprive such people of the consolations they find in thinking of the end
times, but it does little to help those of us trying to raise Catholic families.
And if one is looking for the great chastisement, I say, 'Open your eyes.'
My principal concern is a practical one: What do we do to preserve the faith
in our current state of secular and ecclesiastical exile?
To attempt an answer to this formidable question requires that I introduce
that overworked and ill-defined term -- culture. Please don't be alarmed.
The tendency when one hears this term is for the eyes to glaze over, for
what follows its introduction generally has no relation to anything sensible.
But I am not going to extol the glories of antiquity, or lampoon the pretensions
of contemporary art, for none of that is really culture. I accept that culture
comes from cult, that is, worship. It is the incarnation of religion; culture
emanates from a consensus about the very purpose of life to which all things
must be ordered. It is the common possession of a people that draws all of
their activities together and gives their society coherence and identity.
In short, culture is the air we breathe.
The culture of the United States has from its inception been Protestant.
The presumed right of private judgment and not the revealed Truth of God
as taught by the Catholic Church has been the formative principle of our
society, the backdrop to our lives. But Protestantism only derives whatever
good it possesses from the measure of Catholic truth it retains. There was
a time, in the 18th and 19th and even into the early part of the 20th Century,
when the inertial force of Catholic civilization still moved the nation.
There persisted a moral consensus that in most areas of conduct approximated
the teaching of the Church. Pornography was outlawed, as was homosexuality
and abortion; divorce, though permitted, was frowned upon, and fornication.
was considered shameful. Decent language was enforced in film and television
and in print by law and custom and social pressure. The Catholic hierarchy
was once a cultural force to be reckoned with politically.
All this has changed.
Much of what was once outlawed now has the protection of law. A moral inversion
has taken place and disapproval of sexual aberrations is denounced as
hate-speech. Soon, I expect, the public expression of perennial Church teaching
will become criminalized. The Catholic hierarchy now inspires contempt and
distrust and has become the butt of late-night talk show jokes. When people
see a Roman collar and pectoral cross now, they think of teenage boys abused
by homosexual priests with the knowing wink of their bishop, who's just run
over someone with his luxury car and is speeding back to his palace while
his victim bleeds to death in the street. This is simply where we are and
we must begin by recognizing it.
What I have been describing is the condition of society at large, what is
called our general culture, and its relation to our faith. We still have
good Catholic families and good Catholic individuals. But it must be admitted
that the faith as a constituent of our general culture has diminished to
the vanishing point. And this diminution of Catholic influence seriously
impairs the ability of those groups and individuals who are trying to maintain
the faith in an increasingly inhospitable environment.
Compounding the difficulty is the fact that our nation does not now possess
one distinctive culture that we can define as our opposition. Shifts in immigrant
populations from Christian to non-Christian lands has also served to energize
an already present animus against expressions of Catholic truth in the public
sector. Society seeks to locate and promote areas of what might be called
neutral culture, that is, activities in which religion appears irrelevant
and all that is required is a general good will and civility.
It has been noted that after the Diaspora, when the Jews found themselves
in Gentile lands, they instinctively sought to interact with their neighbors
in such areas of neutral culture and, naturally, worked to expand these areas.
Catholics and other believers have done something similar in America. This
is why the United States is always breaking out in a rash of fraternal
organizations that act as loci of neutral culture. The criteria for membership
and the avowed purpose of such organizations are kept sufficiently broad
and ingenuous as to encompass almost anyone. Nobody at the Moose Lodge cares
if you are a Catholic or a Jew, so long as you are a good moose, which isn't
The September 11 attacks provided a perfect opportunity for the expression
of neutral culture, an apotheosis of modern sentimentality in an outpouring
of donations and a frenzy of flag-waving. But the main engine driving us
toward a neutral culture is not the odd national crisis but the general mania
for sports and all manner of entertainment that eliminates religion as an
integral part of life. Few characters in television or film or on the playing
fields are depicted as having any particular faith. Should religion make
a rare appearance in a sitcom or on the silver screen it is invariably vague
and cloyingly saccharine; for the most part, it's entirely absent. One sees
little of it on ESPN. So as we partake of the standard entertainments and
pastimes of our age, we become accustomed to living in a spiritually sterile
As neutral cultures expand, religion contracts.
Faith becomes incidental to life. To insist that religion defines life is
to be boorish. It's simply bad manners. The result is that we have a new
class of Catholics: closet Catholics. And, as homosexuals once lived in fear
of being outed, so do some of our closet Catholics, including bishops. They
dread confrontation with a general culture hostile to their nominal beliefs,
so they keep quiet, and since silence is consent, they lend mute support
to the enemies of the Church. So our faith no longer has a place in our general
culture, and to fly one's Catholic flag too boldly is considered to be in
bad taste. It can invite ridicule, even hatred.
So much for our secular exile.
The larger question of our exile from the institutional Church must now be
In some essays collected under the title, "Christianity and Culture," the
late T.S. Eliot defines what he calls cultural disintegration. He prefaces
his definition with the observation that general culture arises from the
interaction of various groups and individuals who form separate strata within
a society but are joined by a shared vision of the purpose of human life.
Each strata contributes to the general culture through its specific area
of competence. Thus, artists, statesmen, churchmen, merchants and tradespeople
are all pieces in an integrated mosaic that presents a coherent picture.
Cultural disintegration occurs when two or more of these strata so separate
as to form distinct cultures. Decomposition ensues. The picture dissolves.
That cultural disintegration present within the Catholic Church is eminently
A recent incident at Georgetown University offers a perfect illustration.
Francis Cardinal Arinze, a curial Cardinal who spends most of his time in
Rome, was invited as principal speaker to Georgetown's graduation. Cardinal
Arinze, for a long time, headed Pope John Paul II's Council for Interreligious
Dialogue. Now he's in charge of the liturgy and has announced that there
will be no freeing of the Tridentine Mass as had been rumored. He can hardly
be considered a defender of orthodoxy when for decades his principal job
was to assure apostates and pagans that Rome rejoiced that they should enrich
the world with their persistent errors. When the Hindus celebrated a feast
day for one of their pagan gods, Arinze would send them a congratulatory
message saying how pleased the Vatican was that they should be doing whatever
it was that constituted their idolatrous ritual. He was, in effect, the Church's
Mr. Congeniality, showering benevolent smiles on any and every sect that
rejected Our Lord and the claims of His Holy Church.
Why Georgetown, an erstwhile Jesuit institution, settled upon Arinze as a
commencement speaker, I cannot say. Perhaps because of his status as a preeminent
ecumenist or as a potential candidate for the papacy. The Cardinal, I suspect,
misread the invitation and thought he was at a Catholic university, so he
decided it would be appropriate to say something genuinely Catholic. Putting
to one side his syncretist persona, His Eminence delivered some fine remarks
about the importance of strengthening the family and the need to combat those
forces that undermine its strength. He abandoned the ambiguity characteristic
of Romanita and even listed these forces: divorce, abortion, contraception,
I rather expect he was surprised by the reaction of his audience.
Some students and faculty walked out in protest during his speech, including
a prominent member of the theology department; one priest later told a reporter
he had sent an apology for the Cardinal's offensive remarks to everyone on
his e-mail list, explaining that Arinze's views in no way corresponded to
his own. About 70 faculty members signed a protest, denouncing the Cardinal's
bigoted tirade. The secular press chronicled the debacle. When the Cardinal
was again safely ensconced on Vatican Hill, he said he might have spoken
differently had he been able to foresee the reaction.
The incident, of little practical consequence in itself, demonstrates that
those strata that constitute Catholic culture have so separated as to form
distinct cultures. For there are obviously among Georgetown's faculty --
some with licentiates in theology -- those who find the Church's moral teaching
so offensive that they cannot bear to listen to it. They have taught generations
of students Lord knows what. Certainly not the Catholic faith, the expression
of whose tenets they deem a brutish act that demands an apology. Such people
comprise the elite educators within American Catholic society. They are the
sort who write for America, the prestigious Jesuit. journal, and other equally
dreary venues of heterodoxy. Yet, these people call themselves Catholic,
and Georgetown is still regarded as a Catholic University. But neither the
culture of the university nor that of its faculty are informed by the faith
as it had been taught and practiced before the Second Vatican Council, that
is, through virtually the entire 2,000 year history of the Church.
What does this mean?
It means that cultural disintegration is so advanced within the Church that
when someone tells you he is Catholic the statement contains no more certainty
about his creed than if he had told you he is a Unitarian.
A further example. The American Catholic bishops created a small stir in
some circles last fall with a document by one of their committees that stated
plainly that the Jews need not convert to the Catholic faith; that they have
their own covenant with God, a kind of side deal in which they were grandfathered
in before the Incarnation., Cardinal Kasper, now the Pope's point man on
relations with the Jews, was dispatched from Rome to deal with the mild
controversy that arose. He confirmed the teaching contained in the bishops'
document. Yes, His Eminence said in a speech at Boston University, the Jews
have no need of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church in order to be saved.
This is a radical novelty contradicted by Scripture and Tradition, a heresy
at the very least. In my opinion, it amounts to a denial of the central teaching
of the Catholic Church and rises toward apostasy. But even if it is not apostasy,
it would still illustrate the presence of cultural disintegration, for if
I am Catholic and believe, as the Church has always taught, that all men
must enter Her to be saved, then in what sense can Cardinal Kasper and I
both be considered Catholic? Obviously, one of us is not Catholic.
Now, I have no interest in poor Walter Kasper as anything more than an
illustration of how far this cultural disintegration within the Church has
progressed, but I cannot pass over Kasper's. objective denial of Catholic
dogma without noting that he is the Pope's point man on interfaith relations,
elevated to the cardinalate by John Paul II and given the job of representing
the Holy See in this matter. The Pope did not just pull his name out of a
hat. I know there are sentimental Catholics who would like to cling to the
belief that Kasper and his like-minded bishops represent renegade elements
in the hierarchy opposed to the Pope. All the evidence is to the contrary.
John Paul II never rebuked Kasper for his remarks; never contradicted him
or reasserted the true Catholic doctrine. Kasper remains in favor in the
Vatican and still heads the Pope's commission on relations with the Jews,
which falls under Kasper's purview as secretary of the Pope's Commission
for Promoting Christian Unity. We know from the entire direction of his
pontificate that this office is of the highest importance to the Pope, as
he has made ecumenism the driving force of his papacy. Kasper is the Pope's
chosen policy instrument.
What must we conclude?
Returning for a moment to T.S. Eliot, he also observes that a religion can
be so weakened as no longer possess the ability to assimilate different cultures
but rather to become assimilated by them. We have arrived at a point at which
the institutional Church, with the loss of its universal language and liturgy
and doctrine, no longer has the strength to assimilate the cultures with
which She comes into contact. Kasper's remarks are in perfect accord with
agnostic humanism's principal tenet of tolerance. This is now the dominant
force in Western culture, the touchstone of modern sentimentality. Kasper's
remarks are diametrically opposed to the perennial teaching of the Church
and to Her Divinely assigned mission of evangelization. But to whom can we
appeal to correct Kasper's aberrations? To Rome?
He is Rome. To the Pope? He's the Pope's man. This lack of recourse demonstrates
that the institutional Church has been assimilated by the secular culture.
Now, for the harder question: What do we do about it?
Catholic parents who would live the faith and hand it down intact are in
a near impossible situation. All of the duties once entrusted to the religious
orders who used to instruct our children and offer them the example of holiness
now fall upon us. Our general culture and that of the institutional Church
undermine us at every turn. The corrosive effect of unfaith is eating away
at us from every direction. What can we do?
Is there a realistic possibility of reviving traditional Catholicism within
the present Church? I think this is about as likely as reinstating the rule
of British monarchy in America. And as any efforts in this direction appear
to be for a lost cause, they tend to evoke ridicule. And so long as we try
to remain Catholic within a structure that will not support the traditional
faith, all we can hope for is to be regarded as an unwelcome and somewhat
ludicrous element; at best, we will be tolerated as harmless eccentrics indulging
in a bit of antiquarianism. I will say unequivocally that today's typical
Catholic parish with its Protestantized liturgy and sentimentalized doctrine
will not support traditional Catholicism; it will dissolve it. So, we must
ask ourselves: Is there any precedent that might help us to know how to proceed
in such circumstances? Has there ever been a time when society was crumbling
and the Church in disarray and those who would keep the faith found themselves
in a like condition of secular and ecclesiastical exile?
Historical parallels are always imperfect, as every age is unique, but I
believe we can look to the early 6th Century as the epoch closest to our
own in the problems it posed for, those determined to live a Catholic life.
Some brief history. About 1,500 years ago, Theodoric marched into Rome as
the ruler of all Italy. He was a Goth who could neither read nor write, a
barbarian and, inasmuch as he was Christian, an Arian heretic, as were all
the Gothic overlords who were not still pagan. What remained of the Roman
Army, a ragtag municipal guard, suffered the humiliation of having to assemble
to greet him, as did the Roman Senate, an ineffectual body with no real power.
The brutes were in charge, men who despised the high culture of antiquity,
not that much of it remained. The Roman aristocracy had grown decadent and
cared for little more than its creature comforts and security.
The Church, having emerged from persecution two centuries earlier, had paid
for its official acceptance by sinking ever deeper into mediocrity and
corruption. The hierarchy was no longer the province of Martyrs, but the
preserve of those who sought power. Rival claims to the papacy and factional
wars turned an already tepid faithful into cynics and scoffers. Many of the
clergy led dissolute lives and the general level of morality had sunk so
low that a popular movement grew to restore the pagan festival of Luper calia,
an obscene public orgy of fertility rites that culminated in naked men chasing
women through the streets. This was the state of the city in which lay the
bones of Peter and Paul.
Into this city entered a young man from a provincial town whose father had
sent him to Rome to study. He was of noble family, and he saw firsthand the
decadence of the aristocracy as well as that of the mob. But he was a devout
young man and one night, pondering his future, he walked through the streets
of Rome; through crumbling corridors where the statues and monuments former
glory were defaced and vandalized; he passed through crowds of drunkards
and gamblers and prostitutes; past street corners where the talk was all
of the games and the pornographic shows; he walked on lamenting the loss
of nobility in public life; of holiness in the Church; he walked until he
came to a hill -- the eighth hill of Rome -- called the Hill of Shards, for
it was there that all broken pottery was thrown, along with other assorted
refuse. And there, on the Hill of Shards, amid the ruins of his world, this
young man threw himself onto the wreckage and cried to God to show him a
way to live his faith in a faithless world.
The young man's name was Benedictus of Nursia. We know him as St. Benedict.
Young Benedict knew that Roman civilization was finished and the institutional
Church corrupt. So he turned his back on the city and went into the wilderness,
there to serve God as a holy hermit. But Providence had a grand plan called
Christendom and Benedict was to be its chief architect. To counter the great
cultural disintegration of Church and State, Benedict eventually created
a world within a world; a group culture within the general culture: the
Benedictine monastery. This is not the time to expatiate on the monumental
nature of the Benedictine contribution to Western Civilization. Many abler
minds have done so. My interest is in the strategy of St. Benedict as a possible
help to us in our present circumstance, for we stand on our own Hill of Shards.
The inertial force of Christendom has run out. Our world -- the Catholic
world -- is finished. Western culture is finished. The barbarians are in
charge -- everywhere. A new dark age is in the making; a world not only
contemptuous of the Catholic faith, not only indifferent to the Catholic
faith, but almost wholly ignorant of the Catholic faith.
We know, of course, that the Church, in some manner, will persist until the
end of time; but we also know that Our Lord asked the haunting question,
"When I come again, will I find any faith in the world?" So the size of the
Church, Her structure, the extent to which She will remain a notable presence
in the world are made open questions by the very words of Her Founder.
What the Rule of St. Benedict accomplished was to create a community in which
men could pursue spiritual perfection as their sole aim while fulfilling
all of the duties incumbent upon them as creatures of flesh as well as spirit.
That men of so other-worldly an orientation turned a barbarous continent
into a Christian land represents one of those paradoxes that the ungodly
always fail to understand, for it rests on the Divine counsel, "Seek ye first
the kingdom of God and all else will be added unto you."
Anyone who reads the Rule is struck first of all by the personality of St.
Benedict: his gentleness, his fraternal charity, his prudence, his profound
love of God. How attractive a man he must have been. Next, one notices the
insistence on regularity and attention to detail as indispensable elements
to a holy community life and individual spiritual progress.
Now, I am not suggesting that a Benedictine revival is the way to address
our problems (though it certainly wouldn't hurt). The Rule was God's way
of guiding His children through a crisis of civilization in the 6th Century.
What Our Lord has in mind for us, only time will tell. The operations of
grace are often undreamt of. But inasmuch as we can apply our natural reason
to our problem, I think we should; and reason tells us that we are in a situation
very similar to that of St. Benedict, with the addition that the Church is
in a far worse condition. And reason tells us that we must find some means
of doing what the Benedictines did; that is, we must remove ourselves culturally
from the terrible disintegration that is having so corrosive an effect on
us and our families and reconstitute Catholic culture in a way that allows
it to be insulated from the world, yet remain in contact with the world.
Something of the sort has already been under way, something of which we ought
to take note. Those families wishing to live a Catholic life have been steadily
separating themselves from the currents of popular culture and the influence
of the institutional Church over the past three decades or so. There are
isolated cells of genuine Catholicism here and there which maintain, or strive
to maintain, a life ruled by the faith.
These Catholic cells, if I might call them such, are having a difficult time.
I know. I head one of them. To my knowledge, my family is the only traditional
Catholic family in my town; I believe in the entire county, and perhaps several
counties. Once a week, we drive about 45 miles to a chapel to hear the Tridentine
Mass. Sometimes, we stop for a cup of coffee in the hall after Mass and share
a few hurried words with families in similar circumstances who have traveled
some greater, some lesser distances than we have. Then, we all head home,
back into enemy territory, so to speak, hoping the spiritual pit stop will
keep us going for another week.
I have been thinking for some time that we have to do better than this. The
darkness is growing at an alarming rate, pressing in, trying to swallow us
and our children.
We in the Catholic cells need some fortification, something like a Benedictine
Rule for the family. I don't propose myself as one either possessed of the
competence or having received the call to compose and present such a rule;
but I will venture a few practical suggestions.
First, we must be mindful of that most mysterious thing -- human personality.
Every family, like every individual, has its personality, its particular
group culture -- if you will. During the course of Her long history, the
Church has given birth to a great variety of religious orders, each one with
its distinct personality. Those qualities that make one a good Dominican
preacher might be ill-suited to a Carmelite contemplative. The temperament
of the Franciscan is not that of the Jesuit. Likewise the spiritual atmosphere
of each household points in a decided direction. Some families are quiet
and reclusive; others outgoing and sociable. The sort of spirituality that
the head of the household should nurture must accord with the family temperament.
We Catholics have the advantage of having a rich, heritage from which we
can draw spiritual tools that can be adapted to our present circumstances.
Many modes of spirituality have been explored and charted by the inspired
genius of the sainted founders of religious orders. I think we have the option,
one might say the obligation, of building on those foundations that have
been laid for us. The religious orders are dying because they have abandoned
their rules, but the spirit of the orders, in general and in particular,
ought to be preserved, and I can see no other way to accomplish this now
than through these Catholic cells that the exigencies of our age have produced.
Now, this notion of Catholic families as spiritual cells imbued with the
ideals of particular religious orders might be a charming idea, but how might
it be implemented? There are obvious differences between families and religious
orders and whatever there is in a Rule that has no application in family
life must be discarded -- such as St. Benedict's elaborate instructions on
how the hours must be chanted. Whatever the rule contains that appears well
suited to our circumstance, we ought to try to incorporate into our family
For instance, St. Benedict details the duties of the abbot and the qualities
he should manifest. There is little in this chapter that cannot be applied
to the father of a household. In fact, St. Benedict reminds the abbot that
he ought to regard himself as a father and his monks as his children.
The Rule's longest chapter is on humility, and its counsels can be adapted
to every circumstance of life. St. Benedict details twelve steps through
which one arrives at perfect humility, which is the foundation of all virtue.
Another chapter lists 72 "instruments of good works," each consisting of
a phrase or short sentence that prescribes or proscribes some action or attitude.
The chapter can be read in about five to ten minutes and a daily reading,
perhaps with pauses for reflection, cannot fail to have a transforming effect
The whole of the Rule is imbued with the spirit of what might be called radical
conversion, a complete turning of the soul to God and away from the world.
This sort of conversion is at the heart of the rule of every religious order;
it is also at the heart of every genuinely Catholic life, whether one is
a monk or member or a household. None of us is excused from the counsels
Every household, like every religious order, must be primarily a place of
prayer if it is to be genuinely Catholic. And this prayer must be regular.
The genius of St. Benedict's Rule and its amazing success have largely to
do with the element of regularity he introduced into monastic life. Before
Benedict, monasticism was either the pursuit of solitary hermits, often given
to grotesque excesses of asceticism, or of communities with practices too
severe to be borne for long by ordinary men. St. Benedict devised a way of
life by which any man of good intention whom God had called might exercise
his vocation in a sane, safe and effective manner. Regularity was the key.
And so must it be for us. A reasonable schedule of some sort must be made
and adhered to, especially by the head of the household who stands in the
position of abbot and must lead more by example than by word, as St. Benedict
But regular times set aside for prayer and study must be supplemented by
periods of silence for meditation, for prayer without meditation can degenerate
into unthinking routine, and study without meditation can turn into vain
knowledge. There are many books one can read about meditation, but there
is a short, practical guide called the Catechism of Mental Prayer that is
well suited for beginners. There is also St. Teresa of Avila's meditation
on the Our Father, called The Way of Perfection. An excellent introduction
to a practice essential to growth in the spiritual life.
In all attempts to live some sort of regimen, however, rigor must always
yield to common sense. In the Rule of St. Albert, which guides the Carmelites,
the ancient patriarch concludes his counsels with the admonition that the
bounds of common sense must never be exceeded as common sense is the "guide
of the virtues."
I said earlier that I do not want to revel in gloom, but I do think it necessary
that we periodically remind ourselves of the gravity of our situation: we
live in a time when the institutional Church is in a state of advanced
decomposition and many of Her prelates and priests can no longer be trusted
to be Catholic. We must periodically look at this disaster that has stricken
the Church lest we fall into complacency, or worse, complicity, for our desire
is always to seek our own comfort, to find some pretext for taking the path
of least resistance, to play it safe. But to seek our own ease in the current
crisis is to invite the punishment of spiritual blindness, which is now endemic
to the hierarchy.
As we cling to the faith, we will be attacked, and the attack will come heaviest
from those quarters where we should ordinarily find support. This will be
painful and confusing, and I think we are much in the position of those lovers
of Our Lord who found themselves standing on Calvary when His Precious Body
was taken from the Cross and laid in His Mother's arms. Who standing there,
looking at that mangled corpse, its former beauty now unrecognizable, gazing
on the torn flesh, streaked with blood and dirt and sweat and spittle, could
recognize their Lord? The heartbreak, the fear, the crushing sadness, the
temptation to despair must have come near to overwhelming the holy women
and St. John, had it not been for the grace of faith. And that grace doubtless
shone brightest at that darkest hour in the Immaculate Heart of His Mother.
She knew that the lifeless and dishonored Body She held belonged not only
to Her Son, but to the Son of God. And She knew that He would rise again.
So, mixed with Her unimaginable sorrow, was the surest faith that the world
had not won, that Her Son would triumph and live again and live forever.
So we, when we look at the mangled remains of what appears to be our Holy
Church, we must seek in our faith the assurance that all is not lost; that
Our Lord is with us, so long as we are with Him. And the Church, disfigured
and dishonored, will somehow show Her true countenance again to those of
Her children who have always kept it in their hearts and in their homes.
Catholic Family News)