Demanding Catholicism

I was struck by Elizabeth Scalia’s article considering the appeal of Islam and Mormonism to many Latinos who are converting from Catholicism to these other and very different religions. She asks if perhaps Catholicism is not demanding enough of its patrons. A very interesting question, indeed.

Some time ago, I posted an article on the function of mass and the overemphasis on “welcoming” as an unnecessary focus in the America church. At the end I added: One final thought: as Americans, there is also a particular benefit to owing something to Someone, because we’ve been told for so long that all that matters is what we want and the virtue of rugged individualism, but that is a post for another day.

I never revisited this topic until today when Scalia’s article struck the cord.

We have an abundance of choice in America. You may hear older Americans lament the long-passed days of there being three television channels, two types of toothpaste and one grocery store from which to stop. I searched for toothpaste on and found 186 results. However, we are not happier with more choices.

Research has shown that people on average are less likely to decide when they are given many options from which to choose. Scalia astutely points out that “when you leave people to find something ‘personally meaningful’ to do, they often settle for what is new or capricious or vapid, or all three. Or they do the easiest thing of all, which is nothing.” So what do we want?

The concern in days past was that people would simple follow the motions if given too many rubrics and commands. This can happen. However, when there are clear boundaries and obligations, it is easier to see where a person stands with his or her commitment. He has given himself to the practice and must stand by as he bears public witness in his practice.

I believe this is good for Americans. Studies tracing narcissistic leanings have found the current generation of young people is more narcissistic than previous generations. It continues to increase. Bullying is on the rise and contrary to popular belief, bullies tend to have an overinflated sense of self. The self-esteem movement has created a climate in which we receive, get what we want, because feeling good about who we are (and subsequently what we have) has become an American virtue.

Out-of-control breathing is a symptom of a panic attack. Controlled deep breathing can counteract that symptom. It has a host of other benefits, this is an obvious one. A sense of entitlement, as well as a sense that I make the rules for myself because as a narcissist no one knows what is better than me, is a symptom of a deep problem in our society. A remedy that can target this symptom, as well as provide a host of other benefits is being indebted, committed and demanded of by a higher authority.

Some find it through the military, others through family. Church life can provide it as well, but only with authoritative leaders and practices. Why would it help?

Because of our need for self-donation. Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self. A commitment to that external thing, the body of Christ, draws the person outside himself. He seems smaller in the face of something bigger that requires all of him: his time, resources, and love.

Fewer individuals than before serve in the military. More than half of American families experience brokenness. Of the families that stay together, how many practice the compelling values that link one’s heart with a lifelong strength? Rural communities in many places have given way to larger cities, anonymous apartment or suburban dwellings. More than ever, the woman or man in America can live, only associating with those she or he chooses. Endless food options, endless music or television options. We are no longer tied to this or that thing that others are also tied to out of necessity. It is those ties which help create culture. Not all of America is like this, but I find it very true in much of California. Unsavory weather links Mid-westerners together. In this part of California where the one weather ailment we experience is heat, there is less communal suffering. Many simply retreat indoors when the heat strikes.

If parishes remain strong in their traditions and revive some old traditions to feed this need, they can become a constant in the American sea of change. A sense of obligation could bind Catholics together, identifying them in this foreign land. You can find that on Ash Wednesday, the one time of year where we put our Catholicism on display in the secular world. Creating more fasting and more feasting would do it as well.

But it will have to adapt in order to oblige. Churches and the parish one is committed to are no longer walking distance. If we were obliged to pray the stations every Friday in Lent, but without the sense that it must be prayed communally at 7pm in Spanish and English, it might be more successful. If church buildings were unlocked or accessible that might help as well. I don’t know what it would be like to be part of those demands, but I think it might be at the very least interesting, if not compelling.

The additional masses some hold on Holy Days of Obligation are a must. What about stricter fasts? One meal and two snacks with plenty of dispensations does not often look like a fast. Holy Days of Obligation, which are meant to be great celebrations could hold festivals routinely at the parish. In this format perhaps people actually participate, because its free, potluck-style, and family oriented. Some cultures are better at this than others. There are people who would argue this could be more successful than attempting to reach out to particular demographics, because it is more a inclusive and natural setting.

These are just ideas. It takes a lot of work to implement them. It’s easy for me to sit here and write them, then sit back and say “that was nice.” When I wrote the piece on mothers participating in book clubs and reading literature, I had that reaction. Then a friend expected me to get one going. So now we’re doing it. I don’t know what first step forward is, but let’s look for a way to take it.

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