Making ‘Catholic’ make sense

The ecumenical phenomenon that Colleen Carroll Campbell dubbed “the new faithful” —  accomplished young professionals leading lives of intense Christian orthodoxy — has had interesting manifestations in the Catholic Church. Is there a major American city that doesn’t have a “Theology on Tap” program these days? Suds and the catechism seem to be an attractive mix. Then there are campuses like Notre Dame, where students are reconverting their faculties and their schools, often against great odds. And, of course, there’s World Youth Day.

Now comes the new apologetics. Two books by younger Catholic writers demonstrate that the art of “making ‘Catholic’ make sense” has been recovered in a distinctive way for these unique times.

Matthew Lickona’s Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic (Loyola Press) is a sometimes funky, sometimes lyrical explanation of how a cradle Catholic, who buys the whole package, thinks, prays, struggles, and manages to have a lot of fun while being self-consciously counter-cultural. Lickona, a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, loves wine, movies, “alternative rock” (don’t ask me…), and the Church. He’s frank about his spiritual limits — “In times of suffering, I look first to myself. God is the backup, to be called upon when I find myself insufficient.” Yet he has a firm grip on the faith and a keen insight into what apostasy has done to contemporary society: “We’re living in an awful middle ground. Some might call it Christ-hungover. He lingers, a painful leftover presence that punishes the conscience but brings no comfort. People are left with the sad thrill of transgression: the enraged bumper stickers, the endless appeals to sex that is ‘perfectly natural’ but still sold as ‘naughty.’ Such may be the penalty for knowing His rules without knowing Him.”

Then we have Mark Gauvreau Judge, hitherto known in Washington circles as the town’s most ardent Senators fan. His grandfather, Joe Judge, had played for the team during baseball’s golden years; grandson Mark kept the flame of local baseball passion alive for decades, and is currently locked in an embrace of the re-commissioned Nationals. Now, outside the ballpark, Judge lowers the boom on the silliness that beset Catholic high schools and colleges in the post-Vatican II period in a feisty memoir, God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling (Crossroad).

Matthew Lickona writes elegantly; Mark Judge’s prose has edge. Looking back from his early forties, he knows he was cheated of a serious Catholic education at Georgetown Prep and Catholic University — and he’s not happy about it. Judge is no plaster saint; he freely admits that his own propensities for wild behavior (especially when fueled by drinking) made a circus out of his high school and (extended) college years. But he rightly asks why formation ceased being part of education in Catholic schools during and after the overheated Sixties. Grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous for helping him get his life together, he wonders, appropriately, why the trendy priests and teachers at some of America’s most prestigious Catholic institutions didn’t help him steer a better path.

Local Washington rumor has it that the Powers That Be at Georgetown Prep are unhappy with Mark Judge. Assuming that the self-examining spirituality of St. Ignatius still plays a role in those circles, the Jesuit panjandrums at Prep might consider whether their ire shouldn’t be redirected, in what was once called an “examination of conscience.”

Having survived the silly season, Matthew Lickona and Mark Judge have built integral, exciting Catholic lives despite the collapse of intact Catholic culture in the United States. Growing up in the intensely Catholic culture of Bavaria, a more famous Catholic apologist, Joseph Ratzinger, discovered that the Catholic Church is a wonderful thing, a treasure-house of insights and experiences to be savored and explored, reflected upon and argued over. Amidst the confusions of post-modern America, Lickona and Judge have discovered what Benedict XVI intuited as a boy: that the Church is everyday life and soaring speculation, liturgy and art and music, all at the same time. Learning the connections is a lifelong project, full of adventure and beauty.

COMING UP: Banned books: Pushing back against the new ideology

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How would you know if you were being brainwashed? When something plainly false — contrary to common sense and right reason — is so constantly forced on you and you are not allowed to question it, it’s a good indication. This is the nature of ideology: imposing a position without truly establishing it or allowing it to be criticized. We have seen that something clearly opposed to the basics of scientific fact, such as the nature of sex as male and female, can be forced quickly upon American society through the influence of media and public education. And, perhaps not too surprisingly, even something as clear as 2+2=4 has been called into question by progressive educators, such as Dr. Rochelle Gutierrez, turning it into a sign of alleged oppression.  

In our time, dystopian novels have become reality. George Orwell best described the use of ideology in modern political regimes through doublethink, newspeak, and thoughtcrime. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, the main character, Winston Smith, is coerced to accept that 2+2=5, showing his allegiance to ideology over reality. Orwell speaks of the way ideology gains power over the mind: “The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about. We do not merely destroy our enemies, we change them.” This domination does not broker any opposition: “It is intolerable . . .  that an erroneous thought should exist anywhere in the world, however secret and powerless it may be.” If the truth can circulate freely, then ideology will fail.  

You might ask how the acceptance of ideology differs from accepting the mystery of faith, which requires our obedience to God. A key difference is that God’s revelation makes sense even while beyond reason. God does not shut down our thinking but wants us to ask questions and continue to come to know him and his creation throughout our lives. Faith cannot contradict reason because they both come from God, from his gifts of revelation and creation. You know you are facing ideology, however, when it refuses any discussion of contrary views. Catholics have been accused of hate for refusing to go along with the new ideology of human sexuality. This ideology claims to speak truly of the reality of human life, although it doesn’t add up, contradicting itself and the clear facts of science. The fight for the future focuses on speaking the truth. Without the ability to think, discuss, and read freely, it will be hard to respond to the ideological wave overwhelming us. 

Throughout the country, however, great books and humanities programs are being shut down for their emphasis on the Western tradition. Cornell West, an African American philosopher at Harvard, writing with Jeremy Tate, speaks of the spiritual tragedy of one American university closing down its classics department: “Yet today, one of America’s greatest Black institutions, Howard University, is diminishing the light of wisdom and truth that inspired [Frederick] Douglass, [Martin Luther] King and countless other freedom fighters. . . . Academia’s continual campaign to disregard or neglect the classics is a sign of spiritual decay, moral decline and a deep intellectual narrowness running amok in American culture.” For West and Tate, cancelling the Western canon shuts down the central conversation of the pursuit of wisdom that touches every culture.  

Canceling the pursuit of wisdom hits at the integrity of our culture itself, as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, another dystopian novel, focused on saving books from the fire set on wiping them out, explains: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one. Better yet, give him none.” Books proved hostile in this all-too-real futuristic American society portrayed by Bradbury, undermining the state of contended distraction provided by an omnipresent virtual reality. The fight for truth necessarily entails the books we read and teach.  

In our current cancel culture, Catholics too are being silenced for speaking about reality. Amazon recently cancelled Ryan T. Anderson, who studied at Princeton and Notre Dame and now directs the Ethics and Public Policy Center, blocking the sale of its book on its platform for questioning transgender ideology. The book, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Movement (Encounter Books, 2018), provides a well-researched and thought-out response to the movement overturning common sense and millennia of acquired wisdom. Even more than that, Anderson shows how we are experimenting on our children, subjecting them to practices of hormone therapy and surgery that have not been proven safe or effective. Anderson provides evidence of ideology at work, through its coercive attempt to force us to accept what contradicts clear scientific evidence: “At the heart of the transgender moment are radical ideas about the human person — in particular, that people are what they claim to be regardless of contrary evidence” (29).  

Anderson does not deny the need to help those who suffer from gender dysphoria, although the heart of the books focuses on whether or not we are willing to accept reality and to help others to do so. As Anderson explains, “determining reality is the heart of the matter, and here too we find contradictions … Is our gender biologically determined and immutable or self-created and changeable? … At the core of the ideology is the radical claim that feelings determine reality. From this idea come extreme demands for society to play along with subjective reality claims. Trans ideologues ignore contrary evidence and competing interests; they disparage alternative practices; and they aim to muffle skeptical voices and shut down disagreement. The movement has to keep patching and shoring up its beliefs, policing the faithful, coercing the heretics and punishing apostates, because as soon as its furious efforts flag for a moment or someone successfully stands up to it, the whole charade is exposed. That’s what happens when your dogmas are so contrary to obvious, basic, everyday truths” (47-48). Not only philosophers like Anderson, but many educators, doctors, scientists, and politicians have been cancelled for standing up to the blatant falsehoods of this ideology. 

Does 2+2=5? Is a man a man and a woman a woman? No matter the effect of hormones and surgeries, every cell in the body points to the biological reality of sex, along with a myriad of other physical and emotional traits. Shutting down study and debate does not get to the heart of the matter, the truth of reality and the way to help those who suffer. The ideology does not truly focus on tolerance of others or creating reasonable accommodations, as it seeks to impose itself and coerce us. The reinterpretation of Title IX manifests an “Orwellian fiat” by which sex discrimination, meant to protect women, now becomes a means to discriminate against them: “The Women’s Liberation Front highlights the strange transformation of Title IX into a means to deny privacy, safety, education opportunity, and equality to women” (190). Anderson’s book provides an essential overview of the goals of the transgender movement and how to respond to it from a philosophical and scientific perspective. We should not allow the book to be cancelled! 

The goal of this new ideology is not simply to accept and tolerate a particular position, but, as Orwell recognized, to change us. It constitutes an attempt to redefine what it means to be a human being and to change the way we think about reality. Anything standing in the way will be cancelled or even burned. The quick success of this movement, and other ideologies as well, should make us pause. Do we want our children to think freely and wisely or simply to conform to what is imposed on them without question?  

As Catholics, we are called to think in conformity with faith and reason, upholding the truth, even when inconvenient. We are called to continue to form our own minds and accept the reality of how God made us and how he calls us into relationship with him, as the true source of overcoming suffering and difficulty. If you are uninformed and unable to judge rightly and logically, you are more likely to become prey to the new ideology, especially as enforced by government control and big business. We need Catholic freedom fighters, those willing, with charity, to stop the burning of the great ideas and the cancelling of our own faith.  


Photo by Fred Kearney on Unsplash