Writing at The Catholic Thing, David Carlin contrasts what he calls “the good old days” of robust American Catholicism with the anemic version he sees around him today, which he traces back to Vatican II in the 1960's. I find his perspective both admirably honest and refreshing, so I’m going to reproduce excerpts from Mr. Carlin’s article along with some notations and comments of my own.
Here is Mr. Carlin:
Doctrine. In the old days Catholics used to believe all the articles of the Nicene Creed plus a few other doctrines (for instance, the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist). Now, it’s not that modern Catholics disbelieve in the Creed, and certainly the Church has not officially repudiated a single article of the Creed. But post-V2 [Vatican II] American Catholics don’t think articles of belief are especially important. What’s important in religion is being good. As long as you’re good, it doesn’t really matter very much what you believe. And you can receive Communion on a weekly basis without troubling your mind about the vexed theological question of transubstantiation.
And here is Jesus: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you took Me in, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you visited Me…”
Jesus does not mention any vexed theological questions at all; he seems to be promoting the idea that doing good in the world is what God wants. Of course, Jesus wasn’t Catholic, either…
Morality. In the old days, a conscientious Catholic, when doing an examination of conscience, had to ask himself or herself questions about many topics. Am I chaste when it comes to sex? Am I temperate when it comes to drink? Do I give my employer an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay? Am I honest in paying my taxes? Do I avoid profanity in speech? And more. Today’s Catholics make a much briefer examination of conscience, for there is only a single question: Do I love my neighbor as myself?
Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.”
Jesus was not dismissing the moral concerns that Carlin mentions; he was summing them up. Carlin’s approach is the opposite; he takes Jesus’ sweeping, comprehensive injunctions (love God and love your neighbor) and breaks them down into numerous punctilious demands—kind of the same approach that Jesus’ opponents took, straining out gnats and swallowing camels.
Quite honestly, having been raised Catholic, I would have benefitted from an examination of conscience that consisted of “Have I loved God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my mind? Have I loved my neighbor as myself?” That formulation would have reminded me what the point of “morality” was. Instead, when examining my conscience, I counted up lies and instances of anger, “dirty thoughts” and talking back to my parents, gaining nothing in the process but guilt and an unhealthy obsession with myself.
Again, here is David Carlin:
Polytheism (or something like it). Catholicism, of course, teaches that there is only one God, the Trinitarian God. But the traditional Catholic veneration of saints, above all the Virgin Mary, bears a resemblance to the polytheism of the ancient Greek and Roman world. The official Catholic teaching has always been that all the saints can do for us is to pray to God on our behalf. But in practice pre-V2 Catholics often believed that saints, if prayed to in the right way and if in the right mood, could work miracles for us; the saints were in effect minor gods. Post-V2 Catholics no longer have much interest in the saints – except of course for Mother Teresa and Francis of Assisi, who can serve as good examples to us even though they are not so godlike as to be able to make miracles.
“The saints were in effect minor gods” speaks for itself. Mr. Carlin is to be commended for his honesty in linking the cult of Catholic saints to pagan polytheism. Jesus, on the other hand, never invoked minor gods; instead, he insisted on the traditional Jewish formula, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is one…”
Miracles. In the old days, Catholics readily believed in stories of miracles. And not just miracles that happened in famous places like Fatima and Lourdes, but miracles that happened in one’s neighborhood or in one’s family. And Catholics loved to be in close physical proximity to holy pictures, holy statues, holy candles, rosary beads, miraculous medals, holy water, etc.
There is a fine line between religious belief and superstition—but who am I to judge? (Knock on wood.)
Laws – lots of them that had to be obeyed, some of them God-made, some Church-made. You had to avoid meat on Fridays. You had to abstain from food and drink (even water) after midnight on a day in which you intended to receive Communion at Mass. You had to go to Confession before receiving Communion.
All of Mr. Carlin’s examples here are “Church-made” laws. As mentioned above, Jesus took a broader approach to the meaning of the law (though yes, he did say "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.”) Since Old Testament laws, aside from the Ten Commandments, are not binding on Catholics, the Church has had to develop its own, lest Catholics be left with no guidance beyond the command to love God and love their neighbor—and who could build a religion on that?
Chastity. If unmarried, you had to abstain from fornication. If married, you had to abstain from contraception. Of course, the Catholic Church still officially considers fornication and contraception sins –mortal sins. But among younger American Catholics, fornication has been demoted from the rank of mortal sin to the rank of venial sin, if not non-sin. And among married Catholics contraception has been kicked out of the category of sin altogether. It is now a virtue.
I don’t know if married Catholics consider contraception a “virtue” so much as a prudent way to avoid having more children than they are prepared to support and to nurture. In any case, I will repeat what I have said in the past: traditionalist Christians and Catholics are left to defend sexual prohibitions because they’ve long since given up on prohibitions regarding greed, ambition, power, violence, and war. Sexuality is the only territory left for them to hold and the only line left for them to draw.
Community. And then there was the importance of staying as much as possible inside the Catholic community – the “ghetto” as it was often called. You should go to a Catholic school and college. You should read Catholic magazines and books. You should join Catholic social clubs. Above all, you should marry inside the Church. Don’t marry Protestants or other non-Catholics. And if (God forbid) you do, the wedding won’t take place inside a church; and the non-Catholic will first have to promise to bring up the children as Catholic.
While many Catholics objected to being confined in a “ghetto” and being shut out of (and by) the larger society, some obviously found it a place of comfort and solidarity; Mr. Carlin seems to have been among the latter. It is a sad commentary, perhaps, that once American Catholics were liberated from the ghetto and given more freedom in society, many of them dropped much of what had always been distinct about their faith. That, of course, happens to other religious groups as well (Judaism being a perfect example); in today’s America, we hope it happens to Muslims. Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” is designed precisely to restore the solidarity that has gone missing for so many Christians; perhaps Mr. Carlin would like a Catholic version?
Carlin ends on a note of resignation:
Unless it once again becomes something like the [old-time] religion, American Catholicism will continue to shrink and shrink and shrink. It will become less and less important in American life. A religion that was once on the verge of becoming the single most important religious factor in our national life will become little more than a hole-in-the-corner religion. It will never be able to flourish if it continues to be what it is now…
Am I hopeful? Yes. One must never give up hope.
Am I optimistic? No. One must be realistic.
Atheist that I am, I can sympathize with Mr. Carlin’s sense of loss and his pessimism about the future. I would remind him that his God is the God who makes a way out of no way and who makes all things new, but the problem is that Mr. Carlin is not happy with things being made new; he would like God to restore things to the way they were. So far, there is little or no evidence that God intends to do that, for Catholics or for anyone else.