Catholic Vitalism


This article was written on 02 Apr 2016, and is filled under Uncategorized.

The Future of Catholicism Part 1: Introduction

I converted to Catholicism almost 22 years ago, shortly after graduating from college. Like many recent converts, my journey to Rome was largely an intellectual one: my search for meaning and integrity began in earnest after leaving home for college. I took an interest in Eastern mysticism, which led me to the surprising historical reality of Catholic mysticism through folks like Matthew Fox and Thomas Merton. This in turn led me to the great philosophical tradition of Catholicism, through writers like Jacques Maritain, Joseph Pieper, G.K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, through whom I began to see Catholicism as a beautiful alternative to the emptiness of modern life.

When I finally reached the point where I put the books down and started making inquiries at my local parish, it had a rather jarring effect on me: I had difficulty recognizing the Catholicism I had fallen in love with in the rather ugly, utilitarian reality of a suburban parish.

In the course of the subsequent years, in different Catholic contexts, this tension has continued, and has even grown more intense with the years. In this series of blog posts, I’m going to attempt to weave my own experiences with an analysis of the state of American Catholicism. Interestingly, the chronology of my own experiences loosely match a journey through the various positions which the American Church has developed in dealing with the reality of Modernity, which is of course the key question in Catholic self-understanding.

So the format for this series will be a delineation of the main responses to Modernity which have developed in the American Church, following a ‘left-to-right’ progression, from accommodationism to extreme anti-modernism. I have identified five positions on this spectrum, most of which are already commonly recognized in the Catholic blogosphere; unfortunately many of the commonly used names for these groups are confusing because they’re adapted from the American political vocabulary, which of course wrestles with a different but related set of issues. Of course, the lines between these groups is hazy, and there are many figures who straddle two groups along the spectrum. Nonetheless, I think the groupings are valuable, as they represent coherent attempts to figure out the great puzzle of the Church’s place in the modern world, a puzzle which is two and a half centuries old, and yet continues to inspire profoundly different solutions.

Despite the risk of oversimplification and rank amateurishness involved in such an undertaking, I will also attempt, with each group, two analyses which I hope will shed some light on the relationships of these groups with each other.

I’ve always been inspired by the famous Two Cows analogy for explaining economic systems. So I’ve come up with an analogy for the Church’s encounter with modernity: if the Church is our mother, then Catholics are her children. I represent Modernity as a very powerful stranger who makes a call upon this family with the intention of becoming master of the house.

I will also attempt an extremely amateurish analysis of the demographics and sociology of these various groups, in order to suggest some sense of the strengths and weaknesses of these groups. In doing so, I’ll concentrate my focus on ‘involved American Catholics’, which I define as folks who would self-identify as Catholics, and who attend Mass at least occasionally or send their kids to Catholic schools. This is, sadly, a much smaller group than ‘baptized Catholics’, but I think non-practicing Catholics are ‘mission territory’ and have more in common with non-Catholics.

In turn, I’m hoping this analysis will provide some clues to understand where we have failed to properly respond to the massive, bewildering reality of Modernity, and also to propose the beginnings of a more integrated and hopeful solution for the future.


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