Friday, January 31, 2003

Kumbaya redux

The really challenging thing about many American Catholics’ beliefs about their faith is not that those beliefs are false, though they surely are that, but that they are adolescent. A spirit of juvenile contradiction, self-righteousness, and absolute certainty defines the collective mass of dissenters in the US, just as it defines the outward appearance of large numbers of teenagers in high schools and colleges across the country. (Let us not forget too the obsession with sexuality as the locus of so much grievance.) It is not surprising, really, that we have an adolescent Church, after all. The boomers have bequeathed us an adolescent culture, forever lusting after youth, newness, hipness, sexuality. We are focused on “who’s hot, and who’s not,” like the in crowd in the high school cafeteria.

[Please note, I referred to the “collective mass” of dissenters. I’m sure you are perfectly nice, and not at all adolescent, personally.]

Voice of the Faithful captures what I am getting at perfectly. First, in its slogan, and second, that is has a slogan at all. “Keep the faith. Change the Church!” The narcissistic definition of the faith, limiting it to not much more than the Trinity (and an androgynous Trinity at that, to at least some of it adherents) and social justice, and the demands for change in the recentering of “power,” rather than on change for the protection of children. The “support of priests of integrity” places the emphasis on something we can all agree on (who would oppose supporting priests of integrity) while carefully omitting the criteria by which priests’ integrity is to be measured. Adolescent cliques have a tendency to redefine their criteria from time to time, in the interest of keeping the Alpha members in charge (“Kill the pig! Drink his blood!”) and VOTF has certainly done that, by floating and then disavowing notions of things an integrated priest would be in favor of, such as married clergy and women’s ordination.

I don’t mean to single out VOTF, as though it were the only problem in the Church. VOTF is a symptom, not a cause.

But the adolescent mentality which it typifies helps point the way out of the problem. In an article on Confession that Kathy the Carmelite sent me (the link was broken, so I can’t link to it; maybe she will in the comments section) a Jesuit quoted in it talks about “meeting people where they are.” Now, aside from the hackneyed buzzword nature of that idea, it is problematical on its merits. As a tautology, it is unhelpful: where else would one expect to meet them? As a philosophy, it is limiting. Shall we stand here all day, Vladi? As theology, it is false: Christ did not come to hang out with us, but to lead us home. If we “meet people where they are” and never offer to show them the way, the truth and the life, in what sense can we be calling ourselves disciples?

Adolescents improve in two ways: by growing, and by growing up. The first happens however much or little we desire. The second only happens with the assistance of outside agents. Parents, friends, teachers, clergy, coaches, employers, even enemies, all cause us to grow up. Truth which seemed false at 14 often looks different at 21 (for instance, on June 16 1991, I suddenly found underage drinkers in bars to be an irritating bore) and still different again at 28. A parent of a doubting teen will not necessarily overcome with a full frontal assault of loud and repeated assertions of Truth. Instead, the patient, quiet living of it, and the refusal ever to deny it, while encouraging the maturing process that will eventually allow the child to acknowledge it on his own is often the better strategy.

How this plays out vis-à-vis the Church in America I am not sure. It is far easier to prove something true or false than to fashion a mind willing to admit inconvenient truths or falsehoods. And there is little use presenting Truth to a mind as yet unable to comprehend it. But the paradox of the adolescent is that more than anything else he wants to been seen as and treated as an adult. Somewhere in that contradiction lies the ability of the external agent to encourage maturing.


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