[Also by J.P. Zmirak: Christmas Meditation 2002: Christ, The "Other," And Counterfeit Citizens; Good Fences And Free Markets]
A friend and I were working on a screenplay about the Middle East, in which the hero is an Irish-American, and the heroine an Israeli. By way of "character work," we got to discussing the cultural attitudes dividing Irish from Jewish Americans.
We drew mostly on our respective backgrounds—mine, working-class Catholic from New York, and hers non-observant, liberal Jewish from Miami. (Obviously, we spoke in stereotypes, to which there are many exceptions—insert your own "Each human being is a unique and wondrous yadda-yadda-yadda" public service announcement here.) The best insight we came up with was the following: Irish feel guilty about sex, while Jews feel guilty about race.
Two basic forces driving fallen human history: sheer lust, and rank inequality. Feel compelled to suppress one, and (unless you're a saint) you'll probably give yourself a pass on the other.
As we hashed out this out while walking down Second Avenue, events bore them out right before us.
I was trying to explain the Vatican's teaching on birth control to Pamela—"What difference does it make, a lousy condom?" she demanded—when we walked past an able-bodied, clearly homeless African-American.
"'Scuse me, can I ask you a question?" he inquired.
I gave him a wide berth. But Pamela stopped, instinctively.
"Excuse me?" she said.
"Give me a dollar."
"I'm sorry—I'm unemployed."
"Go f—- yourself, bitch," he concluded.
Pamela rolled her eyes and caught up with me.
"I can't believe you stopped for that guy."
"I thought he was asking for directions. So what's the deal with condoms …?"
We each had proved our point.
Historically, such differing attitudes have helped shape American culture. They gave us lots of Irish cops, and lots of Jewish shrinks. (Not too many Irish shrinks; Freud famously said that the Irish were the one race "for whom psychoanalysis seems to be useless. It simply has no effect on them.")
Jews formed the ACLU; Irish the Legion of Decency. Jews went on Freedom Rides; Irish held Draft Riots. Think of Father Coughlin. And Woody Allen.
Irish immigrants built the infrastructure and guided the development of the Roman Catholic Church in America for over 100 years, manning and nunning the parishes and schools. As a result, the attitudes of other Catholics in America were Hibernicized (Hiberneated?). Even the Italians in America are effectively half-Irish. (Myself, I'm only half-descended from the Emerald Isle; but my Croat father somehow came to look Irish himself—he's the spitting image of Carroll O'Connor—and still prays aloud with a brogue he picked up from the Irish Christian Brothers in the 1940s. The ethnicity seems to be contagious.)
But an article last year in USA Today, ("Young Catholics redefine faith," by Cathy Lynn Grossman, July 21, 2002) commended to my attention by David Horowitz, suggested an unnerving trend: The brogue may be wearing off.
Ms. Grossman reported that increasing numbers of young Catholics in America are leaving aside the Church's teachings on moral issues—not with the guilty conscience of their fornicating forebears, but with a shrug and a smile—and becoming warriors on behalf of multiculturalism.
There is no more stigma about "cafeteria Catholicism," Ms. Grossman reported. Young people aren't leaving the Church, walking out in a huff like James Joyce and Frank McCourt, then keening in print for decades about their "repressive" childhoods.
Far from it. Instead, these post-Catholic youth still go to Mass sometimes, even plan to send their kids to Catholic schools. They don't believe in key Catholic doctrines, but they wish to "stay Catholic."
What attracts them? Most of all, the "social justice" teachings put forth by America's bishops: the welfare state, a masochistic foreign policy—and open immigration.
One youthful post-Catholic witnessed his faith as follows:
"On issues such as immigration, concern for the poor, economic justice, racism and relationships with other world religions, the majority of young Catholics can and do line up right behind [Pope John Paul II]… He's a spiritual celebrity, right up there with the Dalai Lama and Bono."
There's filial piety for you!
In fact, of course, the broadly leftist positions identified with "social justice" by the Catholic Left have no basis in Catholic tradition. Most were adopted by America's bishops' committees, I believe, to counterbalance the seemingly "right-wing" stances on life issues which the Vatican pressured them to maintain.
It didn't hurt that the bishops' staffers were largely drawn from Democratic hiring halls—for instance, ex-employees of the Carter Administration, as Dinesh D'Souza documented long ago in Policy Review (Fall 1985).
Historic Catholic social teaching does reject racial prejudice and the "pure" free market. It does endorse some social insurance. It has never been individualist in the American, Protestant sense. But papal teaching on economics utterly rejects socialism. It seeks to wean people from dependence on either big business or big government—and to allow women to stay home to rear children. (Not a word of this from most bishops, of course.)
On mass immigration, American Catholics have an inbuilt conflict of interest—perhaps it's more politic to call it a "tension"—between their sympathies as a subculture of immigrants in a Protestant-founded country and their duties as patriotic citizens. The prudential arguments offered by advocates of a more cautious immigration policy tend to founder against recent memories of relatives arriving in steerage from Italy, Ireland or Bavaria.
Leaving sentiment aside, when it comes to bolstering its numbers and cultural power, the plain fact is that the American Catholic Church is addicted to immigration. As in most developed countries, the Church has simply failed to pass along the Faith to the younger American generations. It struggles desperately to recruit solid, orthodox, heterosexual young men for a lifetime of underpaid, celibate service as priests.
So Catholic bishops have lurched to the Left, and embraced open borders—in part, simply to draw in more young Catholic immigrants from developing countries, Catholics who have not yet had their beliefs eroded by life in post-Christian America.
These impoverished recent arrivals will fill the pews and seminaries for one generation—until they too are seduced by the siren songs of modern life, and allowed to drift away by a weak and divided American Church. Then they, too will be replaced by fresh recruits from Vietnam, the Philippines, Mexico, and Africa…and so on, presumably ad infinitum.
Some of the very best priests and most faithful Catholics I know hail from foreign lands. My favorite parish priest is Nigerian, my second favorite a Filipino. I enjoy attending Mass with Vietnamese, and Mexicans, and people from every one of the nations God was pleased to create. It reaffirms the common humanity of all, and the universality of the Gospel.
But it's troubling to see the American Catholic Church treat the poor of other lands as theological cannon-fodder. And it lets the American hierarchy neglect the real issue: How to create a self-sustaining, enduring American Church?
It's easy to confuse the above-mentioned conflict—between the perceived self-interest of the American Church and that of the American nation—with the classic tension that animates the whole history of the West since Constantine: the pull between earthly and heavenly citizenship, between the City of God and that of Man.
The "spiritually" minded can say that they have chosen the better part, favoring the abstract universalism promoted by bishops over the grim, utilitarian arguments of the "worldly" patriots.
But are you a better Christian for favoring the short-term interests of your own religious community over the well-being of your fellow-citizens? Does the real harm done to low-income Americans by mass immigration justify the temporary uptick in church-goers and seminarians?
And to raise a purely spiritual matter—are poor people drawn into U.S. cities, with all their urban pathologies, awash in American pop culture, more likely to get to heaven than if they'd stayed at home?
Is Los Angeles closer to heaven than Guadalajara?
The American Catholics who've lurched to the Left have, in effect, founded a whole new church. I suggest we call it "Reform Catholicism."
Reform Catholics can't accept it when the Vatican must take firm stands to hold the Church together—to keep it from collapsing into a welter of nattering opinions. Similarly, many Jewish liberals find their consciences troubled by the tough choices Israelis make to keep their state from being engulfed.
Occupy West Bank towns; excommunicate Wiccan nuns—and a chorus of protest will arise from the Reform flank of each group.
Reform Catholics take for granted that the Church will always be "out there," somehow, and give them something from which to dissent. Perhaps something similar obtains in the "Peace Now" faction of Israelis and their American kin. I'm not qualified to say.
But liberal creeds rarely carry on to the third or fourth generation. Intermarriage, apathy, and other evangelical faiths tend to carry them off. No normal person swears onto celibate poverty to tend a watery, Bobo creed.
The liberal clerics who promote post-Catholicism are mostly middle-aged or older, folks who joined up in the 1950s to say the rosary, fight Communism, and obey the pope—then lost their Faith or nerve, but decided to keep their jobs.
These influential "Reform Catholics" have done their best, as the recent best-seller Goodbye, Good Men has imperfectly documented, to keep out anyone who accepts the Church's real teachings—to cling to control of "the Xerox machines and the schools," as feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether once urged.
But they will fail. A new generation of "Likud Catholics"—as I think I'll call myself henceforth—will shove them aside, like New Yorkers making their way down Second Avenue. Just as liberal mainstream Protestantism has been numerically upstaged by the harder-line sects.
Serious Catholics could never mistake the American nation for an earthly incarnation of a universal creed. They already have such a creed. And it doesn't depend on this or any nation.
The Church has ancient teachings about nations, their duties, and their rights. My catechism says that patriotism is a duty, and its opposite is a sin. Augustine demonstrated in The City of God that a Christian ought to be the most loyal of citizens, since he sees that the authority of the state comes from God, and the ruler is His steward.
Most of all, a Christian knows he is his brother's keeper. The nation is the home of his brothers. He knows – or should know - better than to pull it down, to make room for a circus tent full of strangers.
J.P. Zmirak [email him] lives in Astoria. He is the author of Wilhelm Röpke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist.