The stereotype of traditionalist or just orthodox Catholics as “pharisees” and “Pelagians”–that is, obsessed with rules and puffed up with pride over their supposed spiritual superiority to average sinners, whom they despise as reprobates–does not match my experience at all. I’ve known several families of very religious Catholics and never encountered such a thing. What’s more, it ignores what has historically been the most common type of orthodox Catholic. I mean the half-practicing, openly sinning, “give me chastity, but not yet” kind. A religion as big as Catholicism could never have survived so long if it were only made of pharisees and dissidents.
The orthodox bad Catholic came in two types. The first was called in homilies of my youth the “scorched-ass Catholic”. His goal was to have as much sinful fun as possible while still avoiding damnation, either by avoiding mortal sins (while indulging gleefully in venial ones) or by having as much fun as he wants and then going to confession when he turns sixty and is ready to settle down and start praying. The more timid sort will, instead of indulging sins, take advantage of his “wild” years to avoid any arduous demands of virtue or loyalty. He will be able to avoid uncomfortable disagreements in the company of unbelievers, remaining silent before mockery of the faith when he knows he should respond.
The second type of bad orthodox Catholic might be called the “non-religious” or “pathologically humble” Catholic. He has an image of himself as “not the religious type” (perhaps because he finds devotions boring, perhaps because of his generally cynical or rationalist habits of thinking), and the idea of raising his spiritual level strikes him as somehow silly or even presumptuous. Now, I know the correct reply to this sort of attitude–to say that it is not real humility at all, but a lack of faith in God’s redeeming power. My main point, though, is that neither the first nor the second type of orthodox bad Catholic was hostile to the virtues that he personally lacked. Indeed, he would genuinely admire them. Seeing the better sort of orthodox Catholic would give him at least a tiny pang of regret, a wish that he had it in himself to be more like that. When staying with devout Catholics, he will put aside obscene, irreverent, and blasphemous talk, telling himself that he is doing it to respect their feelings but then finding himself surprisingly happy to have his own sensibilities temporarily raised to a higher level. “If only I were really like this.” If he was a fornicator, he would still admire virgins; a chaste woman he would probably feel is too good for him. If he was a drunkard, he would despise this habit when confronted with the loveliness of sobriety and self-control.
How different this is from the non-orthodox Catholic, who not only does not practice the virtues but congratulates himself for his vices, thinking that they make him modern and able to “think for himself”. He rejects the Church’s teachings with contempt and accepts uncritically the atheist utilitarian dogmas of the modern world. Chastity and piety he despises, and anyone who seems to practice these virtues he thinks must be either a “pharisee” or a hypocrite.
How do I know so much about the bad orthodox Catholic? Because I was him, both types depending on my mood. I still am, to a very large degree, and when I hear that people who support the Church are all self-righteous pharisees, I think “No, no. If only you knew! You’re giving me far too much credit.” True, my sins were rather petty, more due to inclination than anything else, but my lack of virtue and sinful attitudes made me no different than the average unbeliever.
Yet the situation of the bad orthodox Catholic is getting harder to maintain. We had always expected that after we were done having our fun, or at least our easy time (assuming an untimely death didn’t intervene–in which case it was to be straight to the eternal barbecue), that the world of religion and virtue would be there waiting for us. However, that world is under concerted attack, and nowadays it is increasingly clear that indulging private sins is throwing in one’s lot with the Enemy. This is particularly true for sexual sins, where the fighting is most intense. The incentive to watch porn, fornicate, and contracept is the same as it always was, but now one can’t help feeling that doing these things is kicking Jesus while He’s down. Does this make sense? Feelings don’t have to make sense, and it’s probably true that sexual sin is as much an offense against Our Lord when Christian culture is strong as when it is weak, but this reality is more visible now. Before it just seemed like the sinner was hurting himself and his partner; now the element of betrayal is so terribly clear. The devil says that these forbidden acts are good, and by doing them don’t I effectively state my agreement, at least in the “voting with one’s feet” kind of way?
When there is a viable community of believing Catholics, the bad Catholics can accept their place at the comfortable bottom. But now orthodox Catholics are getting fewer and fewer, and most of the highly-regarded nominal Catholics have joined with the Enemy. Like the Mexican priest in The Power and the Glory, Catholicism’s worst representative finds that he must shape up, because he’s getting to be Catholicism’s only representative. If you’re the only person in your workplace who believes that contraception is a sin, for example, it’s kind of important that you not be contracepting. It doesn’t matter if you’re a bad ambassador for chastity; you’re all there is.
As the years go by, it becomes less and less possible to be a bad orthodox Catholic and think one can avoid going all the way for either God or the devil. I have certainly had to reform myself in these past years, although I am still far from what anyone would call devout. Although this might sound like a good thing, remember that most Catholics have chosen the way of heresy instead, adjusting their beliefs to match their behavior rather than vice versa. And, darn it, I’m still kind of annoyed with liberalism for ruining my hopes for a sinful youth.
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