As we grow older, we spend more time roaming the corridors of memory,
for we grow less interested in acquiring new experiences and more
intent upon assigning meaning and imparting order to the life we have
lived. As I have been bumping about among my own recollections, the
consciousness of how vastly different my early experience of the Church
is from that of my children has possessed my thoughts of late. We older
Catholics raised in happier times of family piety often forget that
generations have now grown up in a cultural landscape we could not have
imagined in our youth. How solid, how immense, how immaculate seemed
that noble edifice of Catholicism in the 1950s. And how appealing it
was to ponder the possibility of one's having a vocation. To enter that
great City of God as one of His chosen ones was a thought that used to
thrill and, in some measure, frighten us. The fright came from the
terrible responsibility that such election brought with it; the thrill
from the prospect of the spiritual romance. I never considered that I
had a vocation to the secular priesthood, but I cherished the notion
that I might be summoned to join one of the religious orders. It was
these men in their ancient habits that we looked upon as spiritual
heroes, God's athletes, knights pursuing the holy grail of perfection.
The corner of my boyhood room used to be stacked with pamphlets and
letters describing the various religious orders. I used to clip the
recruiting advertisements from the Sunday Visitor and mail them in; I
passed many an evening poring over this literature, trying to discern
whether I had a particular calling. I finally settled on the Carmelites
and was accepted to a minor seminary; then relented, deciding to test
my vocation by attending the local high school for a few years to see
if my desire for the religious life endured. If it did, the religious
orders did not, for those were the years of the Second Vatican Council
and its aftermath. I entered high school in 1963; by the time of my
graduation, in 1967, the Church had changed radically; the Latin Mass
was no more; there had been numerous defections among the ranks of our
priest-teachers; the religious orders were hemorrhaging.
But through it all I never lost my admiration for the ideal of the
religious life, This has always been for me the highest form of
romance, and by romance I mean a life lived in ardent pursuit of a
noble goal; a life of moral and mystical adventure, of determination
and self-sacrifice, endurance and bravery, a life dedicated to
realizing and requiting the purest and most exquisite love of God.
As I have been pondering, in some perplexity, how to imbue my children
with this sense of life as spiritual romance in our present
circumstance, it occurred to me that the antithesis of the religious
ideal of a fully integrated life is the modern tendency toward
sentimentality, that is, a tendency to live amid a jumble of
superficial and disconnected feelings rather than strive for a unified
vision to which all feelings must be subordinated. This sentimentality,
endemic to the media, has infected every part of our body politic. Most
of us no longer think in logical sequences, we feel in disjointed
episodes. And I am afraid the institutional Catholic Church has not
been immune to this anti-intellectual virus, which makes our emotions
the measure of all things, and thus lifts doctrine off its base of
objective truth and drops it into the rnorass of subjective feeling. It
seemed to me that the religious orders, with their comprehensive view
of life and the ordering of all things to a supreme purpose, offer the
perfect antidote to modern sentimentality. But, with the exception of a
handful of "irregular" houses loyal to tradition, the religious orders
have largely ceased to exist. I know that the major orders are still
operating in some capacity, but their rules have changed, their numbers
have shrunk, corruption is rampant and their condition can only be
described as moribund. Barring a miracle, they will not long endure.
So I concluded that to present the ideal of the religious orders to my
children in its erstwhile and pristine form could amount to little more
than nostalgia. And there is no point in exciting a desire that cannot
be fulfilled. If the professional baseball leagues ceased to exist,
there would be no sense in trying to inspire a young boy to aim at a
major league career. So too, if a young man or woman wanted to be a
Dominican or Carmelite in the classic manner, he or she might not find
a place to exercise that vocation, for the religious houses that bear
those venerable names no longer abide by those venerable Rules.
As I pondered the loss of the religious orders, I came to recognize
that their demise constitutes an enormous part of the general
dissolution of the institutional Church, which in its turn has led to
the moral dissolution of Western culture. For the Church has always
served as the moral compass of the Western World, and it has, until
recently, always pointed due north, that is upward, in a vertical line
that intersects time and joins it to eternity. The religious orders
provided much of that vertical magnetism. The compass needle appears to
have lost its magnetism and wobbles haphazardly; consequently, we have
lost our way, both as a Church and as a civilization.
These are rather grand and sweeping statements, but they are also
obvious truths to anyone still possessed of the sense of the Catholic
faith, and they present an obvious problem. How might those of us who
would live a Catholic life and, in some way, rescue that romance of the
soul from modern sentimentality, achieve our purpose?
We must first admit that we are living the faith in exile. I will make
what I hope is a warranted assumption that all of my readers have a
clear idea of what the faith comprises, but the meaning of the term
"exile" in our context might require definition.
Exile as a punishment for crimes against the state no longer finds a
place in our penal codes. In the ancient world, when men esteemed their
household gods, exile was a terrible punishment, reserved for the most
serious offenses against the homeland. The ancients conceived of no
greater suffering than for a man to be cut off from the consolations of
the family hearth and the company of friends. Even death was in some
way a lesser penalty, for in ceasing to be, there is at least an end to
earthly suffering, but in exile, only an indefinite endurance.
As Americans, we generally have no great attachment to place. We are,
the tumbleweeds of the cosmos; the flotsam and jetsam of the world
washed onto these shores where we forever wander about looking for more
ways to make money. Our place of birth is an inconsequential accident.
This makes it somewhat difficult for us to appreciate the anguish of
exile, and when we read the Divine Comedy, it is only with a
considerable effort of imagination that we can empathize with Dante's
abiding sorrow arid bitterness over being exiled from Florence. Were I
to be exiled from my native town, Philadelphia, I can't say that I
would be much disturbed, for I never loved Philadelphia. I recall once
talking to a Frenchman who told me that the trouble with Americans is
that we move around too much; we have no sense of belonging to a
particular patch of ground. If we would only stay still, he said, we
might pull our lives together and make sense of them. I suppose he had
gotten hold of some piece of the truth about us, but there is little I
can do to remedy my rootlessness. Like that of my countrymen, my
patriotism, such as it is, is rooted in ideas rather than in the soil.
So for be to be exiled from my country comes down to my country's
adopting ideas and practices to which I cannot subscribe. My exile can
only be conceived as cultural, not geographical.
My greater patria is the Church. I have from earliest memory loved
every part of Her: from what Cardinal Newman called "the smells and
bells" to Her most sublime teachings. The Church is my home, even more
than my country. But I, and those who share my feeling, have been
dispossessed of that home. We are exiles in a double sense, secular and
ecclesiastic: neither our country, nor the institutional Catholic
Church any longer offer us a homeland.
The truth of our secular exile is plain to be seen. We have recently
added to our national infamy of being a land of legalized abortion by
including in the category of protected rights the practice of
homosexual sodomy. We are now the land of the free and the gay.
Homosexual marriage is the logical terminus of the direction the
Supreme Court has taken. The response of our conservative, born-again
president was the rather bland and guarded statement that the court had
opted to respect diversity. It should be obvious to any thinking
Catholic that we have no representation in government, nor in the
media. We are political pariahs, ideological untouchables, cultural
Concerning our position within the Church -- and when I say our
position, I mean that of traditional Catholics -- we also find
ourselves strangers in a strange land. I will go into this in more
detail later, but my assertion is already proved by the fact that I
have had to use the term "traditional Catholics" to distinguish those
who believe what the Church has always taught from those who do not.
The term Catholic can no longer be understood unequivocally, for we
have two religions -- the traditional and the modernist -- both using
the term. For those who still need to be convinced of this, there is
ample statistical and documentary evidence available, but we all know
that we cannot presently have any certainty about what a person
believes when he says that he is a Catholic.
These are dark words, but I do not intend to revel in gloom. There are
some wounded souls who, feeling betrayed by both Church and country,
indulge in apocalyptic rhetoric. They will talk about an inevitable
economic collapse, ensuing social chaos, war, famine, the great
chastisement, and so on. I once attended a Traditional Mass Chapel
where one poor fellow who found great pleasure in contemplating
disasters would always sidle up to me in the hall after Mass and in a
soft, foreboding tone say, "You got your blessed candles ready? It's
coming." -- meaning the three days of darkness when the sun and the
moon will go black and only blessed candles will light. I do not wish
to deprive such people of the consolations they find in thinking of the
end times, but it does little to help those of us trying to raise
Catholic families. And if one is looking for the great chastisement, I
say, 'Open your eyes.'
My principal concern is a practical one: What do we do to preserve the
faith in our current state of secular and ecclesiastical exile?
To attempt an answer to this formidable question requires that I
introduce that overworked and ill-defined term -- culture. Please don't
be alarmed. The tendency when one hears this term is for the eyes to
glaze over, for what follows its introduction generally has no relation
to anything sensible. But I am not going to extol the glories of
antiquity, or lampoon the pretensions of contemporary art, for none of
that is really culture. I accept that culture comes from cult, that is,
worship. It is the incarnation of religion; culture emanates from a
consensus about the very purpose of life to which all things must be
ordered. It is the common possession of a people that draws all of
their activities together and gives their society coherence and
identity. In short, culture is the air we breathe.
The culture of the United States has from its inception been
Protestant. The presumed right of private judgment and not the revealed
Truth of God as taught by the Catholic Church has been the formative
principle of our society, the backdrop to our lives. But Protestantism
only derives whatever good it possesses from the measure of Catholic
truth it retains. There was a time, in the 18th and 19th and even into
the early part of the 20th Century, when the inertial force of Catholic
civilization still moved the nation. There persisted a moral consensus
that in most areas of conduct approximated the teaching of the Church.
Pornography was outlawed, as was homosexuality and abortion; divorce,
though permitted, was frowned upon, and fornication. was considered
shameful. Decent language was enforced in film and television and in
print by law and custom and social pressure. The Catholic hierarchy was
once a cultural force to be reckoned with politically.
All this has changed.
Much of what was once outlawed now has the protection of law. A moral
inversion has taken place and disapproval of sexual aberrations is
denounced as hate-speech. Soon, I expect, the public expression of
perennial Church teaching will become criminalized. The Catholic
hierarchy now inspires contempt and distrust and has become the butt of
late-night talk show jokes. When people see a Roman collar and pectoral
cross now, they think of teenage boys abused by homosexual priests with
the knowing wink of their bishop, who's just run over someone with his
luxury car and is speeding back to his palace while his victim bleeds
to death in the street. This is simply where we are and we must begin
by recognizing it.
What I have been describing is the condition of society at large, what
is called our general culture, and its relation to our faith. We still
have good Catholic families and good Catholic individuals. But it must
be admitted that the faith as a constituent of our general culture has
diminished to the vanishing point. And this diminution of Catholic
influence seriously impairs the ability of those groups and individuals
who are trying to maintain the faith in an increasingly inhospitable
Compounding the difficulty is the fact that our nation does not now
possess one distinctive culture that we can define as our opposition.
Shifts in immigrant populations from Christian to non-Christian lands
has also served to energize an already present animus against
expressions of Catholic truth in the public sector. Society seeks to
locate and promote areas of what might be called neutral culture, that
is, activities in which religion appears irrelevant and all that is
required is a general good will and civility.
It has been noted that after the Diaspora, when the Jews found
themselves in Gentile lands, they instinctively sought to interact with
their neighbors in such areas of neutral culture and, naturally, worked
to expand these areas. Catholics and other believers have done
something similar in America. This is why the United States is always
breaking out in a rash of fraternal organizations that act as loci of
neutral culture. The criteria for membership and the avowed purpose of
such organizations are kept sufficiently broad and ingenuous as to
encompass almost anyone. Nobody at the Moose Lodge cares if you are a
Catholic or a Jew, so long as you are a good moose, which isn't
The September 11 attacks provided a perfect opportunity for the
expression of neutral culture, an apotheosis of modern sentimentality
in an outpouring of donations and a frenzy of flag-waving. But the main
engine driving us toward a neutral culture is not the odd national
crisis but the general mania for sports and all manner of entertainment
that eliminates religion as an integral part of life. Few characters in
television or film or on the playing fields are depicted as having any
particular faith. Should religion make a rare appearance in a sitcom or
on the silver screen it is invariably vague and cloyingly saccharine;
for the most part, it's entirely absent. One sees little of it on ESPN.
So as we partake of the standard entertainments and pastimes of our
age, we become accustomed to living in a spiritually sterile world.
As neutral cultures expand, religion contracts.
Faith becomes incidental to life. To insist that religion defines life
is to be boorish. It's simply bad manners. The result is that we have a
new class of Catholics: closet Catholics. And, as homosexuals once
lived in fear of being outed, so do some of our closet Catholics,
including bishops. They dread confrontation with a general culture
hostile to their nominal beliefs, so they keep quiet, and since silence
is consent, they lend mute support to the enemies of the Church. So our
faith no longer has a place in our general culture, and to fly one's
Catholic flag too boldly is considered to be in bad taste. It can
invite ridicule, even hatred.
So much for our secular exile.
The larger question of our exile from the institutional Church must now
In some essays collected under the title, "Christianity and Culture,"
the late T.S. Eliot defines what he calls cultural disintegration. He
prefaces his definition with the observation that general culture
arises from the interaction of various groups and individuals who form
separate strata within a society but are joined by a shared vision of
the purpose of human life. Each strata contributes to the general
culture through its specific area of competence. Thus, artists,
statesmen, churchmen, merchants and tradespeople are all pieces in an
integrated mosaic that presents a coherent picture. Cultural
disintegration occurs when two or more of these strata so separate as
to form distinct cultures. Decomposition ensues. The picture dissolves.
That cultural disintegration present within the Catholic Church is
A recent incident at Georgetown University offers a perfect
illustration. Francis Cardinal Arinze, a curial Cardinal who spends
most of his time in Rome, was invited as principal speaker to
Georgetown's graduation. Cardinal Arinze, for a long time, headed Pope
John Paul II's Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Now he's in charge
of the liturgy and has announced that there will be no freeing of the
Tridentine Mass as had been rumored. He can hardly be considered a
defender of orthodoxy when for decades his principal job was to assure
apostates and pagans that Rome rejoiced that they should enrich the
world with their persistent errors. When the Hindus celebrated a feast
day for one of their pagan gods, Arinze would send them a
congratulatory message saying how pleased the Vatican was that they
should be doing whatever it was that constituted their idolatrous
ritual. He was, in effect, the Church's Mr. Congeniality, showering
benevolent smiles on any and every sect that rejected Our Lord and the
claims of His Holy Church.
Why Georgetown, an erstwhile Jesuit institution, settled upon Arinze as
a commencement speaker, I cannot say. Perhaps because of his status as
a preeminent ecumenist or as a potential candidate for the papacy. The
Cardinal, I suspect, misread the invitation and thought he was at a
Catholic university, so he decided it would be appropriate to say
something genuinely Catholic. Putting to one side his syncretist
persona, His Eminence delivered some fine remarks about the importance
of strengthening the family and the need to combat those forces that
undermine its strength. He abandoned the ambiguity characteristic of
Romanita and even listed these forces: divorce, abortion,
contraception, homosexuality, fornication.
I rather expect he was surprised by the reaction of his audience.
Some students and faculty walked out in protest during his speech,
including a prominent member of the theology department; one priest
later told a reporter he had sent an apology for the Cardinal's
offensive remarks to everyone on his e-mail list, explaining that
Arinze's views in no way corresponded to his own. About 70 faculty
members signed a protest, denouncing the Cardinal's bigoted tirade. The
secular press chronicled the debacle. When the Cardinal was again
safely ensconced on Vatican Hill, he said he might have spoken
differently had he been able to foresee the reaction.
The incident, of little practical consequence in itself, demonstrates
that those strata that constitute Catholic culture have so separated as
to form distinct cultures. For there are obviously among Georgetown's
faculty -- some with licentiates in theology -- those who find the
Church's moral teaching so offensive that they cannot bear to listen to
it. They have taught generations of students Lord knows what. Certainly
not the Catholic faith, the expression of whose tenets they deem a
brutish act that demands an apology. Such people comprise the elite
educators within American Catholic society. They are the sort who write
for America, the prestigious Jesuit. journal, and other equally dreary
venues of heterodoxy. Yet, these people call themselves Catholic, and
Georgetown is still regarded as a Catholic University. But neither the
culture of the university nor that of its faculty are informed by the
faith as it had been taught and practiced before the Second Vatican
Council, that is, through virtually the entire 2,000 year history of
What does this mean?
It means that cultural disintegration is so advanced within the Church
that when someone tells you he is Catholic the statement contains no
more certainty about his creed than if he had told you he is a
A further example. The American Catholic bishops created a small stir
in some circles last fall with a document by one of their committees
that stated plainly that the Jews need not convert to the Catholic
faith; that they have their own covenant with God, a kind of side deal
in which they were grandfathered in before the Incarnation., Cardinal
Kasper, now the Pope's point man on relations with the Jews, was
dispatched from Rome to deal with the mild controversy that arose. He
confirmed the teaching contained in the bishops' document. Yes, His
Eminence said in a speech at Boston University, the Jews have no need
of Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church in order to be saved.
This is a radical novelty contradicted by Scripture and Tradition, a
heresy at the very least. In my opinion, it amounts to a denial of the
central teaching of the Catholic Church and rises toward apostasy. But
even if it is not apostasy, it would still illustrate the presence of
cultural disintegration, for if I am Catholic and believe, as the
Church has always taught, that all men must enter Her to be saved, then
in what sense can Cardinal Kasper and I both be considered Catholic?
Obviously, one of us is not Catholic.
Now, I have no interest in poor Walter Kasper as anything more than an
illustration of how far this cultural disintegration within the Church
has progressed, but I cannot pass over Kasper's. objective denial of
Catholic dogma without noting that he is the Pope's point man on
interfaith relations, elevated to the cardinalate by John Paul II and
given the job of representing the Holy See in this matter. The Pope did
not just pull his name out of a hat. I know there are sentimental
Catholics who would like to cling to the belief that Kasper and his
like-minded bishops represent renegade elements in the hierarchy
opposed to the Pope. All the evidence is to the contrary. John Paul II
never rebuked Kasper for his remarks; never contradicted him or
reasserted the true Catholic doctrine. Kasper remains in favor in the
Vatican and still heads the Pope's commission on relations with the
Jews, which falls under Kasper's purview as secretary of the Pope's
Commission for Promoting Christian Unity. We know from the entire
direction of his pontificate that this office is of the highest
importance to the Pope, as he has made ecumenism the driving force of
his papacy. Kasper is the Pope's chosen policy instrument.
What must we conclude?
Returning for a moment to T.S. Eliot, he also observes that a religion
can be so weakened as no longer possess the ability to assimilate
different cultures but rather to become assimilated by them. We have
arrived at a point at which the institutional Church, with the loss of
its universal language and liturgy and doctrine, no longer has the
strength to assimilate the cultures with which She comes into contact.
Kasper's remarks are in perfect accord with agnostic humanism's
principal tenet of tolerance. This is now the dominant force in Western
culture, the touchstone of modern sentimentality. Kasper's remarks are
diametrically opposed to the perennial teaching of the Church and to
Her Divinely assigned mission of evangelization. But to whom can we
appeal to correct Kasper's aberrations? To Rome?
He is Rome. To the Pope? He's the Pope's man. This lack of recourse
demonstrates that the institutional Church has been assimilated by the
Now, for the harder question: What do we do about it?
Catholic parents who would live the faith and hand it down intact are
in a near impossible situation. All of the duties once entrusted to the
religious orders who used to instruct our children and offer them the
example of holiness now fall upon us. Our general culture and that of
the institutional Church undermine us at every turn. The corrosive
effect of unfaith is eating away at us from every direction. What can
Is there a realistic possibility of reviving traditional Catholicism
within the present Church? I think this is about as likely as
reinstating the rule of British monarchy in America. And as any efforts
in this direction appear to be for a lost cause, they tend to evoke
ridicule. And so long as we try to remain Catholic within a structure
that will not support the traditional faith, all we can hope for is to
be regarded as an unwelcome and somewhat ludicrous element; at best, we
will be tolerated as harmless eccentrics indulging in a bit of
antiquarianism. I will say unequivocally that today's typical Catholic
parish with its Protestantized liturgy and sentimentalized doctrine
will not support traditional Catholicism; it will dissolve it. So, we
must ask ourselves: Is there any precedent that might help us to know
how to proceed in such circumstances? Has there ever been a time when
society was crumbling and the Church in disarray and those who would
keep the faith found themselves in a like condition of secular and
Historical parallels are always imperfect, as every age is unique, but
I believe we can look to the early 6th Century as the epoch closest to
our own in the problems it posed for, those determined to live a
Some brief history. About 1,500 years ago, Theodoric marched into Rome
as the ruler of all Italy. He was a Goth who could neither read nor
write, a barbarian and, inasmuch as he was Christian, an Arian heretic,
as were all the Gothic overlords who were not still pagan. What
remained of the Roman Army, a ragtag municipal guard, suffered the
humiliation of having to assemble to greet him, as did the Roman
Senate, an ineffectual body with no real power. The brutes were in
charge, men who despised the high culture of antiquity, not that much
of it remained. The Roman aristocracy had grown decadent and cared for
little more than its creature comforts and security.
The Church, having emerged from persecution two centuries earlier, had
paid for its official acceptance by sinking ever deeper into mediocrity
and corruption. The hierarchy was no longer the province of Martyrs,
but the preserve of those who sought power. Rival claims to the papacy
and factional wars turned an already tepid faithful into cynics and
scoffers. Many of the clergy led dissolute lives and the general level
of morality had sunk so low that a popular movement grew to restore the
pagan festival of Luper calia, an obscene public orgy of fertility
rites that culminated in naked men chasing women through the streets.
This was the state of the city in which lay the bones of Peter and
Into this city entered a young man from a provincial town whose father
had sent him to Rome to study. He was of noble family, and he saw
firsthand the decadence of the aristocracy as well as that of the mob.
But he was a devout young man and one night, pondering his future, he
walked through the streets of Rome; through crumbling corridors where
the statues and monuments former glory were defaced and vandalized; he
passed through crowds of drunkards and gamblers and prostitutes; past
street corners where the talk was all of the games and the pornographic
shows; he walked on lamenting the loss of nobility in public life; of
holiness in the Church; he walked until he came to a hill -- the eighth
hill of Rome -- called the Hill of Shards, for it was there that all
broken pottery was thrown, along with other assorted refuse. And there,
on the Hill of Shards, amid the ruins of his world, this young man
threw himself onto the wreckage and cried to God to show him a way to
live his faith in a faithless world.
The young man's name was Benedictus of Nursia. We know him as St.
Young Benedict knew that Roman civilization was finished and the
institutional Church corrupt. So he turned his back on the city and
went into the wilderness, there to serve God as a holy hermit. But
Providence had a grand plan called Christendom and Benedict was to be
its chief architect. To counter the great cultural disintegration of
Church and State, Benedict eventually created a world within a world; a
group culture within the general culture: the Benedictine monastery.
This is not the time to expatiate on the monumental nature of the
Benedictine contribution to Western Civilization. Many abler minds have
done so. My interest is in the strategy of St. Benedict as a possible
help to us in our present circumstance, for we stand on our own Hill of
Shards. The inertial force of Christendom has run out. Our world -- the
Catholic world -- is finished. Western culture is finished. The
barbarians are in charge -- everywhere. A new dark age is in the
making; a world not only contemptuous of the Catholic faith, not only
indifferent to the Catholic faith, but almost wholly ignorant of the
We know, of course, that the Church, in some manner, will persist until
the end of time; but we also know that Our Lord asked the haunting
question, "When I come again, will I find any faith in the world?" So
the size of the Church, Her structure, the extent to which She will
remain a notable presence in the world are made open questions by the
very words of Her Founder.
What the Rule of St. Benedict accomplished was to create a community in
which men could pursue spiritual perfection as their sole aim while
fulfilling all of the duties incumbent upon them as creatures of flesh
as well as spirit. That men of so other-worldly an orientation turned a
barbarous continent into a Christian land represents one of those
paradoxes that the ungodly always fail to understand, for it rests on
the Divine counsel, "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all else will
be added unto you."
Anyone who reads the Rule is struck first of all by the personality of
St. Benedict: his gentleness, his fraternal charity, his prudence, his
profound love of God. How attractive a man he must have been. Next, one
notices the insistence on regularity and attention to detail as
indispensable elements to a holy community life and individual
Now, I am not suggesting that a Benedictine revival is the way to
address our problems (though it certainly wouldn't hurt). The Rule was
God's way of guiding His children through a crisis of civilization in
the 6th Century. What Our Lord has in mind for us, only time will tell.
The operations of grace are often undreamt of. But inasmuch as we can
apply our natural reason to our problem, I think we should; and reason
tells us that we are in a situation very similar to that of St.
Benedict, with the addition that the Church is in a far worse
condition. And reason tells us that we must find some means of doing
what the Benedictines did; that is, we must remove ourselves culturally
from the terrible disintegration that is having so corrosive an effect
on us and our families and reconstitute Catholic culture in a way that
allows it to be insulated from the world, yet remain in contact with
the world. Something of the sort has already been under way, something
of which we ought to take note. Those families wishing to live a
Catholic life have been steadily separating themselves from the
currents of popular culture and the influence of the institutional
Church over the past three decades or so. There are isolated cells of
genuine Catholicism here and there which maintain, or strive to
maintain, a life ruled by the faith.
These Catholic cells, if I might call them such, are having a difficult
time. I know. I head one of them. To my knowledge, my family is the
only traditional Catholic family in my town; I believe in the entire
county, and perhaps several counties. Once a week, we drive about 45
miles to a chapel to hear the Tridentine Mass. Sometimes, we stop for a
cup of coffee in the hall after Mass and share a few hurried words with
families in similar circumstances who have traveled some greater, some
lesser distances than we have. Then, we all head home, back into enemy
territory, so to speak, hoping the spiritual pit stop will keep us
going for another week.
I have been thinking for some time that we have to do better than this.
The darkness is growing at an alarming rate, pressing in, trying to
swallow us and our children.
We in the Catholic cells need some fortification, something like a
Benedictine Rule for the family. I don't propose myself as one either
possessed of the competence or having received the call to compose and
present such a rule; but I will venture a few practical suggestions.
First, we must be mindful of that most mysterious thing -- human
personality. Every family, like every individual, has its personality,
its particular group culture -- if you will. During the course of Her
long history, the Church has given birth to a great variety of
religious orders, each one with its distinct personality. Those
qualities that make one a good Dominican preacher might be ill-suited
to a Carmelite contemplative. The temperament of the Franciscan is not
that of the Jesuit. Likewise the spiritual atmosphere of each household
points in a decided direction. Some families are quiet and reclusive;
others outgoing and sociable. The sort of spirituality that the head of
the household should nurture must accord with the family temperament.
We Catholics have the advantage of having a rich, heritage from which
we can draw spiritual tools that can be adapted to our present
circumstances. Many modes of spirituality have been explored and
charted by the inspired genius of the sainted founders of religious
orders. I think we have the option, one might say the obligation, of
building on those foundations that have been laid for us. The religious
orders are dying because they have abandoned their rules, but the
spirit of the orders, in general and in particular, ought to be
preserved, and I can see no other way to accomplish this now than
through these Catholic cells that the exigencies of our age have
Now, this notion of Catholic families as spiritual cells imbued with
the ideals of particular religious orders might be a charming idea, but
how might it be implemented? There are obvious differences between
families and religious orders and whatever there is in a Rule that has
no application in family life must be discarded -- such as St.
Benedict's elaborate instructions on how the hours must be chanted.
Whatever the rule contains that appears well suited to our
circumstance, we ought to try to incorporate into our family life.
For instance, St. Benedict details the duties of the abbot and the
qualities he should manifest. There is little in this chapter that
cannot be applied to the father of a household. In fact, St. Benedict
reminds the abbot that he ought to regard himself as a father and his
monks as his children.
The Rule's longest chapter is on humility, and its counsels can be
adapted to every circumstance of life. St. Benedict details twelve
steps through which one arrives at perfect humility, which is the
foundation of all virtue.
Another chapter lists 72 "instruments of good works," each consisting
of a phrase or short sentence that prescribes or proscribes some action
or attitude. The chapter can be read in about five to ten minutes and a
daily reading, perhaps with pauses for reflection, cannot fail to have
a transforming effect in time.
The whole of the Rule is imbued with the spirit of what might be called
radical conversion, a complete turning of the soul to God and away from
the world. This sort of conversion is at the heart of the rule of every
religious order; it is also at the heart of every genuinely Catholic
life, whether one is a monk or member or a household. None of us is
excused from the counsels of perfection.
Every household, like every religious order, must be primarily a place
of prayer if it is to be genuinely Catholic. And this prayer must be
regular. The genius of St. Benedict's Rule and its amazing success have
largely to do with the element of regularity he introduced into
monastic life. Before Benedict, monasticism was either the pursuit of
solitary hermits, often given to grotesque excesses of asceticism, or
of communities with practices too severe to be borne for long by
ordinary men. St. Benedict devised a way of life by which any man of
good intention whom God had called might exercise his vocation in a
sane, safe and effective manner. Regularity was the key. And so must it
be for us. A reasonable schedule of some sort must be made and adhered
to, especially by the head of the household who stands in the position
of abbot and must lead more by example than by word, as St. Benedict
But regular times set aside for prayer and study must be supplemented
by periods of silence for meditation, for prayer without meditation can
degenerate into unthinking routine, and study without meditation can
turn into vain knowledge. There are many books one can read about
meditation, but there is a short, practical guide called the Catechism
of Mental Prayer that is well suited for beginners. There is also St.
Teresa of Avila's meditation on the Our Father, called The Way of
Perfection. An excellent introduction to a practice essential to growth
in the spiritual life.
In all attempts to live some sort of regimen, however, rigor must
always yield to common sense. In the Rule of St. Albert, which guides
the Carmelites, the ancient patriarch concludes his counsels with the
admonition that the bounds of common sense must never be exceeded as
common sense is the "guide of the virtues."
I said earlier that I do not want to revel in gloom, but I do think it
necessary that we periodically remind ourselves of the gravity of our
situation: we live in a time when the institutional Church is in a
state of advanced decomposition and many of Her prelates and priests
can no longer be trusted to be Catholic. We must periodically look at
this disaster that has stricken the Church lest we fall into
complacency, or worse, complicity, for our desire is always to seek our
own comfort, to find some pretext for taking the path of least
resistance, to play it safe. But to seek our own ease in the current
crisis is to invite the punishment of spiritual blindness, which is now
endemic to the hierarchy.
As we cling to the faith, we will be attacked, and the attack will come
heaviest from those quarters where we should ordinarily find support.
This will be painful and confusing, and I think we are much in the
position of those lovers of Our Lord who found themselves standing on
Calvary when His Precious Body was taken from the Cross and laid in His
Mother's arms. Who standing there, looking at that mangled corpse, its
former beauty now unrecognizable, gazing on the torn flesh, streaked
with blood and dirt and sweat and spittle, could recognize their Lord?
The heartbreak, the fear, the crushing sadness, the temptation to
despair must have come near to overwhelming the holy women and St.
John, had it not been for the grace of faith. And that grace doubtless
shone brightest at that darkest hour in the Immaculate Heart of His
Mother. She knew that the lifeless and dishonored Body She held
belonged not only to Her Son, but to the Son of God. And She knew that
He would rise again. So, mixed with Her unimaginable sorrow, was the
surest faith that the world had not won, that Her Son would triumph and
live again and live forever. So we, when we look at the mangled remains
of what appears to be our Holy Church, we must seek in our faith the
assurance that all is not lost; that Our Lord is with us, so long as we
are with Him. And the Church, disfigured and dishonored, will somehow
show Her true countenance again to those of Her children who have
always kept it in their hearts and in their homes.
Catholic Family News)