Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Joseph Bottum Lectures in Denver

One week ago today, First Things editor Joseph Bottum delivered an energetic follow-up to his essay on Catholics in America, When The Swallows Return to Capistrano. (MP3 available here)

He believes America has always had a public church. When the Old Mainline "public churches" collapsed, Catholics and Evangelicals filled the gap in moral and spiritual influence. Yet with the decline of bishops, and ethnic communities' need for representation, there have been no clear spokesmen for Catholics as a whole. At a peak of Catholic intellectual influence, Catholic institutional influence is staggering from wounds inflicted from without and within.

Further, Catholics are now involved in a generational split. Even younger practicing Catholics are uninvolved in local parish life, often hopping to distant parishes more sympathetic to their personal ideals. Bottum thinks these youngsters' faith is highly intellectual, which I think neglects the more emotionalistic Evangelical influence in certain younger quarters. He noted youthful suspicion and dismissal of the old guard in a summary of his time with a few California college students:

"Sure, they agreed, pretty Masses are better than ugly ones, and they all preferred high-churchy smells and bells to guitar services and liturgical dance: the things their parents’ generation, poor souls, fondly imagined would “engage today’s youth.” But the radical traditionalists seemed cut from the same cloth as the radical revisionists-and the students dismissed all that kind of 1970s stuff as simultaneously boring and infuriating: the self-obsession and self-glorification of the two sides that, between them, had wrecked Catholic culture in this country. We live with a million aborted babies a year, daily scandals of corruption in the Church, millions of uncatechized Catholic children, and this is what those tired old biddies are still squabbling over?"


“You can see it clearly out here in California. That whole generation of Catholics in America, basically everybody formed before 1978, is screwed up. Left, Right, whatever....The best of them were failures, and the worst of them were monsters.”

Bottum sees the Oakes-Pickstick debate over von Balthasar as a reflection of this inter-generational mistrust. This particularly hit home for me, since before I first entered Father Oakes' religious studies classes as a transfer student I was still unsure exactly what kind of Jesuit he would be. I worried when a reputedly substandard, even heretical text showed up on my required books list that he would turn out to be just another outdated dissenter. Fortunately, it was the book list that was out of date.

Yet even such disdain for recent dead and living theological greats might have a potential upside:

"Father Oakes remembers when your choice was heresy or Hans Urs von Balthasar. Hans Urs von Balthasar felt like a lifeline in 1975 to a conservative, serious orthodox theologian. So he can't understand some young woman coming along and saying, 'but he's not orthodox!' We're going to see a lot more of this. You'll see it in Thomism as well. There's going to be a rebirth--if you look at the scholarly journals, the medieval philosophy magaines--you'll look at a rebirth of Suarezianism, for instance, and Banez, the kind of school manual versions of Thomism. Because the victory of the neo-Thomists and existential thomism was so complete, that these young scholars don't even know what the battle was anymore. And they think "Wait a minute! I just picked up from 1732 this great manual in Thomistic philosophy, and nobody's read it--except me!" We'll see a lot more of this, and it's going to be very interesting to watch it develop over the course of the church.

I believe Ben Naasko asked a question relating to the anti-parochial life of practicing Catholics today, though I didn't have the chance to introduce myself to the man.

Another man, Leo B., asked with penetrating concern how the First Things crowd could survive the looming collapse of support for the Iraqi War and the conservative coalition that instigated it. Bottum responded that he will be discussing this question in a forthcoming issue, piggypacking on his advocacy of the "New Fusionism." He will address the hypothetical question: if the Iraq War is going south, how can both moralistic interventionism and pro-life activism survive as political forces?

Michael Novak will respond, reportedly to claim all is well anyway so no worries. Oh, for a paleocon of fire...

I wish I had probed Bottum's views on the rise of anti-clericalism among American Catholics, and how it might compare to European or Latin varieties.

I also think another whole lecture can be delivered on how the disputes in the American "public church" can recapitulate old divisions: high church versus low church Protestantism, or traditions of pietism versus liturgicalism seem fruitful avenues to explore the political ramifications of American religion. Since Catholics have come into their own, intra-Catholic disputes now also manifest themselves in secular political debates(and vice-versa).

All in all this was a very nice lecture reflecting the mental powers at work at First Things. But such powers on display suggested how malign the influence of such persuasive men when they tie their abilities and reputations to defending the wrong cause.

(Any local ROFTERS, please note the discussion group run by Mr. Dennis Floyd. We have a fun time.)


Anonymous said...

Yeah, that was me.

I have been looking forward to your post on the lecture. It is a good synopsis.

I had expected you were there last week, and would have happily introduced myself, but I have no idea what you look like.

I thought Dr. Bottum was a little hard on younger theologians. I don't believe that Catholics over 50--those who still have memories of the Church before the 1970 Missal--really understand just how much of the catholic culture was lost in the 70's. Sure, doctrine was preserved and has always been accessible, but when a younger person, finds something wonderful in the Tradition like a manual from 1732, he is actually being charitible to think that his elders missed it; the alternative is to belive they cast it aside.

"Existentialism," to quote my utterly cynical professor throughly secular CU Philosophy department "is passe."

It is the burden of too much choice itself that has produced the thin catholic culture that Dr. Bottum lamented. The result is that younger catholics, in search for their identity as such, do not hesitate to exclude on the basis of doctrine alone and cannot fathom why the Church tolerates dissent from pro-choice pols.

For doctrine, because it is the one non-negotiable, becomes the source of identity. We can no longer say "Well, maybe he is not the best catholic but at least he eats fish on friday...or was an altar boy...or went to catholic school...or sings in the choir...or whatever. All of those other markers of Catholic life are so optional as to be meaningless. If the 10:30 Choral amss at the Cathedral is no more nor less a full expression of the faith than the Haugen/Hass masses with acuositic guitar on a saturday evning at a chruch-in-the-round in the suburbs, then doctrine really is the only marker of catholicity.

There is a good reason that amid the chaos of modern life and destroyed families that a young person might get very excited about 16th century theology manuals--they offered less choice, and more answers.


Anonymous said...

sorry for all of the typos...oops

Kevin Jones said...

"I don't believe that Catholics over 50--those who still have memories of the Church before the 1970 Missal--really understand just how much of the catholic culture was lost in the 70's."

Yes, that's certainly a problem with a lot of people. I know more than a few Catholic parents who expected their children to absorb Christian teachings and ethics by osmosis. Oops.

I was the redbearded fellow in the row behind you, towards the restrooms.