A Very Long Lent

As Catholics and Americans, it’s clear from recent events that we have just embarked upon a long and dangerous Lent. It’s a secular Lent, with no resurrection promised, with tempting spirits aplenty, and no guarantee we will refuse their bread transformed from stones, their angels to cushion our fall, their kingdoms on offer for kneeling before the world. The hungrier we become, the more reckless we will get, more likely to worship would-be “saviors.”
The liturgical season itself drags on long enough, and if you take it seriously it can seem to last forever. But it has a definite ending, set down in black and white — the black vestments of Good Friday, the white dawn of Easter lilies and candles. As hard as we try to recapture the grief of the apostles and Our Lady on Good Friday, to join ourselves to Jesus as He cries, “My God, my God, why have You abandoned Me?,” there’s always a cushion in the back of our minds: We know the story’s ending. As we watch with Christ an hour this Thursday, or meditate upon His seven last words on Friday, at the very lowest point in this bleakest, hostless liturgy. . . we can’t quite forget that “death is swallowed up in victory.” We have that advantage over the apostles.
Not so in worldly affairs. Societies, even Christian societies, really have collapsed. Catholic missions to pagan empires that came achingly close to mass success — in Japan, in China — have failed thanks to human mistakes, to hubris or corruption, and ended in massacres. More tragic than those who died horribly as martyrs are those who succumbed to fear, who traded (as most of us would) the integrity of faith for a few more years of “quantity time.” Catholic nations have lost the Faith, as the English did, under slow, relentless pressure from their governments. Still others have weathered persecution nobly, then greeted the dawn of freedom with a yawn. The faith that sustained my Irish ancestors through the Famine in time of feast seems childish, a bogeyman of the past that adds local color — like the leprechauns.
As Americans we like to think that we’re exceptional, that our nation is some unique, divine experiment, immune to the laws of history. (We’re not the first nation to think so, and we’re unlikely to be the last.) The events of the past eight years have disproved this charming theory. It turns out we really can’t impose modernity and liberalism on a civilization of a billion through either force or farce; neither the Pentagon nor Hollywood seem likely to turn the Dar al-Islam into one more interchangeable piece of a globalized, peaceful McWorld. Nor can we live in prosperity forever without making anything — trading for cheap imports our cleverness at finagling finances. One needn’t think all lending at interest sinful, nor even reject the market economy, to see that the hucksterism that passed for investment wizardry on Wall Street amounted at last to usury. Nor can we count on the order and stability of a society that has undermined its very building block — the family — through sexual revolution, incessant contraception, and easy divorce. Anarchy begins at home.
American Catholics think that we too are exempt; at no point since the Nativist riots of the 1850s have we endured any serious persecution. The closest thing to an organized attack on our nation’s Catholics was the passage of Prohibition — for which we repaid America by supporting Franklin Roosevelt. To be fair, our bishops helped infuse the New Deal with pro-family policies, and for a few decades there it looked like we might well make the Democrats into Christian Democrats. Indeed, it seemed to as jaundiced an observer as Evelyn Waugh that the fusion of Catholicism and Americanism might well form the wave of the future. There were no other Christian creeds that made a serious bid to provide America’s civic conscience; our country’s founding Puritanism was so inhuman that it dissolved into Unitarianism. Evangelical Protestantism had plenty of heart but seemingly never grew a brain. Mainline Protestantism degenerated via the Social Gospel into a weak-tea progressive politics — temperance, eugenicist, and assorted Wilsonian meddlings.
From the apex of our influence as part of the Cold War anti-Communist coalition, it must have seemed in 1960 that Catholics really were on the verge of assuming the mantle as America’s new leadership class. The Kennedys, in their support of the Cold War and their efforts on behalf of Civil Rights, seemed to serve as the voice of steadfast political prudence and abstract moral principle — the very fusion favored by great Catholic statesmen over the centuries, from Constantine to Charles V, from Lord Acton to Adenauer. Could Catholics step in and teach America how to balance order and justice, tradition and innovation, the common good and individual freedom?
We know now it was all a mirage. As Philip Lawler has revealed, at the same time the Kennedys were following Catholic teaching by opposing segregation, they were also gathering liberal theologians to prepare the way for Roe v. Wade. This didn’t set them apart from the rest of the Catholic elites; instead of serving as America’s moral conscience, discerning which causes of social “reform” were just and which were groundless, our leadership class in the universities was signing on with a leftist social agenda across the board. Hence, when the main goals of the Civil Rights movement had been achieved, our leaders with few exceptions signed onto the next “reform” movement, “Women’s Liberation,” which borrowed its central demand — legal abortion — from the population controllers and eugenicists.
The Catholics who said “Heck no!” — including the most fervent and faithful — were frozen out of the schools, thrown out of seminaries, and reduced to attending Wanderer conferences and homeschooling their kids a few blocks from the Catholic academies they’d helped build. This faithful, angry “remnant” would soon find itself in hock to Republicans disdainful of other Catholic principles — such as just war theory. When the hype machine that lied America into the Iraq war started churning, it was all too easy for most of us who’d found our aid and comfort from secular nationalists and fideistic Protestants to convince ourselves to support the war — if only out of political expedience. “What harm could it do? WMDs or no WMDs, even if ‘preventive war’ violates some non-infallible encyclical, we’ll give them their war in return for the next three Supreme Court justices,” I remember people saying — under their breath.
Now “the Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return.” The unpopular, hideously expensive Iraq war helped destroy the fortunes of pro-life candidates in every branch of government. It elected a president who will surely have the chance to stack the Supreme Court, rendering the life issue moot for a lifetime. The money poured down that Middle Eastern hole would surely come in handy right now — as we weather an economic collapse of bipartisan provenance. Meanwhile, gay marriage has spread from Massachusetts to the Midwest, and the taxes our children must pay for our current spending spree will make it ruinously expensive to procreate and educate. And the leaders of our “trademark” Catholic university are cringing before the power of the newly anointed prince of this part of the world. “We adore you, O mighty sultan, and beg for your protection.”
A long Lent, and more to come..

John Zmirak

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John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic's Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as Editor of Crisis.

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