A Time to Gloat

Last week, I declined to chime in on the pope’s new book — though I should probably hurry up, since I still haven’t gotten a copy, which means that my perspective on it is still fresh and unspoiled, marked by the disinterested objectivity that comes with utter ignorance.

Instead I tried to use the cacophony over condoms to offer insight to members of the orthodox Catholic subculture — that tiny but quickly reproducing segment of the Church in the West that clings to papal authority, traditional sexual ethics, and reverent liturgy — on how so many people who also claim to be Catholic came to exempt themselves from obeying Church authority. The learned Rev. John McCloskey once made the point that there already is a word for “dissenting Catholic”; that word is “Protestant.” He is strictly and logically right.

But logic explains so little of why we do what we do, and works so poorly at changing most people’s minds, that it’s helpful to dig a little deeper. If we wish to do more than score legitimate debating points against these people, and wish instead to attract them back to Il Papa‘s knee, we need to make the effort to empathize with them — an effort they’ll rarely return.

By that I don’t mean we ought to clutch a sweaty palm all through the Our Father and join in singing “Gather Us In” at some liturgy sponsored by Dignity. Nor should we idealize dissenters’ motives. But we should try to climb inside their skins a little, and one way we can do that is to scrutinize ourselves, to see if there’s any aspect of authoritative Church teaching with which we feel profoundly uncomfortable — where we’re looking for wiggle room.

Let me suggest that the reader stop here for a moment and examine his conscience. Think back to the papal statement, conciliar document, or item in the Catechism that most makes you squirm. Consider whether you’ve ever played intellectual Twister, trying to wish this teaching away. If so, step back and ask yourself why you were tempted to evade it. How much was outright sinful in your motives, and how much was merely misguided? Be honest with yourself, as you are confident that God is merciful.

Chastened by that exercise, we now can ask: Why exactly did Catholic dissent arise on sexual ethics at the exact time that Catholics found their opportunity to enter the cultural mainstream in America? (In Western Europe, where the same dissent became prevalent, it was not a grass-roots movement but the fetish of progressive theologians eager to disassociate the Church from “doomed” pre-modern politics and “dying” folkways.) On the basest level, accepting the contraceptive culture became overwhelmingly tempting to ordinary, weak people subject to the vice of human respect. Catholics really did wish to shed their pre-modern “strangeness,” which included those large broods of children apparently better suited to medieval farming than modern grammar schools.

But higher-minded motives were also on the market: Liberal Catholicism seemed the most hopeful option for the spread of the Faith in the modern West — whose “lifestyle” of ever-increasing prosperity and expanding equality seemed less a happy accident of history than a changeless law of nature. The Church had once been foolish to flout Galileo; it seemed equally absurd to try outfighting Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Sanger. Science — reconceived since Descartes not as the speculative search for truth, but the experimental quest for control — had shed its cold, analytical light on human sexuality, banishing the mists of misinformation that had long swirled round it like incense. Just as modern man had swapped the mystical cult of kings for the functionalist transparency of republics, now postmodern man would improve his health and happiness by looking sexuality square in the face. If the Church kept trying to block the view with her stained-glass screen, she would be rudely shoved aside. So our love for the Church, some liberals sincerely believed, should drive us to lovingly correct her mistakes, to cover our mother’s nakedness.

As I demonstrated last week, from a strictly Darwinian point of view such a strategy proved suicidal. As demographer Philip Longman demonstrates, religions that shun contraception will indeed lose some adherents to laxer creeds; but that loss is more than offset by their higher birthrates, greater internal cohesion, and stronger doctrinal immune systems. Human psychology helps explain why this is true. Catholic convert from Communism Douglas Hyde drew on his experience with hardline Marxist cadres and Catholic apostolates to formulate what I call Hyde’s Rule: the more an organization demands of its adherents, the more devoted they’ll be to it.

In other words, we tend to value a group not so much for what we get out of it as for what we have already put into it. The same is true for relationships, healthy and otherwise: the harder we work at them, the more they can seem worth working for. This psychological rule explains alike the devotion of parents to handicapped children . . . and the fevered obsession of unrequited lovers; it accounts for thriving traditionalist orders . . . and ever-expanding cults. He who has given much shall give even more, while he who has offered little, even the little he gives he shall take away (Hyde 3: 17-18).


Which brings me precisely to my point: We know something now that the Kennedy-era modernizers didn’t: Liberalism eats its young. The path out of the ghetto leads by a charmingly scenic route straight to the boneyard. Catholic values, diluted to homeopathic doses, do not act like yeast in dough, but instead like food coloring dropped in a swimming pool. The foreseeable future belongs not to the compromised and the assimilated, but to the small, fervent subcultures with high birthrates — to those “offbeat” homeschoolers in the minivans.

We can learn many things from this verdict of history. If we take from it a sober affirmation that obeying the Natural Law succeeds by natural means because we are acting in harmony with Creation, then we will benefit from the lesson. We will harvest some hope from the prospect that the Church’s internal enemies — whatever their motivations, which God will mercifully judge — are fading into irrelevance. A hundred years from now, wherever Catholics exist, they will look at today’s sex dissenters with that same bemused curiosity we now feel toward the Old Catholics or the Quietists. What were those people thinking, bless their hearts? Do they keep some dusty little parishes here and there — like the lovely, achingly sad Polish National Catholic parish I pass every day, whose bronze doors seem to be welded shut?

There are also dangers here. We can find ourselves making the ugly little leap from asserting “it works because it’s true” to “it’s true because it works.” I have read ultra-traditionalists attack the Church’s embrace of natural family planning, arguing that Catholics have a moral duty to “outbreed the Mohammedans.” I have wondered, reading that, how much of the higher Muslim birthrate is the result of a holy openness to life, and how much to their disregard for the human dignity of women; any faith that permits polygamy and marriage at age nine, whose adherents defend female chastity through widespread “honor-killing,” is no kind of model for us.

There is indeed abroad in the West a toxic “contraceptive mentality.” Like every heresy, it has an equal, opposite heresy. (The Arians denied Christ’s divinity; the Modalists His true humanity.) If we can practice narcissism by refusing to ration present pleasures for the sake of the next generation, it is equally possible to treat women as means rather than ends, to employ them merely as breeders of soldiers and sons. Many pre-modern cultures have done just that, committing an abuse that dissenters would swing like a club at defenders of Church teaching. One of the things that I love so much about Pope Benedict XVI is his wise, deeply Catholic embrace of all that is modern, true, and good — and his cheerful refusal to burn incense before modernity as an idol. This pope, while rejecting the contraceptive mentality, would also shun a pro-natalism that arose not from a joyous embrace of life and a generous self-giving, but a lust for demographic power — or even a differently figured narcissism that expressed itself not in pleasures but in progeny.


When we say that the cultures that will dominate the future will arise from various ghettos, we may welcome the fact that they are theocentric rather than humanist — since we’ve seen that humanism, absent the Incarnation, is finally inhuman. (The tastefully appointed abortion clinics that dot the West should teach us that philanthropists really do love man — served over rice in a nice cream sauce.) What might not strike us as nearly so appealing are the ways in which the devil will pervert resurgent faith into fanaticism and pharisaism — as people compete for status and power according to the new set of rules. (In another age and place, Josef Stalin might have commanded a Puritan army or led witches to the stake.) We needn’t look farther back than the Thirty Years’ War to see how that could play out. Indeed, what we might be glimpsing now is a cyclical pattern in history:

  1. Intense faith builds a culture (which comes from cultus).
  2. Worldly success leads to a slackening of that faith.
  3. The cognitive dissonance of a lofty faith poorly lived out goads men to abortive reforms, then to heresy and rebellion.
  4. The orthodox and heretical forces come into violent conflict, exhausting themselves and disillusioning the half-convinced.
  5. A this-worldly secularism arises to “save” us from the brutal conflicts over faith.
  6. That secularism rests on the social and moral capital built up by the ages of faith, while gradually eroding it.
  7. At last, no communal resources or reasons for self-sacrifice remain, and persons degenerate into mere individuals, seeking to maximize the number of pleasurable experiences before they die.
  8. The populations afflicted by 7) are outbred and replaced by new populations engaged in 1).

And the whole dang Rube Goldberg starts all over again.

As Christians, we hope that history is not merely a cycle but an upward spiral, that Revelation unfolds itself more fully over time, and the march of the City of God is something more than a tribal wandering in the desert. We must look for guidance to men who see further and deeper than we. Let’s be grateful that our pope is one of them.

John Zmirak


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.

  • Geoffrey Miller

    …what if it is just cyclical? I don’t mean to be a downer on the virtue of hope here, but some days I wonder, and sometimes, I’m even at peace with it.

  • Bob G

    John, for an actual scientific confirmation of your cycle thesis, you should read Fred Zimmerman’s mighty book on the history of the family, which examines the status of the family from early Greece to the 20th. The pattern is precisely what you describe, except that those who disrupt the healthy consensus are not religious dissenters but intellectuals and the wealthy, who grow weary of the burdens the family entails.

    Zimmerman, about 1947, was the U.S.’s greatest and most influential sociologist, until he published this book, which promptly made him a non-person. He predicted what is occurring today, and his book shows us how it will end.

  • Mrs. F

    Mr. Zmirak, I always look forward to your articles here, and I enjoyed this one as much as the others, but it is very frustrating to consistantly encounter the covert attitude that the Catholics “that cling(s) to papal authority, traditional sexual ethics, and reverent liturgy” must be Traditionalists. There are those of us who love the Church, find joy in obedience to the pope, are open to life, and look forward to the coming liturgical changes, yet we grew up with the new mass. We never saw Barney at mass, nor a priest serving in any way other than with reverence, we enjoy singing “Gather Us In” and “Here I Am Lord” (no, it doesn’t hold a candle to some of the older music done really well–but I’m just grateful for the weekends we have a priest now, and a priest plus music is really something). I would love to see a traditional mass. I was still in elementary school the first time I felt like I was missing something I had never seen, like someone had taken part of my Catholic legacy away, but lacking that Latin mass has never prevented me from reading the Cathechism, studying my faith, going back again and again to look for answers in a faith that, to me, seems bottomless in its depths.

    We can be faithful Catholics and still enjoy holding hands for the Lord’s Prayer (we’ve never known anything else). We can be faithful Catholics who pray in tongues, dance in the spirit, enjoy a rousing series of praise and worship songs, and still kneel daily to pray the Rosary and Chaplet of Divine Mercy and enjoy Gregorian chant.

  • Samuel

    Another good one Dr. Zmirak!

  • AT

    So did you ever consider crossing that barricade, say hi to that SOHO chick, and explain your position? You may have been surprised. Inst

  • Aaron B.

    Bob G.,

    Do you by any chance have the name or any other info on that book? It sounds interesting, but I’m not having any luck finding a book on that topic by that author. The closest I’ve come is some woodworking books. Thanks.

    The notion about these things going in cycles reminds me of Terry Brooks’s Medieval Times series, the episode on monks. He presents the history of monastic orders as a cycle: Someone goes off to the wilderness and starts a new monastic order, usually with a pretty strict set of rules. Others follow. Over time, their holiness inspires growing numbers of people to move near them and support them with donations and, to put it crudely, pay them to pray. This wealth gradually leads to a softer lifestyle and a certain amount of corruption by worldly things. Eventually, some die-hard gets disgusted and goes off to the wilderness and starts a reformed order according to the original strict rules or something even harsher. And the cycle begins again.

    Makes sense, and to a certain extent, it’s probably inevitable.

  • AT

    ..as an small example of evangelization, just watch this fantastic youtube that is now going viral. These people were not held up in a ghetto. Its a small example, but these things count, and go way farther then casting stones from behind barricades, or from mini vans racing back to gated communities, imo. Read the comments. They are overwhelmingly positive. The few negative ones don’t stand a chance.

  • AT

    wide site included

  • JPZmirak

    …is indeed magnificent. I’m happy to say that Intercollegiate Studies Institute has brought it back into print: Family and Civilization, by Carle C. Zimmerman. It’s available here: http://tinyurl.com/2vuy9vb.

  • Aaron B.

    Thanks, John. For what it’s worth, that appears to be an abridged version, which the reviews on Amazon say was pretty heavily edited. My library can get the 829-page original, though, so I’ll check that out.

  • JZmirak

    Dear Mrs. F,
    I certainly do not mean to cast doubt on your own religious experiences, but I believe that many of the liturgical changes that were made in the West, in violation of the letter and spirit of Vatican II, were intrinsically evil. They horizontalized and Protestantized Catholic worship, undermined faith in the Real Presence, and in so doing discouraged the examination of conscience and the use of Confession. So when people argue that they find them consoling, or uplifting, or harmless, I must answer that some very sincere Catholics have said similar things about how using birth control seemed to benefit their marriages. In the case of the liturgy, of course, the fault lies not in the worshippers who are attending their parish’s liturgy; the sin is on the heads of the men who authorized these changes in the Mass.

    I anticipate the answer: “We don’t have an encyclical condemning as intrinsically evil the liturgical changes made after Vatican II.”

    To which I answer: “Not yet.”

  • AT
  • JPZmirak

    AT, that’s a nice conspiracy theory. I hope you had fun drawing it up. It implies that I am a defender or supporter of the Legionaries of Christ and their sociopathic founder. I have written extensively of the cult-like methods he employed, on this very website, and called for the order to be entirely dissolved. I don’t see how Rand or Buckley come into this, but I’m sure the dots connect in your head somehow.

    The ghetto phenomenon I wrote about is not some private project of mine–but a sociological reality observed by secular demographers; indeed, a perceptive reader would have noticed that I am quite ambivalent about the triumph of the ghetto.

    Disdaining ordinary parishes? I think every parish should have a Traditional Mass, NFP courses, eucharistic processions, and thriving Catholic schools. One of the worst things about the post-conciliar crisis is that it consigned the wonders and treasures of orthodoxy and Tradition to tiny subcultures.

    But I won’t go the next step and snobbishly disdain the subcultures that are keeping these treasures from oblivion. Thank God for them. I hope and pray that they serve as leaven someday.

  • AT

    Not sure who is smoking what, but you are correct, this was referring to the legion. Maciel created a system using elements of catholisms for his massive spiritual/financial con. This allowed the accumulation vast wealth (billions), and feed his perversions.

    This mess is far from over, as many that are still living in the “movement’s” trance. So please forgive me if I get a bit nervous when people promote spiritual Ghettos.

    No grudges, really enjoy reading you (still chuckle at the Halloween piece).

  • Marymk

    The generation that grew up regarding the Eucharist as just a symbol and now forced to sing (for 40 years now) dumbed-down songs composed by a Church of Christ follower (the same as Pres Obama) who is neither invested in nor respectful of Catholicism is by and large not living a healthy, happy, vibrant faith. The agenda failed in that not only do they not support parish, Catholic schools, vocations, or Sunday attendance, but most of all have little affinity for the poor, which is supposedly what the agenda was loftily designed to accomplish. But the real tragedy is that as they age and must face struggles and hardship in adult life, they do not even have the Eucharist to console them, confession to relieve their burdens of guilt since all of this was presented to them in their youth as so much superstition. One would think that since the teaching of a sacred sexuality was also studiously disregarded that at the very least this generation would have healthy sex lives and large families, but, that too seems wrought with issues. In the end the Protestant-ization of the faith in many places has led to in-crowd, self-important appointed individuals taking on “ministry” roles, with wide-ranging and eclectic “offerings” in the parish, but this ultimately only satisfies the interests of a few and it is by and large a social club for church-y folks to glad hand and support their favorites. It is no longer a place where one can go to pray, ask for forgiveness from sin, experience relief from the world’s troubles and cares. If one isn’t spiritually disposed to force-sing another Haugen tune in our “gathering song”, one isn’t welcomed. There is a real problem that cries out for leadership and correction and hope.

  • Michael Gavina

    I like eggs. I like Benedict.

  • Marc

    It is hard to take someone seriously when they write something like “Rand via Buckley.” WFB may have had his faults, but promoting Randian philosophy was not one of them.

    See Whittaker Chambers’ great article on Ayn Rand. Here is a link http://www.nationalreview.com/…/flashback

  • Susan

    With the looming police state trying to take control over not only the process of parenting, but also of becoming a parent (IVF, homosexual adoption, coerced abortion, sterilization, weird vaccines), we should be careful what we gloat about. There are any number of ways the state can decide who gets to be a parent, and they are increasing exponentially. The statists are all about getting control over the means of re-production. We ought to be alert, not gloating. But thanks for the article, anyway!

  • Mrs. F

    “I think every parish should have a Traditional Mass, NFP courses, eucharistic processions, and thriving Catholic schools.”

    That would be beautiful. I would wager that having the first three would give rise to the last one. And there would be enough vocations that the teachers at the school would be nuns. I am so frustrated for my generation, because so many of us were poorly taught, if at all. Most people under 40 probably think (as I thought for many years), that the only change in the Mass after Vatican II was the translation to the vernicular. They’ve never thought to compare one to the other. Entire prayers disappeared, most others were abbreviated, and no one has explained where they went or why.

    You mention that these abuses were specifically in the Western world. Are there areas in the world that made changes much more in keeping with the law and spirit of Vatican II, and if so, where?

  • crazylikeknoxes

    Might I ask which liturgical changes “were intrinsically evil”?

  • David

    If the future belongs to those offbeat homeschoolers in minivans, does that mean that homeschooled sharia law will be ineffect? Will my daughters be forced to wear skirts, look homely and be awkward in public?

    This is tongue in cheek by the way.

  • William Calhoun

    A cycle ? Yeah I can see it. And yes, the Christian vision of time isn’t cyclical, but since we’ve Fallen, we lack the creativity and clear sighted objectivity to see the trap we’re in. Until Christ returns and says, “Okay, knock it off !”