I’ve been tempted to comment, like everyone else on earth with functioning fingers and Internet access, on the unfolding story of Pope Benedict XVI’s comments regarding condoms. But for once I don’t know exactly what I think. I await further clarification from the Church’s teaching authority — which will come in time — and the reflections of men who (unlike me, and unlike the journalists who have energetically mangled this story) have been trained as moral theologians. I wouldn’t want the reporters at London’s Daily Telegraph diagnosing what’s wrong with my car, much less what is “wrong” with my Church. Nor would I be much reassured by well-meaning conservative bloggers who lifted the hood and offered a second opinion. I would keep my venerable ’94 Buick LeSabre safe from all the amateurs, and wait for the trusted authority to offer its diagnosis.
I won’t say what I think about these issues or how the media has handled them, because: who cares what Zmirak thinks? I am so sure I could be wrong, even I’m not all that interested in my opinion. Instead, I will speak about feelings. (I am a true child of the Seventies!) What did I feel when I read that international AIDS experts were jubilant at the pope’s seeming to open the door to condom use as a means of preventing that deadly disease from spreading?
I felt relief. What ran through my mind was, “Thank God. That’s one fewer subject on which faithful Catholics have to seem like unbending, moralistic freaks.” I felt a warm fuzzy slide soothingly down my spine, and I went in the next room to turn on This American Life. On this issue, at least, I could finally be “normal” and agree with all the other highly educated white people in my income bracket and demographic. I felt like an Amish guy who just found that verse in the Bible that says he can buy an iPad.
I smiled, got out my scented, biodegradable doggie bags, and took the beagles for a long walk through my twee Victorian neighborhood. I hadn’t felt this good since I came out against the Iraq War — and realized that, for the first time in my life, there was some issue on which I agreed with the hot, artsy girls in Soho. I could talk to them at parties without inadvertently picking a fight. Indeed, I could sidle up to some twenty-something graphic designer in a slinky black dress, say something snarky about Dick Cheney, and make her smile. Why couldn’t this have happened to me back in college?
I won’t go into extended recollections here, except to warn young activists: Flirting across the picket lines outside Planned Parenthood is rarely effective. Though it did yield one classic line, shouted at me by a pro-abortion babe: “You have cute glasses. You should be on our side.” That told me, more than anything else, how some people pick sides.
This warm, vague sense of normalcy I’m getting must have been what Catholics felt when John F. Kennedy ran for president. Philip Lawler tells the story, in his indispensable account of how Vainglory poisoned the American Church, The Faithful Departed. I have recapped its thesis before:
As Catholic laymen moved up in the world, they chafed at their sense of strangeness in a liberal Protestant New England, the Catholic “difference” in which their parents had taken pride. With the rise of the Kennedy family, they had “arrived.” It was time to leave behind all the shabby, embarrassing baggage. To settle down in the world and of the world and for the world, with the Spirit of the World, for a long and comfy relationship.
Such upscale Catholics were morally certain that the Vatican commission on birth control, which had dragged out its proceedings for six long years, would issue a nuanced report relaxing Church restrictions — and that the rudderless liberal Pope Paul VI would rubber stamp it. (On a human level, they had every reason for optimism; Pope Paul did indeed approve the reckless changes a liberal committee proposed to make in the liturgy.) No wonder they felt betrayed by Humanae Vitae — which Catholics greeted like a spoiled girl who unwraps a Tiffany’s box, and finds that her daddy filled it with Flintstones vitamins. They hadn’t reckoned with the Holy Spirit, Who says to every pope, essentially, “Teach heresy — get a heart attack.”
The modernizations promised by the spiritualists of Vatican II were supposed to be our ticket out of the ghetto, a cultural makeover that would let the Kennedys and the Cuomos, the Bidens and the Pelosis, straighten their hair and live like the white folks. No more weird, archaic, smoky foreign rituals, bloody plaster statues, or freakishly large families full of kids spaced nine months and five minutes apart with un-American names like Philomena. The Jesuits who ran our really posh colleges could take off their collars and put on coat and tie, pull down those tacky crucifixes, and stop taking their orders from dimwitted bishops. Pretty soon, we’d allow our priests to marry, stop throwing hissy-fits over grim, financial necessities like abortion, and settle into our new identity — as high-church, liberal Methodists.
It was only by doing that, our experts told us, that we would escape “irrelevance” and decline. Unless we wished to be left behind, with oddballs like the Hasidim and the Amish, we would wise up to how things got done in the modern world. Our streamlined, upscale, respectable new Church would no longer get in our way; it might even help us replace the vanishing WASPs as America’s dominant class.
How the space of forty years changes things. Leaving morality out of it, we now see that accepting contraception as the norm is the one sure way for any cultural group to disappear. It’s obvious enough that sects who embrace large families will have more children to pass on their values; however, observers have always assumed that the kids of these large families were likely to drift away from their parents’ fervent faith. After all, the very cafeteria Catholics who rejected Humanae Vitae had grown up on the Baltimore Catechism. Joseph Kennedy was open to life, but his kids all grew up to be . . . Kennedys. Surely, the kids being born today to large, homeschooling Catholic families will also grow up to be Kennedys. Modernity is an all-consuming acid, which we can resist but never defeat.
Or so I have always, hopelessly, assumed. But demographer Philip Longman has pointed out that this isn’t true. Forgive his choice of “fundamentalist” to describe religious groups that haven’t liquidated their core beliefs, and check out his conclusions:
Only five percent of children born to the most conservative Amish, for example, move on to other faiths or lifestyles. The defection rate is higher among New Order Amish, Mormons and other comparatively less demanding fundamentalist communities, yet they still hold on to the majority of their children. Moreover, what defections they may experience are more than offset by converts, with the net flow favoring conservative faiths, according to poll data gathered by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Thus we see 21 percent of converts leaving liberal and moderate denominations for more fundamentalist ones, and only 15 percent going the other way. There are many swirls and currents that affect us all as individuals, but between higher fertility and more successful indoctrination, the main demographic tide of history is clearly flowing in favor of fundamentalism.
In other words, the ghetto is the future. The groups that reject the hopeless, childless norms of modern life will populate the world. Many of their offspring will cling to their faith and evangelize the old-fashioned way — in the missionary position. The large families will take over the old, empty parishes and fill them again with the sound of Latin chant; and the upstart, “oddball” orthodox Catholic schools will replace Boston College and Georgetown as moral authorities among Catholics. Eventually, even ABC News will realize that when men like Richard McBrien speak, no one is listening.
We face a future filled not with Prius-driving fans of Morning Edition, but thrifty Amish puppy-mill owners, Hasidic diamond dealers, scarily faithful Muslims, gun-toting Southern Baptists, and “oddball” orthodox Catholics with names like Benedict and Dymphna. It won’t be as airbrushed and pleasant as the tasteful, New Urban utopia hoped for by the population controllers. In fact, as I envision a world of minivans thronging Costcos, blaring country music or Christian rock on their way back out to the suburbs, I cannot suppress a shudder of urban, aesthetic distaste. But nobody’s asking my opinion.