I recently had a surprisingly uplifting conversation with my nine-year-old daughter. Mae, returning from Catholic camp, apologized to me for failing to abstain from meat on her Friday at the camp. In her calculus, Catholic camp would reflect our household, throughout the penitential and ordinary seasons, in that the very basic weekly abstention from land animals would be assumed as a given. It was not. Indignantly, she approached the meal manager at the camp to express her disappointment.
The lunch lady was outright dismissive of her protestation, believing it to be unreasonable to accommodate a relatively normal Catholic practice at a Catholic camp and writing her off on the grounds that few of the campers would follow the observance. Though Mae expressed much disappointment with the encounter, what I found to be positively edifying was her desire to faithfully subscribe to the practice in the first place.
The origin of our familial practice is relatively fresh. I began extending the observance beyond the confines of the Lenten season only within the past few years. Our Friday dinners slowly adapted to my habit, and the kids began asking questions. Up to that point, there had been little demand on anyone within my household to participate beyond those dinners. However, Mae promptly picked it up, packing tuna salads or fish sticks to take to school on Fridays. Friday abstention very quickly situated itself as a central part of her Catholic identity.
Historically speaking, the way in which my nine-year-old embraced the habit should not be surprising. One of the central beauties of Catholicism is the unique way in which it adapts to and then forms each individual. Aquinas has probably drawn an inexplicable number of Ph.D.s into the wellspring of eternal life, but his spiritual father—St. Dominic—has likely welcomed his share of the everyman to eternity with the Rosary alone. In the case of recent history, one of the fault lines leading up to Vatican II manifest itself on the obsessive observance of fish Fridays for the working-class bog Irish.
The bog Irish is a term used by the Catholic sociologist Mary Douglas in her seminal book Natural Symbols. It places the working-class Irish in England, circa the mid-twentieth century, at the center of an important part of the Vatican II reforms. The bog Irish became a kind of scapegoat for some of the architects of the council to adopt a more “Teilhardist evolutionism” (in Douglas’ words). In my words, following the trends of their Lutheran peers, I call it academic elitism. That is, they placed an emphasis on the habits of the mind over the habits of the people. The working-class Irish identity had a profoundly tangible character by abstaining from meat on Fridays in the same way the Jews had through their dietary restrictions on pork.
As Douglas goes on to explain, “The dietary rules, I suggested, should be taken as a whole and related to the totality of symbolic structures organizing the universe.” In other words, the structured habit of abstaining from meat on Fridays became an organizing principle, a kind of meta-habit, for the bog Irish in the twentieth century. Douglas expands on this by showing how dietary restrictions in religious practice operate in a two-fold manner. One is for the practitioner to habituate himself to the faith, but the other is more profound.
Douglas conveys, for the early Jews, it was in the persecution highlighted in the trials of Eleazar in the Second book of Maccabees, who would rather “die a glorious death” than eat the sacrificial pork in honor of his king, that likely led to the Jewish dietary restriction on pigs:
In all the gruesome description of how their tongues were cut out, their heads scalped and their bodies fried alive in huge frying pans to the merriment of pagan onlookers, nothing is said whatever about the abominable character of pig. But after such historic acts of heroism, no wonder the avoidance of pork became a specially powerful symbol of allegiance for the Jewish people and so attracted the later hellenizing exegesis that looked to the moral attributes of the pig.
The unintended consequence of Vatican II, replacing the binding elements of common habit into a privatization of Friday penance, is that it undermined the powerful symbolic under-workings of group identity. Furthermore, any casual observer of law in the modern age should be well aware that loosening social restrictions functionally dissolves the bonds of community rather than reinforces them.
Exactly this has played out among modern western Catholics, from the so-called “devoutly Catholic” current President (who has never seen a liberal cause he didn’t like) to one Pew research poll after another—including one that has recently revealed widespread American Catholic abandonment of the doctrine of Transubstantiation. In this striking manner, the reader will struggle to find a position that separates the average Catholic from his Protestant and secular peers.
In his First Things column “Catholic Ideas and Catholic Realities,” Ross Douthat grapples with the implications of modern dissolution and its effects on the Church. To put it bluntly, Catholicism is hemorrhaging its youth. In America today, a full 85 percent of young adults stop attending Mass at the fresh age of 21. In “The General Eclectic” podcast, Kale Zelden and Dr. Larry Chapp discuss what underlies the mass exodus, and they believe much is to be laid at the feet of practicing Catholics emphasizing apologetics and orthodoxy (the intellectual habits of the faith) over orthopraxy (the communal habits of the faith). And as Douthat explains, “In a smaller, weaker Church, the influence of ideas that seem weird to the average Catholic today are likely to be magnified, as the Church becomes more an institution by, for, and of the weirdos.”
While Douthat’s overarching concern is far larger than what I present—he’s looking for avenues of mass conversion, intellectuals and the everyman alike—Catholic parents all over must be feeling the same pressure to transmit the faith to their children in a manner that sticks. Over the years, my approach toward my children has been almost purely an exercise of the intellect—the manner Douthat finds wanting. But the Fish Friday practice that my daughter emphatically embraced has offered me the wedge to inculcate her into an authentic Catholic identity.
Douthat’s prescription for a shrinking Catholicism begins with the practicing faithful eschewing the recent trends of Pew polls while coming to terms with their weirdness. In the era of soft persecution, one can imagine even the simple habit of separation by passing up on Friday work potlucks, while also packing your child’s lunch with a can of tuna once a week, can begin the process of reconciling ourselves to the reality of being a little different in a culture that has lost its mind.
We are still likely a long way from the kind of persecution the Jews faced in Second Maccabees, but now is the perfect time to habituate ourselves to the little penances that our forebears once took for granted. In doing this, we may begin to habituate ourselves to the demands of the faith—to be in the world, but not of it.
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