One of the best essayists writing today is Joseph Epstein, the long-time faculty member in the English Department of Northwestern University and the former Editor-in-Chief of The American Scholar. Over the years, Epstein’s work has appeared in numerous places—sometimes with a select readership and sometimes with a more general readership. Epstein’s essay comparing the Chicago of his boyhood with the Chicago of today caught my attention in the March 5th issue of The Weekly Standard. At one point, the author calls the Chicago of his boyhood “an intensely Catholic city.” (If you are wondering about Epstein’s age, it is 81.) He relates how Catholics there described the neighborhoods they were from by their parishes. (Catholics in a lot of big cities—not just Chicago—did the same.) Extrapolating from Chicago, Epstein next writes: “Catholic culture was everywhere in the country a hundred-fold stronger then than now.” He goes on from this observation to mention a Catholic family which lived in the same neighborhood as he and his family did. Giving their names and some other descriptors, Epstein brings his treatment of the “Catholic” part of his essay to a finish by remarking that the Catholicism he had just described “has vanished from American life.”
I was struck by the plain, unequivocal way Epstein put it about Catholicism. In a matter of two decent-size paragraphs, Epstein recalls a flourishing and a decline. He does not involve himself in any explanation for the diminution of Catholic culture; he merely states the obvious.
A long explanation of the decline in Catholic culture is found with authors like James Hitchcock, David Carlin, and others. Over time, the long explanation has gotten whittled down to the following thesis: Faith is important until secularization comes along. With secularization, faith and its goals get subordinated to the project of modernity.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
The purpose of evangelization and re-evangelization is, we would all agree, to stem the tide of secularism and return faith to the lead it ought always to have in the decision-making of Catholic Christians. Starting with Blessed Paul VI and his urgent summons for Catholics to be evangelizers in Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975) and continuing with Saint John Paul II’s frequent calls for Catholics to participate in a new evangelization, there has been no shortage of inspiration and encouragement. Where we have stalled, I think, is in taking on the modernity project effectively.
Father James Schall, the Jesuit professor who formerly taught at Georgetown University, has written recently in Crisis Magazine (June 19, 2018) that “the main reason for the decline of Church membership is the desire to be like others in modern society. Many want Catholic teaching to be viewed and interpreted through a modern lens.” We call such a thing Modernism, and it has been condemned by two popes: Pius IX (1846-1878) and Pius X (1903-1914). However, condemnations do not always mean that heretical ideas go away. Often, they endure and manifest as someone’s opinion. Father Schall continues in his description of what happens next. With everyone having a right to his opinion, “[n]othing seems definite, precisely so that nothing binds. In the end, freedom of opinion ends up with everyone having mostly the same opinions, now politically enforced. Things that once seemed unchangeable are now changed or expected to change in the near future.”
Consider for a moment the heightened expectation for change in the Church’s teaching regarding contraception on the eve of Humanae Vitae. This year’s fiftieth anniversary of the encyclical has brought to mind once again the disappointment many Catholics had with Blessed Paul VI who did not confirm their opinion on birth control. That is the problem with living through the opinion polls. That is also the problem with evangelization if you do not make clear the difference between opinion and matters of faith.
This past Sunday, we listened at Mass to Saint John’s account of Jesus’s miracle of the multiplication of loaves and fish (cf. Jn 6:1-15). A modernist interpretation of this incident has Jesus getting the large crowd to share what they had so that there would be enough for all of them. But this meaning is in clear contradiction to what the text says. The text says plainly that Jesus took the loaves and distributed them (cf. Jn 6:11). He did something—he, the Lord of history and of nature! Modernistic interpretations always come back around to man and his acting.
Once again, Father Schall observes that “[m]any wonder whether the Church does not now see itself as simply a this-worldly socio-political movement instrumental primarily in curing our temporal ills.” Understanding the multiplication of loaves and fish as Catholics means seeing the miracle as a prefiguration, that is, a foreshadowing of the Holy Eucharist. A socio-political movement does not have the Eucharist, nor does it exhibit any regard for the world beyond this one. The Church does, of course, have the Holy Eucharist and the Gift of Finest Wheat is the bridge between heaven and earth, and eternity and time. What we need, Father Schall notes, is “[t]he contemplative life, the life that is needed to keep our souls in touch with the transcendent.”
Praying Catholics are the ones least susceptible to modernistic allurements. For they know the difference between living in Harvey Cox’s secular city and Saint Augustine’s city of God. Working as they do in the city of man, praying Catholics catch a glimpse now and again of the heavenly Jerusalem, that far-off city which is brought closer to them because of Christ and what he did there for all of us.
This is what the Catholic culture had in spades—outdoor processions with statues, novenas, parish missions, etc. But above all, it was the Holy Eucharist which brought Catholics together and kept them together. In old Chicago, Mass attendance weekly was probably at 70 percent or better. Back then, it was clear that cult produced culture. These days that connection is very weak and getting weaker all the time. The irony is that the “old” Mass was considered not very communal, but a lot of Catholics showed up for it. The Mass “today” is supposedly more communal, but fewer and fewer Catholics are there to pray at it. At the beginning of this millennium, Fr. Aidan Nichols, the Dominican priest and prolific author, published Christendom Awake: On Re-Energizing the Church in Culture (2000) and called for a re-enchantment of the liturgy. If re-enchantment means re-establishing a deeper tie between cult and culture, we ought to look more carefully at Nichols’s idea.
The Chicago of Epstein’s youth had a Catholic character which was memorable and vivacious down to the very sights and sounds. You might even say that it had its own “sacramental” sense even when you were not anywhere near a sanctuary or an altar. This is because the Catholic culture of a couple of generations ago made sense to itself; it had what the late sociologist Peter Berger (1929-2017) would have called its own plausibility structure. Now that the plausibility structure is gone, Catholics look elsewhere—especially to modern things—for their sense of meaning. They want to be just like everyone else. Someone—a pope, a bishop, a mother, a father, a teacher, a friend, whomever—needs to tell them that they are not like everyone else.
Editor’s note: Pictured above, Karol Debicki prays in Archdiocese of Chicago’s St. Hyacinth Catholic Basilica September 27, 2005 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Tim Boyle/Getty Images)