Ed. Note: This is the first response of three we will be publishing as part of a brief symposium on Brandon McGinley’s book The Prodigal Church.
One of the ways that Catholics tell the story of modernity—think for instance of Charles Taylor—is as a loss of socially enforced religion that makes possible a more personal or heart-felt faith. If modernity is not an improvement, it at least represents a set of incommensurable goods; what we gain in authenticity leaves us at any rate no worse off. This view sits uneasily with earlier Catholic teaching, both about the relation of the individual to society and about the larger scheme of salvation — a scheme that, if you’ll pardon the slight impiety, attempts to shipwreck by baptism and the winds of social pressure as many souls as possible upon the broad shores of purgatory.
Brandon McGinley proposes a set of very fine recommendations for the Catholic Church in America that cleaves in substance to some more charitable reconstruction of this older model. He wants to renew parishes, families, and friendships into a culture in which the faith is once again taken for granted, and he gives not a guidebook for exactly how to do this nor a theological treatise on the principles underlying it but something that sits between the two, a kind of vision of what the first steps in this direction might look like and why they might separate us from the crowd. And McGinley is insistent that they will separate us: much of the problem with American Catholicism comes down to its prodigality, to throwing away its inheritance in order to assimilate into a middle class post-Protestant mainstream with its bourgeois discomforts, its contraceptives, its cocktail parties, its political parties; and much of the solution is to return to a Gospel radicalism in work and politics and sex and community.
I think that this is basically right, that it is largely representative of the views of mass-going Catholics under the age of 40, like me and like McGinley, and that it is, probably, incoherent. There are incoherences and there are incoherences, and this one is perhaps not fatal; but there is some illness of fit between the counsel of a culture of Catholicism and the dress of countercultural radicalism in which that counsel comes to seduce us. For much of the rhetorical work of the argument is done by its iconoclasm, by the subversiveness of trading your parents’ portrait of Kennedy for a statue of King Saint Louis. The trade may still be a good one—Kennedy was more obviously a rapist than Louis IX was an anti-Semite, with fewer heroic virtues to compensate—but why does so much of its appeal lie in its subversion? Why does orthodoxy excite only when charged with a frisson of heresy? And are we sure that our children will adopt the substance of our recommendations rather than their rebellious form, their tacit acceptance of Taylor’s premise that authenticity is rooted in a kind of individuality and finally in a kind of opposition?
Consider friendship, which is central to McGinley’s recommendations. Friendship is voluntary; it loses its savor when insincere; it traffics in all the freight of authenticity. And yet the closest friends grow up together; their bond is formed before they can give mature consent and remains with them in some manner even if they attempt to opt out of it. Part of the dissatisfaction that drives people toward a more traditional Catholicism is the sense that this side of friendship is unavailable to us, that the social and scientific technologies of liquid modernity—labor markets and liberal theory and whatever else—have left us, like McGinley, forging our friendships by force of will in adulthood. And this is true above all of our friendship with God.
Taylor’s intuition is that friendship is deepened by persevering through adversity, surviving the real possibility of failure; that all this is in some measure good for us. But it is not clear that the challenges of secular society are sufficiently external and unifying for that, that they are not rather more insidious. Boot camp does not bind by making you doubt your mess mates, nor by constantly rotating the members of your platoon; the intimacy of the foxhole is formed from a common enemy and a common experience, not by fear of friendly fire.
McGinley picks up on both sides of this. His traditionalism knows that Catholics are not anabaptists: there is no assumption that we will be a permanent minority surrounded by occasions for rumspringa; there is no corresponding recommendation to head for the hills. (McGinley rejects the more extreme interpretations of the Benedict Option that envision something like this isolation.) At the same time, his resemblance to Taylor has its own traditional pedigree — existentialist, Romantic, but also Patristic.
If we condemn the romanticism of Luther’s ‘Here I stand,’ if we condemn its anti-social effects in Kierkegaard and beyond, still it is hard to deny the deep nostalgia for the martyrs and for the more existential elements in Augustine upon which it, and Taylor and Barth and Heidegger and all the rest, draw. The thrill of disobedience has long been used as blush upon the humbler attractions of submission.
Perhaps all of this is too abstract. For surely we must be counter-cultural in the near and middle term whatever our long-term ideals. But there is an immediate question here of how much to heed the world. How do we know when our opposition to the common culture becomes an opposition to common sense? McGinley is admirable in not reflexively rejecting modern America, and he commits to some truths, like a more than superficial opposition to racism, that the Church has learned from the world at least as much as the world has learned from the Church. But how do we judge where the line between learning from the world and assimilating to the world is?
The answer is forced for a Catholic when it comes to dogmatic questions like the superiority of the celibate life; it is perhaps also reasonably evident on other magisterial questions like the impermissibility of contraception or the undesirability of Anglo-American capitalism. But what of everything else: McGinley’s suggestion that we might re-emphasize the teaching against usury and good riddance to any offended donors; the idea of turning local parishes into a kind of kids-club-cum-homeless-shelter with perpetual adoration; the stretching of Sunday mass well beyond its predictable hour; the suspicion of the language and techniques of corporate boardrooms within the life of the Church; and so on down McGinley’s list?
Again, these all seem basically right to me, but why they seem right comes down at least as much to a kind of sensibility or even—perish the phrase—a spirit of the age as much as any knock down argument that I could, or that McGinley does, give. (The two most immediate scandals plaguing the Catholic Church, sexual abuse and financial impropriety, would both benefit from having hard-nosed McKinsey alums in charge; still, deferring to the suits sends a disagreeable tingle down my spine.) That this spirit is one of opposition to many current secular trends, though in its way also a continuation of others, does nothing to make it less vaporous, provides no sounder arguments in its defense, gives no guarantees that it will be any more lasting.
And all of these come at real costs. McGinley is right to defend the older vision because it protected the spiritually average: there are worse things than purgatory, or at least one worse thing (and it’s very much worse). But his recommendations show a care for tomorrow’s laggards rather more than today’s. McGinley treats the shrinking of the Church as a given and his recommendations as a way to rediscover Catholic life on the other side, but his recommendations will also accelerate the losses: not just the bankers who have different ideas about usury or red-pilled opponents of immigration but soccer moms with games on Sunday; not just the adults who are driven away from the Eucharist but their children who will now go unbaptized, who will not have a shot at the sort of reversion to the faith—enabled by infant graces—that McGinley himself experienced.
Catholics, after all, are not anabaptists. The rote and the residual is still real, is still part of our inheritance, and throwing it away is its own kind of prodigality; throwing it away matters. It matters enough indeed that it must be justified by something more than the thrill of radicalism, and I am not always sure for McGinley — for myself — what that more is.