I am no longer Catholic, but I was raised in what Patrick Deneen calls “Catholic culture.” Though my family converted to Protestantism when I was in high school, I was deeply shaped by Catholic culture. At his blog, “What I Saw in America,” Deneen offers a powerful description of this culture. Using the Obama- Notre Dame controversy as a springboard, he writes:
One of the most ardent and conservative Catholics that I know lives in an ocean-side house in Malibu, California. His opposition to abortion is fierce; however, in no way could it be suggested that he lives in a Catholic culture. He is a Catholic living in a culture of materialism, individualism, hyper-mobility and hedonism. While perhaps more extreme than the case for most of us, nevertheless his situation is closer to most American Catholics today than not. American Catholics have largely assimilated into mainstream American society, and come to seek success and approval from that culture on its terms.
Catholicism is a religion of memory and tradition: at every mass we recall the saints and martyrs, the founders of the Church and its greatest heroes – inculcating as if by second nature a familiarity with past generations and our expectation for ones that follow. As Chesterton wrote, we must inhabit a democracy of “the living, the dead, and the not-yet-born.” A Catholic culture is replete with stories passed down from the past and conveyed to the future – after all, we have all the best storytellers, from Dante and Shakespeare (yes, he was) to Percy and O’Connor – and, of course, Chesterton. All this is to say, the dead and the not-yet-born live among us – they are not forgotten or ignored, but among us as sure as the people who share our lives in neighborhoods and communities. This was precisely the point of Jody’s fine essay on why we need to live near cemeteries. Most of us, however, are in living arrangements where the dead are kept distant and apart from us – just as we separate all of the various aspects of life, disaggregating shopping from work from recreation from home. And even in the home, we are likely to be texting or emailing Facebook “friends” or hanging on the edge of our seats to see who gets kicked off American Idol. Much of the time, we are not even home when we are home.
It has now been several years since I read Richard Rodriguez’s wonderful Hunger of Memory. Rodriguez also describes this Catholic culture, but he does so to show how he moved beyond it, into a world of American Protestant individualism. (The torment he felt as he lived between these two worlds is not unlike what I have described for the eighteenth-century experience of Philip Vickers Fithian in The Way of Improvement Leads Home).
As Deneen’s essay makes clear, “Catholic culture” no longer exists in America. It has been trumped by the powerful forces of modernity with all its accompanying individualism, rootlessness, and economic materialism. There is much of me that thinks this is a shame.