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Old Memes Die Hard

Nate Metzger POSTED: 12/21/13


Nothing speaks quite to the power of delusion’s ability to fight reality, than Hollywood’s portrayal of the Church. On television and in the movies, the Catholic parish is inevitably cast as an imposing, cold, gothic venue, with marble floors and a high altar. It is filled with dark paintings and haunting statues that stare knowingly at our movie’s star, who has wandered into this judging, incensed place at a moment of crisis (his own, ironically). From the loft streams the effervescent sound of Gregorian chant (at all hours of the day, apparently), and there are grated confessionals, manned perpetually by reprimanding priests, for our hero to visit. Or perhaps our movie’s star merely sits vexed and confused in a pew, disheveled from the elements and the events of the movie’s narrative, staring longingly at the towering crucifix above the altar, waiting to be greeted with a ‘my son’, and perhaps then chastised, by a serious, cassocked priest strolling past.

No doubt, such a setting makes for good television, for in addition to the nice visuals, it’s conveniently reinforcing. The portrayal of the Catholic parish as rigid, insular, serious, antiquated, perhaps a bit stifling, heavy, and well-staffed, is the popular idea of what the Church might well be, according to the fancies of our nation’s predominantly protestant and unchurched populace—that is, according to those who have never actually entered a Catholic church in their lives. To most people, unfamiliar as they are with the current abominable manifestation of the Catholic Church ‘on the ground’, the Hollywood vision looks like a spectacular piece of verisimilitude.
Just as conveniently, this same, stern portrayal of the Church provides self-gratifying fodder for the trendy thesis of the enlightened ‘recovering Catholic’—the very man who fled what he remembers in his mind to be these same ancient, intimidating, and wary confines. Of course, for such people, just as important as the imposing parish is what sits adjacent to it, no doubt off screen: the parish school, with its army of stony, knuckle-rapping nuns. And it’s this out-of-touch, repressed Church-and-school, with its antiquated priests roaming antiquated buildings, and with its angry, dogma-saturated, imperious, antiquated nuns, that our ‘recovering Catholic’ has escaped, due entirely to his own wits.

Alas, since this vision of the church does not (to say the least) exist in reality, it must be constructed. For obviously, this portrayal of the Church is pure Hollywood magic. We might with amusement reimagine a Hollywood rendition with our tousled protagonist finding haven in an actual Catholic parish somewhere in the American suburbs. Our star would wander into a church (assuming it wasn’t locked) with no discernable features, let alone Catholic ones. Viewers would be confused. (“Is this a Catholic church? Why are people holding hands? Is that supposed to be a cross? Why is that business woman calling herself ‘sister’”) Somehow I don’t think that scene would make it out of the editing room. At any rate, I don’t envy the poor location scout sent out to find locales that actually reinforce the director’s own delusional notion of what the Catholic church looks like.

But we should not discount the power of these constructions to solidify public opinion. Despite the fact that many churches look more like yoga centers than anything portrayed on television, it’s the telly’s vision that is entrenched in public opinion. Despite the fact that today’s churches are largely lay-run, casual, airy, and generic, with confessionals gathering dust (if they are there at all), the image of a heavy and ancient Church remains. Despite the fact that, off camera, the parish school is long closed, still, the Hollywood portrayal of Catholicism as judgmental, dogmatic, insular, and antiquated holds sway. Indeed, the ‘recovering Catholic’ relies upon Hollywood’s vision. After all, it would hardly be a mark of intellectual courage or special enlightenment, to flee from an organization that is as lightweight, theologically sanitized, and dogmatically barren as the actual, average Catholic parish—or worse yet, the average Catholic school (well, it would be entirely rational to escape such a place, but not for the reasons assumed). The ‘recovering Catholic’ label can only be worn as badge of honor if the Church looks like it does in the movies.

Richard Dawkins, the professional atheist already fading from the passing scene, has advocated a ‘meme’ theory of culture. For the meme theorist, societal mores, tastes, ideas, beliefs, and so on, are just so many ‘memes’, or ‘cultural units’. These memes spread from mind to mind much like any other self-copying or breeding thing. A meme theory of culture does not need any one of these cultural units to correspond with reality: cultural mores, on the meme theory, are merely the product of reproducing memes that care not for truth, but only their continued existence. I would join most of the philosophical community in labeling this ‘naturalist’ theory of culture (even in its most sophisticated version) as the preposterous nonsense that it is…if it wasn’t for the peculiar tendency of the delusional ‘recovering Catholic’ idea to go forth and multiply, in ways that suggest it has a fecundity all its own. The ‘stern and heavy Catholic Church’ meme has spread like wildfire, and has found a host in many’a credulous mind, despite the fact that the Church in the real world, outside of our heads, looks much different. Perhaps there is something to this meme theory after all! How else can we explain how a certain genre of secular Millennial, themselves products of a fledging Catholic culture, can think to wear the delusional ‘recovering Catholic’ badge themselves?

Yes, even baby-faced progressives, who have been raised in the post-conciliar church, self-style by way of this meme. The ‘I survived Catholic school’ variant is particularly alive and well, even now among our college-aged kids. I will sometimes get young students come and speak to me of their own harrowing experience in Catholic school…five years ago. Apparently, even if a ‘Catholic’ high school has no religion class, no nuns, and no clergy of any sort: as long as it is technically Catholic, a student is entitled to the meme. Never mind that three fourths of the faculty weren’t even Catholic, and even the so-called Catholic ones were openly hostile to Catholic dogma and social teaching. Never mind that the only time his high school had Mass was when ‘Father Steve’ came down from St. Zwingli’s once a semester to give a train-wreck ‘contemporary’ service in the school’s ridiculous, iconoclastic nightmare of a chapel, when the kids gathered around the ‘table’ during the consecration. There’s a saint in the school name, and this is enough to use the meme, and wear the merit badge.  

It’s adorable, really. It’s like hearing someone who was born in post-Giuliani New York City talk of his dangerous childhood adventures on 42nd street (presumably in front of the Applebee’s?). Richard Dawkins, perhaps you are on to something.
When it comes to young college students lamenting what they perceive as their own unfortunate, dogma-fueled secondary education, one can only laugh. Indeed, in general, one can merely sigh at the quixotic ‘recovering Catholic’ meme, wherever it finds a home. What is less amusing, and more sinister—indeed, what is in turn most delusional—is the problem of individuals who remain in the Church, yet continue to believe that it looks far too much like the version of the church seen on the Big Screen. That is to say, the meme has infected as many inside the church as it has those who have left it.

Unfortunately, those infected with the meme who are inside our anarchic and nonsensical post-conciliar Church: this is a considerable group of folks. It is simply amazing how many people in leadership roles today in the Church, let alone in its pews (if polls of parishioners are to be believed (and I don’t know why they should not)) continue to declare that we are still stuck in a church that is antiquated, judgmental, bejeweled, insular, repressed, stern, and heavy. To listen to our leaders, from the pope on down, speak of the running of the Church, a casual observer—say, a non-Catholic who is only familiar with papal interviews, et cetera—would be as reinforced of his ignorant view of the church as he would be attending the movies or watching the telly.

We hear our leaders talk of the church and its need to ‘open up’ and change, to quit judging, to quit ‘obsessing’ about morals and dogmas and ‘certainty’; we hear them speak of the growing problem of fearful and self-absorbed ‘pelagians’ mulling over arbitrary rubrics and spiritual bouquets, of the ‘nonsense’ of proselytism, of the need to ‘make a mess’ (apparently out of the as Apollonian ‘order’ and rigidity that is the Church presently?); one might conclude from all this that even our leaders are getting their information on the State of the Church by attending matinees. Memes indeed. What an irony that our ‘recovering Catholic’ is reinforced in his false view of the church by the very words of our clergy.

What is the traditionalist Catholic to do, besides laugh at the utter absurdity of it all? For the meme makes it impossible to argue. How, indeed, is it possible for a traditionalist to debate on what is good for Holy Mother Church going forward, if  our interlocutor does not even agree as to what the present church looks like? As everyone knows, a debate is only possible if the parties agree to terms. So how can we debate someone who really thinks that our casual, laissez faire Church is too judgmental, that its confessors (where they can be found) do not show enough mercy, that it is too dogmatic, and too insistent on ‘certainty’, or that it ‘obsesses’ about moral issues? How are we to argue with someone who thinks that a spartan, plain, and thoroughly naked church needs to be ‘stripped’? How can we argue with someone beholden to a meme that so drastically distorts reality?

We are at a loss. Debate becomes difficult. However, there is hope. If data is to be believed (and I don’t know why it should not), we have in pockets, and entirely by coincidence, a church that matches more accurately the vision perpetuated by a meme that cares not for truth. For despite the incessant calls to strip a church already naked, the avant garde of the church (as even some in the secular media have discovered) is traditionalism. The very people the pope called on to ‘make a mess’ ironically want to restore the church to its former, rich glory. In particular, they want to restore the Old Mass, and make it ubiquitous. They want the Novus Ordo to be an unfortunate blip on our Church’s storied history.

The Hope and  Change brigade find this all confusing, of course. But while the Novus Ordo establishment complains of stasis, it dwindles and dies. Schools close. Novus Ordo seminaries empty out. Meanwhile, a fresh crop of traditionalist priests and seminarians clamor for timeless tradition and the Mass of the ages. Young women emerge that long for the cloistered life and the habit. A vibrant army of young people, annoyed at the banality of the Mass Paul VI, and confused as to why their betters would cheat them of their own liturgy, tradition, and the timeless ways of Holy Mother Church, are already finding footholds, and are starting to restore, piecemeal, a vision of the church and school that is only currently seen on the telly.

Of course, for the time being, we can count on our aging Vatican II Hope and Change brigade to persevere in some capacity, and speak by way of the delusional meme by which they are beholden. They will continue, unabated and against the clear light of day, their calls to lighten the load of a Church with no discipline, to open up a Church that has been sanitized for years, to loosen restrictions where none exist, to topple hierarchical structures where only ‘collegiality’ rules, and to strip a church already naked. We can also count on the ‘recovering Catholic’ to continue schizophrenically boasting of his intellectual courage in leaving such a barren place. But regardless of whether the Hope and Change crowd lies in the church or has escaped it, at least it will be possible, through the work of these young traditionalist priests, nuns, and laymen, and through the grace of God, to debate them. For we see, due to the work of these traditionalist leaders, a church that, in pockets, looks much like the meme that infects so many outside of these pockets. In other words, the work of traditionalists has made the meme correspond to reality, making debate possible.

For with the avant garde we are able to point to a rich tapestry of vibrant tradition, and a great and wide availability of the only Mass that has any future: the traditional Latin Mass. Indeed, with these counter-cultural traditionalist youth, we already find a host of clergy ready to speak of the Church triumphant, and a parish life that ironically reinforces the vision held by the unchurched and the Hollywood director. And any place the church looks like this, even in pockets, debate with the iconoclasts is possible. And what a debate it is! For rather than appealing to rhetorical presentations of a church entirely existing in their own minds, the Novus Ordo establishment has to look upon a rather inconvenient reality. In turn, traditionalists are able to appeal to the God-graced vibrancy of the church on the ground, and the infectious attraction of the Traditional Mass and the traditional ways. The arguments for tradition will speak for themselves. Indeed, as traditionalist seminaries bursting at the seams attest, they already do.



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