Monday, March 12, 2012

Church As Cult

Over on Deacon's Bench, an article was posted on the increasing trend of people drafting friends to officiate weddings.  To this I made the observation that this should be posted alongside the posts that demand greater confrontation with the laity under the guise of "catechesis."  This produced the interesting response that the Sacraments are a great time to confront people, except they used the catch term "re-evangelize."  I noted that this is little more than the selling of Jesus to which the host proclaimed Jesus a salesman.

Sitting here today, it is very difficult to see Catholicism as developing into something other than a cult.  In some respects this is unfair to cults.  With cults, the members at least make Dear Leader responsible.  If Dear Leader has a small harem, they can at least expect support from Dear Leader.  If Dear Leader asks the followers to do things, the followers do expect to be given some fulfillment.  Catholicism is doing it on the cheap.  It demands a lifestyle supportable only by the moderately wealthy in this country.  Its diocesan priests are all moderately wealthy.  It promotes deacons from the class of the wealthy.  What the cult members get in return is absolution from their sins of materialism and concern trolling over the abortions of wealthy daughters and gay marriage.  The marriage one is a bit humorous considering that the Church in America can't seem to effect a valid marriage whenever the matter comes under examination.

This all is rather peripheral to the actual ministry of Jesus.  Jesus didn't found a country club.  If one is of the clericalist bent, and I am, one believes that Jesus founded a Church.  The Church was founded to serve the people.  The people served were to be throughout the world.  While it is well and good to speak of the laity's responsibility, it seems to have become a bit of a cop out.  The clergy have a specific obligation to the people.  That is the difference between a salesman and a minister.  For the salesman, the product is the thing.  If no one buys the product, the product dies, and the salesman is out of a job.  For a minister, the product is ancillary to the well being of the person.  The minister should act in the way he does because he believes the person will be benefited.  In the case of the Sacraments, the minister believes the person will benefit from the encounter with the Divine.  This is the sentiment behind "if X is Christianity, then to hell with it."

In the end this is what makes the whole idea of ordaining one's own minister interesting.  The idea that the minister should serve the people is almost a revolutionary concept today.  The whole attitude of you need to play by my rules is quite amusing.  As we fast approach the washing of the feet on Holy Thursday, perhaps the people who call themselves ministers will once again recall that theirs is an ordination of service, not merely of  power.


  1. The big problem for Catholicism in the United States is that the only thing that it can cling to is “faith and morals”. That is, Catholicism and Catholic symbolism can never and will never form any part of the consciousness of even the most lukewarm person on the street. Here I cite again Octavio Paz’ famous quip that the average Mexican, after five hundred years of trial and error, only now believes in two things: the National Lottery and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Now one could probably update that by stating that Mexicans only believe in narco-money and the Virgin of Guadalupe, but the point is the same. American Catholics will never latch onto their symbols in any similar form, because all of the symbols they brought with them from the “old country” were basically flattened in the process of assimilation. Thus, the only thing left to hold the Church together is authority and property, and the sheer force of religious inertia that is becoming weaker with each successive generation.

    Thus, the most loud-mouthed “conservative” Catholics consciously transform themselves into a “frozen chosen” who would cry “fiat justitia, et pereat mundus!” if they remembered enough Latin. Catholicism is turned into an argument concerning what litmus test of religious taxonomy should be used to classify a “real Catholic”. This happens just as much on Vox Nova as any other Catholic site: as long as a certain threshold of “faith and morals” is met, one should not judge the other, etc. Throw in some mandatory words about spirituality and your favorite Bible verses, and you have yourself a blog, my friend. But religion has never really worked this way before, at least before the Reformation. The idea that one is or one is not of a certain religious identity based purely on assent of a strictly determined set of doctrines has no basis in reality, and seems to echo the American obsession with standardized tests in education (a religious SAT?) In any part of the “Catholic world”, a person can have a deep and lasting bond to certain religious symbols (a particular “Virgin”, a patron saint, a certain feast day, a statue, a procession, etc.) without knowingly or even tacitly assenting to the depositum fidei as strictly defined by the official religious hierarchy. Indeed, at certain times in history, vehement anticlerical opposition to that hierarchy did not prevent one from participating in the religious life of the community, though it was governed by corrupt and insensitive clerics.

    The bottom line ultimately lies in who makes truth: the people or the elites. The people have always made their own Catholicism, their own Virgins, their own Christs. These are the symbols that get them through the day, that address the injustices in their lives, and that they turn to in times of distress. I would argue that even the most fervent Catholic in the American context no longer participates in this active creation of religiosity for a number of reasons, or does it in a totally different way. It no longer is an issue for this person of collective, communal, or national identity, but of personal, consumerist taste. In the “conservative” Catholic who you allude to in this post, you have the additional odd twist of their always siding with the Catholicism of the clergy as the “real Catholicism”. While there are such fundamentalists even in traditionally Catholic parts of the world, at least there they know that this is not all there is, and they are sustained by the idea that the symbols of the people are their symbols as well, even if defined differently. Here, the absurd cries of the American fundamentalists in their own little echo chamber can be deafening, and also very, very annoying.

    As I’ve said before, one could summarize it very succinctly in saying that Catholicism is never an excuse to throw a collective party in this country. And in that lies a very poetic formulation of the problem and, in my opinion, there is no way out of it.

  2. I don't know much about the survival of Catholicism and am hesitant to speculate at this point. It is one of the things I don't have control over and am ceasing to concern myself. At this point, I do what is required.

    As your second paragraph notes, to be concerned with being Catholic really wraps one up in a lot of baggage at this point. It simply isn't a shared faith at this point. You are correct that Vox Nova is helping to perpetuate this mentality. While I consider many of the contributors there to be friends, I simply have no interest in promoting the Church. I think it is reasonable for someone who wishes to promote Catholicism to actually promote the Church, and I simply couldn't in good faith do it anymore. I'm not middle or upper class and haven't been since my youth. The Church in America simply doesn't care about my interests, and I'm not interested in self flagellation anymore.

    Your third paragraph is essentially correct that American Catholicism is a consumer choice. It isn't even that I don't have shared ritual with many people today. Today, my shared ritual has more in common with a number of atheists and Muslims than it does the Catholics at my parish. I'm absolutely exhausted with a religion that claims that the poor are the only one's who have to make any sacrifices in this world. Fuck it. If being poor is great then live it.

    As to your final paragraph, I would say it is more akin to playing spin the bottle with your cousins. If you aren't actually in the world, then you end up doing some rather sick and twisted things trying to convince yourself that you are normal. I will always have a respect for what Dostoevsky is alleged to have said about the prostitute being more likely to go to heaven. At some point being a good Christian has to mean giving a shit about people not in your tribe. Perhaps that means being happy for a guy who is allowed to experience a little revelry.


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