A Time to Gloat

Last week, I declined to chime in on the pope’s new book — though I should probably hurry up, since I still haven’t gotten a copy, which means that my perspective on it is still fresh and unspoiled, marked by the disinterested objectivity that comes with utter ignorance.

Instead I tried to use the cacophony over condoms to offer insight to members of the orthodox Catholic subculture — that tiny but quickly reproducing segment of the Church in the West that clings to papal authority, traditional sexual ethics, and reverent liturgy — on how so many people who also claim to be Catholic came to exempt themselves from obeying Church authority. The learned Rev. John McCloskey once made the point that there already is a word for “dissenting Catholic”; that word is “Protestant.” He is strictly and logically right.

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But logic explains so little of why we do what we do, and works so poorly at changing most people’s minds, that it’s helpful to dig a little deeper. If we wish to do more than score legitimate debating points against these people, and wish instead to attract them back to Il Papa‘s knee, we need to make the effort to empathize with them — an effort they’ll rarely return.

By that I don’t mean we ought to clutch a sweaty palm all through the Our Father and join in singing “Gather Us In” at some liturgy sponsored by Dignity. Nor should we idealize dissenters’ motives. But we should try to climb inside their skins a little, and one way we can do that is to scrutinize ourselves, to see if there’s any aspect of authoritative Church teaching with which we feel profoundly uncomfortable — where we’re looking for wiggle room.

Let me suggest that the reader stop here for a moment and examine his conscience. Think back to the papal statement, conciliar document, or item in the Catechism that most makes you squirm. Consider whether you’ve ever played intellectual Twister, trying to wish this teaching away. If so, step back and ask yourself why you were tempted to evade it. How much was outright sinful in your motives, and how much was merely misguided? Be honest with yourself, as you are confident that God is merciful.

Chastened by that exercise, we now can ask: Why exactly did Catholic dissent arise on sexual ethics at the exact time that Catholics found their opportunity to enter the cultural mainstream in America? (In Western Europe, where the same dissent became prevalent, it was not a grass-roots movement but the fetish of progressive theologians eager to disassociate the Church from “doomed” pre-modern politics and “dying” folkways.) On the basest level, accepting the contraceptive culture became overwhelmingly tempting to ordinary, weak people subject to the vice of human respect. Catholics really did wish to shed their pre-modern “strangeness,” which included those large broods of children apparently better suited to medieval farming than modern grammar schools.

But higher-minded motives were also on the market: Liberal Catholicism seemed the most hopeful option for the spread of the Faith in the modern West — whose “lifestyle” of ever-increasing prosperity and expanding equality seemed less a happy accident of history than a changeless law of nature. The Church had once been foolish to flout Galileo; it seemed equally absurd to try outfighting Alfred Kinsey and Margaret Sanger. Science — reconceived since Descartes not as the speculative search for truth, but the experimental quest for control — had shed its cold, analytical light on human sexuality, banishing the mists of misinformation that had long swirled round it like incense. Just as modern man had swapped the mystical cult of kings for the functionalist transparency of republics, now postmodern man would improve his health and happiness by looking sexuality square in the face. If the Church kept trying to block the view with her stained-glass screen, she would be rudely shoved aside. So our love for the Church, some liberals sincerely believed, should drive us to lovingly correct her mistakes, to cover our mother’s nakedness.

As I demonstrated last week, from a strictly Darwinian point of view such a strategy proved suicidal. As demographer Philip Longman demonstrates, religions that shun contraception will indeed lose some adherents to laxer creeds; but that loss is more than offset by their higher birthrates, greater internal cohesion, and stronger doctrinal immune systems. Human psychology helps explain why this is true. Catholic convert from Communism Douglas Hyde drew on his experience with hardline Marxist cadres and Catholic apostolates to formulate what I call Hyde’s Rule: the more an organization demands of its adherents, the more devoted they’ll be to it.

In other words, we tend to value a group not so much for what we get out of it as for what we have already put into it. The same is true for relationships, healthy and otherwise: the harder we work at them, the more they can seem worth working for. This psychological rule explains alike the devotion of parents to handicapped children . . . and the fevered obsession of unrequited lovers; it accounts for thriving traditionalist orders . . . and ever-expanding cults. He who has given much shall give even more, while he who has offered little, even the little he gives he shall take away (Hyde 3: 17-18).


Which brings me precisely to my point: We know something now that the Kennedy-era modernizers didn’t: Liberalism eats its young. The path out of the ghetto leads by a charmingly scenic route straight to the boneyard. Catholic values, diluted to homeopathic doses, do not act like yeast in dough, but instead like food coloring dropped in a swimming pool. The foreseeable future belongs not to the compromised and the assimilated, but to the small, fervent subcultures with high birthrates — to those “offbeat” homeschoolers in the minivans.

We can learn many things from this verdict of history. If we take from it a sober affirmation that obeying the Natural Law succeeds by natural means because we are acting in harmony with Creation, then we will benefit from the lesson. We will harvest some hope from the prospect that the Church’s internal enemies — whatever their motivations, which God will mercifully judge — are fading into irrelevance. A hundred years from now, wherever Catholics exist, they will look at today’s sex dissenters with that same bemused curiosity we now feel toward the Old Catholics or the Quietists. What were those people thinking, bless their hearts? Do they keep some dusty little parishes here and there — like the lovely, achingly sad Polish National Catholic parish I pass every day, whose bronze doors seem to be welded shut?

There are also dangers here. We can find ourselves making the ugly little leap from asserting “it works because it’s true” to “it’s true because it works.” I have read ultra-traditionalists attack the Church’s embrace of natural family planning, arguing that Catholics have a moral duty to “outbreed the Mohammedans.” I have wondered, reading that, how much of the higher Muslim birthrate is the result of a holy openness to life, and how much to their disregard for the human dignity of women; any faith that permits polygamy and marriage at age nine, whose adherents defend female chastity through widespread “honor-killing,” is no kind of model for us.

There is indeed abroad in the West a toxic “contraceptive mentality.” Like every heresy, it has an equal, opposite heresy. (The Arians denied Christ’s divinity; the Modalists His true humanity.) If we can practice narcissism by refusing to ration present pleasures for the sake of the next generation, it is equally possible to treat women as means rather than ends, to employ them merely as breeders of soldiers and sons. Many pre-modern cultures have done just that, committing an abuse that dissenters would swing like a club at defenders of Church teaching. One of the things that I love so much about Pope Benedict XVI is his wise, deeply Catholic embrace of all that is modern, true, and good — and his cheerful refusal to burn incense before modernity as an idol. This pope, while rejecting the contraceptive mentality, would also shun a pro-natalism that arose not from a joyous embrace of life and a generous self-giving, but a lust for demographic power — or even a differently figured narcissism that expressed itself not in pleasures but in progeny.


When we say that the cultures that will dominate the future will arise from various ghettos, we may welcome the fact that they are theocentric rather than humanist — since we’ve seen that humanism, absent the Incarnation, is finally inhuman. (The tastefully appointed abortion clinics that dot the West should teach us that philanthropists really do love man — served over rice in a nice cream sauce.) What might not strike us as nearly so appealing are the ways in which the devil will pervert resurgent faith into fanaticism and pharisaism — as people compete for status and power according to the new set of rules. (In another age and place, Josef Stalin might have commanded a Puritan army or led witches to the stake.) We needn’t look farther back than the Thirty Years’ War to see how that could play out. Indeed, what we might be glimpsing now is a cyclical pattern in history:

  1. Intense faith builds a culture (which comes from cultus).
  2. Worldly success leads to a slackening of that faith.
  3. The cognitive dissonance of a lofty faith poorly lived out goads men to abortive reforms, then to heresy and rebellion.
  4. The orthodox and heretical forces come into violent conflict, exhausting themselves and disillusioning the half-convinced.
  5. A this-worldly secularism arises to “save” us from the brutal conflicts over faith.
  6. That secularism rests on the social and moral capital built up by the ages of faith, while gradually eroding it.
  7. At last, no communal resources or reasons for self-sacrifice remain, and persons degenerate into mere individuals, seeking to maximize the number of pleasurable experiences before they die.
  8. The populations afflicted by 7) are outbred and replaced by new populations engaged in 1).

And the whole dang Rube Goldberg starts all over again.

As Christians, we hope that history is not merely a cycle but an upward spiral, that Revelation unfolds itself more fully over time, and the march of the City of God is something more than a tribal wandering in the desert. We must look for guidance to men who see further and deeper than we. Let’s be grateful that our pope is one of them.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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