Buying the Right Toys from Faiths R Us

A couple of weeks ago I was staying at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., as a guest speaker for a symposium on the role of Dominicans in the life of the intellect. The eastern province is flush with vocations, as we at Providence College know well, having in recent years sent to the Dominican brothers and sisters some of our most devout and brilliant students, one of whom I caught up with there, along with several Dominican priests who had been my colleagues in Rhode Island. The province has had to build a new wing to accommodate the numbers of young men, who are all of them notable for their orthodoxy, their bold and happy faith, and their being immersed in the intellectual life.

It was not supposed to be this way, of course. The Church of the Future was going to be utterly different from the ignorant old Church of the Dark Ages, those medieval times of contrition, chastity, intact families, straightforward catechism, the building of hundreds of thousands of schools and hospitals and orphanages and old folks’ homes all over the world, Lenten fasts, and May crownings, which ended at around 1959, followed by the Renaissance, which ended in 1978 with the election of Karol Wojtyla to the papacy. Then came the Great Backsliding into orthodoxy again, so that if any priest now said that prayer was out of date or that Jesus was an inferior version of Buddha, he would be subject to public ridicule.

“Oh,” says the religion consumer, looking at a table covered with religious paraphernalia—icons, rosaries, Ganesha the elephant, a “Coexist” sign, a menorah, a prayer carpet, miniatures of the Easter Island megaliths, and cards reading Angels Are Everywhere—”oh, if only there was one church that would do the work of all these religions!”

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At which a very fat bishop barges through the door, stage left, holding up a copy of National Catholic Reporter. “Oh my,” exclaims the religion consumer, “pray tell, who are you?”

“Hamahamaha Church of the Future!” he stutters, staring at the television camera.

“Are you the Church of the Future? And can you do the work of all these religions?”

“Hamahamaha Church of the Future!”

I am thinking about these things because, while I was at the House of Studies, I picked up and took home with me a free book that, in its cultural analysis, could have been written yesterday, but was published all the way back in 1979, when the rage for the Church of the Future was still storming. It is Catholicism and Modernity: Confrontation or Capitulation?, by my estimable colleague at Touchstone, James Hitchcock. Every page is stocked with diamonds. One of the most perspicacious assertions that Hitchcock makes throughout the book, and especially in a chapter with the provocative title, “The Illusion of Pluralism,” is that when Catholics cut themselves adrift from their own past, they do not thereby become profound thinkers, ready to confront with a new and distinctively Catholic voice the modern world in all its possibilities and its dangers. They become prey to advertising, in the broadest sense of the word. Or they themselves join the media, and become hucksters par excellence. Join us by midnight tonight!

“The media’s alleged commitment to pluralism,” says Hitchcock, “is at base a kind of hoax. The banner of pluralism is raised in order to win toleration for new ideas as yet unacceptable to the majority. Once toleration has been achieved, public opinion is systematically manipulated first to enforce a status of equality between the old and the new, then to assert the superiority of the new over the old. A final stage is often the total discrediting, even sometimes the banning, of what had previously been orthodox.” Hitchcock quotes T.S. Eliot, who put the matter most bluntly: “Paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.”

The advertising, says Hitchcock, is particularly effective with the half-educated, which even in those days would include almost every young and middle-aged person who possessed a college degree; sufficiently schooled to look down upon their neighbors, but lacking the intellectual sophistication or the strength of faith to cast a wary eye upon their own times. Such people are reeds for every “intellectual” wind that blows. They show their superiority to their fellows in the pews by being attuned to signals in the media, which teach them what it is now going to mean to be “enlightened.” Then they adopt the media’s causes as they adopt a new style in hats or shoes.

This was true then and is true now when it comes to “openness” to other religions, or to the “multicultural.” If you are really going to be open to the insights of Hinduism, for example, you have to learn at least something of Sanskrit, and you have to take pains to distinguish what in it is consonant with the natural law and what is not; you have to do with Hinduism what you would do with the ancient Stoics, except that the task would be far more difficult, because unlike Stoicism, Hinduism does not manifest itself in the work of writers such as Marcus Aurelius, whose meditations every educated person in the West was once aware of. But the mind that is formed by the media, which means by advertising, is a puddle in the street. It cannot contain Marcus Aurelius, or the Vedic texts. It can only contain a flash, an image. Nor even a flash of something real—a flash of a neon sign for cognac.

That approach to religions, says Hitchcock, buys its openness at a high price, namely that “none can be respected in their own terms.” The shopper at the mart of religions believes that “he can relativize the faiths of others just as he has relativized his own, and that this culture-bound process, so characteristic of the Western academic mind, has universal validity. The tolerant liberal mind is open to all faiths in the same way that a blender is open to all foods.”

The consumer of religiosity is often, as Hitchcock shows, a consumer in more tangible ways as well. Most people cannot fly around the world as Harvey Cox did, sampling religions here and there and bringing back souvenirs. The viability of that life “depends either on personal wealth or skill in obtaining grants.” Nuns doffed their habits not to teach the children of the poor, which they had been doing already, but to enter secular life and rub elbows with the pretty people. Immigrants to America built churches and schools with their own hands, literally paying for them with nickels and dimes. But the Catholics who sent in their checks for the Church of the Future did not build anything with their own hands, paying for them with nickels and dimes. They went in for bigger things; for example, the notorious 1976 Call to Action conference in Detroit, “summoned by the National Council of Catholic Bishops after months of preparation and at a cost of over $400,000.”

That conference was an exercise in sales pitching. As television commercials give you at best only a vague imitation of an argument, and at worst a mere invitation to indulge in a cheap emotional response, so the council gave only the appearance of debate. Well over a thousand delegates were supposed to consider hundreds of resolutions over the course of three days, “and on the last day of the conference a large number of resolutions were approved without any debate at all.” Among them were the usual—the ordination of women, acceptance of homosexuality, abrogation of priestly celibacy, and so forth.

Hitchcock notes that the bureaucratic mind is particularly susceptible to such advertising, to produce it at great expense, to peddle it, and to buy it. That is because the bureaucratic mind is fearful of conflict, fearful of standing up for truth against falsehood. The last thing that the head of a “Human Resources” department wants—and notice the blandly dehumanizing name of such a thing—is a sharp edge. The result, if you will pardon the frankness, is to be stiff where you should be limber, and limber where you should be stiff. Orthodox faith can go the way of all flesh; but not the orthodoxies of the day, sold by the media. “On a wide range of questions,” says Hitchcock, “political, moral, cultural, and religious, liberal ‘thought’ in the 1970s is merely sloganeering, the throwing up of catch phrases designed to halt real thought, to protect liberal dogmas.”

It explains also the very language of the liturgy and the jingle-like advertising melodies that have passed for sacred music in the English-speaking world. So Hitchcock quotes Jacques Barzun: “There is a habitual overuse of the word ‘creative’ to dignify small things. These busy revolutionaries are sure that what they write is poetry. They accept capitalist-industrialist notions with the tainted vocabulary and speak of ‘updating’ a religious order. Pouring blood on Secret Service records,” a bit of anti-war theater engaged in by the recently deceased Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., “is an ‘educational act.’ They use the words ‘humanize’ and ‘informal’ with the same vagueness as Madison Avenue does in an ad for whiskey or perfume.”

These pitchmen, ciarlatani or charlatans in the original Italian sense of somebody on top of a bench, chattering away about the virtues of this brand new elixir, made all kinds of predictions about the effectiveness of what they were selling, and the glorious things that would come to your Church if you would shell out the cash and buy a case of it while supplies lasted. More about those predictions in my next article.


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