Good News For Cranky Catholics in a Post-Christian Age

Whereas T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month” in The Waste Land (a fact empirically verified for me by living in Alaska for 9 years), I’ve found that, at least in the decade of the 2000s, October sometimes became my crankiest. 2004 and 2008 come to mind. Both involved a significant pre-election immersion in political and cultural issues that resulted in a 25-page e-mail to two family members (2004) and at least one rancorous argument with co-workers (2008). In October 2004, shortly before the elections, I remember having a phone conversation with my late mother who found me spiritually desiccated and dyspeptic: “You sound a little cranky, Jonathan.” She was right.

Before exploring what this unhealthy crankiness is, it’s probably wise to talk about what it is not. It’s not firm convictions rooted in a divine metanarrative (Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium) that sometimes result in a righteous anger in the aftermath of decisions like Roe v. Wade, Obergefell v. Hodges, or in seeing many of our young people buy into the counterfactual dogmas that are peddled at our universities. Scores of other examples could be furnished.

It’s not the “fighting spirit” that flows out of these convictions that Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen identified in certain Irish Catholics: “Irish fight because they love. The more a man loves the more he fights for what he loves. Because the Irish love their country and their God they have more to fight for.” As a laid-back southern Californian with a strong contemplative bent, I appreciate an opposite temperament that has a certain degree of ethnic feistiness when it comes to fighting for things that really matter.

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This unhealthy crankiness is not calling a spade a spade. The West really has become a dictatorship of relativism that has produced a culture of death (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI); the old Soviet Union really was the Evil Empire (Ronald Reagan); certain people in John the Baptist’s audience really were a brood of vipers (Luke 3:7); and, when Christopher Hitchens, a man of the Left, surveyed the prevarication and malfeasance of Bill and Hillary Clinton, he was spot-on in saying that they really had “no one left to lie to.”

A good window for understanding my episodes of dyspepsia during the 2000s is the televised funeral of Senator Paul Wellstone that took place at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis in October of 2002. Wellstone died in a plane crash. On board with the 58-year-old senator were his wife Sheila, his daughter Marcia, three campaign workers and two pilots. When he was alive, as one of the most liberal politicians in America, I sometimes wondered, when I lived in Minnesota, if Wellstone and I, a political, economic, and cultural conservative, would even agree on certain self-evident laws of gravity, whether the sun rose in the east and set in the west, or the time of day.

Wellstone’s funeral became a political rally and disgusted Governor Jesse Ventura so much that he walked out after the late senator’s campaign treasurer Rick Kahn started exhorting the crowd to vote Democrat when they went to the polls the following week. Kahn asked five Republican state senators and Congressman Jim Ramstad to work hard to keep Wellstone’s seat in Democratic hands. “Can you not hear your friend calling you one last time to step forward on his behalf to keep his legacy alive and help us win this election for Paul Wellstone?” Kahn said. Again, this and much more happened during a funeral.

There are many lessons to be drawn from this disgraceful episode in American political history with one being that we see what happens when your politics becomes your religion. This I believe was the matrix of my own crankiness years before. You listen to political talk radio for extended periods of time during the day, add in large amounts of combative “Right versus Left” cable shows, briskly stir in some related segments off of You Tube addressing controversial topics, and fold in a book or two related to the culture war. At the same time, you let your spiritual life become perfunctory: you go through the motions at Mass; your mind wanders during the homily while you think about the latest polls and can’t recall the last time you went to Confession. Dust gathers on your Bible; praying the Rosary has become sporadic; your politics have become your religion.

The late, great Father Richard John Neuhaus said more than once: “Politics is penultimate,” and knew well the desiccating effects of politics and the culture war becoming our religion. Such a life does not nourish the soul. When we continue down this road, even those who agree with us the vast majority of the time, and stand with us on the most important issues, if they’re not zealous enough for the cause, begin to look milquetoast and mealy-mouthed in the struggle. No one is “blood and guts” enough for us.

We cease to see the opposition clearly. It’s true that some people we disagree with in the public square not only have bad ideas but appear to also be bad people with a long track record of bad character. Hillary Clinton comes to mind. However, when politics becomes more and more our religion, our ideological opponents look more and more like bad people, even if, by all accounts, they’re good people. For example, I disagree with Juan Williams of FOX News and Kirsten Powers of CNN on many issues, but I can’t deny that they seem like decent people who would make good neighbors.

When politics has become your religion, those who believe that people with bad ideas are also bad people will often also engage in ad hominem attacks. The person is attacked as well as their bad ideas. Okay; I admit it; I recently laughed out loud when author and talk-show host, Mark Levin, called the leader of North Korea, “Kim-Jong Fat Boy,” on his radio show.

No great harm done there to the cultural fabric but I do think that those on my political side of the aisle should desist from fat jokes about Michael Moore, Rosie O’Donnell, and Hillary Clinton’s lower body. People are made in God’s image; there’s a dignity issue here; we play a role in their weight (no pun intended) of glory. And, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal… It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.”

The reader may notice that all the deleterious consequences cited here resulting from turning our politics into a religion are often found on the Secular Left. That’s because many of them have taken the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob off the throne and have replaced religion with politics. Studies also show that the Secular Left is made up of some of the unhappiest people on the planet. To my friends on the Right, who are making politics a religion and throwing civility to the wind, I say, “Be careful; you may wake up some day and look in the mirror and see them looking back at you. If politics is making you desiccated and dyspeptic, they win.”

Hans Urs von Balthasar identified four archetypal dimensions in the Church: “the Petrine, representing hierarchical office; the Pauline, representing charismatic mission; the Johannine representing contemplative love; and the Marian, representing virginal fruitfulness and the universal call to holiness.” In a recent lecture, Father Robert Barron, the auxiliary Bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, included, with good reason, “changing the culture” as part of the Pauline archetype. What has been described in this essay is a hyper-Pauline tendency among some people that I practiced for a season. I’m convinced the Johannine archetype can help bring the hyper-Pauline individual back into balance (and the Pauline can help a cloistered, hyper-Johannine person too but that’s a discussion for a different time).

The Johannine archetype includes prayer, mysticism, monasticism, and contemplation. Think of the Johannine archetype as the foundation of the house and the Pauline as what we frame on the house. If your foundation is big enough to support an 1100-square-foot house and you want to frame a 2200 square foot house on the foundation, you’re going to have major problems. Notice in my story in 2004 and 2008 how political and cultural engagement were dwarfing my spiritual life. Remember that Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen said that the key to his fruitful ministry in the Church and in the broader culture was the one hour he spent each day adoring the Blessed Sacrament.

The beauty of the Catholic faith is that it provides so many venues for engaging the Johannine archetype, which in turn enhances and liberates the Pauline. In Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or praying the Rosary or the Divine Mercy, there are so many opportunities to, as John Pierre de Caussade says, abandon ourselves to Divine Providence. That’s a bottom-line issue for a cranky Catholic navigating a post-Christian sea: abandonment. That’s the easy yoke and light burden that Christ offers us: you do your best to daily fight the good fight of faith, then release the results to my Providence.

This will help the person in a hyper-Pauline mode unstring their bow. In archery, when you’re not using your bow, you unstring it and release the tension that it’s under in order to maintain its strength and extend the longevity of the bow. I can’t help but think of John Paul II. He had a “front row seat” to the bloodiest century in human history. He saw his own country invaded first by the Nazis, then, after the war, by Stalin’s Russia. He saw the decline of the West accompanied by a dictatorship of relativism and culture of death. He had every reason to be a cranky Catholic and yet he had a lightness of being and knew how to unstring his bow. When Bono visited him to discuss debt forgiveness for certain nations in 2000, he borrowed the rock star’s sunglasses and tried them on.

May God grant us all the grace to unstring our bows in the exciting and perilous days ahead.


  • Jonathan B. Coe

    Jonathan B. Coe writes from the Pacific Northwest. Before being received into the Catholic Church in 2004, he served in pastoral ministry in rural Alaska and in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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