John Zmirak makes all the right heads explode. For that alone, we should be grateful.
John caused quite an Internet kerfuffle a few years ago with a column called Illiberal Catholicism where he identified and took apart a tendency he spotted among young Catholics who were trending toward a hatred of America, a belief now rampant in some circles that America was badly founded and is therefore always incompatible with Catholicism. He also noted their hatred of the free market. We both saw it among the traditionalists we knew in New York in the 1990s. During a Mass on Thanksgiving Day at St. Agnes Church one year, while the priest was extolling the wonders of our country, Dr. Thomas Drolesky, a traditionalist then and now a full-blown sede vacantist, shook his head vigorously, no, no, no.
John showed how this idiosyncratic notion held among a few New York traditionalists had metastasized and was now held by college students and even their professors. John gleefully took incoming fire from certain of his squealing targets, fire he even more gleefully returned. He loves a good fight.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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He has expanded that essay and threads of many other public arguments in his new Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism (Regnery). His targets include left-wing Catholic dissenters but also the ever-growing numbers of—how would you describe them?—self-proclaimed orthodox Catholics with private college degrees who live mostly on social media, hate “conservatives,” hate the pro-life movement, hate the pro-family movement, hate Republicans especially, and rather than getting real jobs to support their ever growing families instead love welfare checks. He argues they are increasingly insinuating themselves into Catholic institutions where they can spread their new gospel.
But let’s back up a bit, to John’s teen years.
He describes what it was like during the revolution after the Second Vatican Council. His mailman father went door to door collecting nickels and dimes to build the Catholic school John attended in Queens, New York and all along he was unaware of the demonic piffle the priests and nuns were teaching his own son. A “stocky nun” in a pants suit and red lipstick explained to the kids all about the wicked patriarchy. The head of the religion department mocked the Eucharist: “Do you think you are eating a leg, or maybe just a finger.”
John took to the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia to get the real teachings of the Church and found and learned at the feet of lonely Jesuit Father John Hardon at nearby St. Johns University. John complained about his school to his principal, his bishop, and even the Papal Nuncio to the United States. His school threatened to expel him. He threatened the school with a lawsuit helped by a lawyer his mom found at a Friday night poker game at their parish church. In a hilarious side-bar John explains how this story got him into Yale.
Zmirak salutes those like Father Hardon and many others who created an oasis of orthodoxy where the faith could survive the onslaught of the “Spirit of Vatican II.” He believes future historians will recognize those brave souls who stood up to the dominant heterodoxy and kept the candles burning.
The point of the book is to make the case that much of what we are told we must believe as Catholics is simply not true, even if what we hear is coming from bishops and even sometimes, regrettably, the pope. We, as Catholics, are not required to open our borders, institute socialism, hate the free market, believe in global warming, gun control and the whole panoply of supposed “seamless garment” nonsense now espoused by committees of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Vatican dicasteries, and certain smelly blogs and websites.
Zmirak even slaughters some sacred cows. In a chapter extolling the free market, he says the greatest “stain” on Dorothy Day was her “lifelong love affair with the radical left.” He said that she “never overcame her or even seemed to question her initial repugnance at people of property, at middle-class citizens who owned their businesses and strove to better themselves and their families.”
He says she was enamored of the Chester-Belloc proposition of “Distributism,” what Zmirak calls “a speculative (that is, never been tried) economic system that proposes that the government break up large businesses and agribusinesses into tiny mom and pop shops and subsistence farms, then heavily regulate every sector of the economy to make sure no large (that is, successful) businesses or farms emerge ever again.” Zmirak points out that Chesterton knew so little about money that he would have starved if his wife hadn’t managed their accounts.
Zmirak is a very funny writer, acerbic yes, cutting, oh yes, but also funny. He describes the liturgy of his childhood going from “being a solemn affair dominated by silence and rousing doctrinal hymns … to an event celebrated in our grammar school cafeteria with crude felt banners with slogans like ‘God Don’t Make Junk’ and (as I seem to recall) ‘Rejoice, Damn it!’ Sacred music was replaced with ‘folk songs’ such as Where Have all the Flowers Gone? and a hymn Blowin’ in the Wind by an obscure church composer named ‘B. Dylan.’ I grimly read the impenetrable lyrics—and figured that they must be from the Old Testament.”
He saves his most withering fire for the gaggle of writers/thinkers/activists he says used the secret password “Humanae Vitae” to worm their way into Catholic institutions. He says adherence to Humanae Vitae has become all anyone needs to accept someone’s orthodoxy. “Tell the nice folks who are hiring—who may have suffered bitterly for their fidelity to the pope in past decades—that you embrace that one encyclical, and they will assume that you are a faithful brother in arms! Then you can get busy mining Catholic documents for passages to wrestle out of context to serve your own agenda—which includes opposing pro-life Republicans who might cut the public assistance on which you rely to support yourself (and perhaps your spouse and children) while you spend all day on social media.” He names names.
Zmirak believes, with many others, that the breaking point is that encyclical—Humanae Vitae, contraception. But rather than cave to the zeitgeist, he believes we can convince the unbelievers, not through Scripture or encyclicals or any appeals to authority but through patient reasoning.
He offers the rather startling statistic that the actual population of authentically faithful Catholics in America is no more than 1.2 million. The remaining 95 percent slipped into heresy likely beginning with contraception, a teaching they do not understand.
He says, “The undeniable weirdness, bitterness, crankiness, and general mediocrity that pervade the orthodox Catholic subculture are the direct result of having few people to choose from.” The other 95 percent just cannot wrap their minds around Humane Vitae but “We need that 95 percent … people who don’t understand a complex intellectual argument based on the remote implications of natural law reasoning, which is based on an older view of nature that modern science has not so much disproved as simply dismissed.”
This is a rich and very fun book. I do not share John’s obvious glee in going after the pope and various bishops. Nonetheless, there is much to recommend it, including and perhaps especially looking around social media and watching all the right heads explode.
(Photo credit: Point of View Ministries, Dallas, TX)