Rod Dreher

Lunch With Susans From The Parish Council

I just wanted to relate to you a conversation that I had today with some coworkers that was highly demoralizing, yet offered some clarity of the options (or lack thereof) for religious conservatives. Or maybe not even just conservatives, maybe just anyone who takes religion seriously, believers and unbelievers alike.

I popped into a break room to eat my lunch this afternoon, sitting a table away from three women who were eating together, people who I knew from around the building. After exchanging pleasantries and light talk, we discovered that we were all four Catholics, which led in turn to conversations about which parishes we attend, etc (normal light talk among Catholics of any stripe). It turned out that none of the three women still attended mass, sometimes they attended services at local non-denoms but even that was rare. Their reasons were the following: mass is boring; I don’t “get” anything out of it while I feel really great after my non-denom services; people should be able to use birth control; I didn’t like that priest; confession is awkward; etc.

All three of these women (all in their 40’s and 50’s) had attended Catholic schools from K-12, and none of them had even the slightest idea of why the Church teaches what it does, or even a hint of self-awareness that none of their complaints remotely touched what God Himself wants, only me, me, me. Nothing touched upon how they thought God wanted to be worshiped, or how God wants us to live. At one point during one woman’s diatribe about how she gets nothing out of Mass I meekly remarked “well maybe that’s not the point of it all,” to which she blurted “Why else would I go?!” These kinds of Christians (pray for them, please) are not rare, of course, but these exchanges reinforced one lesson and taught me another:

1. The BenOp is necessary if only because the modern Church offers institutionalized solutions that are only partially successful, if at all. All of these women went to Catholic schools, and none had even the slightest awareness of what mass is, beyond free entertainment. We’ve seen it a thousand times from the 1970s-90s youth culture, to parish committees led by Susan from the Parish Council types, to endless episcopal investigations and task forces about this issue or that. Institutions, in their current stage at least, are not an answer to most of these problems. I happen to be reading Morris Berman’s “The Twilight of American Culture,” and in it he repeatedly stresses that nothing makes a good idea less effective at what the creator was trying to accomplish than for it to get institutionalized. Institutions take short cuts, do partial jobs, sloganize, worry about press coverage, and generally just create kitschy noise. In this era we will need a different type of institution, and I believe those institutions will need to be decidedly BenOp in nature.

2. I legitimately think if I had pushed those three women, and asked hard questions about whether they thought worship was about God or about their own feelings, they would have defiantly refused to worship Him if their “feelz” weren’t the center of a worship service. That is a very modern, very individualistic, and very American conclusion to come to, and knowing that it is very hard to disagree with the Ahmari side of the Ahmari-French debate. If God is our number one priority, and if liberal individualism has led to this kind of self-worshipping individual being exceedingly common in our society, then it is hard as a Christian for me to come to any other conclusion that Liberalism has failed miserably.

However, like you, I am forced to admit that while Ahmari may have really good points, a post-liberal society with the building blocks that we currently have (hell, these three women probably represent a third of our country, with another third being religion-hating progressives) would probably turn out vastly more progressive and frankly idiotic than we could dream of, while French does have the legitimate point that in our current liberal epoch there are at least protections for religious believers, crumbling and insufficient they may be. It is like we are starving on a desert isle and Ahmari is offering us a coupon for a free steak dinner at a great restaurant in a mall that was demolished 50 years ago, while French is offering us Mar-mite on stale and moldy Wonder bread. It’s confusing.

Anyway, just wanted to give you some more tidbits about the state of religious life in America, from an average Joe in the Mid South.

Demoralizing? Yes. But not as demoralizing as enforced cheerfulness and frogmarched optimism.

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