There’s a certain value to nonconformity, to separation from the rest of society. In “If 6 Was 9”, Jimi Hendrix wrote of “white collared conservatives” that were hoping “my kind will drop and die /But I’m going to wave my freak flag high.” So long as you stand for something definite, something positive that the surrounding culture does not value, then and only then do you become a threat. So when what was once the counterculture becomes the mainstream, tradition becomes nonconformist and orthodoxy becomes radical. And telling the truth, as George Orwell supposedly said, becomes a revolutionary act.
“How do people know we are Catholic?” This is the question Cynthia Millen asks of us in a Catholic Stand post on June 18, and a good question it is. Drawing from the example of the Amish and Muslims, Millen shows how the outer markers of the two faiths not only separate themselves from others but also contribute to their experience of faith. [Full disclosure: I am Cynthia’s managing editor.] I have nothing to say to contradict Millen. Rather, I’d like to build on the theme of separation in the context of the recent Supreme Court decision, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission (584 U.S. __ ).
Tradition and Chesterton’s Fence
In a previous article, I argued that the changes in Catholic life and liturgy made in the wake of Vatican II were driven by post-World War II Catholics’ desire to be assimilated within the American mainstream. Other writers have described the changes as “Protestantizing” the Church, but this is an oversimplification. The reformers and the Catholics who supported them still saw an essential difference between Catholicism and all the other communions, and for the most part, didn’t want to eliminate it. Their error lay in considering tradition generally inessential to Catholicism.
“Chesterton’s fence,” as paraphrased by John F. Kennedy, runs thus: Never tear down a fence until you know the reason why it was put up. A fence may exist to keep livestock contained within a farmer’s pastureland. Or it may mark a border between two properties that no longer exists due to a purchase. Or it may be meant to keep people on one side of a border, like a prison campus or the former Eastern Bloc. The purpose may no longer exist, or the fence might not serve it very well any longer, or the purpose itself may now be considered evil. But until you know what that purpose is/was, tearing the fence down is foolish even if nothing bad results from doing so.
Traditions, broadly considered, do serve a purpose within the Church. For one thing, they establish and guarantee the continuity of the faith over time, connecting us with every generation of Christians since the Upper Room. For another, they educate us in the symbols and stories which form and bind us together as a community. Last—and most importantly, for our present purpose—they distinguish us and our faith from every other. They mark us as “in the world but not of the world.” They are part of what gives Catholicism its unusual “crunch”, what keeps Catholicism from being generic Christianity (or, worse, generically “spiritual”).
Catholicism vs. Generic Christianity
Well, what’s wrong with being “generically” Christian? Generic Christianity is what C. S. Lewis called “Christianity and water”: diluted, weak, bland — lukewarm (cf. Revelation 3:15-16). It’s Christianity for people who want to be considered religious, but not in a way that offends anyone; it’s for people who want to be “nice” or “good enough,” but who don’t want to take up their cross (cf. Matthew 16:24; Mark 8:34). It’s a Christianity that does little more than check the “God box”. Most importantly, it’s a Christianity that doesn’t challenge the surrounding culture because it exists to appease the surrounding culture.
Catholic tradition is anything but generic. Where generic Christianity seeks to wall God off in His Heaven so He doesn’t interfere with our lives, Catholicism teaches that God is radically present everywhere. Where generic Christianity seeks to comfort the believer with assurances of their goodness, the Catholic Church reminds us that we all possess the capacity and the potential to do evil. Where generic Christianity is comfortable with the idea that we can perfect ourselves and our society with suitable applications of education and technology, the Church asserts that Man is broken and cannot hope for perfection by his own efforts.
Moreover, because generic Christianity exists merely to confirm the believer’s goodness, it isn’t terribly good at saying “No” when the surrounding culture increasingly demands that it say “Yes”; it’s easily subverted. It may wring its hands for a while, but only until it adjusts to the new status quo; eventually it will celebrate what it once decried, finding some new interpretation of Scripture or Church history to justify the flip-flop. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, may change the way she says “No,” saying it softly and gently rather than loudly and stridently, but she will still say “No”.
In this respect, although I’ve openly criticized certain pathologies present among Catholic traditionalists, I generally agree with their desire to resurrect practices that “reformers” dropped in the wake of the Council. What distinguishes us necessarily separates us from everything else; to be sacred is to be set apart from the profane. We are not called to blend in with everyone else; rather, we are called to “let [our] light shine before others” (Matthew 5:13-16). Traditions helped keep American Catholicism distinct from the lazy, complacent generic Christianity of the American elite.
Catholicism is Not Comfortable
Catholic Christianity can be comforting, but it isn’t supposed to be comfortable. How can it be, when its central symbol is a God-man dying by torture? The Crucifixion is the central event of the gospel, of the kerygma, of all human history. It is what we proclaim when we eat the bread and drink the cup of the Eucharist (cf. 1 Corinthians 11:26). It doesn’t simply give us a set of maxims to live by; it forms in us an anthropology and a worldview fundamentally different from that of the postmodern, post-Christian Global North as well as the rest of the world.
The gospel message, then, isn’t something we can confine to an hour on Sundays and holy days of obligation. If it doesn’t infect and inform our entire lives, inside and outside our houses, in the bedroom and in the marketplace, then (as Fr. Dwight Longenecker said in a different context) our Catholicism is merely “a set of table manners.” We need not control the levers of power to live the gospel message. But it is imperative that we avoid doing evil or cooperating in sin, even if it costs us money, power, social influence, our liberty, or even our lives.
As well it may. Masterpiece Cakeshop was a Pyrrhic victory for freedom of religion. The only real concession we got was that the kangaroo courts must be quiet about their anti-religious biases. Indeed, as Associate Justice Elena Kagan stated, rubbing some salt into the wound, it reinforced the principle behind the decision in Newman v. Piggie Park Enterprises, Inc. (300 U.S. 400), a 1968 case in which the Court told a barbecue vendor he couldn’t discriminate against black people on religious grounds: Freedom of conscience does not exist in the marketplace.
Let’s not overstate the case. For at least a few years yet, the worst Christians will likely face is what we could call the “green martyrdom”: loss of political and economic power. Contrary to the late Oblate Cdl. Francis George’s prediction, Chicago archbishop Cdl. Blase Cupich will most likely die a free man. Eventually, though, open displays of Christianity will be frowned upon, and Christians will find themselves being slowly pushed to the margins, if not back to the catacombs. When that day comes, will you have the strength to be caught praying with a rosary or wearing a scapular?
Conclusion: Rebuild the Fence
Observes philosopher Michael Liccione, “For the time being, the most we can do is limit the rot, not reverse it. This is going to get worse before it gets better, and it will only get better if there’s quite a remarkable spiritual revival” [edited for format]. Many people have already left confessional Christianity because there’s no longer any social cost to doing so; others will leave as the social cost of remaining openly Christian rises. Generic Christianity is the Christianity that is dying in the Global North — dying because it was too complacent to fight, a victim of its own compromises.
To stop the rot within the Catholic house, we must reconstruct the fence of tradition between ourselves and the rest of American culture that we once tore down in order to let ourselves be assimilated. Within that fence, we can teach and live within the reality that the rest of our society cheerfully ignores in its quest to build Utopia. The fence would not be intended to leave the world to its madness, but rather to let ourselves be sane, so we may be ready to heal our society when it finally falls apart.
Within that fence, we can let our wave our freak flag high.