How I Almost Committed An Act of Religious Violence

To an uncanny degree, the last two pastors of my old parish — barring an interrim guy who deserves more attention than I can afford him here — resembled characters from HBO’s adaptation of Generation Kill. Fr. F, dead ringer for J.P. Ransone’s wired Humvee driver, yielded his place to Fr. R, long-lost twin to Chance Kelly’s grouchy battalion commander. In this coincidence, I’ve found meaning, even a moral: beneath the placid forms of parish life, wars rage.

No need to tell me — I’m going to have to work a little harder for my Pulitzer. But what’s been obvious to every cradle Catholic since her first ministry coup became earth-shaking, paradigm-shifting news to me one summer evening about three years ago, when I came within a whim of punching someone’s lights out in the name of what I considered good religion.

This could be a long story or a short one. To do justice to all the players, especially me, I’ll have to tell the long version. The man — for our purposes, “Don” — who nearly fell victim to my flash mob of one, was one of the parish’s heavy hitters, a leader in the RCIA program, and from what I was able to gather, floating advisor or supervisor to several others. Though in his late 30s — about three or four years older than I was then — he managed to retain in his mien and carriage the spring of a Eagle Scout.

Don’s RCIA presentations were lively; he went off script to engage at length with any candidates who had questions or comments. Looking back, I realize that most of those candidates were me. Planted deep in a cube farm at a bank’s corporate headquarters, where custom discouraged discussing things like Incarnations, I was overjoyed at finding anyone willing to be a captive audience.

it was with a certain disappointment, then, that I realized Don and I could not be friends. This became apparent one evening when I joined him for after-Mass drinks. We sat with Don’s parish cronies. Like Don, all of them were aging singles. Also like Don, all of them poured their spare time into ministry. I wasn’t expecting a fast crowd, but even I was a little taken aback when Don informed the crew, “I saw the Harold and Kumar sequel over the weekend. It was pornographic.”

A gray-headed woman named Peggy nodded furiously. “I went with him. It was just disgusting.” Wrinkling her nose, she described some scene involving mayonnaise. When I glanced at Don, I saw he was wrinkling his nose, too. A review of “predictable,” “mindless” or even “jejeune” would have won my sympathy, but what I’d heard proved that Don and I occupied moral and aesthetic universes separated by an unbridgeable distance.

And so I began the awkward and painful business of blowing Don off. I cut our after-class chats shorter and shorter. When I spotted him across the courtyard, I’d smile, wave and turn away abruptly. When he caught me in a crowd, I’d shake his hand, exchange a pleasantry or two, and return to my conversation. My replies to the two or three e-mails he sent were brief and vague, and I let a day or so pass before sending them off, trusting the lag to deliver my message.

But Don wouldn’t take the cue. Rather than revert to a strictly pro forma relationship, as most people would have done, he continued to treat me as though we’d suckled on the same wet nurse. Ubiquitous were the bright-eyed grins, the hearty “Hey, Max!,” the halfback-like dashes through crowds to proffer a hand. When I responded as coolly as good manners allowed, I saw hurt in Don’s eyes. But I also saw something else: resolve. He wore the look of a man who prided himself on not caving in easily.

I found it deeply unnerving, mainly because I found it inexplicable. Emotionally stable and socially skilled, Don in no way resembled my mental picture of a glommer-onner. I’d ridden in cars alone with him on a couple of occasions and never caught the slightest hint of sexual interest, which ruled out the other obvious motive. After some months of ducking and running and thinking, I finally arrived at what struck me as the beginning of a good hypothesis: Having served the parish in so many capacities for over a decade, Don claimed a proprietary stake in the place, as well as the attention of all the people in it. He would suffer no one to high-hat him, certainly not some newb who had yet to be admitted to the Sacraments.

The notion seemed to fit, and affected my perceptions of Don. His energy and devotion to service came to seem less like the marks of a Boy Scout and more like those of a hall monitor or office toady. But none of that would have tempted me to raise my hand against him had we not found ourselves on opposite sides of a matter of Church discipline. About 15 months after my baptism, our associate pastor announced a drastic personnel shake-up. In a year’s time, the religious clergy who’d staffed the place would be out; priests from the diocese would be in. It was generally supposed that the new management would change the spirit of the parish out of all recognition, and in an unwelcome direction.

After the dismissal, the crowd trickled out of the chapel and into the sticky blackness of a monsoon-season evening. Like workers who have been informed of massive layoffs, people huddled for strength in small groups, talking in low voices. Looking back now, I realize that not everyone was entirely sold on the gloom — every cluster had its yea-sayer — but none played the part with as much zest as Don. As I try to reconstruct his appearance, I see a gleam in his eye bright enough to reflect off his teeth, and a bounce in his step worthy of a man on Red Bull. Don was not merely resigned, not simply content to wait and see; the man was jazzed, a reveler among mourners.

And determined to spread the wealth, zealous for converts. Darting from group to group, Don delivered a letter-perfect disquisition on why the change would be for the better, how nobody had anything to worry about. Numbed to dumbness, people stared back through bleary eyes and nodded. Then Don bounded over to me. I don’t believe he actually flashed me a thumb’s-up, but the gesture would have articulated his mood perfectly.

The shock of the news having shorted out my judgment, I found myself wanting, for the first time in many months, to engage Don in what Catholics like to call dialogue. I wanted to make him understand just what it was that so many people feared: that our laid-back, matey little church home would suffer from being stamped by our bishop’s formal, austere, rather authoritarian style. At the time, unfortunately, I had none of those words. The one I did have, and attempted to use as a shorthand, turned out to be the worst possible choice.

“Well, you know, Don, I said. “The bishop is really conservative….”

Don’s face contorted as it had at the mention of Harold and Kumar. “The bishop’s not conservative,” he snapped, cutting me off for the first time in our acquaintance. “The bishop’s orthodox. These people here” — he gestured sweepingly at the parishioners shuffling into the parking lot — “are nothing but a bunch of liberals.”

It was the voice of a man whose faction has prevailed after a long and bitter fight. It suddenly occurred to me that Don wasn’t simply playing the commissar when he plugged the change to people who were emotionally underequipped to resist; he was having a one-man ecclesial tailgate party. In the real world, gloating before fans of the losing team is the kind of thing that can earn a person a punch in the face, I thought, so why should it do any less here? With the reflexes of a three-toed sloth, I am generally pretty useless with my fists, but at that moment I realized that my rapidly mounting rage and my New York cussedness would have sufficed to send Don to the hospital.

Just as I felt my hands trembling from the adrenaline boost, something or someone distracted Don. Suddenly frightened and shamed by my thoughts, I voted for flight over fight. By the time Don turned back, I was buckled into my car and pulling out into the alley.

It was, of course, the right thing to do. An ass-beating in a church parking lot is just a religious war writ small. Worse still for my purposes, inflicting physical pain on Don would only have served to reinforce the self-image he cherished. “All men will hate you because of Me,” he’d surely have quoted as the ER doctors checked him for a deviated septum. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church,” he’d have said while waving away the prescription for OxyCodone.

It would have been useless to explain to him that he was no martyr, that hating and Jesus had had nothing to do with anything. No man who sees pornography in Harold and Kumar or imposes fellowship like a court order possesses the intellectual framework for understanding that he has earned his ill-use entirely on his own, by acting like a complete box of tools.

What I did do was describe the scene in a piece I wrote that was later quoted in the Arizona Republic. Though I didn’t mention Don’s name, he recognized himself and e-mailed me his complaints about being “quoted out of context by the media.” To his credit, he did not say “liberal media.”

I wish I could say I never spoke to Don again, but that would not, alas, be the truth. About 18 months after our failed dialogue, by which time I’d left the parish, I showed up after Mass one Sunday evening, hoping to catch up with some old friends. Poking my head inside the emptying chapel, I saw some, and went over to say hello. But before I’d gotten out much more than that, I caught sight of Don at my nine o’clock. He’d spotted me, too, and was heading my way at a trot. After some quick good-bye hugs, I hurried for the exit, and managed to knock over a potted poinsetta left over from Christmas, the previous week.

Like a good citizen, I stopped to set it back on its stand. As I did, I heard Don say, “Merry Christmas, Max.”

I glanced up. His eyes were cold, his lip curled. I turned away and made for the door.

Again, I heard him say, “Merry Christmas, Max.” This was charity as a contest of wills, and I decided to take a dive. Spinning back, I spoke my last two words to Don. They were not “Merry Christmas, “Happy Holidays,” or even “Seasons Greetings.” And then, from my right hand, emerged a bird that no one could have mistaken for the Holy Spirit.

So, yes, if you visit Phoenix and inquire in certain circles, you will indeed hear that Max Lindenman is such an ornery sonofabuck that he once flipped a man off for wishing him a Merry Christmas. For all the complicated backstory, it’s true enough to cause me everlasting shame, and also to have made me wary of the Catholic ideal of community. These days, I don’t go to Mass expecting to make friends; instead, I’m happy to eat and run. Spending too much time in the company of people who get on my nerves is a near-occasion of sin. Jesus said we should love our enemies, but I have to believe His words are compatible with the trusim that good fences make good neighbors.

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  • Michael Liccione

    Don would be a great character in a Catholic comedy of manners. Of course so would you, but you already knew that. Write that novel!

  • Margaret Jewell

    Again, I heard him say, “Merry Christmas, Max.” This was charity as a contest of wills, and I decided to take a dive. Spinning around, I spoke my last two words to Don. They were not “Merry Christmas, “Happy Holidays,” or even “Seasons Greetings.” And then, from my right hand, emerged a bird that no one could have mistaken for the Holy Spirit.

    A paragraph worth of John Updike, so human.

  • JerseyDan

    I would have made that bird fly right into his eye Max. Your restraint was commendable, as was your piece. Please post more often.

  • Robster

    I have had an outburst a men’s group meeting in someone’s home. The host has his own business and has been active in a retreat movement for years. While he has a National Catholic Reporter attitude toward the church liturgy etc. and the church’s management, paradoxically, he’s a very conservative outlook on politics. In church matters, he wears a headband and a genuine tie-dyed T-shirt and it is always 1968. But in politics, he wears a Herbert Hoover collar. Whatever the discussion was, I was annoyed at the mocking, conspiracy theorizing about something, and voices were raised. I got so fed up and stalked out. I returned to the next meeting. I just can’t tolerate pinheaded thinking.

    Went to see Obama 2016 movie with an evangelical Christian group. I recognized that it was a conservative propaganda movie, though not as shrill as some of its predecessors (Fahrenheit 911, so I’ve heard, tho not seen). Well, intellectual depth was not to be found in the discussion at dinner afterward. “He’s not a Christian, he’s a Moslem.” I may not be found of Obama, but, really!

    For the record, I consider myself an orthodox moderate Catholic who can enjoy a sung Latin mass as well as a contemporary guitar mass.

    [Please understand, I did not see this as a liberal v. conservative or progressive v. trad or orthodox v. dissenter thing. I saw it as a jerk v. gentleman thing.]

  • David J. White

    [Please understand, I did not see this as a liberal v. conservative or progressive v. trad or orthodox v. dissenter thing. I saw it as a jerk v. gentleman thing.]

    I understand Max, and BTW this really is a beautifully-written piece. I haven’t come close to violence in similar situations, but I have certainly been in situations where I thought it was jerk vs. gentlemen, and I was determined to be the gentleman if it killed me — but then I later realized that I was the one who had been the jerk.

  • Jasper

    why were you mad at him after his movie review of Harold and Kumar? those movies have some disgusting scenes.

    Don comes off looking good and you seem unstable.

    [You're entitled to your opinion, Steven, but be advised: my banning you under your old e-mail address was not an invitation for you to post under a new one.]

  • Ioannes

    A tolerant, peace-loving liberal! Certainly, Jesus would be proud at the hypocrisy.

  • Robster

    I guess my point of conflict I had was aside from disagreement, the sneering manner, simpistic thinking involved in the opinions. Why I avoid politics generally.

    In the realm of aesthetic disagreement, a certain cleric opined that the main character in a well-known Catholic novel was not a hero because “he died in dispair.” But throughout the book he risks his life doing his duty, passing up several opportunities for escape. Character has his faults no doubt. The cleric has since then become more prominent, and now may expose his simplistic, black-and-white thinking to a wider audience.

    I did not see H&K movie, but was it not at least vulgar, if not obscene?

    [It was dumb -- no low comedy cliche left unturned. You could tell the writers, unlike the people who wrote Animal House, didn't go to Harvard or Dartmouth.]

  • Ted Seeber

    This provides an interesting counterpoint to this post from Mark Shea:

    I have to wonder if the main problem people have with Orthodox/Conservatives being jerks is that they seem to gloat over finding sin in others.

    [In fairness, this guy didn't claim to have found sin in anyone. Gloaters exist in all camps, and gloating among like-minded people is fine. What riled me here was this person's inability to give others a little space in which to feel crappy. As far as I'm concerned, respect for mourning rituals is nothing less than basic human decency. If I were, God forbid, attending an SSPX service when the pastor announced that Archbishop Fellay had capitulated fully to Vatican II, I wouldn't jump up and start singing "Hava Nagila."]

  • AnnF

    Max, you leave me perplexed. You are a really good writer–you have a gift. I was glad back in the day when The Anchoress brought you on board. I liked your style. At some point, the subject or point of your writing turned me off, and I went away for a while. I thought I would pop in tonight and see what’s up with you–because I really do like your writing. Yet, there’s something in your attitude that just doesn’t sit well. At its very core, there’s something not very Christian about some of your actions and some of your writing. It’s a shame.

    Before anyone tells me to get the mote out of my own eye, I just want to ask you if you feel good about the story you have just told, or do you feel smug?

    [I'm not critiquing your critique, Ann. If anything, I'm grateful you've given me so many chances. By themselves, gifts aren't worth much, and I don't know how great mine is, but I do give every piece my all. Blog posts are rough drafts by definition, but I can't think of a time I've hit "Publish" on something without sweating over it first. Most of the time I'm still dissatisfied; I want to offer my readers more.

    Calling my worldview "un-Christian" isn't very instructive, since you don't say which writers you do find Christian enough to read. To the question of whether I feel smug, having written this -- well, I guess I'm pleased at having finally put into words exactly what I found so infuriating about this person. I had hoped that the subtly overbearing busybody was a recognizable type in parish life, and that readers would be able to relate to my frustration in dealing with him, as well as my vivid, last-resort means of expressing that frustration. I was happy, in short, to be getting my day in court.]

  • Stephie

    OK I get now what you were angry about – his lack of empathy for people morning. Since you were there and I was not do not take this as anything more than someone on the internet blabbing in a com box.

    Is it possible that Don had felt he had put up with the very things you loved about the church – the laid back, matey style? He had been active and working to support his leadership “where he was planted” but still longing for the more formal austere and authoritative style. Now, finally, he was seeing his prayers answered. Could he have been trying to share his joy, absolutely overcome that God was moving the church in the “right” direction, not trample on other people’s sorrow?

    Sometime it is hard to see other peoples pain when what has brought them pain brings me great joy. When Bin Laden was killed I went out and danced in my parking lot, with several other people. When I was walking back in, a woman I had been friends with stood in her doorway and said to me “How can you celebrate the death of another person made in the image of God. Our government set out to kill him – that is WRONG. He was not a Christian so he is probably in hell now and you are dancing.” She went on in this mode for a bit. I didn’t say anything but walked through my door. I let my joy overshadow her legitimate sorrow. Was I acting like a jerk? I don’t think so, but she certainly did. Could Don have been reacting in a similar way?

    [Funny you should mention bin Laden. When news of his death broke, I happened to be guest-blogging for the Anchoress. Two writers had written columns, each privileging his own reaction. One said it was disgraceful to cheer, the other said it was good and proper and implied that to do otherwise was somehow un-American. I told this very story in brief by way of advising them both to get out of each other's faces. (If you're curious about my own reaction, I was torn, inclined to gloat, but feeling a little sheepish over that inclination.)

    You seem to have a far easier time identifying with Don than I ever did. I agree that this piece was weak in imaginative sympathy. I stay locked in my own headspace without making much effort to explore Don's. Absent a very determined or creative reading, he comes across as a cardboard cut-out villain, and that's a very serious deficiency.]

  • Louise

    I’m afraid I have to agree with Stephie – I found it perfectly easy to identify with Don. I can see how his untimely jubliation would be highly irritating to you, but despite your protestations, I’m afraid that to me, this piece did come across as a liberal v. conservative, progressive v. trad argument. This is only furthered when you bring SSPX into the comments. I should start by saying you do have a lovely writing style, but like Ann, I try to follow your blog and then often feel a bit uncomfortable about the sentiments expressed in your posts. I suppose what comes across (which may well be misinterpretation on my part) is the theme that you seem to really genuinely dislike traditional, orthodox Catholics. Many of your posts and comments seem to follow in that vein. I wonder why that is? Have you had terrible experiences with traditional, orthodox Catholics? The reason I ask is because in this case, it just seems that if you shared Don’s liturgical preferences and worldview, then your interpretation of his behaviour might be radically different (i.e. that he was a kind man). The real problem seems to stem from the fact that you do not share his world view or preferences for the Church. Admittedly, he should have tried to contain his joy about the change in your church. That said, I personally can relate to that because here in the UK, we Catholics are a teeny tiny minority and therefore Catholic churches can be few and far between. My local parish is, I’m sad to say, fairly unorthodox. And when I say unorthodox I mean to the extent that priests at this parish have told us that the existence of the pope and bishops in the Church is the “work of the devil in the Church.” The priests regularly skip or hugely modify large chunks of Mass, including the Eucharistic prayer. Most of these priests mean well, and are lovely if you speak to them, but I find going to Mass/Confession there tremendously difficult because you never quite know if it’s really Mass/valid Absolution. I mean, how much of the Eucharistic prayer can you skip before a Mass is invalid? I don’t really know, but it certainly makes me wonder. Unfortunately, special education teachers make very little, so if I cannot afford the bus to the nearby orthodox parish, I’m stuck here, like it or not. I try to be cheerful and friendly to the priests and parishoners, and hide my deep discomfort with the liturgical abuses. My point is, if the Archbishop were to decide to transfer this parish to diocesan priests and remove the religious order who runs it, I would be literally ecstatic. I would try not to rub it in people’s faces, but I have no idea how successful I would be. There but the grace of God go I and all that. Can you understand that emotion, if not the action of gloating? Or would that also fall into the flip-the-bird-worthy category? I just want you to understand that traditional Catholics are, at least in my experience, mostly lovely with a few of the more socially inept, like all groups. If you have had bad experiences with them, I am sorry, but I wish you wouldn’t tarr all of us based on that. And as hard as it is, if you have met people who are bitter in their Catholicism, try to remember that they too have suffered. It has not been easy for those who stayed true to traditional Catholicism in the aftermath of Vatican II. And even now, despite the Pope’s urging to the contrary, in many places the bishops and local priests continue to act as though anyone, no matter how much open dissent and disdain for the Church they evince, is preferable to those who want to say the rosary or sing traditional hymns or celebrate feast days on the day and not the next Sunday, much less have Mass in Latin! I wish that your blog would acknowledge that, rather than encouraging this break between liberals and conservatives, progressives and traditionalists. Perhaps I have totally misunderstood and it really wasn’t meant in that vein, but others of your posts certainly seem to have been and I hope that this comment helps perhaps to clarify and help you understand about traditional Catholics a bit. I also hope that you will read this comment in the spirit in which it is intended, which is a spirit of dialogue. Any language which reads as sharp is unintentional (just wanted to clarify since it’s so hard to read tone on the internet).

    [Louise: I recognize your name from the post you left on my Fr. Groeschel thread, and from one you left on Joanne McPortland's Fr. Groeschel thread. In one of them -- can't remember which -- you mentioned living outside the U.S. and belonging to a small minority. From your name, I wondered whether you were French or Belgian, and thought, "Wow, laïcité must have emptied pews over there even more than I realized." Now that you've told me you're from the U.K. -- you didn't say which part -- I'm even more confused. I remember reading that Catholics were growing in number there, but of course, your personal experience might not reflect that growth.

    Let's get our terminology straight. Trads outside of communion with Rome get no sympathy from me. I'm afraid my reasons for that hard stance are personal and tribal: my father's family is Jewish. His grandparents came originally from Galicia, a region spanning eastern Poland and western Ukraine. Quite a few of their relatives perished in the unpleasantness Bishop Williamson and Hutton Gibson (and, possibly, Hutton's son Mel) believe is a myth. I consider SSPX's rejection of Nostra Aetate, the V2 document condemning anti-Semitism and absolving the Jewish people of deicide, as well as some bishops' nostalgia for France's Vichy government, just grounds for regarding the entire outfit with the deepest suspicion.

    Orthodox Catholics are another matter. I recognize that, as a member of the Catholic media, I have a responsibility to give at least notional assent to Church teachings, or failing that, to refrain from dissent. On the whole, I think, I succeed. At the same time, unlike many orthodox Catholics, I am glad for most of the social changes that took place during the 1960s, and I try, wherever possible, to challenge what I consider a reflexive crankiness toward the world we've been living in since.

    For the record, in the parish I'm describing, you'd never have heard the pope denounced from the pulpit. The liturgical style was low church, but within the bounds set by the USCCB -- as far as I know, anyway. I never claimed to be a liturgist.

    What I tried to convey about Don was a certain domineering quality that lay just below the surface kindness. I don't mean the kindness was false; people are more complicated than that. But it did seem to me that he lacked that inner voice that tells us all, "Okay, time to back off. Maybe this time and place are wrong for my input." (That voice rings loud in my ears; you'd believe me if only you could read all the columns I haven't written.)

    Most of my regular readers would describe themselves as orthodox Catholics. As I wrote this piece, I was hoping they'd be able to flip the script mentally -- that is, to recall some dissenter in a position of authority who'd tormented them with his or her own deafness -- and understand where I was coming from. Apparently, that's harder than I realized. Maybe I should have figured out some way to write around the issues and the key exchange, but I really can't think of how that would have been possible.

    Finally, I want to add that I appreciate your commenting in the spirit of dialogue. You seem like a very nice person. I suppose I've gotten so used to thinking of more conservative Catholics as the dominant party, the 800-lb gorillas, that I never tried very hard to identify with their feelings of alienation. Thanks for giving me this boost.]

  • Thomas R

    The guy sounds a bit clueless, but yeah I think doing what you’re suggesting is indeed harder than you thought. It’s easier for me to relate to Don than to you in this story because Don sounds more like me. Not always in good ways. (Don sounds a bit prideful and self-involved, then again if you were the minority “liberal” in a conservative parish maybe that would affect you too) At best what it can do is remind us who are more on the Don spectrum to be a bit less prideful or dismissive and not so eager to force ourselves on others.

    Although that second part is where I’m very much not like Don. I think I would have gathered fairly fast that you’re “liberal” and that although we can be friendly there are topics we should avoid discussing. Still if Don really did feel ideologically, or whatever, alone in his parish I guess I still feel for him a bit more than you. You had people to commiserate with over unhappiness about a bishop. He was maybe more alone and maybe that can make me reflect on people more liberal at a parish. (Or maybe not. When my priest railed against Capitalism I was cool with that, but that’s not what’s meant I think. If a parishioner wanted to defend the 60s Counterculture and criticize a bishop’s “conservatism” that would likely make me think “heterodox” and I might mentally put them in a “my non-Catholic friends” list.)

    [Well, Thomas, this was a real bucket of cold water over my head. I had liked to think of myself as Everyman, even you. But, you know, it's funny. Some people can become great friends, or at least very cordial acquaintances, despite profound differences of opinon; others have to give each other a wide berth. Trying to pin down that key ingredient is about as hopeless as trying to figure out exactly why a given joke works or doesn't work. The only thing to do is recognize what flows and go with it.]

  • Tim in Cleveland

    When I saw “Harold and Kumar” in your article, I had to wrinkle my nose as well, though not because it is pornographic. In fact, I’ve never seen any of the creative products of Harold and Kumar. But somewhere in my life they rubbed me the wrong way (probably based on commercials I’ve seen) and a tinge of anger rises when I hear their name.

    The same thing happens with Ayn Rand: never read a passage in any of her books, but I can’t stand her and I flinch at her name (or mention of John Galt). I figure these are socially acceptable ways for me to discriminate against people I probably won’t get along with. Those who even mention Harold and Kumar or Rand without derision are denied the opportunity to enter my social circle

  • Ted Seeber

    Your explanation to Louise told me a lot more of where you are coming from- let me tell you where I am coming from. I am from the generation apparently after you. I don’t remember the pre-Vatican II church, wouldn’t know what to do in a Traditional Mass- yet I am Orthodox. I consider most of the revisions and changes that were implemented by people reading between the lines of the Vatican II Documents to be a gross error. In the wider secular culture, I can think of few things more damaging to humanity than the sexual revolution on the left and the fiscal revolution on the right- both of which seemed to give license to Catholics to selectively ignore church teaching resulting in clergy sex abuse, divorce, libertarian economics, and a general exodus from the Church in my generation.

    Thus I do fall more into Don’s camp than yours, not because I actually agree with him on traditional and likely American conservative values, but because I see the general rejection of authority and libertine attitudes of the Baby Boomers (both left and right) as being the problem. I’m still not sure what the solution is, but ignoring the authority of the Magisterium isn’t it, and for many, the Booze Up In the Cafeteria has turned into the Hangover of Orthodox Regret.

    [For the record, I'm 40.]

  • Louise

    Max, I don’t know about your experience in Britain, so it’s a bit hard to explain, but I’ll try. Just for your info, I currently live near London but previously lived in Scotland. Please forgive me if this is too basic (I work in a school with disabled and very academically weak children, so I’m inclined to over-explain!). The UK has had a long history of anti-Catholicism, stemming from the fallout of Henry VIII and the Reformation. For many years, it was illegal to be Catholic or attend Mass, and many were executed (i.e. the 40 English and Welsh martyrs). It is certainly true that the number of Catholics has risen since Catholic Emancipation in the 1800s, but more recently the numbers of British Catholics (like all religious groups here) has dropped. I think you may be referring to the increase due to immigration, since EU immigration has led to thousands of Poles and other Eastern Europeans, many Catholic, moving to the UK. We are currently about 10% of the population, and about 15% of Catholics go to Mass. Overall, only 10% of British people attend any kind of worship service, so those who are praticing any religion are in the vast minority. Most people are totally ignorant of even the most basic facts about any religion. That said, the ancient prejudice against Catholics has again become prominant, especially in the prelude to the Pope’s visit, and relating to gay marriage. One Conservative MP wrote to the Prime Minister suggesting that if Catholic churches (and others that won’t perform gay marriages) would not perform gay marriages, they should lose the right to marry anyone. Also, there are currently 4 people taking cases to the European Court because they lost/were forced out of jobs due to religious reasons, including 2 women who lost their jobs for wearing a cross. Also, as a bit of an aside but to clarify further, my boyfriend is Scottish and raised in the Church of Scotland, and when I met his family, I was literally the first Catholic they had ever met in their lives. Even despite the influx of Catholics into Scotland, it remains very segregated (by choice, not law). I hope that helps to explain a bit what I’m talking about a bit.

    [Believe it or not early-modern British history is one of few academic subjects on which I'm not a total ignoramus. The funny thing is, in the U.S., at least when I was at uni, the English Reformation was presented as a basically good thing -- a spur to the Protestant work ethic that the separatists carried with them to Plymouth. If the scene at Tyburn got a little messy from time to time, oh well. I'm afraid I haven't quite freed myself from that prejudice, thanks to all those black-and-white swashbuckler movies set in Queen Elizabeth's day.

    Here's a link to the article I'd read. It basically says that observant Catholics outnumber observant Anglicans. I realize that's not saying much. And I take your point about Catholics being a cultural minority with strong political enemies.]

    I guess the thing I wonder about then is how you feel about trads in communion with Rome, which is the group I was referring to (sorry for being unclear there). At least as far as I am aware, all the traditionalist groups in communion with Rome (FSSP, ICKSP, etc) have accepted the documents of Vatican II, if not perhaps the results of their implementation. Certainly, I know FSSP accepts the Novus Ordo as a valid Mass, although they do not themselves celebrate it. Do you differentiate then between those traditionalists who are in communion with Rome, and who accept Nostra Aetate, along with the other documents, and the SSPX? And are you willing to give those who are in communion a shot? Obviously, I can only speak from personal experience, but I have not witnessed anti-Semitism in this group at all. I have never been to an SSPX Mass or event, so I don’t really know about them. I guess what I’m asking is really do you just have a problem (and certainly a valid one) with the anti-Semitism, or do you object to preferring the Latin Mass and traditional devotions (as I do) and thinking that the results of Vatican II were somewhat less than ideal?

    [The Tridentine Mass isn't to my tastes, so I'm relieved it's no longer the only show in town. But I'm glad it's around for people who want it. I don't know much about FSSP or ICKSP, but as long as they're running around calling the Jewish people accursed, then I've got no particular axe to grind with them. I'm afraid I've never seen a comprehensive list of their objsections to V2, so I can't make any sweeping statements.]

    I see your point, and I think you do succeed. I don’t think I am cranky, and I am incidentally younger than you (24) but I do find the social changes of the 1960s deeply troubling. As I mentioned, I work in a school, and sadly one of the most accurate predictors we have (other than actual disability or being an Irish traveller) for academic underachievement and serious social problems is coming from a broken home. Quite a few of my weakest students have either only one parent, and usually as a result, very minimal support (financial or moral, since the parents often have to work terrible hours). In the very worst case, we have one student whose mother has a new paramour every few months, and has several siblings with several fathers, many of whom are unfortunately alcoholics and who have very little interaction with their children. I made the mistake of asking this poor little girl what her dad does for work, and she told me “he can’t work because he likes to get drunk too much.” It’s just heartbreaking. And even the ones who come from two parent families are exposed to/allowed to do so many things that I can’t help but worry. I frequently see students of mine drinking on street corners, unsupervised, late at night (and I mostly teach 11-16 year olds). Their parents don’t care what they’re up to, and one mother even told me that she’s bought both alcohol and condoms for her underage child since “he’s going to do it anyway, so at least he’ll be safe.” I can see that it’s a difficult issue though, and certainly my poor mother despairs of my dislike of 1960s social changes. ;)

    [This is too big for me to address here. If you want to learn more about my views on the subject, stay tuned. However, I will concede that I spoke overbroadly when I called my opposition "cranky."]

    I was hoping you wouldn’t have to hear pope-denunciations. It’s a bit distressing, not least since everyone else in the room was nodding away and I was sitting there thinking, “What’s going on….have I turned up at the Calvinists’ meeting instead?” I think you would know if it was liturgical abuse. I’m not talking about a word here and there, I’m talking about completely making things up on the spot that have no relation to the words of Mass. To such an extent that I made a little tiny missal for the children to follow along, and the priest skipped 3 pages!

    It sounds like you’re right about that domineering quality. You’re lucky to have that quality; having read that description, I fear perhaps I don’t. I do understand where you’re coming from now, and I appreciate your lovely and very clear response. Thank you for saying that, you’re very kind. I really appreciate your responding in the spirit of dialogue too, it is a nice change from most of the internet! Gosh, I totally wish we were 800-lb gorillas! I am myself American, so I can see what you mean, but over here, conservative Catholics are a bit like white elephants. To give you some idea, I’ve been to FSSP Masses (i.e. traditionalists in communion with Rome) about 4 or 5 times, and I’ve met pretty much the entire Latin Mass community of Britain. I do again want to add that your writing is lovely and I hope that you keep it up. You seem like a lovely man, and I have greatly enjoyed having such a civil conversation with you!

    [You're welcome. Thank you again. And like I said, stay tuned. For my next trick, I am going to post something completely non-controversial, bordering on sentimental.]

  • Louise

    Gosh, sorry that was so long!

  • Louise

    I couldn’t read your link, Max. But you are right – there are more practicing Catholics than practicing Anglicans, it’s just that there’s about 852,000 practicing Anglicans and 861,000 practicing Catholics, out of a population of about 60 million. So together, we make about approximately 3% of the population! The most recent study I could find said that 7% of people in the UK identified themselves as practicing Christians (any denomination) and 66% have no connection with any religion at all.

    I definitely couldn’t make you a list of their objections, but they would tend along the Vatican II was incorrectly implemented and widely misinterpreted, the Novus Ordo has been subject to many liturgical abuses-type line of thought. FSSP and ICKSP are both fraternities/orders of priests, in communion with Rome, who offer only the Latin (Tridentine Mass). We have, I think, 1 of each in England and 1 FSSP parish in Scotland.

    I’m very much looking forward to your sentimental post! I love a good sentimental post!

  • Ted Seeber

    Funny, I’m 41.

    Are you telling me you don’t see the fallout of divorce, AIDS, and savage capitalism in the form of the financial scandals to be the result of what the rest of the world other than America would call liberty?

    [Sorry, Ted. Too big a question, and too far afield from the topic of this piece If you want to know what I think about any of the things you mentioned, keep visiting the blog. Chances are good I'll cover it someday.]

  • Bill

    Hi Max,
    Although I’m a political conservative, I can sympathise with your feelings and I get it when you say it’s not a conservative/liberal thing. At times our parishes can feel like sausage factories : don’t get too involved or you might get disgusted. A long time church volunteer, I once seriously blew off my parish priest, a brilliant yet nakedly ambitious man on the Bishop fast track. He behaved like a hard nosed manager (albeit without the training and experience) rather than like a pastor. I’m not sure what got to me the most, the priest’s 19th century conception of human relations or the brown noses pretending not to notice so that they could bask in the glory of the up and coming guy. He was stunned that someone would dare lock horns with him, clearly a new experience, and tends to avoid me now which is just fine. I don’t regret what I did and said but I must say that it did not include any profanity or untoward gestures and I did not let my anger reach the level that borders on physical violence : that is the part of your excellent account that I find troubling.
    Thanks for a great read.

    [You, sir, are most welcome.]

  • John

    Thanks for a clever story and a thought-provoking set of responses. I remember that in the mid-80′s when I first began volunteering in parishes, my ideals of the Church were quickly shattered by the complex reality of human neediness and its often ugly consequences. I have become more accepting of that occasional ugliness primarily by finding some joy in the notion that often those of us who seek to serve in the Church are coming from places of great emptiness and woundedness (in the past or still in the present), seeking wholeness in Christ and the Church through grace and the sacraments and through love of neighbor, hoping to lead others to that wholeness. C.S. Lewis represented this self-centered shock at the real humanity of our fellow parishioners in The Screwtape Letters, when the protagonist is encouraged to be disappointed in finding that the others in the pew are not dressed like 1st century apostles, and never to look at how disappointing we must seem to others in the Church who are looking for models of discipleship. God in His Wisdom has chosen to let the sick, the wounded, and the dying run the hospital. What is important to remember is that Christ is the medicine.

    [When I told this story to someone, he came back with a Lewis quote about a woman who "...lived for others. You could tell the others by their hunted look." He didn't say whether the quote came from Screwtape, though.

    And just to be clear, my point here was not that "Don" is a bad disciple, only that we should stay on opposite sides of the room, if not the planet.]

  • LoneThinker

    fascinating story and amazing replies. My response; dialogue is two conversations, ideally, we listen to each other and are open to change. Even when the conversation as such is over, the two can continue to reflect: was there for example a connection between Paul at St Stephen’s martyrdom and his powerful sermon and Paul’s yes when he was converted on the road? We are all in the process: becoming a Christ-ian, a Christ Person, involves dropping a lot of the cultural nonsense we all absorb in the path- to become the unified totally un-conditional lover as Jesus asks. That is a process, but it does allow the Holy Spirit to “blow” out the crud we all carry around and does not divide us into liberal, conservative, whether in Faith or Politics, and gets to the point where we can allow the “Don-atologists” to ignore a Christmas greeting and still accept his divine image – redeemed like ours, but just still not ” all better yet.” Unconditional Love.

    [See, after thinking everything through in light of all the replies, I've come to the opposite conclusion. Instead of going for the big transformative experience, I should have used a little common sense and said to myself, "This guy and I are too far apart in our views. Emotionally speaking, we're in opposite places. Plus, his personal style irritates me no end. Best leave him alone."]

  • LoneThinker

    If we see the “transformative” experience as my acting to CHANGE YOU – we are dead in the water. That is where the BEAM and MOAT image come in from the Master Transformer, we never see our own BEAM from self-blindness aka the Hubris of Eden.

  • Brian Sullivan

    “I don’t know much about FSSP or ICKSP, but as long as they’re running around calling the Jewish people accursed, then I’ve got no particular axe to grind with them. ”

    Max, shouldn’t there be a “not” in there? Or am I missing something?

    [Oh, for Pete's sake. You're right. Actually, let me stick the "not" on the end, as in "As long as they're running around calling the Jewish people accursed, then I've no particular axe to grind with them -- NOT!"]

  • DWiss

    I laughed out loud (LOL!) when I read this, Max. You and I share a pugilistic tendency and never have I been so tempted to succumb to it as when confronted with the various personalities in my parish. The thing that is a constantly confounds me is that my desire to be active in my faith so often leads me to run full tilt into theological brick walls that loks just like people. Catholicism is a messy business. Conservative, liberal, organs, guitars, latin, english, mass times, homilies, lectors, cantors…wow, there’s so much to fight over!