Catholics Need Their Own "Book of Mormon"

Where the Catholic Church is concerned, no word is more loaded than "arrival." It raises the questions of where she's been and where she's going. Citing an especially invasive police raid on a Belgian chancery, among other disheartening events, National Catholic Reporter's John Allen, Jr. pronounces "the collapse of Catholicism as a culture-shaping majority in the West. " That is, Catholics, despite our Church's claim to universality and our strength in numbers, now form a cultural minority—just like the Mormons.

In embracing this new, unwanted status, Allen predicts, Catholics will turn increasingly to "identity politics." These include "Emphasizing [Catholicism's] unique markers of identity, in order to defend itself against assimilation to the majority." We've already seen this siege mentality played out in the cultural sphere. Last December, William Donahue of the Catholic League protested the Smithsonian Institute's inclusion of David Wojnarowicz's short film "A Fire in My Belly" in its exhibit ""Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture." The video included footage of ants crawling on a crucifix. Donahue's protest succeeded; the Smithsonian yanked the film. But success in this case came at the price of hyperbole: Donahue had to condemn the footage as "hate speech."

Might I suggest there could be an ulterior motive to this new hyper-vigilance? Philip Roth put it best in an essay titled "Writing about Jews." "The cry 'Watch out for the goyim!' at times seems more the expression of an unconscious wish than of a warning," he writes. "Oh that they were out there, so that we could be together here!" In other words, stress or exaggerate the hostility of the environment, and you give Catholics an incentive to become more Catholic.

Paranoia expressed as cultural insularity seems to me a cheap substitute for authentic religious feeling. In my experience, it's entirely possible to hate the New York Times without loving God, so it follows that the reverse is true. And here, I think, is where a clever send-up of the realities of Catholic life could kill two birds with one stone. First, it could get non-believers empathizing, if distantly, with our commitment to this peculiar institution of ours. Second, it could help us adjust to our minority status with good grace and good cheer. As we learn to laugh at our own predicament, our view of the historic glass might evolve from half-empty to half-full.

As it stands, we reminisce futilely over the days when Pope Innocent III put all of England under interdict. A good musical could inspire us to warm ourselves noting that it's been a lot longer than 160 years since our founder was murdered by a mob. On this point, at least, we have it over the Mormons.

But how would the storyline go? Mel Brooks already covered the Inquisition in History of the World: Part I, so that's out. (To this day, I have never forgiven him for getting the Dominican habits wrong.) I'm open to suggestions, but so far I lean toward a topical, relevant rewrite of "Nunsense," where the Little Sisters of Hoboken have to hide the bodies of their poisoned fellows before the Apostolic Visitor shows up.

4/3/2011 4:00:00 AM
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  • Max Lindenman
    About Max Lindenman
    Max Lindenman is a freelance writer, based in Phoenix. He has been published in National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and Salon.