The Catholic Thing
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By Robert Royal   
Sunday, 28 June 2009

Imagine, if you will, just as a thought experiment, a nation that for two generations has been forming almost all its children in state-run schools. Imagine, further, that these schools started, at the beginning of that period, to become uncomfortable with expressions of religion in the classroom, which had seemed normal and unproblematic in the past. And that gradually the merest mention of religion – or at least of the historic faiths of that society – was all but prohibited in educational institutions. And not only there. Imagine, just to be thorough, that those historic faiths received only glancing and nervous treatment in history and literature classes, and running through the textbooks was a not-so-subtle tendency to portray the history of religion as mostly a matter of bigotry, conflict, war, repression, and ignorance. The morals once taught by those faiths, when examined at all, tend to be looked upon as, at best, controversial and, at worst, just plain wrong.

What might come from forty years of such schooling?

Suppose, to turn to a different but related question, that over the same period a whole new network of electronic media arose that replaced most people’s sense of the public square as a local network of families, neighborhoods, and churches with – what? It’s hard to say, but let’s call it some sort of virtual reality with occasional resemblance to the world. The more practical products of the new kind of schooling who decide to work in the information network will probably head towards the sterner (and better paid) fields: politics, economics, business, science, where real-world standards provide continuity with the past and a rough reality principle. The less practical will gravitate towards and define what has come to be called popular culture: everything from the attitudes absorbed by young mothers from talk shows and women’s magazines, to the manners and morals of children who think pop music, television, and “PG-13" movies are the real world, to the ways that even adults frame the big questions – and gauge success or failure.

What might the culture of such a nation come to be?

Of course, to trace that out, you would also have to imagine that – however improbable – churches, universities, courts, businesses, legislatures, and even large numbers of parents with a normal sense of self-preservation would basically acquiesce without saying or doing very much to ward off obvious tendencies. And, in many cases, would actually join the parade. All without the kind of harsh measures that were typical of the totalitarian regimes of the past. It would be, if such a thing were imaginable, a virtual capitulation by adults and public institutions to an extent that few would have earlier believed possible absent widespread social coercion.

But enough imagining. Even before the media fugues this week over the death of the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, it was clear that a phenomenon like the twenty-four-hour obsession with that talented and sad figure is not at all unusual now. What other event – in a world beset by multiple crises – has gotten as intense attention in recent memory? We see similar evidence all the time of our culture’s basic incapacity to engage or even to identify matters truly deep or mature or abiding. If that assessment is wrong, I will be happy – ecstatic – to be corrected. But from what I see, the cultural matrix now almost entirely comes from very young people, whatever their actual ages, whose only real claim on our attention is that they are somehow part of popular culture.

If you have been to any but a rare few colleges and universities in the past half century, you will, of course, have been taught to laugh at such an idea. It’s patriarchal, patronizing, moralistic, bourgeois, repressive, and cannot be taken seriously in the twenty-first century. And anyway who are you? Your “traditional values” are just another cultural construct. To think like that you would have to have been taught very young something quite different than virtually every one of our cultural institutions has been teaching for the past forty years – and that all of us now believe. Not a few in your Church.

Some Biblical scholars suggest that one reason the Israelites had to wander in the desert for forty years was so that the generation who had known the fleshpots of Egypt would die out and that a fresh start could be made with a people who knew only the discipline of the desert. Presumably, the process also works in the opposite direction. If so, we have a neat explanation for where we find ourselves now.

Despite this once almost unimaginable shift in our culture, America remains surprisingly resilient (see Roger Scruton’s Notable in the column at the left). Some of the early Protestant settlers of this land thought of themselves as engaged in a new Exodus. That, of course, very quickly proved to be an illusion. But they gave America an idealism that survived all its trials, even the life-and-death struggles of slavery and civil war, and somehow survives against great odds today. We should, however, not indulge in sentimental illusions of our own. In circumstances like ours, we cannot expect any quick fixes in politics, culture, or even religion, much as we need them. And we should be wary of all those – of whatever party – who tell us such remedies lie near at hand.

The real challenges we face now will require a long period of reflection and reform. Forget four-year election cycles. It’s hard to imagine how even forty years of traveling in a very different direction would be enough to restore what we have lost.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West.

© 2009 The Catholic Thing. All rights reserved. For reprint rights, write to: info at thecatholicthing dot org

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Comments (11)Add Comment
The King
written by Brad Miner, June 29, 2009
It was upon our arrival in Prague last week that news of Michael Jackson's death began to dominate both CNN International and the BBC--the only English-language TV available. I couldn't help thinking--even as I heard Czech waiters speaking to German and Italian tourists in English--that America mostly influences the world now for all the wrong reasons.
Ora pro nobis
written by Willie, June 29, 2009
My parents would not recognize today's culture. It is hard for one who is too old to be part of this pop culture to understand the hysterical adulation given to some individuals. It helps to remember that this generation has been incubated on the proposition that absolute freedom and autonomy are good, thus rendering any absolute truths as homophobic. It seems to me that the recent histrionics over a pop figure are a crying out for something to believe in, as vacuous as it might be. Good piece.
An \'umble Mr.
written by Mack Hall, June 29, 2009
Schools cannot be uncomfortable with faith or anything else; only humans can, and the humans aren't voting in their school board elections. This commentary reminds me of the folks who finally come to Mass to protest only after the local bishop has to consolidate parishes for poor attendance, or perhaps the millions and millions who offer teddy prayers, not prayers, for the soul of a poor old man who self-destructed. It's always somebody else;s fault, isn't it.
the wrong question
written by Jennifer B, June 29, 2009
Thanks so much for this article; it gets at the heart of why we homeschool. When people have asked us over the years how we will "deal with" the problem of our children not being socialized in public schools, our response has been consistent and immediate. The real question is how will they protect their children from the damage done to them by the socialization in schools.
Columinst, heal thyself!
written by Bradley, June 29, 2009
TCC perpetuates this loss and, amidst the cultural carnage, is sorely lacking in the Christian virtue of Hope. This month's word count: "Jesus" is used 3 times in columns, "Mary" none (excluding a reference to Mary Cheney), and "Obama" is used 18 times(!!). While "God" is used plenty, the word alone is insufficient: it is the Incarnation that defines Catholicism. So while the writing here is good, deep and thought-provoking, TCC risks being nothing more than a first cousin to Fox News.
written by Achilles, June 29, 2009
Thank you Robert Royal, excellent food for thought! Bradley, your word counting is exhiliratingly accurate, your psuedo scientific conclusions tell us a lot more about you than the wonderful writers here. This is no cousin to Fox news.
possible futures
written by Will, June 29, 2009
It seems to me, and I wonder what Robert Royal thinks, that it is not at all improbable that the long-term effect of what we sometimes call "post-modernism" is the end of the modern liberal state as we know it (though perhaps this will take a great deal of time, just as the kind of Occamist voluntarism which planted the seeds of the modern liberal state took a considerable amount of time to develop). How long, after all, can our two-state solution (modern politics, post-modern philosophy) last?
written by Robert Royal, June 30, 2009
Will, I believe you've put your finger on a serious fault line and have it exacty right. If democracy is not rooted in something real and right, it can decay spectacularly. It's often been pointed out, for instance, that Nazism came to power through democratic elections.

Bradley: you have a fair point. TCT was created to be more public Catholicism than devotional, but the two must be yoked together. We'll try to take that insight more into account in the future.
we ARE in the desert
written by debby, June 30, 2009
its a hot tough road this narrow way to the Promised Land.
we are the remnant-we need to remember that.
we need faith in Christ first, put all our Hope in Him,
radically commit our whole lives as best we can to Him,
some will follow,most wont.
America has never been our final destination.
i hope i can sing when its my turn at the scaffold.
right now, i trust He is working out my vocal cords in the daily living of this life He graces me with.
thank you everyone at TCT for ALL your help
written by Lee Gilbert, June 30, 2009
Robert Royal: Your response to Bradley's complaint is a lightning bolt illuminating the mindscape. Public Catholicism is or should be all about Jesus and proclaiming Him to the world. That is the mission of the Church and of every Catholic, including intellectuals. That Jesus is missing from so many of your articles does not mean that you have not struck the right balance between intellectual and devotional, but rather that TCT suffers from a fundamental, crippling disorientation.
written by Robrt Royal,, June 30, 2009
Lee, I appreciate your passion, but you give a rather narrow idea of Catholic duties. Francis of Assisi once said preach the Gospel always and when necessary use words. He knew many need to hear that. As a writer, I've taken this as a warning about how, when, and where to speak. And if, and to whom. There are good precedents. St. Thomas Aquinas doesn't mention Jesus in De Ente et Essentia or several other works. Was he suffering from a"fundamental crippling disorientation"? Or being a Catholic?

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