The Catholic Thing
HOME        ARCHIVES        IN THE NEWS        COMMENTARY        NOTABLE        DONATE
Some Are More “Other” Than Others Print E-mail
By Randall Smith   
Sunday, 24 June 2012

While in England recently, I had a conversation with a cordial British woman, an Anglican, whose husband is Catholic, who decided not to form their daughter in Catholicism because, as she told me, “I just couldn’t raise my daughter in a religion that forbids contraception.”

It made me think of that scene in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life in which a Protestant husband says to his wife as he watches the hordes of Catholic children at the house across the street:

“Look at them, bloody Catholics. Filling the bloody world up with bloody people they can't afford to bloody feed.”

“What are we dear?”

“Protestant, and fiercely proud of it.”

“Why do they have so many children?”

“Because every time they have sexual intercourse they have to have a baby.”

“But it’s the same with us, Harry.”

“What d’you mean?”

“Well I mean we’ve got two children and we’ve had sexual intercourse twice.”

“That’s not the point. . . .We could have it any time we wanted.”

“Really” his wife asks, somewhat puzzled.

Yes, replies her starchy-yet-defiant husband, continuing to insist firmly on the benefits of contraception: “That’s what being a Protestant’s all about. That’s why it’s the church for me. That’s why it’s the church for anyone who respects the individual and the individual’s right to decide for him or herself. When Martin Luther nailed his protest up to the church door in 1517, he may not have realized the full significance of what he was doing. But four hundred years later, thanks to him, my dear, I can wear whatever I want on my John Thomas.”

After 400 years, it does sometimes seem as though that’s what being a Protestant – in fact, sometimes what being an American – is all about: contraception. I’m not sure Luther would be pleased.


              The Ages of the Worker (center panel) by Léon Frédéric (1895) Musee d’Orsay, Paris   

Be that as it may, I couldn’t help but think it was a strange thought for a mother to have. Looking down at her little daughter playing in her crib, the little girl gazing up at her mother with those big rounds eyes, at that moment this mother said to herself — what?: 

“I can’t raise this child Catholic because I want to ensure that she is able to have sex with men not committed to her in any lasting way?”

“I want my daughter to grow up to be a ready object of sexual pleasure for men without troubling them with concerns over her (ugh) fertility?”

“I can’t bear to think of my poor little girl being denied the pleasures of fornication?”  

No, I don’t suppose any of those thoughts were going through her mind, at least not explicitly, even though those were the outcomes she was just as surely willing for her daughter nonetheless.

No, I suppose she was telling herself about “respecting the individual and the individual’s right to decide.” But who really decides? Isn’t contraception often enough just another argument men use to get women into bed? Why else would the biggest supporters of contraception be men between the ages of 14 and 35?

What was really interesting about this English woman, though, was her response when Islam came up. “Oh no, Islam is a wonderful religion,” she insisted. “So many people misunderstand Islam. I’d be delighted to have my daughter become Moslem.”

Really? Head scarves? Burqas? Child brides? Divorce for men but not for women? I didn’t want to spoil things for her by mentioning that Moslems don’t look too kindly on contraception either. Or that Moslems have been the chief allies of the Vatican in trying to keep the U.N. from importing contraceptives and abortion service en masse into Africa.

Like our friendly English mother, I too have a great deal of respect for Islam; but her embrace of Islam seemed strange for someone who didn’t want her daughter to be Catholic because of what she considered to be its “restrictive” stance on sex.

It was George Orwell who in Animal Farm coined the phrase: “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” In our age of ostensibly pluralistic respect for the “other,” it seems that some “others” are more “other” than others.

When one sort of “other” is far enough way and different enough from us that it seems exotic and strange – say Islam, but it could be communism or Hinduism or cannibalism, for that matter – we congratulate ourselves for being open-minded enough to embrace it.

The other sort of “other,” however, is too close, too much like us, for us to feel its “other-ness.” It’s a similar sort of “far-sightedness” that causes us to find the dysfunctions of other people’s families so “adorable” and “colorful,” while the peccadilloes of our own families remain utterly annoying. Familiarity breeds contempt.

One might have wished that the current multicultural worship of “the other” had kicked in a generation earlier when Catholics were being hounded in England and Ireland. If the timing had been better, Catholics of that generation could have proudly claimed the status of the victimized “other.” Perhaps Catholicism would have actually been “cool” instead of just discriminated against.

Then again, probably not. Catholicism is hard – it makes serious demands – and that’s never very popular. Still, perhaps there’s an opening here for today’s Church. Rather than trying to convince everyone that Catholicism is not in any way “strange” or “different” or counter-cultural, maybe we should be tacking in the opposite direction: trying to convince everyone that Catholicism is the strangest, most utterly “different” thing there is – that it is, in fact, the only real way to be truly “counter-cultural,” to be truly “other” than what the world tries to force us to be.

Not only would this approach have a least a chance of being better than the “Don’t-worry-about us-we’re-just-like-everybody-else” approach. It would also at least have the virtue of being honest. 

 
 
Randall Smith is associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston.  
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.
   

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (18)Add Comment
0
...
written by Randall, June 24, 2012
Yes, that dialogue from the Monty Python film pretty much encapsulates what I've heard from a lot of people who aren't Catholic.

As regards the strangnest of Catholicism - that's a large part of what attracted me to the Church and caused me to study it. The Church's "stick-in-the-mud" stance in the world, or in other words, the immovability of this Pillar of Truth in the world's mire, is why I eventually converted.

Glory to God!
0
...
written by Lee Gilbert, June 24, 2012
"Rather than trying to convince everyone that Catholicism is not in any way “strange” or “different” or counter-cultural, maybe we should be tacking in the opposite direction: trying to convince everyone that Catholicism is the strangest, most utterly “different” thing there is . . .


Your observation certainly applies to vocations. Bishops and vocation directors take notice- there is a Carmelite convent near Lincoln, Nebraska that has the Mass and all seven offices in Latin, full habits, a very formidable grill, the ancient rule, and is being INUNDATED with vocations. The interest is unending. There have been about thirty-five entrances in the past five years. There'll be another one tomorrow, and another on the 13th of July.

These young women want authenticity above all, the real thing, the Carmelite order as reformed by St. Teresa. They do not want to be involved in an ongoing experiment- the labyrinth, enneagrams, the spirituality of resentment and rebellion. They want to be saints. They don't want to dress like or live like everyone else.

We have to abandon- and soon- what has become the unstated, but over-riding guiding principle in much of Catholic life: The Supreme Importance of Fitting In. I can well imagine, for example, the discussion that takes place in selecting bishops: Yes, yes, your eminence, I agree that Father X is a very holy and learned man, powerful in word and work, but . . .can he talk baseball? Can he come off as a regular guy at some level? Can he fit in?

Similarly, it is very important for the powers that govern Notre Dame that it ape the Ivy League, lest we be laughed at, whereas it would have come to real glory and influence by being the most Catholic university possible.

We Catholics have worked so hard to be accepted in this country, and God help us, we have become very like everyone else. But it is a firm principle of the spiritual life: seek applause and you will get disgrace. And we have had a bellyful.





0
...
written by Jon S., June 24, 2012
Thank you, Professor Smith. Your column is an excellent update of Chesterton's "The Everlasting Man."
0
...
written by Graham, June 24, 2012
Prof. Smith raises an interesting side issue. Why hasn't Islamic America been roused by the HHS mandate?

That word "other" has become accepted across the spectrum of American thought and I've often questioned it because I have just as often felt like the "other" in the workplace, the classroom, and sometimes within the Church. Demographically of course I am the Man Without a Culture: white, straight, male, native-born, conservative. Catholic too but I guess that 2000 year old trans-national NGO doesn't have the bottum for a genuine culture. I could claim inheritance to so-called "roots music" -- my mother and father were born and raised in Appalachia, as were their ancestors yea even unto the post-Revolutionary era. But here's how the "other" is exploited. In law school I had a colleague who peformed at bluegrass festivals. The music of "das volk" in that environment. His roots music was de-racinated. Stripped of faith, values, family, place, military heritage, huntiing, fishing, victuals ('vittles" as Jed Clampett would say)... You get the picture. I have asked why the compositions of one of my favorite lutists, English Catholic John Dowling, aren't "roots musick" as well. I always get the look. Dowling was born, lived, and died during the sames years as Shakespeare. That's a long time ago; especially for American activist academics and other "other" respecters who dismiss the Constitution because it's "over 100 years old." Of course what leftist and feminist writers have done with sex-selected abortion is monstrous by comparison. The "other" truly is the beneficiary of moral, political, and cultural blindness.
0
...
written by Dave, June 24, 2012
Two recent events: at dinner with a friend in a high-powered job he noted that the young women in his office, all of child-bearing age, don't want marriage and instead seek affairs with older, married men. There are multiple reasons for the preference, among which two figure largely: their own careerism and their earnings outstripping the earnings of the young men who are their cohorts. And with contraception widely available and no stigma attached to extramarital relations, the women think, as some men do, that you can have your cake and eat it too. But a coworker with long years in Government service, and firmly committed to the liberal cause, noted sadly that the policies of the last forty years really haven't worked: people aren't marrying and having families, people are committed to each other, and our society is fractured.

What is the appeal of Islam for nominal Christians who reject Catholicism? I don't know if the studies have been done, but my suspicion is that there is a longing for law and order, a law and order that seems increasingly hard to find in our own societies, which have rejected their Judeo-Christian bases for existence, and which seems present, despite its severity, in Islam. That's just a guess, and I'd love to hear what others think.
0
...
written by Jacob, June 24, 2012
You obviously don't get how utterly sophisticated Monty Python peepee jokes are.

Don't ask me to explain why BUT THEY ARE! Anyone who says otherwise is just bitter that they're not geniuses like the MP boys. ...Geniuses at making the now over 50 crowd giggle in delight that they've ruined the west with their utterly pathetic obsession with sex (the cheap humor they pretend is so sophisticated seems to be icing on the cake).
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
0
...
written by Manfred, June 24, 2012
I really enjoyed this article, Randall Smith. The Monty Python dialogue between husband and wife really captures it all. I know it may sound smug, but I have been in a couple of conversations about how something should be done (e.g., changing "spouses" to "partners" on a membership list) and I insist it be done my way. When asked why others should defer to me I respond "Because I have been given by God the Pearl of Great price." I was once asked what I presumed others had received and I responded "You have chosen the Biblical Mess of Pottage". Catholicism cannot be anything else. It does not "compete" with any other religion or philosophy. It alone is Divine. When Its adherents attempt to make It something else, disaster results. One need only read and study the last fifty years. This is quite appropriate on the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.
0
...
written by Dave, June 24, 2012
There are several reasons why an individual could claim exemption, being a member of a religion that does not believe in insurance is one of them. Islam is one of those religions. Muslims believe that health insurance is “haraam”, or forbidden; because they liken the ambiguity and probability of insurance to gambling. This belief excludes them from any of the requirements, mandates, or penalties set forth in the bill. Other excluded groups include Amish, American Indians, and Christian Scientists." Easy Google search -- HHS exemptions for Islam was the search tag.
..., Low-rated comment [Show]
0
...
written by Jim J. McCrea, June 24, 2012
In the Catholic Church the coincidentia oppositorum is in full effect - it is a religion that is utterly exotic and utterly natural at the same time.
0
...
written by morrie, June 24, 2012
David - the Catholic Church gave us the Bible. So you think quoting a few verses makes your point? Jesus tells us to eat his flesh and drink his blood (a commandment) to have eternal life. We have the Eucharist. Jesus commands his apostles to forgive sins. We have the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We have the Fullness of Faith. I could not imagine go through life with Jesus in His Word and sacraments. What did Jesus tell the disciple who had followed all the commandments? Go and sell all your belongings and follow me. What do Catholic priests, brothers, and nuns do? It is an easy yoke as Jesus gives us all the graces we need, but he tells us to pick up our cross daily and follow him.
0
...
written by morrie, June 24, 2012
David - you provided irrefutable logic that the Cstholic Church is not the Church founded by Jesus. BRILLIANT. So which of the 27,000 protestant denominstions should I join?
0
...
written by Manfred, June 24, 2012
@anon. Interesting contribution. You might want to visit The National Catholic Reporter, America and Commonweal sites. They have back issues of their magazines going back fifty years with articles saying pretty much what you said here. Even Hans Keung, no friend of traditional Catholic teaching, admits that Humanae Vitae has the full force of an Ex Cathedra Statement.
0
...
written by Gian, June 25, 2012
The arguments given in this article can not be sufficient.
For British people, Islam is familiar (so familiarity has not bred contempt) and Islam is at least, as hard as Catholicism.

The real difference is to do with wishy-washy attitude of Catholics clergy contrasted with strong convictions displayed by their Muslim counterparts.
0
...
written by Randall B. Smith, June 25, 2012
From the Author:

Gian, I take your point. There is certainly some truth in what you say. But then again, consider the example: the woman in question rejected the Catholic faith precisely because of its non-wishy-washy attitude toward contraception. Why then did she welcome so fulsomely a different religion whose attitude on the same issue is similarly non-wishy-washy? Something else is likely at work.

Also, please understand, no 1000-word article will ever be "sufficient," nor did I intend that anyone should think it would be. Quite frankly, even a 1000-page book would never be "sufficient." Reality is far too complex. Such articles can do no more than point to a small slice of a larger, more complex reality.

So again, I take your point, but by the same token, the statement "The arguments given in this article cannot be sufficient" will always apply to any article. The issue, I suggest, isn't whether the arguments are "sufficient" in the sense of all-encompassing, explaining all; the issue, rather, is whether the article has hit upon something true about the world.

With regard to the comment by "anon" above that happily married couples "will plan their family, if any: one, two, or a dozen, using contraception together," I'm not exactly sure what to say. For starters, it's not exactly likely that a couple will have a dozen children using contraceptives. And planning not to have any children ("if any") is not exactly to plan a family; it's more like planning to avoid a family. As for "using contraception together," if what young women tell me is true, "using contraception" is usually something expected of women, not something the sex partners "do together." But either way, it's something expected by one of the other before there can be any coming together.

Conjugal sex open to new life is something a couple can "do together." Contraception is something done TO the man or the woman in order to denature his or her bothersome fertility. The Church insists that the fertility of a man or a woman is not a disease, not something that needs to be "treated" with drugs or killed like a bacterial infection. To treat the perfectly natural fertility of one's spouse in this way is precisely to destroy the "togetherness," the unity, of the sexual act.

As for the comment that "No loving mother looks at her little child and wishes her a life of poverty and hardship, eternally pregnant, knee deep in dirty diapers, for all her married life because the church says so," I'm not aware of any Church document that says "mothers should be eternally pregnant and knee-deep in dirty diapers for all their married lives." (Eternally pregnant? There's a basic biological problem there, for one.) But more seriously, no, the Church simply does not say anything like that. Quite the contrary. Pope John Paul II, for example, used to talk a lot about RESPONSIBLE parenthood. (He wrote a book entitled "Love and Responsibility.") Couples should make "free and responsible" decisions about the size of their families. The Catholic Church does NOT suggest that it is okay to have babies indiscriminately or irresponsibly. If one is choosing to have sex, however, then one should always be open to new life, since one is engaged in a fundamentally procreative act (one is "planting seed," after all). One can always choose not to have sex.

Unless, of course, one "has to have it." In which case, the act is not exactly going to be "free" nor likely "responsible." And as for "unitive"---an act of selfless love uniting two people---not likely.

0
...
written by Froilan, June 26, 2012
Please tell me you had the guts to confront this woman and didn't just decide to write a blog piece on what you should have said to her! Please do so....if you haven't that is! Enough charity...confront them!
0
...
written by enness, June 26, 2012
"Muslims believe that health insurance is “haraam”, or forbidden; because they liken the ambiguity and probability of insurance to gambling"

Perceptive folks...

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters


busy
 
CONTACT US FOR ADVERTISERS ABOUT US
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner
Banner