The Catholic Thing
Blindness to Blandness Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Saturday, 17 May 2014

“Do you want a plain one, or the kind with the little man on it?”

The customer was, yes, shopping for a Crucifix. He could find no sign of mordant, wry, droll, ironical, nor any other humor in the face of the young sales clerk – in a Catholic store for books and paraphernalia. She seemed unaware that she had just raised ditziness to a level almost sublime.

My own complaint about these religious emporia – ever fewer books, and the trinkets ever more cheaply manufactured – may be foregone for a moment. It seems irrelevant in this case.

I chose the anecdote (which I have at second-hand) because it made me laugh. Later I wondered if Our Lord would have laughed with me. Possibly not.

There are laws against hiring only Catholics in Catholic institutions, at least up here in the Great Totalitarian North, so I must not assume the sales clerk was Catholic, or Christian, or . . . anything at all. The mental picture I immediately formed of her was itself quite possibly illegal. We have human rights legislation up here, by which anyone can be prosecuted for particularizing.

(“The problem with stereotypes is that theyre all true,” a socialist of my acquaintance once muttered, in a moment of exasperation. Hooo, did it cost him.)

But I am writing in an American website; I will take my chances.

The things that we used to take for granted cannot be taken for granted any more. We all know this, though sometimes, in “seniors moments,” we may forget.

This goes beyond questions of law. We cannot safely assume a person below a certain age – with or without a doctorate in philosophy – has the fondest clue about anything that happened in the world before he was born. (Or much of what's happened since, for that matter.)

What of it? The world wears, sir, as it ages, and our advanced condition of decadence is hardly confined to ecclesiastical affairs.

Only yesterday, lost in a big-box store, which seemed to sell everything except the very simple thing I wanted, I was forcefully reminded of a little truth. With the triumph of franchise capitalism and the Internet, it is no longer necessary to hire staff with any knowledge of what they will be selling. “Progress” has obviated all that, and except for a few technical specialists, everything can be done by minimum-wage zombies. (Or as I prefer to call them, “the electorate.”)

I truly believe in supply and demand, the way I believe in gravity. The two beliefs combine in a vision of the “lowest common denominator,” to which we are irretrievably sinking.

And it is to that world that we are now preaching a most extraordinary account of life and love; of sin and redemption; of death transcended. Fortunately, wherever we genuinely invoke Our Lord, we have the help of unseen forces. But we are also, as Saint Paul explained, working against other unseen forces: principalities and powers; rulers of dark; spirits of wickedness.

There is a little parish church in Bells Corners, near Ottawa, named for St Martin de Porres. It was broken into this week. Thieves stole the tabernacle with the Blessed Sacrament, smashed what they could, and spray-painted the rest with anti-Catholic obscenities.

It was not an isolated incident. Such attacks have become increasingly common. They get precious little media coverage, for a reason that I, as journalist of long experience, perfectly understand. This is because such incidents contradict what the media class have long been “reporting” – that the world has become indifferent to the Christian religion; that it looks on the Catholic Church herself as nothing special.

The world may often be indifferent, indeed entirely uneducated about the Christian religion, but the Prince of This World is not indifferent.

Moreover, the ignorance and malice interact. In this case, the only media report I could find presented the event as if it were a straightforward burglary, with vandalism – as if the culprits had broken into a shop to steal some valuables, then left a mess. The most telling details, which I have provided, were omitted.

Again, I am not surprised. From my experience of newsrooms, I can say that most journalists, including those once baptized in Catholic churches, will have no idea what the “Blessed Sacrament” is. They will think of the Church only vaguely, as something "on the wrong side of history.”

Nor would they be able to comprehend the idea of “invincible ignorance” – much as their immortal souls might entirely depend upon it.

In my local supermarket is a brand of cookies labeled, “Decadent.” One gathers they contain a lot of chocolate chips. The public conception today of decadence is itself quite decadent.

Similarly, the term “wicked” survives, in popular usage, but only to connote likely sources of physical pleasure. It is used with equal effect for the gustatory or the sexual. This fact alone tells us a great deal about the depth of the depravity beneath what is outwardly quite bland.

For as the Church teaches, and has taught these many centuries, the human being is not dimensionless, not cardboard, not flat. One moment he is yawning his bored indifference. The next, he is killing you. The ignorance and the malice are mutually sustaining.

The wonderful, but also horrible truth, is that human beings cannot be superficial. We try; everywhere around me I see people trying. But it is not in our capacity to pull it off.

To my mind, it is a catastrophic mistake to adapt Church teaching to the superficial: to make it casual and accessible, feel-good and off-the-shelf, like every other marketable product. It can “sell” that way, but then it is disposable, like everything else in that marketplace.

The Church cannot be bland. She is Christs, in Whose image we were formed, and blandness was never in His repertoire. Our product is not plain. It has a little man on it!

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (17)Add Comment
written by David Michael Kehoe, May 17, 2014
As a journalist here in the deep south of Melbourne, Australia, I have been trying to explain to my Catholic friends what David Warren has so accurately and felicitously described: the deep ignorance of most journalists, and not just of religious matters. Newsrooms, at the least, suffer first the bias of ignorance. Another very well-written piece from Warren.
David Kehoe
written by Deacon Ed Peitler, May 17, 2014
"There are laws against hiring only Catholics in Catholic institutions, at least up here in the Great Totalitarian North, so I must not assume the sales clerk was Catholic, or Christian, or . . . anything at all."

Someone has GOT to find a way around this if it is at all accurate. Otherwise, we will be giving away the store (forgive me). I happen to be one who believes that all employment by the Catholic Church ought to be construed as a ministry of the bishop - whether it is his teaching ministry, his charitable ministry, his evangelization ministry, his governance ministry (as in those who wash the floor). When all job descriptions are written accordingly, it makes sense that since they are ministries of the Catholic church, one ought to BE Catholic in order to be able to participate in the bishop's ministry. And BEING Catholic will presume being a faithful, practicing Catholic. But then again, I am known as a rigorist, I guess. I just happen to think that the Catholic Church is highly unsure who She is vis a vis the secular world.
written by Jack,CT, May 17, 2014
Wonderful thanks for a wonderful early weekend piece!
written by Manfred, May 17, 2014
"The Church cannot be bland." Thank you for artricle, Mr. Warren, but I fear it came to the wrong address. It should have been sent, instead, to Pope Bergoglio and his theologian, Cdl. Kasper.
written by Nick Palmer, May 17, 2014
David, thanks. And it is in this world that we are called to evangelize. The New Evangelization, indeed! But let's keep smiling.

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
― C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
written by John McCarthy, May 17, 2014
Assorted comments:

First Impressions:

"We have seen the enemy, and it is us." Or: "I have seen the enemy, and it is I." We are all infected, deeply infected, witht he disease abut which Warren speaks...It is not 'them;' it is us.

I perceive Warren's statement as that of a doctor's unsentimental overview of the condition of a patient 'in extremis.'

On the other hand, where is the hope,the joy, the confidence? Not in this essay, but that is not to condemn it..Not at all...As Tanto might have said to the Lone Ranger: "White man speaks the truth." But what do we do with it...except moan, decry, walk away.

Never more than now, we need saints...We probably have them,but they need to come great risk to themselves..

Warren, like our Pope, is cutting through the trash, cutting down to the bone. It is potent and necessary...

written by Mack Hall, May 17, 2014
Brilliant! Thank you!

I must caution you, though, that as the house warden said to Yuri in DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, "Your attitude's been noticed, comrade."
written by schm0e, May 17, 2014
This is a gem, glittering with razor-sharp truths. But nothing we do will quite be perfect, right? I was a bit offput by the sneer that your use of the word "capitalism" implied.

Oh, I'm sure those who read it will sneer, too. About "capitalism," about "American individualism", and things like that.

It isn't that I think "capitalism", as it is most universally misunderstood, and in the form of what that word is currently intended to indicate (evil, greed, mechanical profiteering, Koch Brothers, oil, SUV's, etc) is above criticism. It's only that its sneering critics never seem to intend to convey any of its measureless benefits. Nor do they help to clear up the sentimental detritus by drawing a line between what it is they hate about it to the source from which it sprung in its propagandized form. Nor can they propose an alternative that hasn't a murderous and grotesque history.

Much less do they care to point out that whatever it is in its failings is due to the popular distortion of something quite beautiful: free enterprise.

Apparently it's too daunting to cover that story, as well. Even, sadly, for Catholics.
written by John Rooney, May 17, 2014
In my parish I rarely hear a homily that really gets to the point about specific sins and hot button issues. I've heard active parishoners say stuff like they don't believe there is hell, other groups are Christian and we are Catholic and it doesn't matter as long as you love God, sterilization is a option etc. One elderly widower who is active in the Knights told me he is cohabitating. But they consider themselves old school born and raised Catholics. Our Lord said some pretty pointed things; some repented and some walked away.
written by Other Joe, May 17, 2014
We spit out lukewarm water and when salt has lost its taste it is trampled underfoot.
written by pgepps, May 17, 2014
'For as the Church teaches, and has taught these many centuries, the human being is not dimensionless, not cardboard, not flat. One moment he is yawning his bored indifference. The next, he is killing you. The ignorance and the malice are mutually sustaining.'

Absolutely true. Incidentally, I just finished reading Stephen King's already-dated The Cell. The portion above could be drawn from a reflection on that novel, as well. There are pockets of our culture that are self-aware on this point, but those pockets are being marginalized at an alarming rate.

And what barbarism to prevent Catholic institutions from hiring exclusively Catholics in good standing!
written by Sherry, May 17, 2014
Thanks be to God that Robert George is not bland! His courage, fortitude, wisdom, etc. far exceed that of many bishops and cardinals. He is truly inspirational!
written by Paul, May 17, 2014
Funny anecdote, I'm laughing but probably for a different reason. The person should have asked the clerk something like "so would you call this a Cross and that a Crucifix?" They may have been surprised with the correct answer. Stuff like this happens to me also when purchasing normal everyday things. It some cases it is lack of knowledge of the clerk but more often than I would think it's the clerk assuming I'm a confused old man.
written by Rich in MN, May 17, 2014
When I was about 5 years old in the early 1960s, there was a science fiction program called "The Outer Limits" on TV. The introduction began, "Do not attempt to adjust your television sets -- we control what you see and hear...." When I see how things are reported -- under-reported, mis-reported, unreported -- it truly brings me to my knees. Meanwhile, most of the sheep have inundated themselves with so many distractions that they "just don't have time" to open their eyes. Meanwhile, the unreported sacrilege at St Martin de Porres I suspect can be understood by the express, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Why would the mainstream media want to rat out a friend?
written by Tony , May 17, 2014
David -- two weeks from now my family and I will be making our annual Trek to the Tundra, that is, our trip to Cape Breton, where we spend our summers. I call it Nanada of the North, the nanny tyranny, or the Tyrananny. But it doesn't bother me as much as it bothers you, simply because I'm not a citizen, and there is nothing I can do about it ... I imagine that if you came down here to visit, our insanity would not grate so much on your nerves, just because it's ours and not yours ...

Thank you for an excellent article. Reminds me of Maritain: "Stupidity is always a vice."
written by Myshkin, May 17, 2014
Thank you for another truly Roman Catholic article. You truly are one of my favorite writers on the web. You should collect these peices for a book. Soon.
written by Carlos Caso-Rosendi, May 17, 2014
Catholic institutions maintain blacklists of Catholics who are to be shunned --mostly because of their orthodoxy-- Ask Mr Warren how many job offers he go from Catholic media, given his obvious qualifications.

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