A friend and I enjoy good-natured debates about the Church. He’s a serious Protestant but knows and admires Catholicism. I was a Protestant for most of my life, so we have shared experiences and commitments that allow for good disagreement.
We were recently discussing how some Protestants view the Catholic Church (and Catholics) as somewhat out of control, while still fascinated by the Church. It was, we concluded, borrowing an image from the 2019 movie, akin to Ford v. Ferrari. The Catholic Church has the cachet of Italian design and the misfortunes of Italian maintenance. To Protestant eyes. the Church can seem like an aged Ferrari, sputtering and backfiring at low speeds, brakes a little iffy, wobbly suspension, while its driver, a shockingly gorgeous woman in a headscarf and oversized sunglasses, who may have had several glasses of prosecco at lunch, careens about the highway. The Ferrari, despite maintenance issues, can do 180 miles per hour.
The Protestant drives a sensible Ford Focus. It’s dependable, with good gas mileage and a reasonable price tag. He makes sure it’s properly registered, checks the brake pads, tire pressure, and oil before every trip. There’s a completed maintenance log in the glove compartment. The Focus is a respectable car for respectable people. The Ferrari is slightly vulgar. But as the Italian car passes (around a blind curve), the Ford driver can’t but notice how beautiful the woman is, the sleekness of Italian design, and that the Focus does best at 70 miles per hour.
As we were amusing ourselves with this caricature, and caricature it is, I recalled an essay by the historian Christopher Dawson entitled “Catholicism and the Bourgeois Mind.” Dawson was himself a convert to Catholicism from a wealthy Anglican family. His mother, reportedly, responded by bemoaning that he now “would go to Church with the help.” The Church isn’t for respectable people: “here comes everybody,” and all that.
In his essay, Dawson suggests that the bourgeois mind “is not qualitative, but quantitative.” It does sums, keeps close accounts – has a maintenance log – and has the mind of a moneymaker. The properly Catholic mind, however, is erotic, meaning something “of course, wider than the current English term.” Whereas bourgeois culture “has reduced the heavenly flame of St. Paul’s inspired speech to a dim bulb that is hardly strong enough to light a mother’s meeting,” the erotic type is “the man of desire.”
This is not about sexuality but a desire for the fulness of God. The Puritan mind wanted the purity of a narrow Gospel. The Catholic mind wanted everything, wanted God in every place, person, institution, tabernacle throughout the world. The throaty roar of the Ferrari fits the mystical eroticism of the Catholic. Consider St. Augustine in Confessions: “My weight is my love; by it I am borne wherever I am borne. By Your gift we are inflamed, and are borne upwards; we wax hot inwardly, and go forwards. We ascend Your ways that be in our heart, and sing a song of degrees.”
According to Dawson, Christianity is an “ethos of love” that does not calculate but loves “lavishly, recklessly and splendidly whether to the glory of God or for the adornment of human life.” It is “passionate and ecstatic,” it is baroque. The bourgeois seeks the “respectable average standard.”
How discouraging it is to see much of contemporary Catholic life forget its proper spirit, turning away from the vertical and transcendent to the horizontal and mundane. A Church that seems less about Christ and more like a non-governmental organization, as Pope Francis once warned. How dispiriting it can be to suffer the “sacred” art, music, and architecture foisted on the Faithful by contemporary iconoclasts. To be taught – implicitly, performatively – that the transcendent God become man isn’t really in the tabernacle when shuttled off to some corner or given the faintest, most reticent nod by the deacon.
At times, it can seem as if we’re trading in the Ferrari, and not even for the Focus but for a Toyota Prius because it’s more environmentally responsible and combats climate change that much better. It can feel that our desires for union with God are interfered with, thwarted, impaired by some facets of the Church herself, as if the Church is telling us that Catholicism is not really respectable and we should become bourgeois instead.
These feelings are all temptations, of course, and we oughtn’t to give into such sadness. God is God, the host still “hides” Our Lord – body, blood, soul, and divinity – the pope is still the vicar of Christ. The gates of hell shall not prevail. Yet, I admit, how I wish the engine would be given some throttle, the soul allowed to take bit in teeth and rush headlong into something more full, more proper to the desires of God’s people.
So how delightful it is, what a wonderful early Christmas gift, to read that the doctrine committee of the US Bishops’ Conference has “produced a guide to evaluating the lyrics of hymns on the basis of their doctrinal content, noting that Vatican II declared sacred music’s purpose to be ‘the glory of God and the sanctification of the faithful.’” Moreover, that the committee makes concrete suggestions about which hymns to jettison – and that, miraculously a committee – gets it right. They name names! “All are Welcome,” “Sing a New Church,” “Canticle of the Sun,” “Let Us Break Bread Together,” to take a few of the well-known offenders, would be better replaced with “O Salutaris Hostia,” or “Adoro Te Devote,” they state.
Reflect on the longing for full union, the Ferrari-type love of “Adoro Te Devote”:
I devoutly adore you, hidden deity,
Who are truly hidden beneath these appearances.
My whole heart submits to You,
And in contemplating You, it surrenders itself completely.
More, more like this. Restore our worship; give us our birth-right, our baptismal rights, to be oriented to God and the consuming fire of his love. Give us the Ferrari.
*Image (above): Les agapes (or Love Feast among the Early Christians) by Alexis-Joseph Mazerolle, 1877 [Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, MO]. Below: Ferrari v. Ford.