2022: There’s Good News and Bad News

From time to time, a young person will ask me whether and how to become a Catholic writer. I always give the same answer:  There’s good news and bad news. As 2022 begins, it’s worthwhile looking at the particular challenges to all of us these days. Being German-Irish and melancholic by nature, the bad news comes first:

1. The Catholic audience is shrinking. This impacts material resources.

2. Many of those folks who remain are aging out, or not well-formed in the sacramental imagination and intellectual substance of the Church.

3. Mainstream media are hostile; they not only change what we think but how we think.

4. Government is increasingly unfriendly.

5. Our economy and political system simultaneously encourage self-absorption and dependency; the ironic result is a widespread sense of isolation and powerlessness.

6. Church leadership, with various exceptions, is weak. American Catholics have operated on the wrong premises for 50+ years:  Assimilation has led to authentic Catholic life being digested by secular culture, and now to being eliminated from influence like waste in an organic system. We’re not simply post-Protestant but post-Calvinist. America has Calvinist roots, and, as the Yale historian Carlos Eire argues in Reformations, Calvinism cauterized the supernatural imagination (eliminating Purgatory, the Communion of Saints, sacraments, relics) and radically reoriented religion to the concerns and material results of this world. In so doing, it unwittingly set the stage – a kind of halfway house – for secularization and unbelief.

7. The result of all of the above is an atmosphere of conflict and decline resulting in acedia. Beauty, peace, hope, joy:  These are often absent from the Church and her religious life – which can then make the God-question seem sclerotic and irrelevant.

Joseph Ratzinger

Now here’s the good news:

1. Much of the bad news is actually good news in the same way that cold showers are an unpleasant but effective medicine for drunks. The humbling of the American Catholic experience is good because its fruit has been inadequate. U.S. Catholic life has produced plenty of outstanding men, women, and achievements, including saints, but also – at least in the past seven decades – quite a few frauds, fellow travelers, and cowards.

2. As the business guru Peter Drucker liked to say: Every success bears the seeds of failure because it so easily engenders overconfidence. But the inverse is also true. Every failure bears the seeds of success if we learn the right lessons from failing. One lesson we might profitably consider is this: We need to love the best virtues of our country, but we don’t ultimately fit here. Our home and final fidelity lie elsewhere.

3. Our current circumstances are not a shock; they were predicted with astonishing accuracy by Joseph Ratzinger more than half a century ago. The Church of the foreseeable future will be smaller. But she will also be more vigorous, pure, and authentic, and ready to grow again when the false premises of our culture result in its failure. Faith has fertility, and therefore a future. Unbelief is a sterile womb.

4. Conflict is not always bad; some of it is holy and good. It produces clarity; clarity reveals truth; and the truth makes us free. Not comfortable, but free. It forces us to choose where we place our loyalty and to face who and what we really are.

6. Scripture wasn’t kidding: Where evil abounds, grace and goodness abound more. Thousands of good people are doing extraordinary things that secular culture ignores. A core Catholic audience persists that’s thirsty for good writing, good thinking, and encouragement. Renewal begins there.

George Orwell

As for the why and how of the Catholic writer. . .and really all of us now. . .

The why: All of us have a hunger to understand the meaning of our lives. The Catholic faith is true in its explanation of reality, and thus satisfying on a visceral level. American liberal culture is based on the fiction that freedom demands the rejection of binding moral frameworks and obligating universal truths. But most people – for very good reasons – can’t handle the impossible task of creating and sustaining their own meaning. This creates anxiety. Which then requires anesthetics. Which then creates a culture of dependence and slavery. The Catholic faith is a message of liberation, hope and meaning; a realistic message because it accounts for human sin and provides a means of redemption and reconciliation.

The how: Christianity is relational. It’s not an “ideology.” Most people meet God through his presence in the lives of other people. Some persons do think their way into the Church through intellectual conversion – e.g., Edith Stein – but most people have an encounter with God, through the witness of another person, that changes the way they see the world. This is why stories are often more powerful than arguments. People love stories; we learn as we’re informed or entertained. And this is the meat of good writing. See Georges Bernanos’s great essay, “Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Therese.” Or Graham Green’s superb short story, “The Hint of An Explanation.”

Read. Read. Read with a critical eye. But read everything – Catholic and not Catholic. Some of the deepest influences on my own adult thought haven’t been Christian or even religious, but I read them through a Catholic lens learned from others and then refined on my own. Read for technique (Ernest Hemingway; Neil Postman; even lunatics like Terry Southern). Read for content (J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Leszek Kolakowski, Christopher Lasch, Roger Scruton, Pierre Manent, George Parkin Grant). Compare styles and editing strengths: NY Times vs. LA Times vs. Wall Street Journal.

Build your vocabulary but commit to simplicity. Be ruthless editing your own material. George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” should be burned into your brain. And for sanity’s sake: Stay away from Twitter. At least until you learn how to think and express yourself like a human adult. Twitter fuels conflict. It breeds impudence and stupid, venomous commentary. We’re already drowning in both.

Finally, and maybe most demandingly: Try to assume the best in others. Critique issues and behaviors, not persons. The spoken word can usually be ignored or forgotten.

The written word is forever.

 

You may also enjoy:

J.R.R. Tolkein’s To W.H. Auden on writing

Robert Royal’s Hope against Hope

Francis X. Maier

Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.

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