It’s a Catholic Thing?

Tom, a project manager in international agricultural development, and Taylore, a secretary at a law firm, met at an Italian restaurant in Columbia Heights, Maryland through the Washington Post’sDate Lab,” which pairs up willing strangers. Both are 26. Tom hails from Chicago and Taylore from Long Island. Both also “grew up” Catholic.

“I am from a very Irish Catholic community, and we had similar upbringings,” Tom shared. “We talked about growing up with Catholic guilt and how we’re trying not to fall into those issues now.” Taylore told the Post that she enjoyed Tom’s Catholic humor. “We don’t talk about our emotions. We like to shove it deep down inside,” Tom told her. “I’m pretty sure my mom has told me that,” Taylore remarked with a laugh.

Both Tom and Taylore were encouraged to leave their homes where they grew up so they could spread their wings as independent young adults. “Our parents wanted us to make our own way in the world,” Taylore explained. “It’s a Catholic thing.”

Is it?

Sure, I’d imagine many Catholic parents don’t want their children to be forever dependent upon them. But don’t most parents? Are Protestant, Jewish, or Muslim parents more likely than Catholic ones to welcome their children back in their basement into their 20s or 30s?

I could find no survey or anecdotal evidence to substantiate such a claim. Is there something about Catholic teaching that makes parents more prone to push their progeny out into the wilderness? Perhaps the parable of the prodigal son is really about getting that younger son out of the house. The older son’s sin wasn’t his scornful indignance, but the fact that he was still living at home!

I’ve noticed over the years that there is a lot of Catholic commiserating over various experiences and customs that are supposedly universal among us papists. Some, like Catholic guilt, are indeed widely shared. Is there another religion that demands its adherents regularly visit a cleric to confess sins, and even provides a handy pamphlet carefully detailing all the ways they may have offended God?

Other so-called Catholic customs seem a bit more tenuous.


Not talking about our feelings, for example, is less a Catholic thing than a generational thing. Ours is a therapeutic age, in which discussing our feelings is deemed healthy, even necessary. That’s affected our religious impulse, what sociologist Christian Smith has labeled “moral therapeutic deism.”

That means we understand our relationship to the divine or transcendent through a therapeutic lens that prioritizes our feelings and our desires over objective truth. Religion, we’re told, is inherently subjective, and is thus about our emotions and whether a religious experience is satisfying them.

Older generations, however, less influenced by modern psychology (and more experienced in suffering), did not think about themselves in clinical terms, and were less inclined to think religion (or anything) should cater to their feelings.

Of course, I’m just touching the tip of the iceberg when it comes to alleged Catholic habits and customs.

I’ve been told Catholics are rigidly dogmatic because they are taught not to question their beliefs (that’s obviously a caricature, and there are ample data demonstrating the non-religious can be just as close-minded as religious persons).

I’ve heard that Catholics are “obsessed with sex” (ahem, please name a culture that is not obsessed with sex).

People say rosary-clutching and statue-venerating Catholics are embarrassingly superstitious. (OK, Mr. Lucky Crystals in your pocket and Ms. Dream Catcher on your rearview mirror).

Ford Madox Ford’s 1915 novel The Good Soldier features many of the Catholic caricatures common in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century England hostile to the Church. “Continental Papists are a dirty, jovial, and unscrupulous crew. But that, at least, lets them be opportunists,” the narrator declares. Catholics, he observes, have “queer spots of secrecy.” A Catholic female character is accused of secretly spying on her husband’s bank account without his knowledge. “She was not a Roman Catholic for nothing,” the narrator explains.

English Protestants believed Catholics were cynically taught the arts of casuistry, which in an English context was often described as Jesuitical – an accusation often leveled against prominent convert St. John Henry Newman. By extension, says Ford’s narrator, Catholics were taught that sexual excesses in men “are natural, excusable.” (One wonders, if we’re still operating under the assumption of universal Catholic guilt, should such men feel guilty for those dalliances?) Women, on the other hand, writes Ford, are restrained by Catholic teaching to a life of moral rigidity and misery.

Yet perhaps the most appropriate description of Catholics in Ford’s great (if disturbing) novel is this one: they’re “emotional.” Thinking of our friends Tom and Taylore, that one made me chuckle. Maybe the narrator, an Anglophile aristocratic American with a “stiff upper lip” had heard tales of Irish Catholic wakes and their storied, alcohol-induced, passionate mourning.

As much as there may be some sociological or psychological traits more common among Catholics than other demographic groups, perhaps much of what gets labeled a “Catholic thing” is nothing more than a thoughtless slur. Perhaps it’s a way for people lukewarm or non-practicing Catholics, or even non-Catholics – to deride what they do not like about the Church. Or perhaps it’s a way for them to explain some behavior that might actually have more to do with them (and their own peculiar upbringing) than it does about Catholicism. “I have an anger management problem. . .it’s, uh. . .a Catholic thing.”

Tom and Taylore were both pretty satisfied with their date over cocktails and “casual Italian cuisine.” Tom gave it a 4.5 [out of 5], and Taylore gave it a 5. Taylore texted Tom afterwards. Yet, the Washington Post’s “Date Lab” reported, they did not go on a second date. Dissatisfied even with a good date, seemingly unwilling to settle for anything less than perfection.

Maybe that’s a Catholic thing, too?


*Image: Danse à la Champagne (Country Dance) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, 1883 [Musée d’Orsay, Paris]

You may also enjoy:

George Sim Johnston’s Courtship in the Age of the Pill

Anthony Esolen’s Modesty and Charity

Casey Chalk is a contributor for Crisis Magazine, The American Conservative, and New Oxford Review. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia and a master's in theology from Christendom College.