Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Don't Call them Progressive Catholics; Call them Devout Catholics!

Mark Shea, the guy who probably invented Catholic Blogging

Everybody loves a riddle. See if you can guess what ties these people together based on the MSM coverage:

  • “Brought up a devout Catholic, [he] aspired to become a priest….”
  • Although a devout Catholic, [she] is happy to face evil in her latest film, she tells Gill Pringle:

..”At home I expose my children to all faiths. I put a different book on the stairs leading up to our bedrooms — books on Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Christianity and so on. I want them to get a taste of different religions and see how different people approach things and what their motivation is. But, for me, The Omen is not about religion. It’s just another role and it’s been a lot of fun. Besides, my mother never told me not to do roles that involved evil or Satan,” [she] says, laughing.

  • Devout Catholic answers a call to challenge church…
  • A devout Catholic, he attended Mass every week…
  • Devout Catholic author rigorous in examining gospels…
  • “…events in the first week of January will try to plant [her] version of her life story in the national consciousness, showing her as an Italian American and devout Catholic from Baltimore”
  • [He] calls himself a devout Catholic and says his latest comedy… is “pro-faith, pro-Catholic, spiritually uplifting.”
  • In an exclusive interview, the 33-year-old devout Catholic (and author of How to Make Love Like a Porn Star) tells Us Weekly that she’s made peace with her heartbreak.

I’ll wait a few minutes while puzzle out the subtle thread connecting all these quotes. When you figure it out, t’will be a consummation devoutly to be wished.

So: about this word “devout”. What, I wonder, does it mean to the MSM types who sling it around with such abandon? There are certain sorts of people who come to mind when the word “devout” is employed.

The nun who prays and washes the leper with her wrinkled, arthritic hands. The pious Sicilian peasant woman for whom it is second nature to invoke the Virgin when her little bambino skins his knee. The simple Joe who goes to Mass every day he can, spits and swears, but would give a stranger his kidney if he thought it would help give another Joe a break in this crazy world. There’s room under the Big Tent of Devoutness for these sorts of people and a lot more like them.

But is devoutness an infinitely big tent? Is everybody (or at least every Catholic) devout? It would appear so, judging from MSM and blogosphere usage of the term. So, for instance, it turns out Michael Moore is a “devout Catholic” despite the fact that he holds some rather important aspects of the Church’s teaching in contempt and tells absurd lies in order to score political points.

King: What about how he’s handled the Rev. [Jeremiah] Wright thing?

Moore: Jeez, you know, I mean I go to Mass still. I’m a practicing Catholic. I’ve been that way all my life. But if I had — if I had gotten up every time I heard a priest from the pulpit in my travels around the country say things like I’ve heard them say, that birth control is a sin, that women should not be priests, that women should have a different role in church …

King: You’d be walking out all the time?

Moore: I would have been walking out so much — that would have been so much aerobic activity for me… I wouldn’t look like this.

Uh huh. I’ve been an ordinary, non-devout schlub of a Catholic for 20 years. I’ve seen the Church in parishes from Australia to Dublin and from Boston to Houston to British Columbia. I have never heard from this phalanx of priests who are constantly going on about birth control and women’s ordination in the pulpits across America. And that’s just the start of things I seldom hear priests offending their congregation with. In fact, rare indeed is the homily that offends anybody with gospel offense (offenses to intelligence, taste, sound theology and the dignity of both priest and parishioner are another matter). But apparently, telling bald-faced lies about such things does not affect Moore’s status as “devout”, because the Big Tent of Devoutness covers all.

Therefore, Mia Farrow is a “devout Catholic.” Why? Because she’s Catholic. James Carroll, who has made an entire career of bashing the Church as the author of the Holocaust and demanding she recant her most fundamental beliefs about Christ? He’s a “devout Catholic” too. Andy Warhol? Devout, cuz he went to Mass each week. Garry Wills? Devout, despite his tireless complaining about the Church’s failure to convert and agree with him and God. Nancy Pelosi? Devout and fanatically pro-abortion. Kevin Smith? Devout and casually blasphemous. Jenna Jameson? How could a porn star not be devout? Even Hitler and Himmler were devout.

In short, “devout” appears to be, not so much a “word” exactly, as a sort of acoustical cue. It’s the sonic cue you put before “Catholic”. Its meaning depends, as in Chinese, not merely on the phonemes that comprise it, but upon the tone and inflection with which it is said. Used in one way “devout” is a term of approval which aims to persuade the audience of the Devout Person’s bona fides.

So, for instance, if you are a reporter and your subject is a movie star or an artist and they go to Mass once a week or so, they’re “devout”. It adds color to that People Profile for journalists who ask breathy questions about spirituality.

“Devoutness” is useful, not just for People profilers, but for more muscular endeavors of social and political change.

If you are an unbelieving press agent or the sort of Catholic who doesn’t let this religion crap get in the way of what you really want and you are trying to coax a vote out of somebody or get them to approve of something that is pretty plainly dodgy, you can use the word “devout” to describe yourself or the person who is advocating the dodgy stuff.

“Yes, Jenna Jameson’s work in XXX films is controversial, but she is a devout Catholic.” Message: Only a Pharisee could express skepticism about the term “devout” here or state the fact that Jesus never said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin some more!”.

Similarly, if you are a politician whose devotion to the sacrament of abortion is so extreme that you cannot even muster the gumption to oppose sticking scissors in a newborn’s brain, all you need do is have yourself photographed wearing ashes and follow it up with stern blaring about the Primacy of Conscience. Say something like “My oath privately between me and God was defined in the Catholic church by Pius XXIII and Pope Paul VI in the Vatican II!” That way, you can equate doing whatever the hell you like with fidelity to the Tradition! You’re devout!

If you are not Catholic, and you are trying to sell yourself to Catholics, simply describe as “devout” any supporter of yours who is a carbon-based life form with a pulse that shows up in Mass now and then because, well, that’s the AP style manual term for “Catholics who have been to Mass sometime in the past couple of years who support abortion, gay marriage, and like to talk about being green.”

Of course, there is also (using the right tone of voice and emphasis) the sinister meaning of “devout” too. The top Nazis were “devout Catholics” we are assured by some of the more zealous New Atheists. “Devout Catholics” are the ones who go for Inquisitions, witch burnings, and psychic trauma that makes women have cramps (according to the Number One Selling Book in the Universe at the time of this writing). “Devout” people, when the word is spoken in that tone of voice are not warm, diversity-affirming, leftish people who recycle, listen to NPR, support the library, give to Planned Parenthood and live in the sure and certain hope of the Third Vatican Council. Spoken in that tone of voice, “devout” means narrow, bitter, angry, frightened, dogmatic, cocksure, suffused with the deepest wish to suppress all joy, impose thought control, end freedom, and smash all curiosity, pleasure, liberty, and hope.

All this leaves me rather baffled. I recognize that words can be polyvalent. I even recognize that a word can, now and then, have two completely opposite meanings (as when we cleave a thing in two and the two halves cleave together).

But I can’t help having the sensation that this is not what’s happening with the word “devout”. It’s not a word so much used by Catholics as about them. Indeed, the paradox of the word is that those who use it to describe themselves are almost invariably either rotters, former Catholics or both. There’s something strange about a person who announces “I am devout!” just as there is something either creepy and laughable about a person who announces (in a serious, not flippant manner) “I am humble!” It’s like the Tibetan Buddhist in the Onion article shouting like Muhummad Ali, “I am the greatest monk of all time!” Really devout people are too busy living life to go around reminding everybody they are “devout”.

Which, of course, is why (though some will undoubtedly try), none of this column is intended to (nor can) be construed as making any claims about the state of the souls of any of the various folks mentioned above. I can’t judge their souls. I can only judge their words and actions, as our Lord says to do when he bids us to judge trees by their fruit. When I do that I find that I must revise the MSM definition of “devout” to a concept so vague that it means nothing whatever. That fault lies, not with the various people mentioned above (none of whom have the impudence to call themselves “devout”) but with the cliche-ridden minds of American journalists whom no mortal power can restrain from sticking the acoustic stimulus “devout” in front of “Catholic”, any more than they can hold back their indomitable urge to speak of Vatican crackdowns and plunging busses.

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