I was born in one of the most liberal cities and diocese in America, Erie, PA. As liberal as Bishop Donald Trautman is, compared to his predecessor, Michael Murphy, he’s downright conservative (Murphy wanted to have a dance stage in front of the altar of the Cathedral). Erie is the hometown of Joan Chittister and Eleanor Schmiel, the US base of the falsely named Pax Christi.
My parents were “Reagan Democrats.” Politics confused me, but I knew a few things: Reagan was good, abortion was bad. I didn’t understand the Mass, but I knew there was something special going on there. I couldn’t see, so it mostly bored me. What I *did* know was tha tthe processions, the incense, the statues, the stained glass, the gothic architecture and the organ music spoke to the depths of my soul. On the other hand, when adults gave me vague explanations of the Incarnation and the Eucharist, I didn’t understand. However, First Communion changed all that. I fell in love with the Eucharist. I avidly read the saint books and “first mass books” I got for first Communion–over and over for years.
In fifth grade, I read The Chronicles of Narnia. Then, in 1988, we moved to South Carolina, and I was introduced to fndamentalism. Like Flannery O’Connor, I found that Evangelicalism spoke to the heart of what one experiences in the Eucharist, the saints, the traditional liturgy and in Gothic architecture, that somehow the attitudes and daily practice of Catholics seemed to contradict with the absolute demands and substance of their faith.
I cut my theological teeth on the writings of Karl Keating, Thomas Merton and C. S. Lewis, as well as a thorough study of hagiography, popular devotions, and Marian apparitions.
Catholic high school nearly destroyed my faith, but nourished in that I read almost every theological and spiritual book in the school’s library and the public library: John Cardinal O’Connor, Etienne Gilson, The Code of Canon Law, St. Augustine’s Confessions, The Imitation of Christ. . . .
Meanwhile, what I encountered in both parish and school during my Catholic school years was some superficial worldly corruption of Catholicism: the liturgy that so moved me as a child–and, even more, the traditional liturgy that haunted me when I heard and read about it–was replaced with Gather and Glory and Praise. I was taught that the statues and stained glass that so enraptured me and called me to heaven were to be stripped away. I was told that saints were irrelevant to modern Catholicism. I was told that money was more important than unborn babies’ lives. In my childhood, I thought it would be cool to be a priest because of the cool outfits they wore, and the cool stories that the priests who visited our home would tell about their and other priests’ encounters with the Devil. I looked in awe on nuns in habits. I read about St. Catherine of Siena, St. Clare of Assisi, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Lisieux, and I wished God had made me a girl so I could be a nun and wear a cool habit.
In my teen years, I found nuns wearing “fashionable” clothing and speaking against the Holy Father. I found priests shunning clerical garb and preaching a lowest common denominator.
I heard them preaching about helping the poor and oppressed. Yet I saw how they actually treated those in our parish, myself and others, who were disabled.
I knew from my readings that the Eucharist was the most important thing in our faith, that it was important to have a living relationship with Jesus in the Host. I did not see this in many of the priests and religious I knew then. They emphasized “community meal.” They downplayed Eucharistic devotions and ridiculed the members of the parish who participated in Adoration.
Among clergy, religious and laity alike, many people liked to talk about “social justice.” They proudly supported the Democratic Party and talked about how “social justice” and “Catholic social teaching” were more important than saving babies’ lives. Yet I knew, from my reading, that abortion and contraception were the most horrible evils facing the world.
I saw that those spoke about “social justice” were least likely to actually want to encounter the poor. My dad’s brother used to call him every day with the latest from the New York Times, and my dad said, “When was the last time you actually had a black person or a homeless person to your home?” He never bothered my dad with the New York Times again.
Chesterton talks somewhere about how we “love everyone” but hate our next door neighbors. The liberals who preached “justice for the poor” in the abstract had no interest in the poor and suffering in their midst. It was the conservatives I knew growing up who actually went out of their way to help those who were disadvantaged and rejected by society. I learned quickly that liberals only wanted socialism as a way to ease their own consciences, so they could go on enjoying their luxuries.
Usually, “liberal” and “progressive” Catholics will at least claim to be pro-life. They just claim that other issues are more important, and they don’t really believe the Republicans are pro-life (I’ve always doubted that the Republicans are pro-life, and it’s been proven in the past few years, but then, I’ve cast most of my votes for third parties).
However, it’s on other issues where the liberals (and many “conservatives”) show their true stripes. Talk to them about contraception, “Gay rights,” divorce, “women’s ordination”, and so on. . . .
There’s always at least *something*. Allegiance to the “progressive” ideology ultimately leads to some kind of heterodoxy. I’ve known extremely few exceptions to this rule. And, most assuredly, those who are “progressive” tend to balk at traditional liturgy, popular devotions, devotion to Saints, devotion to the Blessed Mother, or, worse, devotion to the Eucharist. They emphasize Mass as a “Communal meal.” They sing songs about how “We are the Body of Christ,” and how this “Blessed Bread” is supposed to inspire us to go out and serve the poor.
Occasionally, I’ll read something that makes me challenge my understanding of Catholicism. For example, I once read some of the writings of Rembert Weakland, and they had a certain internal consistency that really shook me to the core. Then I read some passages of John of the Cross, and found that he said exactly the opposite of Rembert Weakland: that the purpose of our faith is not to serve the poor; the purpose of serving the poor is to facilitate a deeper union with God.
The Mystic Doctor writes that we search for contemplative union, and that the vita activa is merely a means to that end. Once contemplative union is achieved, vita activa is no longer necessary. This is reiterated throughout the saints. In one of Flannery O’Connor’s favorite passages, St. Jerome condemns a priest who has left desert life for pastoral life in the city.
Even Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, perhaps one of the most brilliant examples of vita activa and “concern for the poor” in the history of the Church, is also known for the following words:
You see, in the final analysis,
it is between you and God; It was never between you and them anyway.
C. S. Lewis condemns what he calls “Christianity and . . .” Any time the agenda becomes more important than Christ, there’s a problem. And what I saw, growing up, among liberal/progressive Catholics was that their political agenda superseded their faith.
At the time, I did not see that as much with conservatives. Again, I saw that conservatives had a genuince concern with actual charitable giving, with helping those around them in need, and with not just giving hand-outs but hands-up. It’s like this joke, which I originally read on a priest’s blog.
In college, I read Russell Kirk, Dietrich von Hildebrand (whom Ven. Pius XII called “The Twentieth Century Doctor of the Church” even before he did some of his greatest work), and I discovered EWTN, Crisis, Ignatius Press, and Adoremus. For most of my life, I’d felt alone. I knew what I’d read in books. I knew what sense of my faith I got from the saints’ lives and writings and from Marian apparitions. I knew what sense I got from good liturgies. But I found that most people thought I was a kook for having those beliefs. Now, I found that I was actually right on.
Liberals always say “read the Church’s social teachings,” yet every Magisterial document I’ve read leads me all the more to support the ideas of Russell Kirk, Pat Buchanan and Alan Keyes. Nowhere do I see anything that supports the socialistic policies of the Democratic Party. Of course, by “Magisterial,” I mean conciliar and papal documents, not necessarily USCCB guidelines or teachings of particular bishops.
In short, the problem with progressives is that their priorities are upside down. For them, Christianity is a means to social change. Social change is the end for them, when it should be the means to the end of personal union with Christ.