Saturday, July 10, 2010

Charles Pierce, Boston Globe: MTP

In this weekend's Boston Globe magazine, author Charles P. Pierce outlines a vision of a late-modern (hyper-masculine?) settlement with Catholic Christianity in his "What I Believe."  Outraged by the failures of the institution, failures that he correctly observes are systemic, not merely regrettable episodes, Pierce limns the lament of one who sees the faith in the somber hues of purple.  He values the rich intellectual and cultural story that has shaped him, but he now must jettison the structures that have carried and shaped that story.  He continues to "practice" as a Catholic but, as an American, he claims, what is central to him is that his faith "is mine -- a personal church..."

Reading it, I realize that yes, he does speak for many Catholics who, in order to stay sane, have mentally separated themselves from the institution, "defecting in place," as they continue to attend Mass and receive the sacraments.  I think he means to give his readers permission to do the same.

I understand the offer. I decline.

Let me be clear:  this is not a rightwing rant against "cafeteria Catholics," in which the self-proclaimed orthodox excommunicate those who remain Catholic while questioning various positions, claiming that 'picking and choosing' belies the integrity of the Catholic faith.  Look carefully, and those self-proclaimed insiders are doing the same thing:  pro-life except for the death penalty; this text from Vatican II, not that one; John Paul II on women, not Paul VI, etc.  We're all cafeteria Catholics now (I've said this before, apparently James Carville agrees, glad we have something in common).
But Pierce's position fails the Catholic test in a profound way.  He has no sense of any grace in the gathered and broken community, no sense that this ruined structure might yet mediate our catholicity.  There is not even a sense that his own nuanced self is a gift of that community (he's probably a plus at a dinner party), rather, he sees himself as its telos.  He closes with a twilight view of a visit to a monastery, which offers him a romantic justification for his rejection of the institutional church (he somehow misses that he's visiting a highly structured, to say?...institution).

In the end I find Pierce to be strangely triumphalist in his isolation, listing the sins of the church alongside its historical loss of temporal power, as if that alone confirms its decrepitude.  For Pierce, the Catholic Church is the home of an antiquated hierarchy, which has a museum near you.  He is regularly there, arms folded across his chest, joining the lines at Communion with his inner reformation, confident that the functionary who says "the Body of Christ" is, well, clueless.
And that structure existed not only in the opulence of the Vatican itself, but also in the minds of millions of Catholics, like myself. It still exists in the former. It has no influence in the latter, not for me, nor for many others like me. The institutional Catholic Church, for me, has no concrete form, no physical structure, no hierarchy except that of ideas. Even my attendance at Mass is largely contemplative, the priest presiding in a supervisory capacity, his authority dependent wholly on the primacy of my individual conscience.
But curiously, for Pierce, necessary.  As is, I'm guessing, his "Amen."

An aside.  I do expect that both men and women will be among those who will applaud Pierce.  But his particular take on this -- in the close-to-smug assertion of his own intellect, in the rejection of the very idea that community itself, even a profoundly flawed one, might put a claim on one --  sounds very much like what I hear from men of his generation, who, in the end, seem to be mostly infuriated that anyone would put those guys in charge.   When I hear from women with a similar outlook, their self-description tends to emphasize their outrage at having their voices set aside, they tend to highlight their years of faithful practice, they too are infuriated, but it's about those guys.  The stakes are different. 

MTP?  I'm a teacher.  When I write that in the margins of your essay, you "missed the point."