What Have We to Offer?

A month ago this website posted some lines by me in which I lamented that the state of formerly Christian society was fallen so low that probably no more than a half-dozen Americans cared that the Christian interest would not be served by whichever of the two principal candidates for President won in the November election.

I could as easily have written of the outcome of an election in any land of ex-Christendom, it now being seen in all of them as sacrosanct that the only way anyone should be elevated to a position of political leadership is according to the “will of the people” as expressed by popular election. This in much the way that something that can be enjoyed by the majority or, better yet, everyone is now seen as the ideal expression of culture, whereas in the Ages of Faith and for some time afterward, persons of taste (they still existed then) sought out the rare and excellent in music and literature and all the other arts.

The thought I have just expressed can be put in other terms: In our egalitarian age there is nothing that isn’t democratized – the uncommon rendered common, the superior diminished, until whatever is lowest becomes the mean. In contrast, the Catholic recognizes, or should, that not simply the Church and other goods, but everything in the universe, is ordered hierarchically.

Now, when I wrote a month ago about a “half-dozen,” I was being hyperbolical, but not by very much, I think; not if our number, whatever it is, is compared to the millions constituting the larger society. Inasmuch as I numbered myself among the half-dozen, I am here addressing the other five.

What I have to say, in part, is this: If the larger society is in a low state, neither are we in great shape. Really, in what significant ways do most of us differ from the rest of society? What have we to offer that would elevate others, that might even lead them to thinking there is something about the Faith, taken seriously, that recommends it?

We have our position on key moral issues that are also political. There are three we always talk about, usually to the exclusion of others: contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage. However, the larger society has demonstrated, as in the November election, that the majority of its members, including many who call themselves Catholic, have rejected all of the arguments we have ever advanced in defense of our position and are unlikely to change their views anytime soon (which doesn’t mean we should lapse into silence, but why we should not is another subject).

Of course we also have Christ Himself to offer, and we must. He is what we are about. However, as I wrote a month ago, it has become more or less impermissible to introduce Him into the larger public forum now that America is “diverse”. (Never mind that a Christian government whose subjects are religiously and ethnically diverse is perfectly possible. Bl. Emperor Karl of the House of Austria, for example, ruled over millions of Protestants, Jews and Muslims as well as Catholics, but the fact is irrelevant because the Austro-Hungarian Empire was not a liberal republic like the U.S.)

What else have we to offer? As things stand, not very much, I’m afraid. Why not? What else could there be? To illustrate the point I wish to get at, let me tell a little story.

Some years ago, at a social event in a Midwestern city, I ran into a young woman I had earlier met in another town. I was pleased to see her again because I knew from our earlier meeting and also from some writing of hers I had read that we had much in common. She was a Catholic of Traditionalist bent who also enjoyed reading, and not merely books about religion, but history, biography, novels and poetry. I suspected we shared other interests – music, painting, film. In a word, I knew we would have plenty to talk about.

I asked her what she was doing currently. It turned out that for about a year she had been working as a teacher and librarian at a private Traditional Catholic school. This means she was surrounded by other Traditional Catholics, fellow faculty members and the parents of the school’s children. These would be decent people, good people, the kind who kept a nice home, paid their bills, were trying to raise children of whom they could be proud, and who clung of course, as they should, to the Church’s position on moral issues. None of that should be despised.

As I stood there talking with this young woman, I remarked that a child on the scene, a beautiful little girl scurrying by us, had a pre-Raphaelite face. The young woman began to cry. “Why in the world are you crying?” I asked. “You don’t know how long it’s been since I heard somebody use a word like pre-Raphaelite,” she answered. I glimpsed an abyss of loneliness into which she had fallen because among all the decent and good people who surrounded her there was no one with whom she could talk about anything except what typically fills the conversation of many Traditional Catholics: the evils besetting the larger society and also the mainstream Church, when they are not congratulating themselves for standing apart from all of it.

What is my point? We’re getting close to it. Right now I want to see a show of hands. Without looking it up on Wikipedia, how many can say what I meant by pre-Raphaelite? That’s what I thought.

Somebody from among those who didn’t raise their hands is likely at this juncture to charge that all I’m doing here is show myself to be an elitist who happens to know about a nineteenth-century school of British painting in which we see repeatedly a certain kind of face, especially on women and young girls, because the artists who were dominant in the school used the same models repeatedly.

My reply to him is twofold: 1) By charging me with elitism you reveal yourself to have succumbed to the modern notion that culture, if it matters at all, is something that ought to be enjoyable to anyone without going to the trouble of looking at any image, reading anything, or listening to any music besides the commercially successful drek produced by alleged artists of our day; and 2) I am an elitist, and so should you be. So should all of us be. That is my point.

It is as elitists that we remaining Christians have something to offer a society which promises its members nothing except life lived according to the lowest common denominator.

Obviously I’m talking about intellectual and cultural elitism. None among us has the power, and probably none the money, to take a place among the political or social elite of modern society, but as Christians we have behind us two thousand years of thought and great art either directly inspired by the Faith or produced when society was still Christian (or at least vestigially so).

Equally obviously I am to an extent preaching to the choir. That is, if you are a regular visitor to the SBC website, you are looking for something besides the drek that is characteristic of most of the webscape. It can also mean you are no more than decent and good.

That, as I’ve already said, is not to be despised. However, decent and good are no more than any person should be, whether or not he is Christian. The young woman in the Midwest was surrounded by those qualities, and she possessed them herself, but they were not enough to keep her from becoming desperately lonely. Neither are they enough for others, asking themselves what is our secret, to see in us persons they would want to resemble, persons outside the political and social elite but whose lives are made rich because our minds and hearts are deep with what we know and feel. For that, we need to reach for the rare and excellent and so fill our lives with both that we can lead others to them by having come to embody some of what was greatest in Christendom. Those who follow the lead may not be very numerous at first, perhaps not much more numerous than ourselves, but when they do as we shall others will follow them, and then others them, so when Providence determines the day of a Second Christendom is finally arrived there will be men who recognize it, know what it entails, and acting as God’s instruments bring it into actual being. If we do not see that glorious day, we can have the satisfaction now of knowing we make it possible.