Saturday, May 26, 2007

Quasi-Religious: Catholic or not?

I think David Brooks, he of the Bohos in Paradise thesis, has it part right in his column in the May 25, 2007 New York Times. He argues that the old Andrew Greeley thesis for the Irish Catholics, that by the 1980s the Micks had outpaced the Prods in social status and equalled their former betters in economic clout. Since I wrote in my April entry "A God Shaped Hole?" about Hitchens' new screed via my Irish thoughts and Jack Miles' LA Times review Brooks cites Lisa Keister's Duke study claiming this now has happened for "quasi-religious" Catholics in the US. Sure, and his claims that being a skeptical member of a tough faith is the best recipe for such advancement certainly ring true for this writer to an extent, but I think Brooks writes too far outside the situation to fully grasp the collapse of the pre-conciliar hegemony and the implosion of American Catholic culture. I doubt that the next generation will be any more Catholic.

Brooks's comparison to secular Jews is more on the money. Unlike Yiddishkeit, and without the media stereotypes for better and worse that Hollywood has continued to churn out about clergy from all sides of the altar, pulpit, and bimah in the days of Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, and Zach and the other Braff (my boy and his buddy tonight rushing out to yet another Jersey boy gone Tinseltown as Zach stars in "The Ex"; Jerome who knows all told us one day that Jennifer Aniston is an MOT), Catholicism lacks charm today. Gays and hipsters and the newly urban may all find klezmer and egg creams and rebbetzins novel. But that "hole in the sheet" tale's an old wife's one no less than that of my youth that if you press your nail into your mosquito bite in the shape of a cross that it will heal faster. But the teasing Jewish titillation, typically, trumps for appeal the practical Papist remedy. Dov Cherney he of American Apparel infamy put up a billboard, the Forward tells us, at Alvarado and Sunset as well as some gentrifying corner of NYC with in Yiddish a sign of Woody Allen in payes and Hasidic garb with in proper lettering "our esteemed rabbi" or mamaloshen to that effect. This sort of kitsch may work for clubgoers and the terminally trendy who find their culture dependent on Judaic irreverence. Perhaps this religious marketing will revive via sodalities, novenas, holy cards, and pagan babies for the generation of 2037 in some once-Catholic downtrodden and then loftladen district of Westlake if not Westchester, our coast.

With the sex scandals and the assimilation of ethnic enclaves (the same paper same day tells us that "Hispanics" tend more to soccer, laundry, or sleeping in than Mass attendance once they settle in El Norte), not to mention the closing of parishes and the decline of vocations, the Church as we knew it cannot continue. When I was a teen the clergy predicted this shrinkage already, and this in the days of being identified by your parish and not your suburb or neighborhood, the days of trustingly letting your little ones go off with Father to the movies, the days of fish Fridays (no penance for me there!) and framed Papal indulgences for the couples married fifty years and actually seeing your friends carry rosaries and wear those stringy shrunken scapulars to protect them from harm and after nine First Fridays at Mass a "happy death." A culture, as I squint back, that shimmered in its last haze before the secular sun's heat.
May 25, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
The Catholic Boom

The pope and many others speak for the thoroughly religious. Christopher Hitchens has the latest best seller on behalf of the antireligious. But who speaks for the quasi-religious?

Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts.

Whatever the state of their ambivalent souls, quasi-religious people often drive history. Abraham Lincoln knew scripture line by line but never quite shared the faith that mesmerized him. Quasi-religious Protestants, drifting anxiously from the certainties of their old religion, built Victorian England. {My editorial note, not Brooks: I add that one of the images I use above is of an Anglican cathedral on Easter, an empty nave. Be careful what you wish for, voices of rational progress, unless, as many admittedly wish to see, churches only as museums. Strange to think that even Hitler foresaw in his Reich that such commemorations of a vanquished faith and its adherents would be necessary for the triumph of the Party to be all the more secured.} Quasi-religious Jews, climbing up from ancestral orthodoxy, helped shape 20th-century American culture.

And now we are in the midst of an economic boom among quasi-religious Catholics. A generation ago, Catholic incomes and economic prospects were well below the national average. They had much lower college completion rates than mainline Protestants. But the past few decades have seen enormous Catholic social mobility.

According to Lisa Keister, a sociologist at Duke, non-Hispanic white Catholics have watched their personal wealth shoot upward. They have erased the gap that used to separate them from mainline Protestants.

Or, as Keister writes in a journal article, “Preliminary evidence indicates that whites who were raised in Catholic families are no longer asset-poor and may even be among the wealthiest groups of adults in the United States today.”

How have they done it?

Well, they started from their traditional Catholic cultural base. That meant, in the 1950s and early ’60s, a strong emphasis on neighborhood cohesion and family, and a strong preference for obedience and solidarity over autonomy and rebellion.

Then over the decades, the authority of the church weakened and young Catholics assimilated. Catholic values began to converge with Protestant values. Catholic adults were more likely to use contraceptives and fertility rates plummeted. They raised their children to value autonomy more and obedience less.

The process created a crisis for the church, as it struggled to maintain authority over its American flock. But the shift was an economic boon to Catholics themselves. They found themselves in a quasi-religious sweet spot.

On the one hand, modern Catholics have retained many of the traditional patterns of their ancestors — high marriage rates, high family stability rates, low divorce rates. Catholic investors save a lot and favor low-risk investment portfolios. On the other hand, they have also become more individualistic, more future-oriented and less bound by neighborhood and extended family. They are now much better educated than their parents or grandparents, and much better educated than their family histories would lead you to predict.

More or less successfully, the children of white, ethnic, blue-collar neighborhoods have managed to adapt the Catholic communal heritage to the dynamism of a global economy. If this country was entirely Catholic, we wouldn’t be having a big debate over stagnant wages and low social mobility. The problems would scarcely exist. Populists and various politicians can talk about the prosperity-destroying menace of immigration and foreign trade. But modern Catholics have created a hybrid culture that trumps it.

In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.


James M. Doyle of Nantucket in a letter responding to Brooks in today's NYT points out sagely that the same politicians Brooks and his neo-con cronies grovel before kicked in the structures that allowed Catholics to rise up through the lower and middle-level management positions. My Cal Grants and Pell Grants and work-study allowed me that Jesuit college education that perhaps inspired me to return what others had given me back to others by teaching. Today, I would be in debt perhaps $80,000 and some bankers would be the only ones benefitting from my labors. I was lucky that Reagan's wrecking ball did not start its heaviest swings until I had graduated, so intent was he on a second term before letting loose the demolition squads.

Now, as Layne told Niall last night, he will be paying for the debacle in Iraq long after we are gone. Housing locally, food, fuel, and the cost of living soar. The mayor only can see more "infill" to stem the flight of those neither too rich or too poor down the jammed freeways further into the dusty inlands. Our county grows by a million people a decade. Everyone wants to drive and who can blame them, but where are the jobs that allow us to live where we work? They tell us globalization grants bargains for we Angelenos, not to mention lots of new restaurants and street festivals and celebrations at school international days. But, how can our stretch of land crammed between ocean and hills and support newcomers equal to two Chicagos in the next few years? And, once here, everyone brings their proverbial brother and his family over too.

Outsourcing and offshoring destroyed the stability that once was present in corporate America, and who can say that Catholics, Jews, or Protestants, quasi, non, totally, or skeptically religious can hope for such a future for their children's upward mobility?

Doyle: You don’t have to be a committed Marxist to recognize that the family cohesion Mr. Brooks attributes to the influence of the Catholic Church was supported on a foundation of decent hourly-wage industrial jobs and low-to-middle level managerial positions, which the political powers he so consistently supports have systematically stripped out of the economy.

Family cohesion is a lot easier when every adult in the family is not working two jobs. If new generations of Catholics have outstripped their parents in terms of education, perhaps it is because the G.I. Bill and other government policies in the 1950s and 1960s made that possible.

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