I want to register a belated thank you to Eugene McCarraher (“Morbid Symptoms,” November 23, 2012) for allowing me to see myself as I really am: a suburban medievalist. I was born, raised and, until three months ago, have always lived in suburbs. There are a lot of us: since the mid-1970s more Americans have lived in suburbs than in cities. Worse, I am convinced that the culture of the 1950s was vastly more creative than that of the ’60s or ’70s. Moreover, I was much impressed in 1953 when I read James J. Walsh’s Thirteenth: Greatest of Centuries—to which McCarraher alludes—and undoubtedly it clouded my already distorted vision. I’ve spent a good part of my career in the company of academics and have found medievalists an unusually happy and congenial bunch. Since moving to a condo in downtown Chicago, however, I want to alert McCarraher to another phenomenon: Catholic Urban Feudalism, a lively tradition stemming at least from the days of “Boss” Daley and much praised by Andrew Greeley when he was a columnist, and which continues in the inbred patron politics of Rahm Emanuel and Chicago’s Democratic machine. Makes me nostalgic for the footloose life I knew growing up in the suburbs’ Wordsworthian sublime.
Kenneth L. Woodward
I find Eugene McCarraher’s article devoid of Christian charity toward “suburban Catholics” who, though working hard to keep the faith once delivered to the saints, face challenges from a wider culture submerged in “pragmatism, utilitarianism, and consumerism.” What is the merit of writing that belittles “right-wing” Catholics as those who are “enchanted both by the Middle Ages and by the mythic domesticity of the American suburban sublime” but who remain “thoroughly modern, however loudly they bewail modernity’s godless, prodigal spirit”? Shall we throw out our televisions and our radios, exchange our sedans for horse-drawn carriages? Can one find the right model of Christian society only within cloistered communities, or ethnic enclaves of like-minded individuals who have intentionally separated themselves from capitalist suburbia? What’s wrong with trying to fuse the moral ideals of Thomas Aquinas with the political thought of Ayn Rand in order to treat a society permeated with “pragmatism, utilitarianism, and consumerism”? What should parents who intend to bring their children up in the Catholic faith do to further such an aspiration? After reading this article, putting it down, and returning to it some days later, I remain frustrated by McCarraher’s attack on churchgoing Catholics who, even while surrounded by neighbors who seem to have surrendered to hypermaterialism, still strive to live their faith. Perhaps some think this is easy, but for those who find it difficult, why doesn’t McCarraher provide some suggestions for better confronting the challenges to living a Catholic Christian life in an increasingly God-less society.
(Rev.) Owen J. Loftus Jr.
Holly Hill, S.C.
The Author Replies
I’m simply baffled by Kenneth Woodward’s snarky trip down memory lane. Like Woodward, Fr. Loftus takes up for suburbia. (To his credit, he doesn’t think it a “Wordsworthian sublime.”) The fact that both men leap to the defense of suburbia—itself an outmoded and misleading concept, whose usage I hereby renounce—I take as a confirmation of my diagnosis of reactionary modernism.
That said, I have no idea what Catholics should do. (For reasons I can’t lay out here, I do think that a saner American future will revolve around a new kind of urban life.) As I implied in the essay, we can’t look to the “princes of the church.” (If we look anywhere, it should be to the nuns, who have supplanted the decrepit ancien régime as the true aristocracy of the church.) Indeed, we can’t look to any of the country’s bankrupt Christian elites. I sought to capture and express a conviction—one that I’d wager is widespread, albeit mostly inchoate and inarticulate—that the leadership of American Christianity is incapable of prophetic discernment and courage, blind to the presence of the Spirit in our midst. I’ve been re-reading Thomas Merton, and his reflections on the state of the world and the church seem as fresh as they were fifty years ago. Imperialist war, technological surfeit, the degradation of the person into molecules and money—Merton read the signs of his times, and concluded, in The Wisdom of the Desert, that American society—like the Roman antiquity that confronted the first hermits—was “a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life.” But he came to realize that the institutions of Christendom were jagged, hulking pieces of the wreckage. As he mused just hours before his untimely death in Bangkok in 1968, “the time for relying on structures has disappeared.”
Those ecclesial structures were tottering then, and they’ve been hanging on—barely—for over forty years. We may witness their protracted, inglorious collapse, bound up with the erosion of the imperial edifice. Like Merton, I suspect that many Catholics will be joining other pilgrims in retreat from the waning imperium. Will they huddle in enclaves, waiting out the storm, or will they coalesce into an avant-garde, scouting out new forms of beloved community? Whatever happens, we’ll be drifting for quite some time, with only faith, hope, and charity to sustain us. Alas, has it not always been thus?