Saints Be Praised

What Catholicism Says to Our Coarsened Culture

Age ten is the new fifteen, according to the Associated Press, which reports that teen rebellion and multiple body piercings have migrated all the way down to elementary school: “Some of them are going on ‘dates’ and talking on their own cell phones’’ in the fifth grade. “They listen to sexually charged pop music, play mature-rated video games, and spend time gossiping on MySpace.’’ As the mother of ten-year-old twins, a girl and a boy, I have heard of no “dates.” But the rest sounds about right, I’m afraid. I have seen girls my daughter’s age in T-shirts that say the rudest things, and hear (often) from my son about classmates who at least claim to play a video game based on the HBO show The Sopranos. Road to Respect, they call it, as if to torture parents all the more.

“We’ve crossed a line—we can no longer avoid it—it’s just so in our face,’’ Diane Levin, a professor of human development and early childhood at Wheelock College in Boston, says of all the marketing of inappropriate toys and games to kids. She has written a book about the impact this is having, So Sexy So Soon: The Sexualization of Childhood. All I can say is, I cannot even imagine going up against the culture without the saints on my side.

My kids are not getting anything like the industrial-strength Catholic upbringing I had; they go to “religious education” classes instead of to parochial school and have friends of other faiths and no faith. They question everything and wouldn’t know a zucchetto from a zucchini. Even when we lived in Rome when they were just starting school, they poked fun at how my idea of the most fun you could possibly have was poking around in some obscure ancient church.

It’s true; I love hard-to-behead Santa Cecilia and her church in Trastevere beyond reason and can think of few better ways to spend an afternoon than alone with the dazzling medieval mosaics in Santa Prassede. Or with Bernini’s Beata Lodovica Albertoni in San Francesco a Ripa, which is even more ecstatic than his Ecstasy of St. Teresa in Santa Maria della Vittoria. I dragged my family on so many such excursions that even my big-hearted son finally said basta, protesting that we’d surely seen every church in Christendom. “What’s next?’’ he once asked crossly. “Santa Maria dei Fagioli?’’ (Yes, that would be St. Mary of the Beans.)

Yet, here’s a modern miracle for you: Catholic culture has not only endured, but sticks, sometimes more than we know. A few months ago, I overheard a friend of my daughter’s declaring that her role model was Paris Hilton. I’m sure I gasped at this, all sensors sounding as my eyes twirled around in their sockets. My daughter’s response, however, was nothing of the kind. “Oh,’’ she said mildly. “Mine is St. Clare; she took care of stray animals and founded the Poor Clares.’’ (OK, I wouldn’t swear to the accuracy of the pet-rescue part, which sounds more like Clare’s buddy St. Francis, who so charmingly made her dine with him in the middle of an Assisi street so as to minimize both the temptations of breaking bread with a woman and the talk that was sure to follow.)

In our own time and place, we only recently learned that there are some limits on what the market will bear in popular culture. News Corp.’s chief executive, Rupert Murdoch, whose empire includes the Fox News Channel and the Fox Broadcasting Company, helped locate that line for us with O.J. Simpson’s hypothetical confessional, If I Did It, about how the former football star might have murdered his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman. After stirring up a little more outrage than he bargained for, Murdoch canceled the book, which was to have been published by his ReganBooks imprint, and a Fox television special hyping it.

(You no doubt know ReganBooks, for such titles as How to Make Love Like a Porn Star, by Jenna Jameson. Will this incident in any way inhibit Fox from continuing to claim that it’s only louche liberals like Barbra Streisand and Michael J. Fox who are befouling our otherwise pristine cultural landscape? Nah.)

This milestone occurred just days after we saw that, much to Karl Rove’s surprise, there are even limits on the political appeal of the so-called culture issues. Iraq is in what looks like a civil war, congressional leaders have been covering for a known creep in ways that we wish weren’t quite so familiar, and another of the preachers screaming loudest about Sodom and Gomorrah turns out to have been yelling at himself, poor guy. As a result, religious voters swung away from Republicans more than toward the Democrats.

In truth, there is no political solution to the coarsening of the culture that every parent minds; we are the culture we consume. And as the O.J. episode proved, we set the limits as consumers just as we do as parents. Even if ten is the new fifteen, my biggest parenting challenges are still ahead of me, and I can only imperfectly shield my kids. But maybe more than we’d like to admit, St. Clare can hold her own with Paris Hilton.

Published in the 2006-12-15 issue: 

Melinda Henneberger, a Commonweal columnist, is the former editor-in-chief of

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