Why was he a Catholic? Because he believed that the Church's teachings are true; and because the Church, in his view, stood above and apart from the present age, which he called the age of the "theorist-consumer." In his view, the present age has no use for anything that cannot be bought and sold or theorized about. So the present age has no use for Christian faith. But the believer, he thought, should count this as an advantage, and see the present age as preferable to "Christendom," when the churches prospered. "In the old Christendom," he explained, "everyone was a Christian and hardly anyone thought twice about it. But in the present age the survivor of theory and consumption becomes a wayfarer in the desert, like St. Anthony: which is to say, open to signs." From Paul Elie, The Life You Save May Be Your Own, p. 460.
That encapsulates the point of my "Cultural Identity" posts (here and here). Catholicism in the U.S., like the conservative strains of Judaism, had been until recently countercultural, i.e., countercultural to the mainstream culture defined by the tension in values between Calvinistic moralism on one hand and rationalist modernism on the other--both swimming in a sea of materialist consumerism. The Catholic world I grew up in was in most respects the one that Percy entered into in the 1940s when he became a Catholic. That Catholic world had very little consonance with and to a large degree stood in contradiction to Calvinism, rationalist modernism, and materialism--but that Catholic world no longer exists. After the Second Vatican Council, Catholics stopped living in their own countercultural world and started living in Calvinist/Modernist/Consumerist America.
In pre-Reformation Europe, Christendom was the sea in which everyone swam, and the Catholic Church was identified with it and with European high culture the way Hinduism is identified with Indian culture. But that relationship between the mainstream culture and the Catholic Church was destroyed permanently after the Reformation. And Catholicism became strangely countercultural--a premodern throwback in a modern age.
After centuries of resisting modernity, the Catholic Church decided it had to update, so during the Second Vatican Council in the early 60s it embraced a program of aggiornamento. The Church opened itself up to the modern world, a world that in its own reckoning was doing just fine without the Church. The world shrugged its shoulders and carried on, but the consequences were momentous for Catholics because it was the beginning of the end of Catholicism as its own countercultural world. But if it was no longer identified with the high culture of the West or as a counter-cultural opponent of modernity, what was it? It has gradually evolved since the sixties into a kind of Episcopalian-like sect for ethnic Irish, Italians, Poles, and Hispanics who stuck around out of habit, for the most part, but who often have no compunction about leaving if something better presents itself.
Aggiornamento wasn't the cause of the Church's decline, but simply a realistic acknowledgment that the Church had lost touch with the real world in which most people lived. So the Church opened up to the world, and in doing so lost much of its identity, its historical sense of itself. For many people this was a terrible, disorienting loss. Certainly this was true for the kind of tribal Catholic who needed to be told how to think and act, but also for a certain kind of intellectual Catholic who embraced in the Church an alternative narrative to the Calvinist/modernist/ consumerism of the mainstream. I think this possibility to reject the mainstream American narrative is at least a part of what attracted people like Percy and Thomas Merton into the Church in the 40s, but before long the church became something completely different. Both Merton and Percy adapted in their different ways, and Elie's book tells their story in doing that, as well as the stories of Dorothy Day and Flannery O'Connor, all four pivotal characters in influencing a certain kind of post-Vatican Council intellectual American Catholicism--even if these four were not very well known to the typical Catholic in the pews.
So If being a Catholic involves neither resistance to the mainstream culture nor as compatible way of living within it as, say embracing an evangelical brand of Christianity, why should anyone become or remain a Catholic? The Catholic Church in America wants to be taken seriously, but it is no longer taken seriously because it is no longer a potent societal force. It could only be that when it had a base, and it lost that base as ethnic Catholics moved out of their urban neighborhoods and ghettos and melted into the American suburbs and ex-urbs.
The extra-ghetto Catholic Church out in America was just one choice among many, and the Christian mega-churches are in so many ways more attractive because they do a much better job of making people, even people brought up Catholic, feel at home in American mainstream culture--they are so comfortable in the Calvinist/consumerist elements that frame it. These a-historical suburban Calvinists, with the exception of a few dead-ender holdouts, no longer care much about their identity-defining historical enmity toward Catholicism; they focus now on their culture war with rationalist modernity--the Darwin crowd, the gay and feminist activists, etc. If anti-Catholicism was identity shaping for American Calvinists in the past, anti-modernism plays that role now. Catholics don't matter anymore.
The Catholic Church as an institutional presence is hard to take seriously. From the modern rationalist side, It seems a dinosaur that managed to survive extinction, and somehow wobbles and wheezes in an environment that can't quite kill it, but in which it cannot prosper. From the Calvinist side, ignoramuses like John Hagee still see it as the whore of Babylon, when in fact all it aspires to be now is an ordinary, right-thinking, conservative friend and neighbor. Catholics in general, and certainly the conservative episcopacy that replaced the liberal group in the decade or so following the Council, do not have any desire to be a sign of contradiction, to exist as something apart from the mainstream culture--except when it comes to abortion. I think the Church is for the most part right about that, but it doesn't matter that it is, because it has hardly any credibility or moral authority, even among Catholics, and its concerns about abortion are as easily dismissed as its concerns about the American invasion of Iraq.
Its recent financial and sexual scandals have made it appear as its worst stereotype. A fairly big deal has been made about the latter, not because it's that surprising, but because it confirms the broader culture's suspicions about the Church. Celibacy is no longer capable of presenting itself to the larger society as a countercultural sign, because the larger society has come to see it as a breeding ground for sexual perversion. In its official form the Church has become for the broader culture almost as big a joke in this country as the Church represented by the Fallwels, Robertsons, and Dobsons. For many Americans there is no difference in the way they think of the fundamentalist crazies and the Catholics. Why should they? The most media-prominent Catholic on the American scene is the crazy tribalist Catholic League President, Bill Donahue.
Many of us who remain Catholic in this time when the Church as social institution does not prosper, do so because we don't see the institution as that important. The institution has a role to play, but it is not coterminous with its mission. The Church's mission is much bigger and much more important than its institutional existence. And this impoverishment of the institution in our time forces us to focus on where its true riches lie, and that is in the sacramental drama the Church enacts. The Church as Sacrament is the Church of the Real, and it is one of those signs one finds at the periphery of the broader culture, not at its center. For the Church of the Real is almost always a sign of contradiction to what one takes for the right-side-up conventional "real" at the center.
The Church of the Real does not seek the prosperity sought by those at the center. The prosperity to which the Sacramental Church points is an upside down version of the prosperity the center. This prosperity is found in the places the people striving toward the center do not want to look--in barn mangers, in bleak deserts, on blood-soaked crucifixes, and in empty tombs and barren wombs. The Church as Sacrament is always a sign of contradiction to what is important for those at the center who take for granted that sex, power, and money are the primary driving forces that make humans human. That's why the monks left the center for the wilderness and took vows of celibacy, obedience, and poverty. They wanted to make as dramatic a statement as possible that the logic of their lives living according to the sacramental logic was the upside down version of living in the center.
Elie quotes Dorothy Day, who somewhere said that the saint is the one who lives his life in a way that would make no sense if God did not exist. The logic of faith, is therefore, the obverse of what makes sense in the broader culture. What is rich is poor, and what is poor is rich. What is fullness in the one is emptiness in the other. The proud shall be humbled, the meek exalted. What is powerful in the world is weakness in the eyes of the Church, or should be. If the Church as Institution truly understood this and organized itself according to this logic, it would not look at all the way it does. And its spiritual authority and credibility would increase a hundredfold. The world longs for such a Church.
In these times the Church's future lies instead with those who live the faith at the periphery, in the wilderness. It prospers where it is a prophetic sign of contradiction. And the people who have discovered the Church there know and revere what it teaches. But that teaching is not a heavy-handed pedagogy. Rather it's as if it were a reminder of what one already knew. It's anamnesis. That's the nature of a Church that is primarily Sign and Sacrament. It invites those in who seek what it celebrates, to remember what they already know.
That's Percy's point about the wayfarer looking for signs. Alienation from the Real was Percy's great theme in both his fiction and nonfiction. The trick, he seems to be suggesting, is to find a way of living that rejects as potential homes both Calvinism and rationalist modernity, and to look upon the sea of consumer materialism as a wilderness to be wandered in looking for signs. Percy accepts that our fundamental condition is one of alienation from God and from one's Self, and that the cure lies in the recovery of the connection between the two. That is a profoundly countercultural idea, but it is a traditional one. The Church is most at the service of the world where it provides a space and the resources for people who seek to effect that reintegration.
Elie recounts that one of the surprising things found in Thomas Merton's diaries was his rage after having read a letter from a priest who said that his faith and his ability to sustain his priesthood had depended on Merton's faith. Merton was enraged because he felt the man was living parasitically, refusing to discover what he must discover for himself and do the work that he must do for himself. But isn't this exactly what faith means for so many? Isn't this precisely what the churches have depended on: that the faithful, because of the dearth of their own faith, live from the faith of the saints?
It's one thing to lean on one another in times when we are weak, but we cannot live off of one another. We cannot lose ourselves by looking to embed ourselves in another--even God. I have a hard time believing that God wants us to be embedded in Him--that's a Buddhist or Hindu way of thinking. I see that kind of religiosity as nostalgia for the womb. The Christian telos is communion, not absorption into the Godhead. There's plenty of evidence in our tradition of revelation that suggests that God wants us standing on our own two feet, looking upon him and one another face to face. We have to develop into substantive enough Selves in order to have such an encounter and not be ontologically vaporized.
Others are there to give us a hand or a needed kick in the ass, but not there to live our lives for us. And maybe that's why the Church as institution has had to wither so that the people might learn to walk on their own. An embedded Christianity is an immature Christianity in which the believer remains an undeveloped Self. This is, of course, what the Reformation was supposed to be about--to enable Christianity to come of age. To bring freedom, finally, from the domineering, always hovering, smother Mother Church--and to a certain it extent the Reformation made a beginning at that. But the reformed churches became in their own way the servants of culture rather than its conscience, and they also have lost any robust culture-wide moral authority or legitimacy.
So now the People of God live in the desert, whether they know it or not, and it is there, as during the early days of the Desert Fathers, where it's more likely that they will find signs of the Real. That, at least, is what I think Percy means. We will find signs of that which we long for most deeply where they are least publicly recognized or culturally legitimated.