Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Something Must Be Done!

I must confess that when people find Catholics baffling, I do have some sympathies, because I find Catholics baffling, too. One of the more baffling elements of American Catholic culture is gripey passivity, an intense insistence that something must be done, beyond which nothing actually ever happens, except that sometimes various people are blamed. It seems a bit pointless. Of course something must be done; something always must be done. So do it. This all came to mind reading this essay on marriage.

The first thing to note is that things are not actually so bad as they seem. Dating was never an especially good or effective way of supporting marriage, and a dating culture in the long run gets you precisely the kind of culture we now have. There is much to be said for it, perhaps, but there's a reason phrases like 'treadmill' and 'meat market' are associated with it. Dating is a high-expense, high-difficulty set of interactions on a free market; that dating culture breaks down into something like a hook-up culture is no more surprising than full-service gas stations vanishing away in favor of self-serve. We know how we got here, and dating was a lot of it. Dating is just a late moment in the negotiating-for-good-bargains stage of the breakdown; on its own it naturally will become anything-harmless-goes, because anything-harmless-goes is just what you get when even what counts as a good bargain becomes negotiable, and there's nothing in the practice that can prevent that shift forever. For one thing, the deterioration comes with real benefits. Dating culture is not as people-friendly as Esolen makes it out to be. It has a nasty keep-up-with-the-Joneses side, it demands a truly extraordinary amount from people, and it can easily devolve into mind-numbingly drab monotony. It's a lot of work to get what often seems to come more by luck than by any of the actual work you've done. And it inevitably suffers by comparison. People look upstream to Austenesque visions of earlier stages, where negotiating for good bargains was still more sharply bound by concerns of familial and sexual honor, and dating, while freer, looks like cheap imitation; they look downstream to the consensual market open for all, and dating, while safer, looks stifling and arbitrary. Unless conditions are just right, dating culture will always start looking like a bad compromise. The primary problem with the state in which we are increasingly finding ourselves, the anything-harmless-goes stage, is not that it's not dating, but that anything-harmless-goes inevitably breaks down as people find they cannot agree on what's really harmless. And then people start trying to keep order by intimidation and manipulation, because that's all that's really left. We know this is how it all goes down, and we've always known that this is how it works, because these tendencies are already found in every society, just in different proportions and under different conditions.

Dating, in short, is a low standard. For that matter, Austenesque Regency marriages are a low standard, for reasons Austen herself depicts quite clearly. The only relations between the sexes that matter are relations based on pursuit of virtue, which are both more free and more honorable than all the other options on the table. And the only possible thing that you can do to bring those about is to strive for virtue yourself and show proper respect for the particular cases you happen to come across in others. Everything else is arbitrary convention and the Goddess Fortune.

Esolen's piece does contemplate action, but it is not of this kind:

So then—I call upon every parish in the United States to do the sweet and simple and ordinary things. Not everybody can speak learnedly about church architecture. Not everybody wants to hear about that. Not everybody can speak learnedly about grace and free will. Not everybody wants to hear about that. But everybody can learn to sing, everybody can learn to dance, everybody can watch a good movie, everybody likes a picnic, or a hike, or a trip to the beach, or a goofy time at the bowling alley, or a softball game, or an ice cream social, or coffee and tea and doughnuts. It is not good for the man to be alone—or the woman!

Which is nice in its own way, but stops short of actually being a practicable plan, since it is basically the advice that if you want to form a marriage-friendly communities you should form communities. True. But, of course, that is already just another way of stating the whole difficulty. Something must be done! Well, yes.


  1. SententiaeDeo1:26 PM

    "[T]he principle of the Americanists[…] [is] that the active virtues are more important than the passive, both in the estimation in which they must be held and in the exercise of them." —Pascendi §38

  2. branemrys1:59 PM

    The irony is that Americanism was a French heresy, and never was very popular in America at the time; it got its name because (1) it was based on a few scattered writings by a very small group of American priests; and (2) it consisted of French Catholics arguing that (the French view of) how Americans did things was how the whole Church should do them.

  3. SententiaeDeo1:13 AM

    Is that is the restricted sense in which Pope Pius X is taking Americanism in Pascendi, though? How does the heresy of Americanism relate to considering the active virtues more important, then?

  4. branemrys9:24 AM

    The Americanists, at least according to Leo XIII (Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae), argued for an emphasis on natural virtue rather than any distinctively Christian virtues, and divided virtues into active and passive virtues, where passive virtues are things like obedience, humility, self-restraint, resignation to God's will, etc., and claimed that while the passive virtues may have been more important in the past, in the modern era the active virtues were more important. Pius X is claiming that Modernists are assimilating the same idea. (Leo XIII had already noted that the distinction was poorly formulated; all virtues are always important, and the 'passive virtues' are active in their own ways, and sometimes more active than the active virtues.) Someone who held that social justice was more important than the virtue of obedience, or held that generosity to the poor was more important than the habit of prayer, would be putting forward new versions of the same idea.

  5. SententiaeDeo11:06 AM

    I didn't know Leo XIII actually discussed this active vs. passive virtues in Testem. Thanks

  6. Bruce C Meyer10:15 AM

    In the religious culture of American Catholics, I perceive (as a sympathetic outsider) that the virtue called "being proactive", so called by Stephen Covey in his 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is not considered a virtue.  Yes, the saints are famous for being proactive. Rabbinical style prayers and the Psalms are proactive (God WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS? and so forth). But American Catholics who stand up and speak up, well, they are not embraced to the heart of the conservative believing ones.
    Being proactive, someone told me at church, is like dancing; the first thing you do is that YOU STEP FORWARD. My catholic artist friend told me that the typical Catholic response to her art among the faithful is "who do you think you are to try to make things like this?" No one mentions Botticelli and so forth. So she doesn't hold to her church life but she continues as an artist.

  7. branemrys10:56 AM

    I think you are quite right. There are times when this lack of proactivity reaches astounding levels, as with your artist friend.


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