On the Outside Looking In

8 08 2008

Catholic Society as Renaissance Faire

Via the Conservative Blog for Peace, I found this Chesterton quote on the Stony Creek Digest:

Those countries in Europe which are still influenced by priests, are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and coloured dresses and art in the open-air. Catholic doctrine and discipline may be walls; but they are the walls of a playground. Christianity is the only frame which has preserved the pleasure of Paganism. We might fancy some children playing on the flat grassy top of some tall island in the sea. So long as there was a wall round the cliff’s edge they could fling themselves into every frantic game and make the place the noisiest of nurseries. But the walls were knocked down, leaving the naked peril of the precipice. They did not fall over; but when their friends returned to them they were all huddled in terror in the centre of the island; and their song had ceased.

– G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter 9

Of course, one can revel in the Chestertonian love of paradox, but what I would like to address here is something different. When I read things like this, I always feel a bit like I am reading about Rousseau’s noble savage or Claude Levi-Strauss’ description of the organically whole life of Amazonian indigenous tribes. In other words, I find this rhetoric a bit patronizing.

On the one hand, I am not prepared to say that rural Lutheran farmers in the nineteenth century were fuddy-duddy modernists who vacillated between puritanical constraint and debauchery. On the other, this ideology looks at Catholic societies through rose-colored glasses. I can imagine some big Potempkin village where everyone is smiling, whistling and working, beginning the day with the Angelus and occasionally letting out an obscenity for stylish good measure. A place where the food is tastier, the alcohol stronger, and the sex, well, a whole lot better. Every time I dwell on stuff like that, it makes me sick to my stomach.

Really though, here is a dose of reality, from the Catholic borderlands of Mexico:

Finally, far to the east of all these sites, in Ojinaga, Chihuahua, across the border from Presidio, Texas, we find the shrine of El Difunto Leyva (“Leyva the dead man”). Nobody knows the dead man’s first name, although there is some evidence that it might have been Juan. He was a man without family, who, sometime perhaps in the 1920’s or 30s, was accused by a jealous husband. His accuser (who might have caught him in the act) burned him alive. As he died, Leyva raised his right arm and, pointing to heaven with one finger, said, “Al cabo allá está Dios” (“God is there in the end”). His finger was the only part of him not totally consumed in the flames. It was kept in a glass container in the Difunto Leyva’s chapel for many years, although it isn’t there anymore.

-James S. Griffith, Folk Saints of the Borderlands

In other words, thank you for the tourist plug, but really, no thanks. Catholic societies were scary places since human beings are scary. Y, por el amor de Dios, can we stop pretending that Catholicism makes for a happier, better society! Christianity isn’t true because it’s useful or makes for a prettier picture. Probably the opposite is the case.