On the outside looking in…pt. II

12 10 2008

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Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!

-Hillaire Belloc

Michael P. Carroll is not a good Catholic. But he is a good sociologist. I am now reading his work, Veiled Threats: The Logic of Popular Catholicism in Italy. Though I am just a few pages into it, the author writes an interesting prelude to the book, one that at first glance is unrelated to the rest of the work. Despite his last name, Professor Carroll is of Italian ancestry, his first relatives having come to the United States for the first time in the late 1800’s. His great grand-father, Felice Demartini, had spent some time in the United States before returning to Italy to start a family. Around 1907, one of his teenage daughters, Aurelia, had a falling out with him over the amount of work he demanded from her. She was apparently a maker of the colorful sashes worn by the gentleman of the region. The sashes became one of the main sources of family income. The more she made, however, the more her father demanded from her. One day, she protested that she could not produce them any faster than she was already working. Her father in a rage then began to chase his fifteen year old around the house with a club, intent on beating her senseless. The father then turned her out of the house and proclaimed to all who would listen that he would shoot his daughter on sight if she dared return. Her extended family then helped her to flee to America, where his family’s history in this country begins.

Carroll explains why he chose to open his book on religious sociology with this anecdote:

…[M]y grandmother’s story does run counter to many of the stereotypes that so often guide the thinking of Anglo-Saxons when they confront Italy and the Italians. A strong emphasis on family solidarity? A special regard for children? Not in my great-grandfather’s household.

Caroll uses this anecdote as a cautionary tale against thinking of societies in terms of stereotypes. Perhaps the most common intellectual sin of historians and other scholars of social sciences (not to mention of theology and philosophy) is blind romanticism; one wishes to see history through a series of presuppositions and values determined by current prejudices and agendas. One of the common ones invoked when speaking of “Catholic societies” is that such societies were obsessed with loyalty to the family, honor, and piety, to the point that they were all dripping with Catholic morals and values. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In my own family, “Mexican” like you wouldn’t believe, our history is rife with stories of broken homes, incest, concubinage, heavy drinking, spousal abuse, altars to the Grim Reaper, and miraculous healings with dirty hankerchiefs. When people speak of going back to “traditional family values”, I am thus a bit perplexed as to what “tradition” they are talking about. Our values were always as imperfect as the ones we have now. And this was in a “Catholic” culture.

Thus, I think only a person who is far removed from the nitty-gritty of Catholic societies can praise the laughter and good red wine. Life was hard, life was dirty, and life bordered on savagery, as the Caroll’s anecdote above illustrates. That is because it is just like life in all human societies: homo homini lupus. Such verses as the ones penned by Belloc above thus seem to be only for the titillation of converts and those who see Catholicism as an escape from their petit-bourgeois lives. To praise drinking? Bawdiness? Sitting around a table having a traditional family dinner? Official Catholic morality had to be strict because the societies that it governed were nearly godless places. At best, such Catholic “earthiness” was just how people were, and there was no reason to get excited over it or to point it out as virtue. To the contrary, when people became old, feeble, and God-fearing, they often called it by a more accurate name: vice.

There is indeed tenderness and humanity in Catholicism: the soft gaze of the Virgin of Sorrows, the pitiful figure of a bloody corpus on the Cross, and angels who sore high above the eyes of worshippers, pointing to the Heaven that looks down on this vale of tears. Such tenderness and glory, however, are bought with a high price. Catholic “intellectuals” would best think twice before they proclaim that they are willing to pay it.

(the above picture is a Guatemalan folk altar to the pagan “saint”, San Simon)

Click here for part one of this post.



6 responses

11 01 2010

I’m from a European Catholic country (Portugal) and from what I hear about family history, it was anything but filled with saints (as was traditional society at large).

15 10 2008
Kevin Davis


It’s not that I’m “exaggerating” the Puritan aesthetics; I’m just stating the facts. I would only be exaggerating if I were comparing it to “folk” Catholicism (as chronicled by this blog), which I’m not. I’m only saying that it is not quite as stark as many suppose. Certainly Catholic aesthetics is much more expressive and dramatic.

Professor William Dyrness’ Reformed Theology and Visual Culture is a good account of the Reformed approach to art and piety, in contradistinction to the Catholic approach.

14 10 2008

A similar quote I feel uneasy about is Chesterton’s “The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar.” Maybe I’m interpreting it wrong, but I can’t help but wonder what the Desert Fathers would have said about that line.

13 10 2008
Ralph Kruegler

Kevin, I think you exaggerate the benefits of Puritanism. While Edwards may have written about nature or ate some chocolate (thank to Aztecs and Spaniards)
There were no processions, or celebrations, or feast days and lacked the color and sense of celebration in Catholicism–that seems obvious and evident even from the Puritans point of view

13 10 2008
Kevin Davis

Re: Leah

It should be noted that all of the historical research on the Puritans since the 1960’s has debunked the myth of the joyless Puritan. Calvinists of the 17th and 18th centuries were quite capable of extolling and living the beauties of God’s creation. The ole fire and brimstone preacher-theologian, Jonathan Edwards, is a perfect example of a staunch Puritan who nonetheless loved (and wrote about) the natural world, his wife and family, and the occasional indulgence in chocolate. The “moderation” exemplified by the Calvinists was (is) simply part and parcel of a devout and holy life, which they believed was itself a gift which we strive to obtain and surely obtain as a grace.

12 10 2008

I think that Chesterton et. al were reacting against Puritanism proper, which said that being a good Christian meant sitting around looking and feeling miserable. As I type this, I’m reminded of a description of the Pilgrims that I read as a child; they worked all the time, except on Sundays and there were no holidays (too Papist). Christmas wasn’t celebrated, because it was pagan and Catholic, so they just worked through it. The only exception was if it fell on a Sunday. In comparison, Catholicism seemed to offer colorful feastdays, processions, beautiful churches, and other goodies. The over-romanticization of certain aspects of various Catholic cultures is sort of like the type of liberal racism that romanticizes the “gangsta” culture, because it rebels against mainstream white culture. Granted, most of the participants in this culture end up dead and/or in prison, but at least they’re showing “The Man” who’s boss.

Confession time: I never liked Chesterton. I’ve tried, but I really can’t get through anything he’s written. I remember hearing how awesome “Orthodoxy” is and buying a copy. When I actually started reading it he was yammering on about yachts and maniacs and I thought, “Where is this going?” I tried to read the “Everlasting Man” too, but it was similarly torturous. Am I missing something?

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