The Choice: Bourgeois Well-Being or Conversion to Christ: Beige Catholicism and the Challenges of the Young Priest

December 11, 2020
Best of Larry Chapp
A discussion of beige Catholicism in the context of bourgeois well-being or conversion to Christ
“Today Christians are faced with a no less heavy responsibility. There is always a temptation for religion to ally itself with the existing order, and if we today ally ourselves with the bourgeois because the enemies of the bourgeois are often also the enemies of the Church, we shall be repeating the mistake that the Gallican prelates made in the time of Louis XVIII. The Christian Church is the organ of the spirit, the predestined channel through which the salvific energy of divine love flows out and transforms humanity. But it depends on the Christians of a particular generation, both individually and corporately, whether this source of spiritual energy is brought into contact with the life of humanity and the needs of contemporary society. We can hoard our treasure, we can bury our talent in the ground like the man in the parable who thought that his master was an austere man and who feared to take risks. Or, on the other hand, we can choose the difficult and hazardous way of creative spiritual activity, which is the way of the saints. If the age of the martyrs has not yet come, the age of a limited, self-protective, bourgeois religion is over. For the kingdom of heaven suffers violence and the violent take it by force.” (Christopher Dawson, The Dynamics of World History).

Nicholas Berdyaev makes the observation that of all the religions of the world, Christianity is the hardest to live out because of its totalizing demands.  The Incarnation of God in Christ signals the transposition of all of creation into the divine life, and with that transposition comes an uncompromising call for a painful and purgative transformation, wherein a thousand small deaths must happen before our true form can appear.  Therefore, that transformation requires an equally uncompromising response to that call. And no half-hearted responses will do, since the Incarnation is not a half-hearted overture in the first place.  This requires a bracing and brutal honesty about who we really are, fully realizing that it is in our secrets that Satan lurks.

The call of Christ and our response to it are similar to the quality of love and courtship when the moment is reached where exclusivity is demanded by the very nature of the love itself, and is experienced as a sweet burden, a joyous bondage, and a liberating slavery. The demands of such love are total, as it now transposes life into an entirely new logic and regime wherein all that is old is new again. And in no way is it experienced as just one “part” of my life among many other parts.  Indeed, it isn’t a “part” at all, but the transposition of all of the parts of life into a newly transformed whole, and any attempt to mute that transformation and exclusivity through compartmentalization and compromise is to betray it and eventually kill it off entirely.  So too goes the path of conversion to Christ.  It is not a white-knuckled affair of obedience to a command, but an entry into the way of love.  And the way of love is far more demanding than mere obedience, which after all, knows only limits.  

It is, therefore, a rebellion against the transposition of all things into Christ to view it instead as an imposition, as the intrusion of an obnoxious exclusivity into my polyamorous idolatries and my insatiable and bottomless appetite for shiny things.  What we end up seeking, therefore, are a series of compromises between the exclusivity of the call of Christ and our answer to that call wherein we seek to follow Christ in a manner that still allows us to retain our worldly pleasures and conceits.   Our “red line” in the sand is the life of bourgeois well-being, and the Gospel must therefore be made beige enough for suburbia.  And so the bourgeois tail ends up wagging the Christian dog, which culminates in a thinly disguised rejection of the pursuit of sanctity as a species of fanaticism.  The “universal call to holiness” championed by Vatican II, and presciently called for by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin thirty years earlier, is corrupted, inverted, and falsified by rendering the quest for holiness in ordinary life into its opposite.  The statement that “We can find holiness even in ordinary things” becomes instead, “It is holy to be ordinary”.  And “ordinary” is then defined, strictly, according to the structures of plausibility constructed by bourgeois modernity. The true call to holiness, if it is still admired at all, is then cordoned off into a safe space of non-triggering velvet saints whose icons exude the oil of Laodicea.  This is why Dorothy Day said “don’t call me a saint.  I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.”

The claim of Dorothy and Peter therefore was that the attempt to domesticate this transformation through a thousand compromises with “ordinary life” is a form of idolatry.  It is the idolatry of the “everydayness” that imposes itself upon us and insists upon our assent to “real life” as opposed to the fanaticism of those who seek a Kingdom “not of this world”.  And it is an idolatry as old as the Christian faith itself.  The Romans accused the first Christians of being “anti-social” and “anti- human” because the Church insisted that our spiritual center of gravity resides outside of the nexus of everyday social commerce and within the nexus of a regime of grace that explodes the old wineskins of the “normal”.  This is why Dorothy and Peter challenged the traditional theological distinction between the “way of the commandments” (a minimalist form of compromised living designed for lay people) and the “way of perfection” in the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience. (a maximalist form of full Christian living designed for religious orders).  Dorothy and Peter called this into question and realized way ahead of their time that the call to live a life of radical fidelity to Christ is meant for all the baptized, and not just the perfected few.  They rightly saw that this minimalizing of the call to holiness entailed the compromised pacification of the Gospel as such.

What the early Church, by contrast, dared its followers to do was to imagine that what seems to be most “real” (everyday, commonsense, compromised living) is in fact an illusion.  And it called us to dream differently and more radically.  It is the inability to dream differently and to assert that this world, and its logic of compromise, is an end unto itself, that I define, following Berdyaev and Peter Maurin, as the “bourgeois spirit.” This spirit has always been with us, but, as Berdyaev points out, beginning in the 19th century it has been elevated into a strict and all-encompassing governing principle for our culture, religion, economics, and politics:

“What does the word bourgeois actually mean? … The word designates a spiritual state, a direction of the soul, a peculiar consciousness of being.  It is neither a social or an economic condition, yet it is something more than a psychological and ethical one – – it is spiritual, ontological.  … he is a man of a particular spirit, or particular soullessness.  The state of being bourgeois has always existed in the world, and its immortal image is forever fixed in the gospels with its equally immortal antithesis, but in the nineteenth century it attained its climax and ruled supreme.” (The Bourgeois Mind.  Books for Libraries Press, (Freeport, New York, 1966), p. 11)

Berdyaev, who was greatly admired by both Maurin and Day, goes on to describe the bourgeois culture of modernity as a cult of devotion to a life of “well-being”, by which he meant a rejection of life lived for the Kingdom of God, with all of its demands for holiness, in favor of a life lived for the comforts of the here and now;  and if one happens to be “religious” as well as bourgeois, then it becomes necessary to treat the transcendent elements of the faith as an ancient palliative no longer needed in the new regime of comfort.  Thus does the Christian faith lose both its triumphs and its tragedies, as everything is leveled out into a banal moralizing, and the grand Christian mysteries (the sacraments) become party favors at the table of sentimentalized congeniality.

This insight, it seems to me, is even more timely today than it was during Berdyaev’s era since the processes of putrefaction that he saw at work in the Church of his time, have exponentially progressed in our own, as the Church in America continues to abase itself on the altar of sentimentality, offering itself ever more to the Molochs of modern Capitalism, militarism, eroticism, consumerism, and therapeutic moralism.  On both the “Right” and the “Left”, the Church in America and Europe is defaced with the graffiti of our vulgar cultural preoccupations and seems no longer to have the spiritual resources to even desire something more Christ-centered.   In earlier eras reform was possible, despite corruption and spiritual laxity, because people still knew where and what the “center” was: the Christ presented in the gospels.  Today we doubt the legitimacy of even having a center, viewing the very notion of a center as lacking in “inclusion”, which of course is merely code for “we want our bourgeois comforts and conceits.”  And so we see that we are not so opposed to “centers” after all. Mammon suffers no rivals.

George Bernanos, in his masterful novel “The Diary of a Country Priest”, begins his narrative with the following words from the Curé d’ Ambricourt:  “My is a parish like all the rest.  They are all alike. …  My parish is bored stiff; no other word for it.  Like so many others!  We can see them being eaten up by boredom, and we can’t do anything about it.  Someday perhaps we shall catch it ourselves – – become aware of the cancerous growth within us.  You can keep going a long time with that in you.”

“Boredom” is a slippery term that can mean anything from the normal emotional fatigue that sets in when one is engaged in the drab duties of daily life up to the deep existential acedia of one who has simply grown world weary and has become jaded to life itself.  But the boredom that Bernanos is referencing is of a unique kind that is peculiar to Catholic communities that have incrementally and silently abandoned faith in the sacraments as encounters with Christ and replaced that faith with a secular simulacrum wherein the outward form of the sacraments remains, while the inner life has been hollowed out and replaced with the banal ideology of a deeply channelized, and profoundly intolerant, bourgeois cult of self-fulfillment.

What Bernanos is pointing to is a moribund Catholicism that has gone to seed, like a dandelion long past its fruitful floriation and which has dispersed its seeds into the buffeting winds. What remains may still be outwardly green but it now has no discernible purpose.  And soon its greenery will be dead even if the roots remain.  Thus, there is also an air of putrescence about beige, bourgeois Catholicism, with a lingering stench that is the telltale signature of dead things decomposing, in spite of the deodorizing bureaucratic apparatus chanceries try to sprinkle over the rotting corpse.  And as Nicholas Berdyaev also notes, the spirit of bureaucracy is the deepest inner voice of the bourgeois soul and bespeaks a fundamental orientation to “control through management techniques” that is the Mark of the Beast.

Therefore, the universal call to holiness is needed more today than ever before, as the progressive ideology that governs modernity erases the structures and institutions that have carried the weight of Tradition on their shoulders.  Human freedom is defined by today’s political Liberalism as a radical autonomy from all previous strictures and structures, as the steamroller of “liberation” flattens everything in its path.  In the place of Tradition, now destroyed, we are given … nothing.  And this is because the formal “neutrality” of the choosing self is the only absolute in our pursuit of bourgeois well-being, and the only “sin” left in our moral lexicon is “intolerance” to the needs of this autonomous freedom.  The modern believer is, therefore, in a situation unparalleled in the history of Christianity in that in order to persevere in the faith one cannot presume the support of the broader culture or even, sadly, of the Church, which is also infected with the same virus of aimless, mediocrity.

Therefore, the serious believer is thrown back upon his or her own inner resources. Thankfully, the Sacraments are still efficacious despite the corruption of the Church, pockets of serious Catholicism remain in almost every parish, and the Church still abounds in resources available to believers from the deep treasury of her past.  Nevertheless, the path forward for the believer can only be the arduous path of personal holiness, since the crushing weight of the modern world is indeed powerful and a lukewarm compromise between bourgeois existence and “spirituality” tailored to that existence will not weather the coming storm. We cannot remain in a domesticated region of stasis since in the spiritual life one is either trending upward toward God or downward toward the libido dominandi.  There is no “middle path” of compromised Christianity.  And by “compromised” I don’t mean that the Church has sinners within it or even that it has many, many “big sinners” within it.  I mean rather that the Church has been gripped from top to bottom by a foreign spirit that says you can have Christianity without the cross, without a cruciform structure to our lives, and that we can be “good Christians” even as we structure our lives around various forms of bourgeois “security”.

And that brings me to my final point:  the crisis in the priesthood.  And by “crisis” I am not referring to the issue of clerical sexual abuse and its episcopal cover ups.  As a former seminarian and a professional theologian I have, of course, come to know many priests. And over the course of the past decade I have noticed among my young priest friends in particular a sharp and stinging demoralization caused by their experience of parish life.  They entered ministry full of vigor and enthusiasm, determined to be a strong priestly witness to the power of Christ, but discovered quickly that the beige, bourgeois Catholicism described above is not only deeply entrenched, but also very resistant to challenge.  Furthermore, they also soon discover that the small band of “traditionalists” in their parishes – – folks who should be allies in the struggle – – are quite often narrow-minded and mean spirited malcontents ready to do battle for whatever cause they had just picked up from Michael Voris or Taylor Marshall.  It is hard indeed to make common cause with people who think Saint Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI were liberal modernists not to be trusted, and who also think that the Novus Ordo, though “valid”, is an abomination concocted by Freemasons in the Vatican. There are, of course, sane and well educated Catholics in almost every parish, but their numbers are too few to offset the bourgeois ethos of the modern parish where the primary emphasis is on making Catholicism compatible with life on the cul-de-sac.

I know one priest via an email exchange who wrote to me complaining about how he had tried to end the practice of CYO sports playing games on Sunday mornings.  The blowback he received was often vicious and left him shocked and demoralized.  The idea that as a Catholic one should not reserve Sunday morning for organized sports under a “Catholic” banner seemed utterly foreign to his parishioners and they made it clear that the priest was being “divisive”, “intolerant”, “conservative”, and … wait for it … “contrary to Pope Francis’s message of mercy.”  I know another priest who inherited a parish where patens were not used at communion time by the altar servers and the liturgical chimes had been removed from usage during the Eucharistic prayer.  I asked him why he did not simply reintroduce them which was his right as a pastor.  He just smiled and said it wasn’t worth the war that such moves would have created and decided instead to just keep the peace by acquiescing to their nonchalance toward the sacredness of the Eucharist.

Just last month I got an interesting email from another young priest who tried to open a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in a house near his parish but had to abandon the project when influential (i.e. wealthy) members of his parish told him that their donations would go away immediately if he even attempted such a thing.  When he reminded them of Christ’s commandment to care for “the least of these” he was told that nothing was stopping him from opening a shelter in a different neighborhood, by which they meant “anywhere but near us”.  He then appealed to the chancery for support but got nothing but silence in response.

These are but a few, anecdotal examples among many, many more that I could cite.  And I am certain others who are reading this have had similar experiences.  But perhaps the most galling and demoralizing aspect of modern parish life is the resistance that many young priests face from their own diocesan chancery and/or the bishop himself when they seek to introduce things like altar rails and communion while kneeling, Gregorian chant, frequent incensing of the altar, the people, and the book of the Gospel, or God forbid, worship ad orientem.  None of these things are prohibited by either the rubrics or the documents of Vatican II themselves, but they are almost universally opposed by bishops who are terrified of appearing to sanction liturgical forms that restore a more “vertical” and supernatural element to the Mass and which seek to counteract the suburban view of the Eucharist as an hors d’oeuvre served to party guests.  One priest described it this way to me:  “It is true, as Pope Francis says, that the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect.  However, in my parish, communion is treated as a ‘participation trophy’ to be handed out to everyone who, after all, have had to put up with the annoyance of having to go to Church.”

Nor is the resistance limited to trying to make changes to the Liturgy.  Indeed,  some of the stiffest resistance arises when a priest tries to get the diocese to approve of a highly focused and intense commitment to social justice causes other than the (legitimate) fight against abortion. However, even with abortion, you find dioceses with more liberal bishops who seem embarrassed by the issue and try to curtail priestly agitation even against pre-natal homicide.  Priests who seek to apply the moral mandate of the Gospel to the political sphere, both liberal and conservative, more often than not find their hands tied by secret reprimands from the bishop, complete with threats to be removed from parish ministry and assigned instead to oversight of the diocesan cemeteries.  God forbid that the Church would lose its tax exempt status!  How would bishops like the disgraced Bransfield afford their booze and daily flowers if they taxed the episcopal palaces?

All snark aside, the sad fact is that the tone and tenor of the bureaucratic apparatus of the Church is characterized by a “don’t make waves” mentality and it seems to matter not one wit whether the bishop is liberal, conservative, or just a managerial class apparatchik intent on promotion to Rome and that apartment in Trastevere.  Indeed, the USCCB is dominated by bourgeois, managerial class dullards who were elevated to the episcopacy through the winnowing sieve of a self-protecting and self-replicating bureaucracy obsessed with preserving the appearance of “safe stability” above all else. This alone explains why most dioceses pay more attention to the lawyers and insurance companies than they do to their most effective pastors.  It also explains why, from a diocesan perspective, the most important pastoral duty of any parish priest is to make sure the parish assessment is sent to the diocesan treasury on time, and in the full amount.  Historically, (and I hope this is changing) a priest who “agitates” for a holier and poorer Church is more distrusted in many chanceries than a priest who rapes children. Let that sink in a bit…

Therefore, it should not come as a shock that something is happening in the parish priesthood that is not good.  My armchair and subjective estimate is that a good half of the young priests I know are not merely “demoralized” but are, in fact, miserable.  Some have even left the priesthood entirely, deeply wounded, and emotionally pulverized into dust.  These men were seeking something to do with their lives that was “heroic” and deeply masculine in the ascetical discipline that true valor demands.  But what they encountered in the modern parish was an effeminate Catholicism of therapeutic nurturing where the Eucharistic liturgy had been reduced to: “Hi, welcome to Church-Mart. I love you.”  They looked forward to making a difference in the confessional only to discover that few parishioners actually went to confession anymore, and the ones that did were the ones who least needed to, or worse, (as one priest told me) you get the same 5 sexually scrupulous neurotics who showed up every Saturday to legalistically purge what they did Friday night.  Wedding liturgies were found to be a martyr’s ordeal as the bourgeois ethos was in full Monty without shame: “No, you cannot sing a Dylan song to each other in place of your vows.” One young priest told me that on his tombstone he wanted the following engraved:  “Father **** Concierge and Martyr”.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg since the young priest’s biggest battle is with the “don’t rock the boat” bourgeois mentality of both the laity and the episcopacy on a whole range of issues.  So what is a young priest to do in this environment?  I have gotten numerous emails from priests asking me to write on this topic and to offer a positive proposal for the way forward.  I would like to cop out on that request since my analysis of the situation is dour and grim.  In my opinion, the Church in America is in deep Kimchi at the moment.  Nor do I want to offer puerile bromides like “holiness is the only answer”, even though that is a true statement in some ways.  But I feel the need to offer something concrete lest I fall into a pattern of endless jeremiads without any hope.   Allow me to just bullet point a few ideas:

  1. Begin with a reassessment of priestly goals.  It has become trite to say this but it is nonetheless profoundly true: “success” is not a Gospel category.  Christ ended his earthly ministry an abject failure by the world’s metrics of success.  And yet, his small band of Galilean misfits changed the world forever.  Focus, therefore, on your own small band of parish misfits who seem to “get it” and work from there to plant whatever seeds you can.
  2. Resist the temptation to despair at the apparent indifference of most in your parish and your chancery to your ministry.  Such despair is of Satan.  You are touching far more people than you realize.  I learned this as a college professor. I was so often demoralized by the seeming indifference of my students only to get a letter from a student years later telling me how much my class meant to him or her.  Focus therefore on the hidden effects your witness is having.  And remember this always:  even if you save only one soul in your entire priestly ministry, there is much rejoicing in Heaven.
  3. Don’t let the bastards get you down.  It is human nature to focus on those who say vile things about you even if it is only one comment in an ocean of otherwise positive statements from people.  I remember as a teacher reading my student evaluations and even if 99% of the comments were positive I spent my entire day obsessing over the one jerk who said he hated my ties.  Shake the dust of such rejections from your feet and move on.
  4. Read good books.  Then read more good books.  And it does not matter the topic: theology, philosophy, history, literature, art history – – it all enlivens the mind and the soul.  A priest touches the most people every Sunday in the Homily.  Be the priest who actually has something interesting to say.  A great homilist is a rare find these days and the discipline of homiletics has fallen on hard times with lousy advice in the seminary about telling stories and leaving folks with a pithy and practical “take away”.  Give your parishioners real intellectual meat to chew on.  Most lay people are starving for this. Do not remain on the level of “catechetics” since what most Catholics need these days is to be reevangelized.
  5. Pray deeply and often.  You cannot give what you do not have.
  6. Be masculine. And by that I do not mean eating pork rinds at parish events and belching a lot.  Be self-confident and supremely comfortable in your own skin.  Know who you are and what you believe and live it with vigor and valor. In other words, do not be afraid to be a father.
  7. Finally, and in line with #6, do not shrink from resistance.  Have the courage of your convictions and fight, fight, fight for them until your last breath.  The greatest saints almost always encountered fierce resistance from all quarters, with some of them even being censured and silenced for a time.  But they fought on and perdured.  To give up in the face of resistance is to admit that maybe you are not as convinced as you think you are of your own convictions.

The Church will survive.  It is not our Church but Christ’s.  However, the beige, bourgeois Church seems unconquerable at the moment.  And I don’t want to be trite or glib here ending with some Pollyanna hope that is the opposite of the theological virtue of hope.  We are living in a Golgotha moment that is an excruciating trial that seems to have no end on the horizon.  In fact, it would seem that things are only going to get worse for the foreseeable future.  Our Lord endured a descent into Hell and we too are not to be spared such a dark night of the soul as we follow in our Lord’s path of kenotic oblation.  Christ assured us of victory if we perdure, but he also assured us that the path to glory for anyone who is his true follower is first the path of Calvary.  He is indeed Risen, but he is so as the risen and crucified Lord who is in eternity and for eternity, the “Lamb who was slain”.  It would appear therefore that unlike previous eras of the Church, our lot is to have this dynamic laid bare and made raw.  Therefore, a stark and clarifying – – indeed “purgative” – – choice is being presented to us as a bracing gift of the Spirit:  embrace the path of suffering for others in the run of grace or embrace the path of Mammon and success.  The middle ground is gone and the halfway house of beige Catholicism is being exposed more and more as the spiritual equivalent of the crack house on the corner.

The “Gospel of bourgeois wealth” is tempting but it is of Satan.  Joel Osteen, Paula White, Kenneth Copeland and their Catholic epigones in the “prayer and praise” crowd of charismatic cultists appear on the surface to be prophets of Christian “joy”.  But it is all the honey-laced arsenic of the AntiChrist.  It is a Kool-Aid cult of capitalism.  And if we drink it we will perish.

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