De Pauliana plays the glad game

A recent article for the college newspaper at De Paul University asks where, in the largest nominally Catholic university in the country, all the Catholics have gone. I cannot resist venturing an answer in the same vein, echoing Peter Seeger:

Gone to flowers every one!
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?

But no, I do not mean that. If the grace of God can perform the miracle of saving me from the pit, it can surely do so for foolish undergraduates. They have excuses I can’t plead. A wretched education, for starters, then our debased mass entertainment, many millions of families in ruin, and the odd American notion that it is up to the individual to choose his own tenets of faith by what Arnold Lunn, one of the 20th century’s foremost lay Catholic apologists, shrewdly called a Funny Internal Feeling. You don’t have to consult the Church on matters of faith and morals, or even that natural law that is discoverable by dispassionate reason. All you have to do is to stay on the lee side of your Funny Internal Feeling and all shall be well.

The article in The DePaulia notes that in that college of 23,000 students, only 10 or 20 will show up on a weekend for the regular events sponsored by the campus ministry. At my new school, Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, we are still only in the double-digits when it comes to such events; maybe 70 or 80, but then, that’s out of 90-100 students, and two dozen of those are spending the semester in Rome, reducing somewhat the likelihood that they will come to my showing of Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels next week. I won’t hold it against them.

As is always the case, the chief of campus ministry at De Paul is content that it should be so, as is one of the quoted professors from the Catholic Studies program. Pollyanna, in that syrupy novel of happy thinking, was taught by her father to see the silver lining in every cloud by playing the Glad Game. I do not recall that Jesus ever played that game. Jesus said that we should rejoice and be glad when we are persecuted and slandered on account of him; and that is not a silver lining. That is an entrance with Christ into the heart of darkness, which is also the heart of sinful man—our hearts.

Jesus never said that we should trim his message in order to fit with the times, which is what the campus ministry in question appears to be doing with regard to sex. All’s well, they assure us. “You don’t have to mourn,” said the professor. “Being a Catholic university doesn’t mean being a Catholic silo.”

I am trying to guess what he means by that singularly unhappy choice of metaphor. I had thought that Jesus promised to the faithful a hefty crop of grain, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and a hundred-fold, and you don’t just let grain spill on the ground. Perhaps the professor is suggesting that, when Catholics are true to the Church and her teachings, trying their best to conform both their actions and their desires to them, they become all just like one grain of wheat and another, indistinguishable and dull.

The history of the Church shows otherwise. They who have most fully allowed the Church to form them are as wildly various as the birds and flowers in a tropical garden: impetuous Peter and cerebral Paul, amiable Francis and severe Catherine of Siena, the sweet girl Therese profound in terrible suffering, and the ordinary laborer André Bessette. It’s everybody else who ends up looking all the same. Sin does that to the soul, as sludge does to the countenance. There is no silver lining to sin, just the false shine of mud.

And Catholic universities trading on the name of Jesus for 30 silver linings are hard to distinguish from any old doddering place. One student says that she has met exactly one Catholic in her first year at De Paul. Another says that she hadn’t even known the place was Catholic. Such places are the peas in a pod, or the pebbles in an enormous heap of rubble.

Father Jeremy Dixon, pastor at Saint Vincent De Paul parish, on the Lincoln Park campus of the college, says that the Church doesn’t take popularity polls, but also that “the Catholic Church may potentially [sic] need to reexamine some of its stances [sic] that have alienated many from the Church.” I don’t want to turn the heat against Fr. Dixon, who may have been misquoted; it is hard to believe that a Catholic priest could have spoken a sentence as confused and inept as that one. Something crucial—as for instance the Cross? —may have been lost in the translation from the English of a presumably educated man to the English of a college student sweating under a deadline. I note it rather to focus on the incoherence.

There is a good reason why the Church does not poll her members on what they are to believe. It is that there would very soon not be even the pretense of a church at all, such as there is not among Unitarians, let alone the Church. If we believe in the Church, we believe in her Founder, and if we do that, we will be the last people in the world to trust our Funny Internal Feelings. We will not first see the silver lining in sin, with money or sex or ambition or vanity, so as then to see our favorite sins as all silver and all gold, until finally we attain the height of DePauliana enlightenment, when we are willing generously to see the silver lining in showing up at Mass sometimes, and granting that Jesus was a pretty good fellow for his day and age. Trim for the time, and you meet the end of all the things of time, which is the grave.

The immense waste of it all, the criminal frittering away of a precious heritage! Plenty of those Catholic colleges that the professor sneers at, those supposed granaries, are financially like Lazarus, waiting for some crumbs to fall from the rich man’s table while the dogs lick his sores, and the rich man for good measure gives him a kick in the teeth.

We remember the end of that parable. “Send Lazarus to my brothers!” the rich man in his misery pleads with Father Abraham. In this case the Lord has indeed sent Lazarus to those brothers, but why should they listen to such a contemptible little messenger? Oh, Lazarus is only for the mad, for people out of touch with the times, right. Why should they listen to Lazarus, when they do not listen to the poor man’s mother the Church, or to his brother who founded the Church?

But if you do not want silver linings, but the gold of sanity and faith, I challenge you, faint of heart, dubious in your mind, to come and spend one afternoon with me and my students down at the farm. Just one afternoon.

ANTHONY ESOLEN is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H. He is a prolific author and has translated several epic poems of the West. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. He is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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