Monday, May 12, 2003

The Ecclesiastical Potemkin Village

In the late 18th century, the Empress Catherine the Great undertook an ambitious program to bring about a "New Russia" and force her then-backward and feudalistic country into the modern era. Her efforts in this direction were of limited success, and much of Russia remained what it had always been: poor, illiterate, oppressed and miserable. But as a great Queen whose every whim was law, and upon whose happiness the fate of her courtiers rested, she could not be allowed to see that her vision of the New Russia was not a reality. She had to be shielded from the truth.

So when Catherine would travel through her dominions, her route would be preplanned, and her chief minister, Grigoriiy Potemkin, would have the existing towns along the way spruced-up, made to look clean and beautiful, and elaborate towns would even be constructed, all to give the illusion of prosperity. These towns would be much like modern-day movie sets: all facade and show, with no actual structures. So the Russia that the Empress would see was either a false front masking a reality of squalor and poverty, or facades concealing an utter lack of substance. And so an elaborate structure of seeming beauty and elegance which masks a real substance of squalor or emptiness has come to be called a "Potemkin Village."

A recent poll in the Boston Globe reveals that many, if not most, self-professed Catholics in the Archdiocese of Boston could in no meaningful sense be called Catholic based on the content of what they actually believe. According to the poll, 39 percent of "Catholics" think we in the U.S. should split off from Rome. Ummm... that makes them de facto protestants. Also, substantial numbers of self-identified catholics think that the Church should be more "up to date" in areas such as contraception, homosexuality, women's ordination, and even abortion.

Dom Bettinelli over at Bettnet is of course right when he points out that "we must remain skeptical of such polls... If we’ve learned anything over the past decade is that poll questions can be asked in such a way as to find support for anything." But the results of this poll certainly indicate a massive failure of catechesis in the generation of those under 45. These are people who would have had their religious education in the 70's and 80's. And this survey reveals that many of these people don't know the faith.

What happened in Boston? Boston used to be considered a bastion of staunch Irish Catholicism. It had giants such as Cardinal Cushing as archbishop and produced others such as Cardinal Spellman. Before The Situation broke out into the open, Cardinal Law would have been considered one of this country's most conservative and orthodox prelates. But in addition to the Scandal, Cardinal Law, and to be fair, his immediate predecessors, can now be seen to have presided over the wholesale collapse of the Faith in that archdiocese. Boston has now been revealed as the Church's Potemkin Village: it had an impressive facade, a beautiful, even romantic image: And who knows but that at one time the facade reflected the reality. But the substance now underneath is empty, or even squalid and decayed.

My own experience bears out all too vividly the truth of the Boston Globe poll. I am a member of that 70's and 80's generation of all-but-uncatechized Catholics. I can recall being asked in a CCD class (around 6th or 7th grade) to discuss Jesus' "self-esteem", but I never heard about His sacrifice for us. I can recall being told that girls couldn't become priests "yet", but that by the time the girls in my class grew up, they'd probably be able to. I was fortunate enough to go to a university (The University of Illinois) which had a very vigorous and faithful Newman Foundation, at which I rediscovered my faith and was given solid teaching to replace the milk-and-pablum I received as a child. But how many people weren't that fortunate, or had the misfortune to go to a so-called "Catholic" college where their childhood malformation was extended and reinforced?

In college and beyond, I acquired a reputation among friends and acquaintances for being "religious" and being knowledgeable about religious matters. I cannot number the people who have come to me in my still-brief life and asked me to clarify the most basic of catechetical questions: questions they should have learned the answers to in 4th grade or in confirmation class. And it isn't as though these people were taught and then forgot, though I am sure that happens as well. No, these people react with the wonder and astonishment of hearing a wonderful truth for the first time. I recall having an argument with a friend about women's ordination: like many people today, she saw it simply as an issue of fairness and "equality". Well, we talked about it for almost 2 hours, in which I talked about the apostolic and patristic witness, the unique intercessory role of the Hebrew father as priest for his family, our sexual natures as reflective of God's order of creation, and the complementarity of the sexes. At the end of it I had "won her over." But she marveled at how in 12 years of Catholic education and four years at a Catholic college she had never heard any of that before. That experience started her off on a effort to rediscover and appropriate her faith. A couple of years later, we were talking again and she confessed that she was disappointed and a little angry: "I never received the fulness of the Faith," she said. She represents one, and possibly two, generations of Catholics raised not in the Household of Faith, but in a Potemkin Village.

I fear that Boston will not be the only diocese which will have it's impressive and comfortable facade broken through to reveal the decay and corruption underneath. Other dioceses have constructed elaborate and impressive facades, which even now are beginning to crumble. No doubt we can all name other examples. There are without doubt substantial pockets of vigoruous, positive orthodoxy in the Church here in the United States. But much of the ecclesastical edifice in this country is all facade, masking either a rotting framework of heterodoxy and dissidence, or the emptiness of grandiose, well-intentioned illusions. How much of the Church in America is an Ecclesiastical Potemkin Village?