By Charles Coulombe
Pope Francis has repeatedly urged Catholics to “go to the margins,” insisting that the Church’s credibility rises or falls with her care for the marginalized. I must say that I believe His Holiness to be entirely correct—though not, perhaps, in the way the National Catholic Reporter might read those words. As many of the events in this pontificate continually remind me, I’ve come to realize that my entire life as a Catholic—starting with my birth, on the day John F. Kennedy was elected President of these United States—has been lived on the Church’s margins.
It must be born in mind that the Catholic Church, like the House of Jesus’s Father which it foreshadows, has many mansions. There are about 3,000 dioceses of all rites across the globe; under that hierarchy are those of countless religious orders. There are lay groups, from Caritas International to the Knights of Malta to the Catholic Worker. There are innumerable guilds, confraternities, and associations for various purposes.
For those with sufficient mobility, it is possible to live one’s Catholic life in precisely the right set of groupings that appeal to one. As the noted liberal Catholic activist Rosemary Radford Ruether famously wrote in the National Catholic Reporter on June 5, 2005: “The recent election of Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI has been greeted with choruses of negative comments in the progressive communities where I teach and live.” It’s not the disapproval of the papal election that warrants our attention at the moment, but the phrase “the progressive communities where I teach and live.” Activist Catholics of all stripes tend to live in such archipelagos—myself as much as Mrs. Ruether.
❧When the selfsame Pope Benedict XVI address the Roman Curia at Christmas of that year, he introduced the concept of two hermeneutics with which to interpret the life of the Church since Vatican II: rupture vs. reform, and discontinuity vs. continuity.
Speaking of the latter hermeneutic, Benedict opined:
wherever this interpretation guided the implementation of the Council, new life developed and new fruit ripened. Forty years after the Council, we can show that the positive is far greater and livelier than it appeared to be in the turbulent years around 1968. Today, we see that although the good seed developed slowly, it is nonetheless growing; and our deep gratitude for the work done by the Council is likewise growing.The implication of Benedict’s speech was that the hermeneutic of rupture was marginal, embraced only by such marginal communities as Mrs. Ruether lives and teaches in.
In fact, the opposite was true—both when Benedict occupied the Chair of Peter, and ever more since Francis has been gloriously reigning. The doctrinal, liturgical, devotional, and (sadly) moral life of many parishes, dioceses, and sections of the Curia would be unrecognizable as Catholic to a time traveler dropped in the present from the day of my birth. Against that backdrop, there can be little wonder why only 30 percent of American Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, that most foundational of our beliefs.
So, I couldn’t help but wonder why—given my upbringing during the Conciliar aftermath and my subjection to a Catholic education that damaged or destroyed the Faith of most of my classmates—I have retained the Faith. It is, I think, precisely because of living on the margins.
❧My father was a New England French Canadian, or Franco-American. The tension between his religion, culture, and modernity (which so tortured Jack Kerouac) was a source of strength to him—and so, too, his sons. My mother came from a very intellectual Catholic family: her father had written for Commonweal and America, and taught at Harvard and Columbia. She loved her Latin: not only did she say the De Profundis every night for her dead friends and relations, but when given the Last Rites in the traditional form two days before her death in 2015, she mouthed the Latin responses.
As a result of my upbringing, I discovered Church history, Belloc, and Chesterton at an early age. The course of my life has led me to contact with Anglo-Catholics, traditionalists of every stripe, all the Eastern Rites, ethnic parishes, contemplative nuns, Catholic Workers, and a wide range of European Catholic monarchists.
Shrines in North America and Europe are my particularly favored haunts. I was privileged to know such luminaries of Triumph magazine as Gary Potter, Thomas Molnar, Farley Clinton, and Fritz Wilhelmsen—to say nothing of other figures, such as John and Hereward Senior, Fr. John Hardon, and Richard Cowden-Guido. The result of all of these varieties of Catholic experience is that, when in Los Angeles, I attend two parishes every Sunday: Our Lady of Grace, Covina, which is a parish of the Anglican Ordinariate; and St. Therese in Alhambra, a Carmelite parish offering both the traditional Latin Mass and a classical academy. I belong to the Knights of Columbus (4th Degree), the Knights of Peter Claver, the Confraternity of the Precious Blood, and the Honor Guard of the Sacred Heart.
The point of rehearsing this eclectic farrago is to re-emphasize the point: my Catholic life has been and is lived on the margins.
❧Apart from their attachment to various aspects of Catholic tradition, these wildly different elements have one thing in common—one thing that separates them from what passes for the mainstream of the Church: for the most part, they are at once joyful and growing. Happy with the Faith once vouchsafed to the Saints, in their wildly differing way they all reflect or reflected that continuity so beloved of Benedict XVI—not out of mere nostalgia, but a realization that that Faith is, quite simply, true.
Once the elderly excitement with such things as the Amazon Synod fades with its perpetrators, Pope Francis shall be proven right: the Church will have to go to these margins to retain its credibility.