Some weeks ago, I gave a sermon in which I mentioned Keith Richards, the lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones. I recounted how struck I was by a passage from Richards’s autobiography in which the guitarist described the almost maniacal dedication with which he and his bandmates set out to learn Chicago blues. “Benedictines,” he said, “had nothing on us.” I urged my listeners to approach their spiritual lives with the same “Benedictine” focus and fervor that the young Rolling Stones had in regard to the blues. I was also quick to point out, with a laugh, that I didn’t want people to buy Richards’s autobiography for their teen-agers as Confirmation presents! Keith, I indicated, had walked down lots of bad paths. Now just after that Mass, I went out to breakfast with my sister and her family and my mother. My mother said, “Bobby, I thought your homily was fine, but I wish you hadn’t mentioned that awful Keith Richards, who is just the epitome of nothing!”
Anti-Catholicism has long been a feature of both the high and the low culture in America. From the nineteenth-century to the middle of the twentieth-century, it was out in the open: many editorialists, cartoonists, politicians, and other shapers of popular opinion in that era were crudely explicit in their opposition to the Catholic Church. But then, in the latter half of the twentieth-century, anti-Catholicism went relatively underground. It still existed, to be sure, but it was considered bad form to be too obvious about it. However, in the last ten years or so, the old demon has re-surfaced. There are many reasons for this, including the animosity to religion in general prompted by the events of September 11th and, of course, the clerical sex-abuse scandal that has, legitimately enough, besmirched the reputation of the Catholic Church. I’m not interested here so much in exploring the precipitating causes of this negative attitude as I am in showing the crudity and unintelligence of its latest manifestations. Permit me to share two examples.
I’m continually amazed how often the “problem” of Genesis comes up in my work of evangelization and apologetics. What I mean is the way people struggle with the seemingly bad science that is on display in the opening chapters of the first book of the Bible. How can anyone believe that God made the visible universe in six days, that all the species were created at the same time, that light existed before the sun and moon, etc., etc? How can believers possibly square the naïve cosmology of Genesis with the textured and sophisticated theories of Newton, Darwin, Einstein, and Stephen Hawking?
The exorcism movie is now something like the gangster film or the cowboy movie or the romantic comedy, which is to say, a genre with fairly predictable characters, plot developments, and dialogue. In recent years, there has been a spate of exorcism films, including “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and “The Last Exorcist.” Now gracing (is that the right word?) the theaters is “The Rite,” a movie starring Anthony Hopkins as a grizzled experienced exorcist and Irish newcomer Colin O’Donoghue as his youthful and doubt-plagued apprentice. One novel feature of this film is that we get to see some of the training program that prospective exorcists pass through in the Vatican. We also get to witness the rather extraordinary theatrical exertions of Hopkins, who leaves not one little piece of scenery unchewed by the end of the film.
The practice of sacramental confession in the Catholic Church dropped off precipitously and practically overnight about forty years ago. Prior to the Second Vatican Council, Catholics came regularly and in great numbers to confess their sins to a priest, but then, just like that, they stopped coming. Analysts have proposed a variety of reasons for this sharp decline—a greater stress on God’s love, a desire to move away from a fussy preoccupation with sexual peccadilloes, the sense that confession is not necessary for salvation, etc.—but whatever the cause or causes, the practice has certainly fallen into desuetude. Fr. Andrew Greeley, the well-known priest-sociologist, once formulated the principle that whatever Catholics drop, someone else inevitably picks up. So, for example, we Catholics, after the Council, stopped talking about the soul, out of fear that the category would encourage dualistic thinking—and then we discovered, in the secular culture, a plethora of books on the care of the soul, including a wildly popular series on “chicken soup for the soul.” Similarly, the Catholic Church became reluctant to speak of angels and devils—and then we witnessed, in the wider society, an explosion of books and films about these fascinating spiritual creatures.