Whether one is God-fearing or not, conservatives should be heartened by a recent story in the Wall Street Journal headlined "Traditional Catholicism Is Winning." Just when it seemed that decades of sex abuse scandals, creeping secularism, and the popularity of private forms of spirituality, charismatic sects, and megachurches had knocked traditional religion down for the count, here is news of a revival of sorts.
The authors, Anne Hendershott and Christopher White, joyfully report that there were 467 new priestly ordinations in the U.S. last year, up from 442 a decade ago. Boston's seminary, I am told, had to turn away applicants. And, for the first time in memory, a new seminary is opening in the U.S. (in North Carolina). Meanwhile the number of American Catholics has climbed to 77.7 million, up from 50 million in 1980. All this would seem to suggest that traditional religion's obituary was penned somewhat prematurely.
Why this sudden and surprising return to orthodoxy? My guess is many of these young seminarians have been left cold by the decadence, empty materialism, and skewed values that abound in contemporary society. Perhaps they seek something more meaningful than a desk job, a commute, and a McMansion in the suburbs.
Behind this small attitudinal shift is the figure of Pope Benedict XVI, a strong proponent of tradition in all its forms. Some Rome watchers see great significance in the pope's recent lifting of excommunication from four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X. These bishops reject Vatican II and its so-called reforms that were supposed to help the Church "embrace modernity." (Modernity, phbltt! Who needs it? What has modernity done for anybody?) Naturally, those liberals who demand the Church reflect "contemporary values" despise this pontiff, while he is greatly admired by those who think the Church should not sell out to every new ideological fad.
No doubt, traditional religion's ongoing renaissance is a byproduct too of modern man's continuous search for a soul. The Searchers among us are finding that we prefer a straight, well-defined footpath to a wandering, vague, overgrown trail. We don't necessarily want to find our "own way." We want signposts with large print -- especially at my age. We do not relish getting lost or wandering off the side of a cliff. Rather than a faith that bends to the whims of every malcontent, we want a demanding, timeless religion that isn't constantly checking the direction of the wind. Indeed, for every Anna Quindlen who bolts the Church because of its hardheadedness on contraception and other "women's issues," there is an Ann Widdecombe who converts for the same reasons. These newcomers "are attracted to the philosophy, the art, the literature and the theology that make Catholicism countercultural," write Hendershott and White. "They are drawn to the beauty of the liturgy and the church's commitment to the dignity of the individual."
Countercultural? The Catholic Church? I suppose standing up for The Permanent Things does tend to put one a bit outside the mainstream.
THESE FINDINGS reaffirm what many conservative thinkers have long said about the need for unambiguous messages from Rome and strong, decisive bishops who maybe do not crush all dissent with a mailed fist, but who are nonetheless not shy about excommunicating dissidents, like pro-choice Catholic groups. It is in these traditionalist dioceses that ordinations and vocations are up, while in dioceses run by wishy-washy, liberal bishops seminarians are few and the pews empty.
Perhaps it has finally begun to sink in how important traditional religion is to community and civic life now that these too are on the ropes, and that rootless Americans crave "traditional denominational, neighborhood, family-centered churches" and not "megachurches, consisting of thousands of people brought together by a single charismatic preacher, which do not survive the death of the preacher; and small, transient, nondenominational churches, some professing to be 'spiritual' rather than religious, which are unstable in doctrine as in membership," to quote from a recent essay by the conservative historian Gertrude Himmelfarb.
In my youth Catholics' morals were of utmost concern to the clergy. Catholics were informed regularly which movies and books had been banned by the Church. For instance, my brothers and I knew we were forbidden to see Monty Python's Life of Brian. We saw it anyway, but it was nice to know someone was looking out for our immortal souls. It was comforting to know someone still took seriously the importance of safeguarding our faith and morals. Perhaps that is what is lacking in these postmodern times. Faith leaders who care enough to compile an Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Perhaps it is not the pew-sitters, but the hierarchy who do not care enough.