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What Do We Do Now? A Reflection On Catacomb Catholicism

If there’s one question that has come up over the years of covering the crisis in the Church, again and again, it’s this: what do we do now? 

I’ve come to realize that we are, in many respects, through the looking glass when it comes to the state of Catholicism. The crisis is, for all intents and purposes (from our limited perspectives) likely to remain a permanent fixture in our lifetimes. The opportunities for good bishops and cardinals in the Church to come forward and fight the enemies within have more or less come and gone. A few have done what they could, but it’s not been enough to move the needle much at all.

The college of cardinals, meanwhile, has been stacked with like-minded thinkers. (Like-minded to Francis, that is.) The collapse of much of the existent cultural Catholicism that has carried the Church both financially and demographically in the West is imminent, accelerated by the pandemic-related closure of parishes and denial of sacraments. Even Catholics in relatively good parishes are demoralized and confused, and many traditionalist liturgical enclaves, aware of the tenuousness of their existence, keep a low profile for fear of being stomped out by the boot of the still-ascendant (for now) progressive wing of the Church. Even if, as I’ve argued before, tradition is the future of the Church, it’s going to be slow going for quite a while.

Society has, of course, collapsed into a cesspool of anti-rationality and woke nonsense. Politically, the entire West has packed up its things and headed Left. There may be a few meaningful (and perhaps even winnable) battles here and there that come along, and when they do, we should fight them. But we have to accept that by and large the goose is well and truly cooked, the dead horse well and truly beaten, and I’m well and truly out of bad clichés to use in this paragraph.

I was listening to a very interesting podcast discussion yesterday with Jordan Peterson and Douglas Murray (the author of The Madness of Crowds). Talking about where things are, post-election, Murray says:

And as you know, psychologically this is one of the most important lessons. Freud writes about this in the essay on…melancholia. That you have to be able to recognize that the thing has been lost in order to even be able to love again. You have to bury the thing that has been lost to recognize that it is gone.

His larger point was related to concern over people being unwilling to accept that the election was lost, and everything that goes with it, and thus, unable to grieve and figure out how to move on. And it’s an important point indeed. American Catholics are not only facing the need to face political and social loss following the election, but this loss of the Church to hostile forces that I’ve been describing. It’s not a thing that can be fixed by a new pope or even a new council. The damage we’re looking at will require generations of (often excruciatingly slow & incremental) work to change.

It’s a glum situation, but nevertheless, we’re all still here. We still have to live meaningful lives. We have to do the work our state in life demands, raise families (or attend to the duties of being a priest or religious), live lives of virtue, love God, and hopefully even laugh along the way.

I can tell you for a fact that the flowers that bloom this time of the year in the desert smell just as beautiful, no matter who is in office in Rome or in Washington. For those of you in colder climes with Spring just a month or so away, make sure to take note of the same. Things like this are good to remember, and it really does help to stop and smell the roses sometimes.

On the other hand, I can also tell you for a fact that if you continue to wallow in all the overwhelming negativity the world has on offer right now, it will get inside of you, it will eat at you, and it will make you a worse person as the tendrils of its dark ichor work their way through you. It will fill you with anxiety, it will drain you of resolve, and it will stop you from being the best you can be for those you owe it to: God, the people who love and depend on you, and you. 

I’ve experienced it, and I’ve still got the hangover from it. It’s not worth it. As someone who has spent much of the past six and a half years taking people on a guided tour of the abyss, I feel an increasing responsibility to say, “There. You’ve seen it. You know what horrors are lurking about. You’re out of the Matrix now. Just know that if you stare at them for too long, though, they’ll stare right back. They’ll begin to poison your mind and steal your hope, like a slab of ice steals heat from any flesh that touches it.”

You don’t need to hear about the 237th outrageous thing the pope has done, or the bishops, or what they haven’t done when they should have. Not every day. There are still people out there who think that you do, and their traffic is no doubt way up, because it’s the rare man who can resist staring at a train wreck.

No matter. God isn’t going to look at your Google analytics at your particular judgment.

There will always be some news that demands coverage, because sometimes the only antidote to darkness is a healthy application of light. But I still think it will rarely ever be as important as that big question, and all the little questions that branch off from it:

What do we do now? 

The mission of 1P5 was, originally — and still is, officially — the rebuilding of Catholic culture and the restoring of Catholic tradition. It was my hope that if we focused on that, we could weather Hurricane Francis when he came barreling through. But the storm came faster and harder than I could have foreseen, and the mission shifted to, “Oh boy, we’d better cover this thing nobody else is talking about because it’s a big deal.”

And that is how 1P5 — a little startup opinion journal and not an outlet for investigative journalism — wound up rather accidentally spending years doing something that looked a lot like news. But fortunately for us (though not as fortunately for you, perhaps), a lot of other folks realized that talking about all this stuff was pretty good for business, and a cottage industry sprung up. Some of them even did a big fat 180 on their original, unreasonably aggressive policies against doing that without so much as a “whoopsie daisy.” And now, as you no doubt know, the number of people all very excited to tell you just how awful everything is has made it a very loud and crowded room indeed, and that’s without all the boxes of merch stacked in the corners. (Who am I to judge? It’s wicked outdated, but we’ve got it too!)

So at any rate, this party has gotten pretty annoying, and we’re sneaking out the back for a quieter conversation about the big question(s).

We — and by that I mean all of us, not just the folks who hang out around 1P5 — are entering, I think it’s fair to say, a new epoch of catacomb Catholicism.

Pretty much every Catholic at least knows about the catacombs. I don’t know what you envision when you think of them. I’ve had the good fortune to visit the catacombs of Saint Callixtus in Rome a couple of times, and they’re a very unique sort of place — one I’d like very much to go back to.

Really, their main purpose was to serve as a cemetery for early Christians in Rome who had no place to bury their dead, and during times of persecution had to do so without attracting notice. The secrecy afforded by these discrete, underground burial chambers also provided a venue for worship at times when such a thing was forbidden.

We are not, of course, in a position at this time where we are forced to go underground. But there is a sense in which those who love and wish to adhere to the true faith are forced to do so in little pockets, often under less-than-ideal conditions, and as the neglected structures and institutions of the larger Church begin to crumble away in the post-COVID vaccum, these pockets may become like small islands of orthodoxy in a world that has little tolerance for such things. (Cancel culture hasn’t reached the level of Diocletian persecutions just yet, but it’s hard not to see it as a difference of degree, and not of kind.)

And so, I think what Catholics need right now, more than they need news about the latest scandal or outrage in the Church, is the encouragement and help to live authentic Christian lives in the circumstances in which they find themselves. A DIY, how-to guide to living the faith in a (metaphorical, for now) time of Catacomb Catholicism. And many of us — many of you — have pieces of that puzzle that others lack.

It’s interesting to note that there are lots of news stories in the most-read 1P5 articles of all time, but our absolute #1 piece is, and always has been, The Chalking of the Doors: An Epiphany Tradition Explained. It has, as of this writing, nearly 160,000 Facebook shares and over a third of a million pageviews. It gets shared every year in newsletters and bulletins in parishes all over the place. The complete unexpected popularity of the thing staggers the mind.

When my wife Jamie and I wrote that piece, we never could have guessed how many people would want to read it and share it with others. It was just a cool tradition that we had only recently learned about, and we wanted to explain what it was and how it worked so others could do it too. Evidently, a lot of other people felt the same way.

Another example from our top five posts of all time is Why You Should Pray the Rosary Daily: 15 Reasons Straight From Our Lady. Others from the top five relate to the power of the Eucharist in the presence of Demons, what the saints had to say about the Islamic threat, and Sister Lucia’s warning that the battle over marriage and family would be the last stand in the war between Satan and Our Lord.

What is the common thread between all of these? They relate to the fundamentals of our faith, and how we should live and respond to particular threats in a time of crisis. Not one of them was a news story about the pope or some scandal. Each was, in its own way, timeless.

I want to publish more of these kinds of articles. But I only know so much. So to do it, I’m going to need help from all of you.

First, I need the storytellers out there to step forward. If you have a Catholic tradition you practice at home that has been enriching for your family, if you have a story about how faith helped you triumph over personal crisis, if you’ve had your eyes opened by going on a pilgrimage, if you’ve wrestled with and overcome some struggle with belief, if you know something applicable from the life of a saint or the annals of history to the present moment, or if your conversion/reversion story is an unexpected and fascinating triumph of grace, I’d love to have you submit an article to us right here.

I’m looking for a focus on encouragement over admonishment — we’ve got plenty of the latter out there already, and people are feeling beaten up enough. I’m looking for stories, not theological or academic expositions. I want to publish material that is accessible to the average person, that engages them and grabs their interest. And I am definitely looking for quality writing, because only the best stuff is likely to do all of this well. I don’t care if you’ve got published work under your belt. If you’ve got a good story and can tell it well, I want to run it.

Secondly, we continue to need your financial support during these lean, early months of the year. January and February are always rough for nonprofits, but we’re even leaner than usual right now. It’s understandable. We’ve been publishing somewhat less as we focus on finding the right kind of content to put out there, and everyone I know is battling the malaise of 2021 looking way too much like 2020 so far. There’s a feeling right now that reminds me of the never-ending winter in Narnia. It’s a sense of cold, horizonless oppression; a bleak sort of fatalism about the fact that there’s no end in sight to the way things are now, and the way things are now stinks on ice.

But this is why I’m hoping that together, we can begin to pull through this.

And maybe, just maybe, we can not only offer each other some hope, but we can begin in the process to answer the question: what do we do now?

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