More and more secular women are discovering that they can use technology to track their natural biomarkers, helping them make informed choices about their reproductive activities.
This is, of course, what Catholics call ‘natural family planning’, and it’s not exactly new. It’s a little frustrating to hear the breathless reports of this shiny new technology from the same people who also consider Catholics to be hopelessly retrograde and fusty in their thinking, but never mind. Blessed are the fusty.
It’s not the only example of the secular world reinventing or rediscovering religious practices without religion. When we Catholics pledge to avoid meat once a week on Fridays for reparation to the Sacred Heart and for the salvation of the world, then we’re pathetic nuts who believe in a magical sky daddy.
But if some earnest eco-pagan pledges to avoid meat once a week on Mondays for the health of his own heart and for the salvation of the planet, then he ought to check his mailbox, as his trophy will arrive shortly.
The modern world teaches us to scoff and snark at organised religion, and to dismiss it out of hand; but scoffing and snarking doesn’t soothe that universal ache for ritual.
Ritual makes our lives feel meaningful, binds us together as a community, and gives structure to our emotions.
So the very same people who roll their eyes at the Catholic Church’s complicated rites and ceremonies will turn around and scramble to build elaborate rituals of their own — rituals around just about anything, from the meaningful to the trivial, from promposals to gender reveal parties, to fraternity hazing, to Burning Man.
Emptied of Christ, human rituals are sometimes not only absurd, but cruel. Confession, for instance. Catholics go to confession to unburden ourselves, and to experience the psychological release of speaking aloud the shameful things we have done — but more importantly, we go to be forgiven, and to be strengthened against repeating those sins.
Secular folks feel this same drive to unburden themselves and to feel the relief of confession, and so they endlessly confess, using fake names online, or using their full names on daytime TV. But in these empty secular sacraments, no one has the power to forgive and heal. There is no listening ear of the saviour, only the black hole of public opinion, which overwhelmingly encourages sin, condemns virtue, and very often damns the penitent himself.
We think of medieval Catholics as barbaric because they required evildoers to sit in public wearing sackcloth and pouring ashes on their heads. But at least they had a system for expiation after a sinner did his penance. In this enlightened age, sinners have no such process. They’re gleefully screenshotted and doxxed, ousted from their jobs, and often threatened or physically attacked for transgressing against whatever cultural sins are currently considered intolerable. One bad day on Twitter, and you may very well be “cancelled”.
Is there any return from being cancelled? We’re not really sure. But there is wailing and gnashing of teeth until the 24-hour news cycle moves along and you are forgotten.
This is what comes of religious practice without faith, of Catholicism without Christ: At best, you enjoy some faint mimicry of the riches the faith has to offer; at worst, you suffer immensely, without any hope of redemption.
It is sad to live this way. It is ridiculous. But at least there is some excuse. Most people live like this because no one has told them better. No one has taught them any different. No one has shown them a more meaningful way to exist.
What’s our excuse?
A recent survey showed that over half of Catholics don’t believe in the Real Presence. When the priest elevates the host at Mass, they see bread, and that’s it. They literally have Catholicism without Christ. They believe, if they were challenged to think about it, that Christ really did leave us orphans when he left this earth; that he did abandon us to the netherworld. That he scooted back up to heaven and left us to struggle along with nothing more than a blank white symbol to snack on and excrete.
We’ve floated various theories about how this came about: Lack of catechesis, lack of reverence.
But the shocking truth remains that many Catholics don’t really know why they show up at Mass. They don’t know what the Mass is. They look at a crucifix and see a man long dead, and that is all.
And what about the rest of us — the minority of Catholics, who do know that Christ lives, and that he is truly, literally present in the Eucharist? Do we have Christ? Do we want him? Do we behave as if we truly believe he lives among us? I know what my answer is, more often than not. I see my sins; I see my failures. I know I can find myself at the end of Mass without a clear memory of how I spent my hour. I find myself at the end of the day without having prayed to my Lord. At the end of the week, anyone who watched how I live might not even know I call Christ my saviour.
But my friends, this is WHY we have the sacraments. This is WHY we have our precious rituals and our complicated rules and requirements. This is WHY the Church has given us confession and the Mass and formal prayer and a community of faith and prescribed sacrifices. This is why, most of all, she gives us the Eucharist: Because Jesus knew that we are always in danger of losing him, always in danger of forgetting who is is we have and why. Always in danger of throwing him away in favour of something foolish and empty. Away in danger of replacing him with a counterfeit.
Christ is the great filler of emptiness. He is like the ocean, and we are like the sand: Dig deep enough, become empty enough, and look! Up He comes. The only trick, really, is to recognise when we are empty. The trick is not to clog ourselves with substitutes, and to let ourselves feel complete when we are not. The trick is always to keep looking for the real thing. The only real thing is Christ.