To quote Jody precisely,
The role of culture — American Catholic culture, in particular — is what Fr. Jenkins at Notre Dame, and John DeGioia at Georgetown, and many other presidents of Catholic colleges seem not to understand. Indeed, their lack of Catholic culture is what makes them appear so un-Catholic to the people they antagonize, and it is what so befuddles these college presidents when the charge is made. They know they are Catholics: They go to Mass, and they pray, and their faith is real, and their theology is sophisticated, and what right has a bunch of other Catholics to run around accusing them of failing to be Catholic?
But, in fact, they live in a distant world, attenuated and alone. Opposition to abortion doesn’t belong at the absolute center of Catholic theology. It doesn’t belong at the perfect center of Catholic faith. It exists, however, at the center of Catholic culture in this country.
I admire and agree with much of what Jody writes, but I fear I have to disagree with him over this analysis. In my view, the singular focus upon abortion as THE issue over which conservative Catholics will brook no divergence and around which we are called to rally reveals, to my mind, not evidence of robust Catholic culture as much as its absence. It seems to me that - along with the opposition to gay marriage - this issue represents the last stand, the inner-most wall barely keeping the hordes from overrunning the sanctum. The ferocity over this issue - and this issue almost to the exclusion of nearly every other issue that might be part of a rich fabric of Catholic culture - suggests to me that Catholic culture, where it existed, has been largely routed. And, in fact, it suggests further that it is precisely for this reason that this issue has become largely defined politically - and not culturally - with an emphasis on the way that the battle over abortion must be won or lost at the ballot box (and, by extension, Supreme Court appointments).
Most Catholics have long ago ceased to live in a Catholic culture, per se. I would go so far as to surmise that many of the most vociferous opponents of abortion - ones lined up in this particular battle - do not by and large live in particularly Catholic cultures, so much as occasionally gather with like-minded Catholics at various locations (Church, a conference, a retreat) and otherwise live suffused in a decidedly non-Catholic culture. Most of us - Catholic or non-Catholic - live by default in THIS culture, whatever we would call it - liberal, modern, American, global, polyglot, anti-culture. THIS culture is decisively a "culture of choice." Even those who would seek to inhabit a Catholic culture do so as a matter of individual choice - a lifestyle option. But this is not a Catholic culture as we might historically and traditionally understand such a culture - where that culture (as with any culture) shapes and forms your worldview, largely unbeknownst to you and without prior consent or choice on your part.
One of the most ardent and conservative Catholics that I know lives in an ocean-side house in Malibu, California. His opposition to abortion is fierce; however, in no way could it be suggested that he lives in a Catholic culture. He is a Catholic living in a culture of materialism, individualism, hyper-mobility and hedonism. While perhaps more extreme than the case for most of us, nevertheless his situation is closer to most American Catholics today than not. American Catholics have largely assimilated into mainstream American society, and come to seek success and approval from that culture on its terms.
If Jody were right, parents from this Catholic culture would refuse to allow their children to attend those schools he mentions. Now, it's true that many do just that, electing instead to send their children to Ave Maria or Thomas Aquinas rather than Georgetown or Notre Dame. However, many many good and faithful Catholic parents whom I have met over the years absolutely and without question want their children to attend a top tier institution, whether it be Georgetown or Princeton or Harvard or Notre Dame. The likelihood of their childrens' success, it is believed, hinges on their attendance at one of these sorts of institutions.
So, it could be asked - do the likes of Fr. Jenkins or President DeGioia operate in a vacuum, guiding institutions that aim to pull the wool over the eyes of parents and undermine the cultural commitments of their incoming Catholic students? Of course not: these administrators have been selected because they are expected to evince keen sensitivity to market forces, particularly what constitutes a "good product" for the "customer base" of prospective students and their tuition-paying parents.
Jody himself begins his essay by acknowledging that some 55% of Catholic voters cast their ballots for President Obama last election. His positions on life issues were fairly well-known by election day, but were less influential among that part of the electorate than, presumably, discontent with Bush, the Republicans, and the economy. If the Catholic culture were indeed defined by opposition to abortion, then one would have expected 100% opposition to Obama on this score - or at least 55%. It turns out that this issue determined less than half the vote of Catholics, and perhaps a lot fewer than even 45%.
In sum, I see little evidence of this Catholic culture to which Jody would point us. I wish there were such a vibrant and living culture living alongside the dominant liberal culture. However, Catholics have been substantially assimilated to the reigning "culture of choice" that defines modern liberal and capitalist America, and it's hard to imagine that this condition will be changed or reversed any time soon.
A culture - Catholic or otherwise - that regarded abortion as well-nigh unthinkable would be profoundly different than the one we inhabit. First, such a culture would foster a strong sense of place. This is one of the central features of Catholicism, in strong distinction to Protestantism: we are members of parishes, which are located where one lives, and not according to the choice of minister or music or fellow churchgoers. One's worship - and much of one's life - is lived with a considerable degree of acceptance of what the Lord gives (a necessary disposition for having children and staying married, as well). There is a predisposition for acceptance, not transformation.
Catholicism is a religion of memory and tradition: at every mass we recall the saints and martyrs, the founders of the Church and its greatest heroes - inculcating as if by second nature a familiarity with past generations and our expectation for ones that follow. As Chesterton wrote, we must inhabit a democracy of "the living, the dead, and the not-yet-born." A Catholic culture is replete with stories passed down from the past and conveyed to the future - after all, we have all the best storytellers, from Dante and Shakespeare (yes, he was) to Percy and O'Connor - and, of course, Chesterton. All this is to say, the dead and the not-yet-born live among us - they are not forgotten or ignored, but among us as sure as the people who share our lives in neighborhoods and communities. This was precisely the point of Jody's fine essay on why we need to live near cemeteries. Most of us, however, are in living arrangements where the dead are kept distant and apart from us - just as we separate all of the various aspects of life, disaggregating shopping from work from recreation from home. And even in the home, we are likely to be texting or emailing Facebook "friends" or hanging on the edge of our seats to see who gets kicked off American Idol. Much of the time, we are not even home when we are home.
A Catholic culture would inculcate a certain kind of character: one of respect, self-restraint, responsibility, humility, thrift, moderation, self-sacrifice. Courtship and marriage would be encouraged among the young. Divorce would be well-nigh non-existent. Such a culture would not valorize materialism, but understand that things of this world is not to be wholly embraced. At the heart of our culture would not be - as Jody suggests - opposition to abortion - which is, after all, negative - but rather the things that abortion is not: family, Church, community, memory, tradition, continuity of past, present and future. Culture is affirmation, not simply denial.
Our culture is driven by a different ethic altogether: mobility, markers of material or political success, a fetish for technological innovation and distraction, a media that is almost wholly visual and which portrays no past and no future (Read Postman's Amusing Ourselves to Death, especially his chapter "Now, this..."), a valorization of choice in ALL things hourly reinforced by advertising that is ubiquitous and insidious. Our culture is one in which previous generations are forgotten - an acceptable price of progress - and even the relationship of parents to children is either chummy friendliness or marked by the knowing sarcasm and irony of youth toward obsolescence (just watch an hour of the Disney channel for confirmation). The abortion of children is to be expected as a consequence of THIS culture: in a culture in which I define my own future in accordance with will and desire, and in which that which is personally inconvenient to me is as disposable as most everything else I use for my convenience everyday, sex is a consumer product and abortion is the trash. Disenchantment and utility defines my relationship to ALL things, in the end.
Unfortunately - and perhaps as an "irony of history" - conservative Catholics have and continue to participate in the dismantling of its own culture. Rightfully joining in the opposition to the Communism, Catholics at first reconciled themselves to (e.g., Buckley), and eventually became active proponents and cheerleaders of free market capitalism (e.g., Novak). In doing this, they encouraged the expansion of a materialist, hedonist, and culture-destroying economic system in order to combat a materialist, impoverished, and culture-destroying enemy. The enemy was worse, because its ideology posited the prospect of changing human nature in accordance with the expected progressive course of history, but the ferocity demanded in the opposition to Communism fostered acquiescence to, and eventually wholehearted support of, an economic system that has proven destructive to what was a strong Catholic culture. The Catholic economic thought of Pope Leo XIII, Chesterbelloc, Schumacher and Roepke has been displaced among many Catholics by an embrace of Hayek and Friedman, along with their materialist and individualist anthropology. The whole cloth of Catholic thought - encompassing politics, economics, religion and culture - has been unraveled, thread by thread. Lacking the solidity of that cloth across the spheres, its porousness led to its eventual disintegration. The current battle over Obama's appearance at Notre Dame takes place amid this backdrop: one can still focus on abortion as the single remaining issue that defines us, but to arrive at this point, much else that would have supported a culture of life has long been discarded.
So, I wish I could agree with Jody, because then I would think this issue was less bleak than it appears to me. Until there is an alternative culture to the culture that is regnant in our age - and appears to have largely routed every resistant culture into which it comes into contact - I fear we throw our passions into a skirmish while avoiding battle with our own self-deception.