Published August 7, 2022
The following is adapted from July 30 remarks to the 12th annual Napa Institute summer conference.
One of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite movies – and I mean this seriously — is the 1975 film Switchblade Sisters. He raved about it on late night TV. He praised it again in an interview with the New York Times Sunday Magazine, and if you have any doubts, just type in the words, “Quentin Tarantino Switchblade Sisters” on YouTube. You’ll find a collection of video clips with Quentin reading enthusiastically from the script.
Now, it so happens that Switchblade Sisters is one of the most idiotically bad movies ever made. And you can trust me on this, because I wrote it – both the story and the screenplay.
I started my career in the early 1970s. I was a writer and storyteller by trade, and I made a living at it for six or seven years. Obviously I’ve made some serious career adjustments, but I still might tell a story or two later in these brief remarks.
A dozen or so years ago a friend gave me a little wooden plaque for my office. I’ve had it on my bookshelf ever since. I stare at it every day. And on it are carved these words: “It is as bad as you think, and they are out to get you.” The friend who gave it to me is also my former boss, a Capuchin Franciscan named Charles Chaput. The archbishop has a healthy sense of humor, and he gave it to me as a joke. And of course it is a joke. But there are days when it’s not so funny anymore.
This is a complicated time for American Catholics, and our problems as a Church come in two different categories: external and internal. I’ll get to our internal issues in a moment. But our main external problem is the canyon that exists between the abstract, ideal America we often picture in our heads, and the real America we actually live in every day.
The country we were six decades ago, and the country we are now, are two distinct creatures: similar on the surface; different underneath. And one of the newest and weirdest struggles in our culture – maybe the jugular issue right now – is over who and what a human being is. It’s at the heart of all our battles over sexual practice and identity. There’s a deep streak of radical individualism in the American personality. And along with it goes a resentment of any constraints on our will to own and reinvent ourselves.
So, for example, if the Church says a man can’t become a woman; or have sex with whomever, whenever, and however he wants; or a woman can’t have as many abortions as she wants; then the Church is an agent of repression, and she needs to shut up or be muzzled. And that explains, at least in part, the constant religious freedom battles we now face. It explains the toxic nature of our politics, which feeds our social fragmentation, which then — sooner or later — always feeds authoritarianism. And of course, it also explains why faithful Catholics need to be culturally and politically engaged.
Now the stuff I’ve just said can sound quite dark, but I think it’s the opposite. I think it’s simply the truth, and the truth really does make us free; not comfortable, but free from some of our illusions. Free to see the world as it really is.
It’s a fact that there’s a still a great deal of good in our nation, and it’s worth fighting for. But it’s also a fact that Catholics have never entirely been welcome in this country because of its Puritan and Enlightenment roots. I say “Puritan” roots rather than “Protestant” roots for a reason.
The Puritans were America’s first colonists, and they left a lasting mark on its character. They were an intense group; a human cocktail of zealous piety and equally zealous intolerance. Eric Voegelin, the great political philosopher who fled Nazi Germany, described them as the extremist, gnostic wing of the larger Calvinist Reform. They had a particular hostility for Catholics. And by “Catholics,” both then and now, I mean the kind of Catholics who take their faith seriously, love their Church, and try to live what she teaches as a rule of life, in a way that materially shapes the world. Which is the essence of discipleship.
My point is simply this: The cost of joining the American mainstream has been very high for Catholics, bleaching out many of the things that define us as believers. And while that’s distressing, it’s not all bad. It reminds us, as believers, that our real home in this world – our mater et magistra; our mother and teacher – is the Church. And of course, that brings us to our internal problems.
Georges Bernanos, the great French Catholic writer of the last century, described the Church as a vast transport company carrying people to heaven — but one that has a lot of train wrecks. Left to her human management, he said, she tends to end up as a huge pile of overturned locomotives and burned out carriages. The thing that saves her from total disaster is her saints. And by “saints” he meant much more than just the holy men and women whose names we all know, and whose paintings can often seem saccharine in their piety or alien in their unreality. He meant the little people, the saints next door, the everyday faithful believers who love God and love the Church not just when it’s easy, but when it’s hard; not just when it’s socially acceptable, but when it’s not.
Which, again, is where we are now. And it’s unpleasant, isn’t it, because so many of us thought we were a vital part of our national identity and purpose. We thought we mattered. And yet now, along with a lot of other Christians, we’re being shed like dead skin in a culture indifferent to God.
It’s right to be frustrated. It’s right to be angry. But our energy needs to focus on building up the Church rather than whining in our foxholes. It’s easy for us to forget that the Church has always been in crisis. She always needs reform. Peace, purity, and unity in the Church are aberrations in her temporal life, not the standard. And the reason for that is brutally simple: She’s inhabited and led by sinners.
In high school I had the privilege of learning a few years of classical Greek from a couple of terrific priests. They were great teachers, and they gave me a lifelong interest in words and their roots. There’s a verb in ancient Greek, krinein, which means to decide; and a noun, krisis, which means decision. The Greek word krisis is the root of our English word, “crisis.” And in a sense, that’s what each of our lives is: a series of crises – one krisis or decision after another, determining the kind of person we become.
Here’s why that matters. The task of living an authentic lay vocation begins or ends with the central crisis facing each of us — which is not “out there” in the turmoil of our culture, but in here, in the conscience and will of every one of us. It involves the decision in each of our hearts to stay in the Church or leave her; to stand with the Church or slip away; to believe what she teaches or not. Every person ends up worshiping some kind of a god that orders his or her life. That includes every atheist. There are no exceptions. Sooner or later, consciously or unconsciously, we all choose. Joshua put the god question to the tribes of Israel very directly in Joshua 24:15 when he said: “Choose this day whom you will serve . . . [But] as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
I think most of us here today want to do the same. So with that out of the way, let’s talk about the lay vocation.
Graham Greene once wrote that “behind the complicated details of the world stand the simplicities.” The good news about living the lay vocation is that it’s actually pretty simple. Anybody can do it. The not-so-good news is that it can be hard and take a long time. The reason it’s hard is because it involves changing ourselves. Most of us don’t really want to do that. The reason it takes a long time is because our appetites, our fears, and our habits are much harder to rewire than any Church structure or government committee, and every vocation, lay or otherwise, is a lifetime’s work. But it can be done. And when it’s done, interesting things happen.
So let me tell you a story. It’s a true story, and it involves a woman friend that I admire very much.
Once upon a time, there was a girl named Ellie. That wasn’t her real name, but it’s close enough. Ellie was young. She lived in Wisconsin. She fell in love with a boy — a nice boy — who was a couple of years older than she. They decided to run away to the West Coast and build a life together. Which they did. But of course it’s hard to build a home when you and your boyfriend are staying with his brother; you don’t have any money; you don’t have a job; and you turn out to be pregnant — which she was. So Ellie had a problem. She felt she couldn’t go home pregnant. The other option was eliminating the pregnancy problem at its source.
But one afternoon she saw a TV program, a talk show, featuring another young woman just a few years older than herself. This particular woman had two adopted siblings, and she was talking about how babies develop in the womb and why adoption is such a really good choice. So Ellie tracked her down and called her on the phone. She asked a lot of questions about adoption, and at the end of the conversation, point blank, she asked the woman if she’d be willing to adopt the baby that she – Ellie – was carrying. And the woman said yes.
Now this particular woman had very little money but a very persuasive personality. The Catholic ob/gyn who delivered the baby and cared for Ellie charged no fee, and he paid for one of Ellie’s two nights in the hospital from his own pocket. The woman attorney who handled the adoption and ensured the proper legalities, also a Catholic, charged nothing but the court filing fees. Ellie herself wanted no money. That sounds implausible today, but it happened. She never asked for a dime. She wanted the best for her child, and a chance to start over for herself — nothing more. She handed her baby, a boy, to his adoptive mother on the night he was born. And she then disappeared from this story, permanently, just a few days later. But the story itself continues.
That baby boy grew up, was very handsome, extremely bright — and also a boatload of worries and problems. The boy made some very bad choices that led to some very bad results. He lived on the streets for months at a time. But his mother, the woman who adopted him, never quit on him. She never stopped believing in him; never stopped loving him; never stopped praying for him. And little by little, over time, he changed. He made better choices. He cleaned up his life. Today he’s a civil engineer leading an office of other engineers, with his own two children and a very beautiful and very Catholic wife from Colombia. Which simply proves that God may take his time, and he has some very odd twists in his story development, but he’s always good.
Now everything I’ve just said is actually a chapter in another, much larger tale that I’ll save for another time. It’s enough to say that this woman friend of mine, this adoptive mother, spent 49 years working in the prolife trenches, and hundreds of hours on prolife counseling and referral lines. She founded or cofounded 11 prolife clinics; ran a right to life league with 90,000 members; and volunteered in Special Olympics for 30 years. And on the side, she raised four kids, including a child with Down syndrome; taught full time; earned her master’s degree at night; and managed the anxieties of an exceptionally difficult husband. I know all this from close observation because that adopted boy I mentioned is my son, a man whom I love very deeply and take immense pride in; and I’ve shared a bedroom with his mother for the past 52 years.
She’s my friend, my very intimate friend Suann, sitting right there in the audience . . . and we’re married, in case that needed clearing up.
So what’s the point in sharing these personal details?
The lesson in my story is not that it’s “unique,” but just the opposite, because it’s not. The prolife movement survived half a century of malice and setbacks because it’s filled with hundreds of thousands of good people with other such stories; invisible, unrecorded stories of love and sacrifice that are more demanding than anything I could share. And we need to hear those stories, and honor them, because they teach us what it really means to be human. Augustine said that being faithful in little things is a big thing. Being faithful is a big thing because every little, unseen act of fidelity we do for the dignity of the unborn, the disabled, and the suffering creates a stream filled with the water of life. And each of those streams flows into the river of God’s goodness and truth; a river that over time – and no matter how long it takes — wears down the hardest stone and cuts through even very bad laws.
As I was collecting my thoughts for today, I was struck by the links that connect last year’s conference theme and this year’s theme into one organic message. Last year’s theme was “All Things Made New,” from Revelation 20:5, “And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’.” How does God renew the world? He does it through us. And how do we do it, despite all our weaknesses and sins? We do it in the only way possible: by seeking, loving and following God’s son, Jesus Christ who himself, in John 14:6, is “the way the truth and the life.” We do it by giving Jesus Christ everything we are and have, and receiving everything and more in return. As the Gospel says, no one comes to the Father except through him.
We need to remember that none of us is ever powerless. We always have the power to say “no” to a lie; to refuse to live a lie; and to live instead in the light of truth, no matter what it costs. Augustine said that people are always complaining about the evil and darkness of the times. But he also said that we are the times; we make the times. And if we don’t work to make the times better — wherever God puts us, and with whatever talent God gives us — then the times will make us worse. So we need to rid ourselves of the idea that we can’t make a difference because we’re just “ordinary believers.” There are no ordinary laypeople because there are no ordinary Christians. There’s nothing “ordinary” about baptism. It’s the sacrament that undergirds the entire Church. And it makes every one of us a disciple and a missionary.
Lectoring, or volunteering in social ministries; or serving on a parish council; or joining a good lay apostolate or movement; or supporting one with our resources – all of these things are beautiful ways of expressing our Catholic discipleship as laypersons. But in the end, our real work is out there, out in the world. That’s our missionary field. And it’s the little things and simple friendships that emerge naturally from being absorbed in a love for God that imprint themselves intimately on the lives of other people. Any of us can do these things.
I’ll end with just a quick, final thought.
Midway in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, one of the characters says, “ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of our time.” I’ve never forgotten that line: Ours is but a small matter in the great deeds of our time. Of course the irony in those words is that the whole trilogy, the whole titanic struggle between good and evil that J.R.R. Tolkien writes into his story, hinges on two small, unimpressive, unimportant hobbits who refuse to abandon their task. They just do their job. They don’t quit, even when it seems hopeless to keep going.
The point is this: Whether we’re a mother or father, a secretary or mechanic, a teacher, tailor or candlestick maker, or the CEO of a Fortune 100 company, the lay vocation remains the same: using the raw material of our circumstances to give glory to God and to help other people share in his redemption through the witness of our lives.
If we just do that, we’ve done what we were made for. And the world and the Church will be better for it.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.
Image: Jude Beck/Unsplash.com
Francis X. Maier is a Senior Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Mr. Maier’s work focuses on the intersection of Christian faith, culture, and public life, with special attention to lay formation and action.