Catholics and Contemporary Life

There is a recently published book out there called Style, Sex, and Substance: 10 Catholic Women Consider the Things that Really Matter. It is wildly popular in the mainstream orthodox-Catholics-on-the-internet circles, and as such has mostly garnered gushing reviews. Each chapter is written by a different prominent female Catholic blogger on a different subject:

Jennifer Fulwiler on “Who is the modern Catholic woman?” (Conversion Diary)
Karen Edmisten on the spiritual life (The Blog with the Shockingly Clever Title)
Rachel Balducci on friendship (Testosterhome)
Annie Mitchell on the single life (contributes to The Integrated Catholic Life)
Rebecca Teti on work (contributes to Faith and Family Live)
Hallie Lord on style, beauty and balance (Betty Beguiles)
Betty Duffy on sex (Betty Duffy)
Danielle Bean on marriage (Danielle Bean)
Barbara Nicolosi on engaging the culture (Church of the Masses)
Simcha Fisher on motherhood (I Have to Sit Down)

I’ve read a lot of most of the authors’ previous writings and some excerpts from the book itself. It seems pretty solid to me. But then it gets a book review like this one from Suzanne of Lear, Kent, Fool: The Good, the Not-So-Great, and the You Gotta Be Kidding.

Talking about sex (and modern life in general) from the Catholic perspective is something that’s fraught with dangers. It’s an ongoing conversation that NEEDS to happen. But there are ways and there are ways. I do not like Christopher West’s approach, and I do like Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand’s approach. However, one can get too stuck on one side or the other. Since erring on the side of crassness is right out, I won’t talk about that side, but I really do think we can err too far on the side of what turns into false modesty. There are things about sex that women need to talk about and need to hear about. I knew the basic mechanics (abstinence education =/= no or poor education no matter what anyone says) and the spiritual side going into marriage but I didn’t know plenty of stuff that I spend a long time fretting about because either it was a physical effect that I had never heard of before (but turned out to be completely normal) or it was a relationship aspect and I didn’t know how to deal with it. Erring too far on the side of modesty means I would still be wondering and worrying about these things because no one from a Catholic background would talk about them! Or would talk around and around them, concealing, prettifying, bowdlerizing, mystifying, and never get to where the rubber meets the road. I had to resort to … DUN DUN DUUUUUUUUUN! The Internet! Possibly a good parent’s greatest fear over where their child will obtain sexual information. Fortunately I stuck to orthodox Catholic and reputable medical sites. Others will not be so lucky.

Mine is a paltry example, though. Catholic women have marriage questions. Catholic women have sex questions. Catholic women worry and wonder and ponder and learn. Why oh WHY does the front-line solution have to be “talk to a priest” or “talk to a specialist” rather than “talk to each other”?? Saying “sex” instead of “the marital act” or “connubial bliss” is not crass debasement of intercourse. Talking frankly about the effects of the mechanics of sex so that a newlywed doesn’t freak out at what is happening to her body does not mean that the person doing the speaking has no respect for the wonder and beauty of the spiritual side of sex. The bottom line is, I wish I had the opportunity to speak to women I KNOW than to read other women’s writings online. However, it’s a good deal better than nothing, and I’m very glad at least that was available, so don’t talk about taking it away in the name of “modesty”.

Should we as Catholics shy away from the world and shun its trappings so as to remain untainted? Or should we throw in our lot with the culture and participate in order to bring our Catholic sensibilities and worldview to the forefront? If we make like the Amish, I think at the very least we are seriously compromising our duty to go out into the world and preach the gospel to all nations. On the other hand, if we accept all things uncritically, we run the serious risk of abandoning our religion in face of the secular onslaught and losing our souls in the process.

Should we watch all manner of movies and TV shows, absorbing the cultural mores (more like morass) without criticism? No.
Should we shun the production of films and television shows, thereby ensuring that the content will never get better, only blindly stumbling across beauty and truth and more often than not mangling it? No.
Should we limit ourselves to the admittedly poor quality of explicitly religious movies and TV shows? I don’t think so; after all the Church has excellent taste in arts and we shouldn’t compromise it.
Should we reject what is thoroughly irredeemable, yet seek to converse about and recognize what is redeemable? I think so very much; after all that touches on the heart of how Christianity works. (One of these days I will probably write a post about how Desperate Housewives is one of the most Christian, even Catholic, shows on the air right now. It’s shocking how it gets away with being so Christian. Does that mean it is without objectionable content? No, and neither is any other form of really good Catholic art [except music]. However, among other things, no one gets away with evil, no matter how minor. The consequences are clear. Characters learn and grow in morality. Several bad characters even mend their ways and are forgiven. It’s rather spectacular.) (Yes, I just admitted to watching Desperate Housewives.)

Should we (women) wear all manner of popular clothing and makeup styles, flaunting what ought to be private, distorting what ought to be natural, and demeaning what ought to be valued? No.
Should we wear nothing but totally concealing, shapeless masses of clothing and never wear makeup, marking us as frumpy, dumpy, and unapproachable? No.
Should we pride ourselves on how modest yet stylish we are, looking down on those who “at least cover everything but can’t put colors together to save her life” or judging those who choose not to wear pants or shorts as “holier than thou”? Heck no.
Should we embrace certain contemporary styles as suits our fancy while being sure that our appearance reflects the beauty God has given us rather than the “sexiness” the world demands of us? Yes. I think it is twisting things to be proud of having no pride in one’s appearance, just as much as having too much pride in one’s appearance to the detriment of the state of one’s mind, heart, and soul.

Should we (as a Catholic whole) drink like frat boys, smoke like punk, and generally take on the behavior of soccer hooligans? Of course not.
Should we become teetotalers who never engage in what certain sectors of the world have deemed vices of any sort, including enjoying decadent chocolate cake and salt? No. I think GK Chesterton would haunt us all.
Should we drink socially to the point of jollitude, enjoy a good pouch of tobacco, and praise God for His pleasant gifts? Yes, if it floats your boat. I personally do not drink or smoke because I find them distasteful, but I will never, ever criticize someone for unwinding with a friend over a margarita or two. There is nothing inherently wrong with the consumption of alcohol. It’s what you do with it.

And really, that seems to be the core of most of the culture wars among orthodox Catholics. There is nothing inherently wrong with homeschooling or sending your kids to a school, drinking alcohol, wearing clothes, discussing sex, watching movies, being single or married, wearing pants or a skirt, having a job or staying home, or having a bunch of kids versus having a few or none at all. It really is what you do with it, and why! Obviously there are some intrinsically sinful actions but no one in orthodox circles is arguing over whether it’s ok to have an abortion or an affair.

I could homeschool my kids but give them a lousy education and poorly socialize them because I’m too lazy to have an academically stimulating and rigorous schedule or go out and interact with other people… or I could do it right.
I could send my kids to whatever school is most convenient and never get involved in what they’re being taught or how the school runs things… or I could do it right.
I could get absurdly drunk more nights than not and destroy my family and my body… or I could do it right.
I could wear the most revealing, trashiest things imaginable… or I could do it right.
I could ramble on all day about sluts and hookups and players and how sex is meaningless and should be no-holds-barred in most foul terms… or I could do it right.
I could watch porn and slasher flicks and movies glorifying terrible behavior, philosophies, and all manner of evils… or I could do it right.
I could be single and whine all the time about how oppressive it is that I can’t sleep with anyone, and wander through life… or I could do it right.
I could get married and objectify my husband and pity the poor fools who don’t have the sense to get married… or I could do it right.
I could wear pants that look like I painted them on fresh that morning… or I could do it right.
I could wear skirts everywhere, even for inappropriate activities where the risk of flashing others is very high, or I could wear skirts that are too tight or too short… or I could do it right.
I could work outside the home and become so wrapped up in my career that I forget other people are real and need me… or I could do it right.
I could be stay at home but laze around and demand that my husband earn more money while simultaneously complaining that he’s at work too long… or I could do it right.
I could have 15 children but completely give up on raising them to be anything other than spoiled entitled brats who don’t respect anyone or anything, and spend very little time with them according to their needs… or I could do it right.
I could have only a few children whom I am grooming as personal trophy pieces as a reflection on my overly-inflated sense of self, and mock anyone who has more children or no children as irresponsible and ignorant… or I could do it right.
I could have no children and constantly express my disgust at the existence of small, annoying, disgusting creatures who dare claim the title “human”… or I could do it right.

The problem is, it’s often hard to “do it right”, so the thing itself is completely outlawed as a way not to have to “do it right”, and in order to justify it as outlawed, the thing itself must be demonized. I am not talking about setting rules and restrictions for children, here. I am talking about adult behavior. There are scrillions of ways to sin. There are a few ways to live a fruitful, holy life. The point is, there’s more ways than one. It’s when we get trapped into thinking that there is only one way to live a holy life that things can get seriously cockeyed, people become miserable and rebellious, the culture at large continues on the road to ruin, and anything good which one had hoped to accomplish by banning all choices which MAY lead to sin is pretty much wiped out.

Whoever said life was supposed to be easy anyway?


About kittenchan

I'm a Roman Catholic, conservative creative writing major with a penchant for cooking, crafting, and geek subcultures. View all posts by kittenchan

12 responses to “Catholics and Contemporary Life

  • Barbara Nicolosi

    Great balanced and grown-up assessment. You reminded me of my Mom who used to say to us that Catholics aren’t supposed to be either prudish or salacious, neither bitter nor goofy and naive, neither aloof from the world nor wallowing in it. She used to say the appropriate demeanor for a Catholic in this culture is “wry and resolute.”

    Anyway, thanks so much for your balance. God bless you –

    Barbara Nicolosi

    • kittenchan

      Thank you! Your mom sounds like she has the right idea (and not just because she agrees with me, heh).

      Permit me a fangirl moment… Having you and Hallie comment on here, when this place is really only populated by three relatives and a handful of friends, is akin to writing some musings on the ridiculousness of the prequel trilogy and having Peter Mayhew and Kenny Baker stop by and say “You know, I always thought so too.” This is Just Too Cool! :)

      • Barbara Nicolosi

        You are funny. (Although you definitely need to get out more!) If ever you are in L.A. do let me know and we can have a meal. God bless –

  • Hallie @ Betty Beguiles

    Thank you so much for this thought-provoking review. I loved hearing your thoughts on some of the more controversial issues included in the book. I also adore your fearless approach to cultivating balance in our lives. Just beautiful! Take care!

    • kittenchan

      Well, it can’t really be called a review… because I haven’t read the book. *nervous giggle* The book and the post were both more jumping-off points for putting down some things that were muddling around in my brain, rather than directly addressing anything in either of them. But thank you!

  • Suzanne

    As the author of the review which was the jumping point for this post, I just want to take a moment to pop in and say that I do think that there is place for frank discussion among Catholic women about sexuality. Discussions which are not limited and circumscribed to the theological or philosophical.

    However, I think these conversations need to avoid flippant language regarding sexuality which has become so rampant in our culture. When a Catholic/mom/role model writes a chapter for a book for Catholic, I have to cringe when she uses terms like a “quickie” or expressions like “mind if I read a book while you do that?” In fact, it makes me feel kind of ill. I’m not naive, nor do I mean to be “holier than thou,” I know myself to be just a very fallen and broken woman seeking wholeness in Christ and holiness.

    Yes, the discussions need to be had and they need to be frank. But they should be marked by a certain amount of dignity. They don’t need to be obviously stodgy or frowny, as though the words being spoken smelled putrid. They just need to be straight-faced. When I come to a friend and want to talk about something intimate or embarrassing, I don’t want her to crack wise. That’s something people do when they’re uncomfortable. I want to go to a friend who is comfortable enough to take me seriously.

    Hope that makes sense. God bless you!

    • Simcha Fisher

      Are you saying that Catholics can’t make jokes about sex? Are you saying that Catholics can’t make jokes about sex? I know I’m repeating myself, I’m just . . . are you really saying that Catholics can’t make jokes, about SEX?

    • jrwahlund

      Hmmm. That’s where we differ, I guess – I prefer that my friends have a sense of humor (which can often add levity to a more serious situation and help me feel better).

  • Suzanne

    Oh, I also felt that Edmisten could have conveyed her message, even with an inviting smile, without having to use much of the language she chose. That’s what was most disappointing to me.

  • jrwahlund

    Your sentiments resonate with me. Scripture says we need to be in the world but not of the world, and I think that sometimes Catholics forget the whole “in the world” part applies too.

    Again to paraphrase Scripture, if we only love those who love us, and witness to those who share our beliefs, what good does that do?

  • jrwahlund

    Well said.

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