One thing I never thought I'd have to think about if I were to be a mostly orthodox, practicing Catholic was which company or Etsy store has the cutest diaper covers. Or which local parish has the most members attending the Catholic Moms' bunko party (which means, of course, that's the most fun Catholic parish around). Or which super-enriching Catholic women's program also includes a wine and cheese social afterwards that you do not want to miss!
But if you looked at one or two local internet Catholic forums of Catholic women, you'd think that's what it's all about. Or at least a big chunk of it, alongside questions about which internet site has the best selection of Catholic storybooks.
I admit I am often (repeat often) annoyed or amused by this brand of good-Catholic-mommy stuff.
I know that part of my annoyance is simply because of my age, which is now approaching mid-40's. I mean, there comes a time when you just have your circle of good friends, Catholic or not, and you're content and satisfied with what you have. Usually that contentedness comes with the passing of time, long after the initial or prolonged struggle with the disillusionment of staying home with young children. Contentment does come, it really does, even if in bits and pieces.
Still, most stay-at-home moms from time to time feel isolated and/or wonder if changing diapers and picking up smashed goldfish crackers out of the carpet is all there is, and so they try real hard to find more friends with whom to commiserate and find friendship. I've been there, and actually, with a five year old, I'm not quite yet out of the woods. So wanting some "fellowship" of sorts between other decent practicing Catholic mothers is understandable.
What's not understandable to me is when becoming a "good, orthodox Catholic mom" of the 21st century becomes near to like a lifestyle brand that one chooses. I'm really unsure of how to articulate this, so I'm going to first steer this discussion to a blog post I recently discovered at "The Heresy Hunter" blog, which includes a video trailer for a Catholic reality TV show in which Jennifer Fulwiler allows her "crazy" Catholic life to be filmed:
"It's All About Meeeeeee...Reality Catholic TV...Is Finally Here! (aka Picking on Jennifer Fulwiler, Or Not?). [I added the part in parentheses.] Make sure you read the commbox as well; the commbox is just as important as the actual blog post.
For the record, I have never before seen or heard of this "Heresy Hunter" blog until just a few days ago, discovering it on someone's blog role. I have no opinion of it, and neither support it or take issue with it, as a whole. The title is clever and intriguing, I admit, but given my Catholic mood of late, I'm more suspicious of this blog's content and mission than not.
Nonetheless, an admittedly fearless blogger over there has made observations about modern Catholic culture that I have been too chicken to make myself, even though I have been thinking similar thoughts for a long time. And it all ties into what I'm trying very unsuccessfully to get to the heart of here in my own blog post. As one commenter over there said, emphases mine:
"This is the new age of Catholicism in the West. It's suburban, urban,
successful, and attractive, and very cleverly balanced between the
materialistic secular culture and the Holy Catholic and Apostolic
Church. This is the "we want it all generation", which is taking over
what has come to be known as the "new evangelization" of the Church in
North America...When we need Catholics who can renew the Church, what we seem to be
getting is another newer, hipper, brighter generation of self-servers.
And some of them are just so nice, and clever, and attractive, and
family-oriented. Home-schoolers and NFPers and we've got lots of kids
living the good life kind of folk.
Makes good advertising but I don't think it will do much for Holy Mother Church."
I have had similar thoughts way too many times. Each time I think like this, it makes me uncomfortable because I am admittedly someone who believes that we have to reach people where they are, rather than isolate ourselves from the culture in which we live. For example, some people are reading this blog post on their iPads and checking their Facebook feed at the same time. This is reality, that we live in western culture, warts and all, and there's no escaping it.
But what if "where we are" as 21st century Catholics really is a sort of wishy-washy, consumeristic, secular-ish Catholicism that uses "fun" and "relevancy" as the measuring stick of goodness and we don't know it? Thus, how much of our lives as Catholics should reflect the culture around us? Aren't we supposed to be part of and fit in with that culture so that we can simultaneously stand out as being counter-cultural because of our Catholic Christian faith, morals, and ethics?
They say that mimicry is the highest form of compliment. Perhaps. But within the Christian realm, I have found mimicry to be more ridiculous than not. A look within Protestant Christianity confirms this ridiculousness with abundance: Christian rock and pop bands that are virtually indistinguishable from the real-thing variety. Christian marketing efforts that often rival secular marketing, such as with the Vegetales and the whole "What Would Jesus Do?" racket. Mega-churches with Starbucks inside.
Though people don't want to admit it, the same goes on within the Catholic world. Some time ago I was annoyed with all the praise and glory being given to the series of teen-targeted books written by Catholic Regina Doman, which were very similar in nature and theme to the Harry Potter genre. All fine and well, but then there was a merchandise line introduced to promote her books, and homeschool mothers who required their daughters to wear ankle-length skirts were suddenly OK with their daughters wearing commercial t-shirt advertisements for Catholic fantasy literature. Not that there's anything wrong with that at all. (I mean it.) But these are the same people who often make it a big deal to show off how successful they are in shunning worldly/secular kinds of things with a vengeance.
Lest you think I'm picking on homeschool Moms and/or Catholic kids who really do need uplifting literature to read, what are your thoughts about the cover of this book?
(I took this photo from "Aquinas & More Catholic Goods" on the internet. Feel free to patronize them if you so choose.)
In what way does this book look any different from the reams of chick-lit garbage out there, save for the word "Catholic"? [Disclosure: I sometimes read chick-lit garbage. And my kid loves the Vegetales.] Granted, I have been informed that authors rarely have any say over the cover designs of their books. However, what Catholic author would see this and not throw a fit? That is unless this is exactly the worldly look they were going for, given that perhaps - perhaps - it's now just a given that we really are, as that above commenter said - "very cleverly balanced between the materialistic secular culture and the Holy Catholic Church."
I bring up this book because this book got brung up to me.
At the beginning of the school year, knowing that I would be staying up in Milwaukee every day because Alan only has half-day kindergarten, I ventured into the fray and joined a Catholic Moms' book club that met once a month. I figured I'd try to make some new friends amongst other good Catholic women and get to read/discuss a Catholic book while I was at it. Since I read multiple books a month, I thought this was a great idea.
Much to my dismay, this is the book they chose. (I say this because I had fantasies of book clubs being these intense, high-brow intellectual discussions, which is not what it turned out to be.) And when I got to the group - some of the women hadn't yet been born when I was attending my high school prom! - it was clear that most of them were perfectly satisfied by this selection, perhaps even excited about it. While it was never officially articulated, my initial impressions were that a pink book cover with the words sex, style, and Catholic was not to be resisted because it was so hip! So relevant! Sort of like quick Catholic soundbytes for the busy Catholic mom's soul.
Now, before you think I'm being snarky and mean, I want to repeat here that I really do believe we need to reach people where they are. Some Catholic women, well, they are where they are. This is why, for example, I will support Christopher West, even while I do take serious issue with how he presents and teaches the subjects he does. Better that people learn what the Church teaches about sex and fertility, etc., in some way than not at all. Likewise, better that a nominal Catholic woman pick up this book and finish reading it with a new sense of purpose in being Catholic than not.
I admit I only read two essays in the pink Catholic book. They were fine. For example, there was one essay that might possibly help a woman who thinks that to be a good Catholic she needs to wear a jeans jumper and a chapel veil learn that NO, she can be who God created her to be, and if she wants to get a pair of new knee-high leather boots at Macy's, then go right ahead! (I agree.) Maybe it was even a message *I* needed to hear about three years ago when I was struggling with the "truth" that all the good Catholics wore long skirts and chapel veils and I was feeling mighty discouraged and angry about it.
Yet I couldn't shake the feeling that deep down the ultimate message of the book was this: Be a faithful Catholic, live your faith, be pro-life, raise up an authentic Catholic family, etc., etc., etc., but don't forget that you can be FAB-U-LOUS while you're doing it! I could be wrong, but as I perused through the book, there might even have been an essay that admonished women to care more about how they looked so that their husband would find them more attractive? I might be wrong; someone will surely tell me if I am. This sort of advice rubbed me the wrong way.
Is it unfair that I make this assessment without having read the book in its entirety? Yes. But let's face it: the look of a book, the theme of a book, and the kinds of people who are attracted to a book speak volumes. Or is it NOT the kinds of people who are attracted to a book, but more HOW the book is MARKETED to certain people? Really, the truth is likely that I'm asking the chicken or the egg question: which came first? No one has yet successfully answered. Are expressions of western Catholic culture (such as this book) a reflection of reality or is it the other way around?
Ultimately, I'm not concerned with the pink Catholic book or the specific women at the book club that I eventually dropped out of. The women who submitted essays for that book (including Jennifer Fulwiler) are perfectly fine Catholics, and the women who were in that book club were lovely, well-meaning Catholics who really did try to help me feel welcome. It just wasn't the right fit for me, especially since I had to miss because John's mother died in November and Alan had surgery in December and sometimes they met on days when Alan didn't have school. I'm sure if I had stayed, I might feel somewhat different.
But I'm telling you, I see things. Locally. On the internet. In the Catholic blogosphere. Things that make me wonder what the heck is going on out there in certain Catholic circles. Those who followed my first blog know that I was highly critical of the now defunct "Faith & Family Live" blog for exactly the sort of spirit and experience that I'm questioning here. I'm serious, if I had mentioned in a commbox over there that I was making and marketing a Catholic laundry detergent - basically Tide in a bottle but with a label that said something like "St. Ann's Suds" - they would have fallen all over themselves to buy it and promote it and talk about how wonderful it was that they could now buy laundry detergent from a good Catholic.
Would you like me to name blogs and portals where I think the same women now congregate? I bet you would. But I won't. I'll try to be charitable. But you and I know they are out there in abundance. In fact, I'm waiting for something like a Catholic jewelry party to show up in my Facebook feed any day now, replete with a reminder to bring along your favorite bottle of wine to share so that we can have a fun, fun, evening!
Actually, I kinda/sorta went to one of these things this past fall. Not saying what or where and I'm purposely obfuscating the details. Let's just say the parking lot had massive, shiny new SUVs and there were lots of Coach purses and perfectly clad children and mothers. And when I tried to introduce myself to some of these Catholic moms, you would have thought I had landed out of a spaceship, presumably because I wasn't wearing some unspoken Catholic "uniform" of the fun, suburban Catholic mother? (Either that or social networking has completely erased any sense of manners and real human interaction from our repertoire?)
And yet at this event, the Elf of the Shelf was being derided in lieu of a better, more wholesome Catholic version of, basically, the same exact concept! The better, more authentically Catholic counterpart: My Secret Angel and Me. (Except I'm not sure this product was made by a Catholic?) Anyway, all I heard was: "This PRODUCT bad, but this PRODUCT good." It sounded as if the main goal was to not deprive our children of a PRODUCT because all the other kids in our culture were having fun with their (non-Catholic) PRODUCT. We must have Catholic equivalency items! We must have someTHING and it should be Catholic and fun! (Yes, I realize that the Angel concept is a better one than the elf, but that's not my point here.)
I worry that I'm part of the problem (which some will argue is not a problem at all) because I, too, have a longing to belong to social constructs that serve to affirm an American experience and expression of Catholicism. I mean, what's wrong with having fun with other Catholic women who really and truly want to be good Catholics? Is there something inherently evil about a Catholic bunko party?
But still, I have to ask if there is indeed something wrong with, for example, Jennifer Fulwiler allowing herself to be filmed for a Catholic reality TV show, setting some kind of example for other Catholic women that suggests, "This is how a good Catholic mother looks and lives." And then thousands of those women following her on Facebook and then likely buying the book she's written that is soon to be out, etc. How far do we go in wanting to "fit in" with other Catholics before we realize we're just buying into a Catholic branded lifestyle, without looking deep into our own souls and having a quiet conversation with Christ about what HE wants us to look like or how to live?
Is what Jennifer Fulwiler did wrong? I don't have an answer for that. But I'm thinking maybe I should jump the gun and get on that Catholic jewelry home sales idea while I still can.