Wednesday, July 29, 2020

The Prodigal Church, by Brandon McGinley: Review by Urban Hannon

Our thanks to Mr Urban Hannon for sharing with us this review of The Prodigal Church: Restoring Catholic Tradition in an Age of Deception by Brandon McGinley, recently issued by Sophia Institute Press. Mr Hannon studies theology at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, DC, and has previously written for The Lamp and First Things, inter alia. He is also celebrating his name day today, the feast of Pope Bl. Urban II, and will be grateful for the prayers of our readers.

“The book you are reading is not a Vatican II book. In fact, it is anything but a Vatican II book.” And frankly, thank God. With all due respect for Benedict XVI’s hermeneutic of continuity—which is true as far as it goes and obviously preferable to the heresy-adjacent hermeneutic of rupture—I like to joke that I advocate instead for the hermeneutic of talking about something else. It’s 2020. My millennial peers and I did not live through the Second Vatican Council, nor the collapse of the Church’s midcentury structures in its aftermath. We were born in the ruins. And to be honest, we’re sick of talking about it. How I long for a day when someone will use the phrase “The Council,” and everyone will have to ask, “Which?” Consider: We are about to be as far removed in time from Gaudium et Spes as Gaudium et Spes is from Pascendi. Vatican II was an ecumenical council, to be sure, ratified by the holy father and protected by the Holy Spirit—and when random Twitter accounts show up in my mentions to suggest otherwise, I answer with an eyeroll, an “okay boomer,” and a block. But that said, Vatican II was also an ecumenical council which sought to address itself to the particular contingent problems of a world that no longer exists. Whether it did so with utmost prudence or not, we do not need to keep relitigating disputes that are over half a century old and increasingly irrelevant to our circumstances. That’s a pointless distraction. It is time to talk about something else.

This is what makes my friend Brandon McGinley’s new book The Prodigal Church so refreshing: its serene focus on the present moment, its gracefulness, its hope. “There are two basic prerequisites to allowing God’s grace to renew the Church,” says McGinley: “We have to want it, and we have to believe it is possible.” This excellent book checks both boxes. It asserts that grace is real, that God is in control, and that true renewal is achievable. Love is stronger than death, and grace is stronger than postmodernity. Thus does McGinley insist on “seeing in millennial and Gen-Z frustration, rebellion, and alienation an opportunity for evangelization rather than for mockery.” Right now, he says, “people are looking for big solutions to big problems, and big answers to big questions. This is our moment—if only we have the godly confidence to seize it by embracing the transcendent, incandescent authenticity of the Cross.” The Prodigal Church sets the example for such godly confidence.

Of course, McGinley is under no illusions about the challenges we Catholics face today, or about the sins and failings that have brought us to this point. But he is not especially shocked or scandalized by our apparently failing Church—remember it’s the only one we millennials have ever known—and he refuses to give sin the last word. The world as it is is a mess, but, he insists: “We don’t have to accept the world ‘as it is.’ This is a completely secular framing of human affairs, one that denies anything beyond wallowing in our brutishness. . . . Indeed, there is no greater acquiescence in secular ideology than to reject the truth that grace can and will elevate our possibilities.” McGinley knows how far we have fallen, that at this point ours is truly “a dissipated Church.” But he does not harbor a spirit of criticism, and he will not give up on God. Appropriately, John 6:68 is his favorite verse in the Scriptures: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

The Prodigal Church is a book in five parts: How We Got Here, The Church, The Parish, The Family, and Friendship and Community.

1. How We Got Here
St Adalbert’s Church in the South Side neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; photo by Brendan McGinley
McGinley’s retrospective on the Church in America takes an it-was-the-best-of-times–it-was-the-worst-of-times angle on the 1950s. On the one hand: “Sacraments galore! Priests and kids everywhere! Ministries and societies and sodalities, oh my! Silver screen hero priests! Hollywood beholden to Catholic principles! An archbishop in full regalia on prime-time TV! This was it! What else could we ask for?” On the other hand, it turns out that last wasn’t a rhetorical question: What else we could have asked for was faith, fidelity to the Church and her traditions before conformity to the mainstream American culture. “If midcentury truly was the heyday of American Catholicism,” says McGinley, “then we must say that it was also the triumph of the adjective over the noun—the moment Catholicism went native.” Or, as an older Fulton Sheen (the aforementioned prime-time pontiff) commented in hindsight, “[Religion in this period] began to give not theological insights into the meaning of life, but rather psychological and sociological views to accommodate the bourgeois good life to religion.” Material prosperity and social respectability replaced the sacraments and sanctity as the where-your-treasure-is of the American Catholic heart. In McGinley’s words: “We have dissipated our distinctive traditions in order to please the surrounding culture, but have lost both our patrimony and our position in the process.”

Thus the title of this book: Like the prodigal son, the Church in America has taken her inheritance and squandered it, and she’s starving. But that isn’t the end of the parable: The boundless generosity of our God before his repentant children is. This book is meant as an encouragement for us to return to our Father’s house.

2. The Church

Faithful Catholics may mock the “spiritual but not religious” line thrown out by so many of our secular contemporaries. But there is an insidious version of this same error to which the devout themselves often fall prey. “It is in vogue now,” says McGinley, “even and especially among Catholics, to speak of the institutional Church in the same way a civil libertarian speaks of the federal government: at best a necessary evil, a leviathan that needs to be reined in, even a threat to genuine faith and conscience.” (Or as he puts it elsewhere: “No one likes the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,” heh.) Against this temptation, The Prodigal Church recommends a rediscovery of the true identity of our holy mother the Church: “anchored in heaven but bound to earth, united to Christ but a vessel of sinners.” McGinley also celebrates the integral and consistent witness of the Church’s moral tradition—not focusing, for example, on sexual morality to the exclusion of economic justice or vice versa—for “a renewed Church is a consistent Church.” Regarding the economic libertarianism which plagues our society, McGinley calls the Church to speak out once more against usury and for just wages. Regarding the sexual revolution and its bitter fruits, he says, “It would be tragic indeed if the Church acquiesced to the new bourgeois just as it fell into disrepute, and just as her steadfastness might be rewarded.”
St Stanislaus Kostka, the mother of the Polish ethnic parishes in Pittsburgh; photo by Brendan McGinley
McGinley quotes St. John Chrysostom to great effect on the awesome responsibility of bishops for the salvation of souls, and reminds us that, “in the same way that the Church shouldn’t act like a corporation or an NGO, the bishops shouldn’t seem like CEOs or executive directors.” Especially important, in our moment, will be the willingness of bishops “to give up some secular respectability for the sake of the kingdom.” Here he recalls the witness of St. Ambrose condemning the emperor Theodosius, lest he should lose both the emperor’s own soul and those of his subjects. “I wonder what might have happened,” writes McGinley, “at that time and ever since, if a bishop had rebuked President Kennedy for his public and private scandals. But that would have threatened the mainstream acceptance we had worked so long to achieve. Ambrose weeps.” Yet rather than succumbing to impious disparagement of our local ordinaries, the successors of the apostles, McGinley invites us to prayer: “And so let all of us pray for our bishops, and for the elevation of good men to the episcopacy, and for the grace to recognize genuine holiness when it might not be obvious.”

The rest of McGinley’s treatment of Holy Church is a reminder that chancery bureaucracy is not her summit: Heaven is. “The invisible Church is our celestial anchor of holiness, the perfection to which we are called that is not a theoretical future possibility, but an ongoing present reality. There is no better cure for ecclesial despair than remembering, honoring, and relating to this cloud of witnesses.”

3. The Parish

The parish is meant to be “the local instantiation of our family in God.” But unfortunately our parishes, like all non-workplaces outside the home, have declined terribly in the last generation. “Suburbanization destroyed the closeness of the three places,” says McGinley, “fencing off the home on a cul-de-sac and isolating the office on the other side of a lengthy commute. The third place—the in-between place—was lost in the shuffle. Social interactions now had to be well planned to accommodate car travel; serendipity, one of the hallmarks of a welcoming third place, was lost.” This means that our parishes will need to be imaginative in how they adjust to very different demographic circumstances than those to which they have been accustomed. (McGinley thinks we have a lot to learn from the hippies here, but you’ll have to buy the book to find out why.) While acknowledging that distinct settings will call for distinct responses—and in all cases “more adaptive reuse than creative destruction”—The Prodigal Church has a number of suggestions for revitalizing our parochial common ground in an age of increasing alienation. A simple one is hiring someone just to sit in the church so that it can remain unlocked and accessible throughout the week: “The feeling of grasping the handle of a church door and finding it locked tight is like a betrayal or a broken promise.”

The altar of the chapel of St Anthony in Pittsburgh; photo by Brendan McGinley
But the most important counsels McGinley offers are liturgical ones, for “if [the parish] succeeds in nothing else, it must be—because by its very nature it is—a liturgical community.” He gets in some good digs at John Lennon’s “Imagine” at this point, which he calls “the anti-gospel”: “‘Imagine’ denies the legitimacy of anything intrinsically shared among persons, especially supernaturally, then exhorts us to, well, share everything.” The point is that liturgy is inescapable, because it is built into our embodied and social nature; the choice is just which liturgies we will celebrate. Of course liberalism has its own “competing liturgies” or “ersatz liturgies,” so “the alternative to observing the Church’s fasts, feasts, holy days of obligation, seasons of penance, and so on, is not an unstructured or liberated life. The alternative is observing the civil-corporate calendar.” Channeling MacIntyre, McGinley reminds us, “There is no neutrality”: “There is no neutral way to be in the world.”

This means that parishes have a very concrete opportunity to provide an alternative to American secularism by growing their liturgical life. “It is in liturgy, more than in any number of successful ministries or apostolates, that we recognize, manifest, and participate in the unity of the Church. . . . Expanding the liturgical offerings of the parish expresses and deepens this unity.” McGinley tells of the Curé d’Ars, who had his parishioners in church for a full twelve hours every Sunday!

“Introducing more liturgical prayer in the distracted era of the smartphone might seem extravagant, but we don’t have to start with the full Vianney.” Chanted Lauds and Vespers—occasionally with childcare included—would be a great place to start.

There is an old joke that certain traditional communities come to each December 31, the end of the calendar year, and then flip their calendars down back to January 1, 1962; whereas other traditional communities come to December 31 and then flip theirs back down to January 1, 1762. Now, McGinley assists at the traditional Latin Mass in Pittsburg with his young family every Sunday. (I hope he won’t mind my sharing that when his little daughter recently assisted at her first Novus Ordo in a good while, she left confused, asking whether that was a low Mass or a high Mass—”Uhh neither, sweetie. We’ll explain when you’re older.”) Nevertheless, he is not interested in turning back the clock. McGinley opposes a shallow traditionalism that would have us recreate the 1950s—whose problems he already has spent a full chapter diagnosing—just as he opposes what he calls “the new traditionalism” which insists on never leaving behind the ridiculous tackiness of the 1960s. He has a great anecdote about a liberal permanent deacon who opposes the traditional instincts of the young adults in his parish, patronizing them with a “stagnant, backward-thinking traditionalism” of his own. Says McGinley, “Attempts to recreate a particular moment in the past aren’t acts of authentic traditionalism any more than Renaissance fairs are.” If the Latin Mass is the way forward (and both McGinley and I hope that it is), this won’t be because it’s a safe old fossil, but because it is still young, and alive, and a flourishing part of the present.

4. The Family

If McGinley opposes a shallow traditionalism in matters liturgical, he is even more vocal about the risk of a shallow traditionalism matters familial: “The family plays its role in renewing the Church not by fulfilling some 1950s or 1980s or 2010s stereotype of the ideal traditional family, and certainly not by closing in on itself out of fear of vulnerability or a disordered commitment to autonomy,” he says, “but rather by being open to the grace the Church manifests to and for us.” Rather than becoming a reclusive household “obsessed with its own self-sufficiency,” the family “will be an integral participant in the life of the Church.” Talk of a Catholic counter-society is fine and good, then, but it must be a true counter-society. “[The family] is less like a building block,” McGinley says, “static and self-contained, and more like a cell, participating dynamically in the life of the organism through [communicating] not just bits of information, but aspects of its very self.” Thus against Hilary Clinton and Rick Santorum both (or at least against what their book titles came to represent for their respective constituencies), McGinley asserts: “It takes a Church.”

The McGinleys have four children and are open to God gifting them with more, and Brandon parses no words in condemning the selfishness of our sterile culture: “Choosing not to have children is perhaps the purest form of atheism.” But here again, The Prodigal Church offers a needed corrective to a lot of the homeschool-van and denim-prairie-skirt ideals of some of today’s devout families: “[Openness to life] is not about making babies with maximal efficiency, like an assembly line. It’s not about demonstrating a tenacious determination to rack up virtue points by bringing as many challenging children into your family as possible. And it’s certainly not about mimicking some model of the ideal traditional household. All of these shift the emphasis from God to ourselves.” I would simply add that St. Paul and St. Augustine are both pretty adamant that the ideal would be for spouses eventually to settle into spiritual friendship and prayerful continence anyway—which means not procreating with reckless abandon just to own the libs. This exhortation to chastity fits nicely also with McGinley’s musing about “bringing the ‘spirit of the monastery’ into the family home”: “We’re not raising little monks and nuns, but we should be raising children for whom the habits of monks and nuns aren’t so bizarre or extraordinary that committing to a religious vocation seems impossible.”

One great insight McGinley offers in this section is that the Church’s teaching on marriage and family is not separate from “Catholic social teaching,” but is an integral part of it—and thus Casti Connubii’s extended discussion of Rerum Novarum. “The Church’s social teaching,” says McGinley, “explodes the categories of ‘right-wing’ versus ‘left-wing,’ ‘conservative’ versus ‘liberal’ that dominate our politics. The Church’s thinking about our common life transcends our everyday (and clearly failing) politics.” I thought McGinley modeled this transcendent Catholic politics especially well on the page where he both praised Bernie Sanders (not without nuance) and called for the public recognition of the social kingship of Christ. This is what The Prodigal Church refers to as “the seamless garment—the real thing, not the brand.” “An economic structure that makes childbearing disastrously costly relative to wages is anti-life and anti-marriage,” he says: “A society without ubiquitous contraception would not look just the same as ours but with more babies: It would have to be radically reordered to ensure that economic and social circumstances could allow families to be confidently open to life.”

Most important for the family: “Returning to a robust understanding of the reality and transformative power of the sacraments is essential to renewal.” The sacrament of marriage is a good place to start, that sacrament which is the beginning of the family and whose grace allows the family to become for its members “the school of the sacraments.”

5. Friendship and Community

“Everything depends on God’s grace, and our responsiveness to it. This entire book is about drawing out the implications of that truth for our institutions and relationships.” The fifth and final section of The Prodigal Church is its strongest. McGinley concludes by calling for a Catholic “parallel society” (and “parallel economy”), fortified by the sacraments and unified by the intimate bonds of Christian friendship. “If Jews and Anabaptists can form imperfect but generally thriving parallel societies without the benefit of the sacraments, surely we can aim to do the same with a patient reliance on grace.”

Of course the whole book has emphasized that “there is no strict demarcation between the individual and the communal, between the private and the public.” So we will not be surprised that McGinley thinks our final answer to liberalism cannot be mere “individual holiness,” if by that we mean to exempt the communities in which individuals live and move and have their being. “The dissipation of doctrine and tradition and culture has been paralleled by a dissipation of persons,” he says: “In public we are to conduct ourselves as undifferentiated members of mass society, participating in the same pastimes and aspirations and blasphemies as everybody else, as if there were no God or Church or sacraments.” The Prodigal Church’s answer to this default Americanist blasphemy is true Catholic community, not as a once-or-twice-a-week hobby, but as the stuff of our everyday lives. I talk a lot about the need for clerical common life, and I like to remark that: Priests need priests. But there’s a truth there that applies more generally too: Catholics need Catholics. “This isn’t unjust discrimination,” McGinley says: “It’s a recognition of reality.” Our baptismal calling “is also to membership in an objectively distinct community of persons. We have forgotten this.” McGinley credits St. Peter with putting it as concisely as possible: “Honor all men. Love the brotherhood.” (1 Pet 2:17)

“One of the greatest fruits of the Mass, and of all the sacraments, is genuine friendship.” This is not an easy thing to give ourselves to, since “choosing friendship entails choosing vulnerability, because the only way to grow in communion with others is to let people into our imperfect lives.”

Nevertheless, it is necessary to embrace this vulnerability, for as the previous chapter has argued, the family is not enough. “Nothing could be clearer, from both the theory and the practice of this kind of friendship, than the insufficiency of the insulated nuclear family as the model of Catholic community.” This is what the classical Catholic tradition means when it refers to the family as an imperfect society—not that the family is bad, but that it is incomplete. “The retreat of the nuclear household behind its suburban picket fence wasn’t the preservation of a communal ethic but a key factor in its destruction,” McGinley says: “Thus to let the nuclear family dominate the Catholic social imagination isn’t to strike a blow against individualism at all, but to acquiesce to it. Rather, the prime social condition for a renewed Church will be an archipelago of robust Catholic communities, not isolated Catholic families.” McGinley has no patience for those Catholics who lament that the larger societies are lost already and our own families are the only ones we can hope to save. “I can’t express enough . . . how much I dislike the notion that any community beyond the family is bound to fail spectacularly,” he says: “This is despair of the power of grace, plain and simple. It’s the same hopeless, faithless thinking that leads secular members of my generation to eschew marriage out of fear of divorce. If grace isn’t real and powerful, then this is a perfectly reasonable way to think. But if it is real, then wallowing in fear when we are called to live boldly as signs of Christian contradiction is practical atheism.”

“As Catholics,” McGinley says, “we have a choice to make: We can either continue to live as we have, more or less indistinguishable from those around us, and to continue not only to flounder as a community of faith but to do so while hitched to the sinking ship of secular liberalism. Or we can trust that grace makes something better possible, and then put it into practice.” This something better doesn’t have to be grand, at least not by the world’s standards. It is simply sharing a life, making friends through one’s parish and other Catholic communities, and choosing to belong to one another. “It’s about holiness at all costs, lived together,” he says. “I imagine these communities appearing seemingly spontaneously as individual Catholics or Catholic families seek stability and security in an increasingly alienated and confused civilization,” McGinley writes: “Living in physical and spiritual proximity—that is, regularly sharing everyday life, prayer, and liturgical worship—will continue to shift from being a luxury for the fortunate to a necessity for anyone who desires to follow Christ to the fullest in what is shaping up to be a long and tumultuous twenty-first century.”

“This is a vision of the Body of Christ in the twenty-first century. It doesn’t overturn the structures and traditions of the past, but applies them in creative ways to new circumstances.” Here The Prodigal Church reaches its climax: “The truth is that the way things are—largely isolated households popping into Mass weekly then going their own ways, back into the world on their own terms—is not sustainable. This way of living is simply no match for the corrosive power of individualism, liberal secularism, and consumer capitalism. Renewal will only come with a renewed confidence in the radicalism of Christ’s message of love, peace, justice, and salvation. This confidence will, in turn, rise and fall with a renewed way of living in the world.” If you are looking for a one-sentence summary of this book, here it is: “We have chosen to take on costs in faithfulness for the sake of respectability; now is the time to take on costs—any costs—for the sake of faithfulness.” “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor 6:2)

I would like to end with a quotation which McGinley does not include in The Prodigal Church, but if I were his editor, I’d have made it the epigraph to the book, because I couldn’t get it out of my head the whole time I was reading. It’s from the last page of Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World (a favorite of our last two popes). And with this, I will conclude this review, which I hope has convinced you to purchase The Prodigal Church for yourself and for your loved ones. This book is a refreshing breath of hope, and the best proposal I’ve seen for where we go from here. Here’s Guardini:
If we understand the eschatological text of Holy Writ correctly, trust and courage will totally form the character of the last age. The surrounding “Christian” culture and the traditions supported by it will lose their effectiveness. That loss will belong to the danger given by scandal, that danger of which it is said, “it will, if possible, deceive even the elect.” (Matt 24:24) Loneliness in faith will be terrible. Love will disappear from the face of the public world (Matt 23:12), but the more precious will that love be which flows from one lonely person to another, involving a courage of the heart born from the immediacy of the love of God as it was made known in Christ. Perhaps man will come to experience this love anew, to taste the sovereignty of its origin, to know its independence of the world, to sense the mystery of its final why? Perhaps love will achieve an intimacy and harmony never known to this day. Perhaps it will gain what lies hidden in the key words of the providential message of Jesus: that things are transformed for the man who makes God’s will for His Kingdom his first concern (Matt 6:33).

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