David Brooks: The Roman Catholic Boom

Posted by Kendall Harmon

On the one hand, modern Catholics have retained many of the traditional patterns of their ancestors — high marriage rates, high family stability rates, low divorce rates. Catholic investors save a lot and favor low-risk investment portfolios. On the other hand, they have also become more individualistic, more future-oriented and less bound by neighborhood and extended family. They are now much better educated than their parents or grandparents, and much better educated than their family histories would lead you to predict.

More or less successfully, the children of white, ethnic, blue-collar neighborhoods have managed to adapt the Catholic communal heritage to the dynamism of a global economy. If this country was entirely Catholic, we wouldn’t be having a big debate over stagnant wages and low social mobility. The problems would scarcely exist. Populists and various politicians can talk about the prosperity-destroying menace of immigration and foreign trade. But modern Catholics have created a hybrid culture that trumps it.

In fact, if you really wanted to supercharge the nation, you’d fill it with college students who constantly attend church, but who are skeptical of everything they hear there. For there are at least two things we know about flourishing in a modern society.

First, college students who attend religious services regularly do better than those that don’t. As Margarita Mooney, a Princeton sociologist, has demonstrated in her research, they work harder and are more engaged with campus life. Second, students who come from denominations that encourage dissent are more successful, on average, than students from denominations that don’t.

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed: Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.

The problem is nobody is ever going to write a book sketching out the full quasi-religious recipe for life. The message “God is Great” appeals to billions. Hitchens rides the best-seller list with “God is Not Great.” Nobody wants to read a book called “God is Right Most of the Time.”

Read it all.

Filed under: * Culture-WatchMarriage & Family* Religion News & CommentaryOther ChurchesRoman Catholic

19 Comments
Posted May 27, 2007 at 3:18 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Irenaeus wrote:

In this excerpt, Brooks starts well but ends in terminal flippancy.

May 27, 6:12 pm | [comment link]
2. Deja Vu wrote:

Brooks says:

This embodies the social gospel annex to the quasi-religious creed:  Always try to be the least believing member of one of the more observant sects. Participate in organized religion, but be a friendly dissident inside. Ensconce yourself in traditional moral practice, but champion piecemeal modernization. Submit to the wisdom of the ages, but with one eye open.

Economists would call this the creed of the Free Rider. A Free Rider is someone who benefits from the social organization without contributing a fair share. In religious organizations, Free Riders benefit from the moral integrity of the group but do not themselves adhere to the moral code.

Obviously, religious organizations need to protect their members from the Free Riders. Such protections would include: barriers to entry (e.g. confirmation before communion) and isolation of offenders ( e.g. refusal of communion until the offender demonstates changed behavior).

May 27, 6:14 pm | [comment link]
3. Tom Roberts wrote:

DV #2-
How do you “benefit from the moral integrity of the group” if the only benefit of Christianity is individual salvation? Which leads to a logical issue with this article. Brooks presumes that Catholicism leads to a better way of life, bringing with it all sort of tangible, if not fungible benefits. I especially thought the line “If this country was entirely Catholic, we wouldn’t be having a big debate over stagnant wages and low social mobility. The problems would scarcely exist.” humorous, though Brooks intoned it seriously.
The fallacy here is that there are non Catholics that do non Catholic things. Perhaps Catholicism leads to more financial rewards over time due to average behaviors. But that is only in the context of society-with-nonCatholics, who do otherwise. It is hard for everyone to be above average, so somebody has to be dull or unfavored in various aspects of life. Or simply, what is the financial point of being Catholic when everyone is?

Of course, Brooks has a point here despite his trollish way of presenting it. There is a counter argument to the modern secular mores of US society, and that argument in its Catholic version leads both to a coherent social and individual vision of what society and Man ought to be about. Like the scripture expresses, striving for righteousness is both its own reward and the precursor to grace both in the next world and the current one. Secularism, on the other hand, is a zero sum game.

May 27, 7:15 pm | [comment link]
4. Dale Hinote wrote:

Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were our three main religious groups in the glorious American 20th Century.  Protestants and Jews got along better than anyone expected.  That was fortunate, because Jews and Catholics faced each other across a sea of incomprehension.  I have yet to meet one who fully understood the other as they turned themselves to God.  If the United States had ever been a Catholic country, it would have been as unrecognizable to David Brooks as it would have been to me.
What he and I have in common is God’s written word and our free judgment (not to be confused with free will).  Catholics have the Magisterium and the authority of a narrowly elected Bishop of Rome.  As a Protestant Episcopalian, believing in the Word and the Spirit speaking directly to me and rejoicing with everyone who kneels before God’s table to eat with Him, I feel Jewish.  When I hear doctrine pronounced, I wonder to whom has God granted that authority?

May 27, 9:10 pm | [comment link]
5. Jody+ wrote:

Dale (#4),
I’m not sure that Protestants and Jews always understand each other better, especially given the proximity of Jewish and Catholic communities in the cities of the North East.  Indeed, the Rabbi who taught several classes at my university once told me that if he were to be a Christian he would be a Roman Catholic because he understood them better than protestants, and ther approach to tradition was more “Jewish.”

May 27, 9:19 pm | [comment link]
6. libraryjim wrote:

Hey, Dale,

Back to school for you! You display a very common mis-conception of the Roman Catholic system.

May 27, 9:20 pm | [comment link]
7. Dale Hinote wrote:

Thanks for the comments.  If you have read John Lukacs or Alexis de Tocqueville, the first a good and very intelligent Catholic and the second a wise man who wished he could have been a Catholic, you may understand why I teach history that way.  I might be wrong, but I think I understand Catholicism well enough to disagree with it.  Please feel free to write back.

May 27, 9:46 pm | [comment link]
8. NewTrollObserver wrote:

The problem is nobody is ever going to write a book sketching out the full quasi-religious recipe for life. The message “God is Great” appeals to billions. Hitchens rides the best-seller list with “God is Not Great.” Nobody wants to read a book called “God is Right Most of the Time.”

The issue is not whether God is right most of the time. The issue is, when is God speaking? And to whom? And in what context? And for that, I recommend Marcus Borg, or Brian McLaren, for starters.

May 27, 10:46 pm | [comment link]
9. MargaretG wrote:

Why would anyone be so provocative as to label themselves “NewTrollObserver” ? Do you think it is an attention seeking device? Or is it one of those “I am smarter than you” type of statements. Any thoughts?

May 27, 11:27 pm | [comment link]
10. NewTrollObserver wrote:

I’m sure Freud would have a field-day. wink

May 28, 1:13 am | [comment link]
11. John B. Chilton wrote:

Cause or effect? If a student who wanted to attend church was not able to I figure they’d still make better use of their time and have a sense of purpose. And did they get those characteristics from their upbringing or is someone who is likely to go church by nature also likely to have these characteristics?

And do denominations that encourage dissent* (doubt is what I think he means) also cause you to be more successful? Those denominations are Episcopal, Unitarian and Reformed Jews. Well, these tend to be attended by elites anyway. And children of elites tend to be successful.

No doubt the studies Brooks has in mind take account of causation questions. Still, I have, erm, doubts.

*Dissent in the Episcopal Church today of course means taking the minority reasserter stance. I wonder if reasserters are more successful than reappraisers. Does it sharpen your wits?

May 28, 7:32 am | [comment link]
12. libraryjim wrote:

Dale,
I may understand it, but I strenously disagree with your views.  Studying one or two 18th century writers does not a whole picture give.  I recommend studying Scott Hahn’s works, as well as the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the documents of Vatican II themselves, and perhaps the works of G. K. Chesterton, for a fuller, more complete course of study.  Perhaps even watching some of the teaching shows on EWTN.

May 28, 10:12 am | [comment link]
13. libraryjim wrote:

Oh, and surprisingly, Catholicism for Dummies is an excellent overview.  wink

May 28, 10:15 am | [comment link]
14. NewTrollObserver wrote:

#11 John wrote: And do denominations that encourage dissent* (doubt is what I think he means) also cause you to be more successful? Those denominations are Episcopal, Unitarian and Reformed Jews.

I think ‘dissent’ is an appropriate word here. But I don’t think TEC, Unitarianism, or Reform Judaism is what Brooks had in mind, since these groups do not tend to be ‘one of the more observant sects’, or offer ‘traditional moral practice’, at least when compared with other groups. I think Brooks has in mind Catholicism in particular, where you have a strong tradition of spiritual disciplines and contemplation coupled with a very well-defined institutional structures.

Dissent is only possible if there’s something to dissent from, and Brooks seems to suggest that the only dissent worth its salt is the dissent that encounters a worthy resistance. Is it possible to be a ‘friendly dissident’ in TEC these days, or Unitarianism? Sure, but what exactly would you be dissenting from? For many, TEC doesn’t offer a real challenge to their current life-ways, and thus doesn’t threaten their apparent uprightness. What would be the fun in dissenting, or struggling, in that context? What would be the moral benefit? The more liberal groups don’t irritate like a thorn in your side: the thorn might be a pain, but it keeps you awake.

May 28, 10:24 am | [comment link]
15. D. C. Toedt wrote:

Brooks’ discussion of Catholicism seems incidental to what appears to be his real theme, summarized in the first part of the piece (which Kendall didn’t quote):

Quasi-religious people attend services, but they’re bored much of the time. They read the Bible, but find large parts of it odd and irrelevant. They find themselves inextricably bound to their faith, but think some of the people who define it are nuts.

Whatever the state of their ambivalent souls, quasi-religious people often drive history. Abraham Lincoln knew scripture line by line but never quite shared the faith that mesmerized him. Quasi-religious Protestants, drifting anxiously from the certainties of their old religion, built Victorian England. Quasi-religious Jews, climbing up from ancestral orthodoxy, helped shape 20th-century American culture.

May 28, 12:02 pm | [comment link]
16. john scholasticus wrote:

#15
Sounds rather like a description of ‘D.C.’ himself!

‘God is Right most of the time’. I disagree with the writer: I think that’s the way the case for Christianity has to be fought, nowadays, in the West.

May 28, 3:05 pm | [comment link]
17. Reactionary wrote:

#16,

To my observation, a message that “God is right most of the time” attracts only other well-meaning, middle-aged progressivists.  People looking for certainty in an uncertain world conclude that such a theology is not for them—they’ll become evangelical Christian or, increasingly, Muslim—and people comfortable with an existential or agnostic worldview have no need of going to church on Sunday just to hear that.

May 28, 6:06 pm | [comment link]
18. pendennis88 wrote:

One of the reasons I like Brooks is because he wrestles with class in America, one of the most taboo subjects we have.  It is also very difficult to explain to non-Americans, but the way I sometimes try to describe it is that we live in a very class-ridden society, but the markers are more hidden and not talked of, and it is more possible with individual effort to move from one class to another than in more hereditary-based societies.

Here I think he is talking about what he says he is talking about, and that is he wonders how so many blue-collar catholics have risen to the upper middle classes and greater prominence in a generation.  When I was young, only New Orleans and Baltimore had an elite class that was predominately catholic.  Now, the elite in many cities have a significant catholic presence. 

I think he is just trying out an idea - religious or quasi-religious people being inclined to work harder and have values more conducive to success - which seems intuitively right.  I’m not sure that is all there is to it.  From personal experience, I’m inclined to think a certain amount is due to intermarriage resulting in those with strong families choosing catholicism out of a greater affinity with its meaning.  Related to that, any number of episcopalian families of the sort that used to look down their noses at catholicism - and any episcopalian who grew up in the northeast many decades ago knows what I mean - aren’t episcopalian any more.  But I’m really not sure, other than that the practical effect is what the sociologists Brooks quotes observe.  I used to think more highly of Brooks’ ideas, such as his BoBo thinking, but am not sure they have held up that well over time, while Paul Fussells’ “class X” views from the 70’s seem more prescient than ever.

I also think that a class-based interpretation of a part of the episcopal struggles in the US can be derived.  That may be for another day, but I always find it amusing that current episcopal leadership makes the argument that it is a church for the highly educated at the same time it is shrinking, which only suggests that the smarter people get, the more they are choosing not to be episcopalian.

May 29, 9:49 am | [comment link]
19. john scholasticus wrote:

#17
I’m glad you think people like me ‘well-meaning’.

I don’t think such a message attracts ‘only’ such people. As the Marxists say (or used to) ‘history is with us’. Despite recent upheavals (and future upheavals in Africa and the Global South generally), Christianity in general has clearly had to evolve in response to important external phenomena (the Enlightenment, knowledge of evolution, the Big Bang, etc.) adn it will continue to have to do so.

May 29, 3:43 pm | [comment link]
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