Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Church and the cognitive elite

Charles Murray's latest book, Coming Apart, has been discussed much--and deservedly so. He argues that America is increasingly divided along class lines. There is a cognitive elite, who attend the same elite universities and intermarry. On the other side of the bell curve, an underclass is abandoning the core principles which have served America so well; this portends ill, not simply for the underclass, but for American society at large.

It occurred to me that this same division isn't playing out to the same degree in Catholic society--or, if it is, I haven't noticed it. I'm specifically referring to the priests, who could form a cognitive elite of sorts, but haven't, for a variety of reasons. Obviously, since priests don't marry, there isn't going to be any breeding among Catholic elites as there is in the secular world. But there are also no elite colleges that churn out priests. Certainly, the handful of conservative Catholic universities, such as Christendom and Thomas Aquinas college, produce a higher percentage of vocations to the priesthood, but these numbers are too small to counteract the wider trend.

In some sense, this is a good thing. Priests come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and they need to if they are going to serve dioceses whose members do not belong to the cognitive elites. (Perhaps the elite priests are preaching in the superzips that Murray talks about. I travel a fair amount, so I'm exposed to a number of different priests in a given year, but I don't live in--or near--any of the superzips.) But there's a downside, too, in that, for many more intelligent Catholics, intellectually stimulating homilies can draw one to the Church. I know this because my apostate friends, who tend to be fairly bright, lament the lack of vigor in the dull sermons they've encountered.

It's unfair to priests to expect them to give a dynamic homily every Sunday; preaching is only one of the many tasks to which a priest must attend. And while Catholics like me would prefer a discussion of some finer point in Aquinas, there are many good Catholics who aren't overly intellectual in their approach to the Faith. As Peggy tells the young priest in an episode of Mad Men, "The sermon is the only part of the Mass in Engligh, and sometimes it's hard to tell." If the writers of the show have their facts straight, homilies were more intellectually robust prior to Vatican II, and most Catholics apostatized anyway.

This is all mere speculation on my part. The Church teaches that God calls His priests; we can be reasonably sure He knows what He's doing. But I can't help feel a bit nostalgic for a time when there were--more--intellectually formidable priests. Perhaps St. Ignatius could help his order reform themselves, and the Jesuits could again play that role. For the moment, the Church is blessed to have so impressive a mind as Benedict XVI to help guide Her. One hopes that there are little Ratzingers, unknown to all but their small parishes, who have a part to play in this thing yet.

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