By Robert Royal: Swimming Against the Current

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By Robert Royal, First, Things, June 4, 2018

The great New Orleans classical/jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis said in a recent interview that hip-hop and rap music have done more harm to African Americans than have Confederate monuments: “I started saying in 1985 I don’t think we should have a music talking about n*gg*rs and bitches and hoes. It had no impact. I’ve said it. I’ve repeated it. I still repeat it. To me that’s more damaging than a statue of Robert E. Lee.”

That, even though Marsalis was involved in having the Lee statue removed in his hometown.

Musicians have disagreed with him, but no thinking person can deny his basic point: “You can’t have a pipeline of filth be your default position” and not have it take a toll on society.

Which brings me to the Irish referendum a few weeks ago and how two-thirds of a people with Ireland’s past could vote to kill their own offspring in the womb. If you haven’t already, look at photos from the post-referendum celebrations: mostly young people, not bad kids, happily convinced that they just advanced freedom and equality for women.

They actually and ignorantly advanced the equivalent of slavery in our time and degradation for women who choose to end an innocent life for their own purposes.

I’m not convinced by the piecemeal explanations: the bishops discrediting themselves by covering up priestly abuse, the Celtic Tiger’s seductions of wealth, the “sprint away from Catholicism” (as the New York Times gleefully put it) towards “modernity.” These were factors, of course, but a people firm in faith – or even just clear in thought about what human beings can and cannot do to one another – simply would never have approved such horrors without something more.

Fans of the sometime-Christian rock band U2 were appalled that the group came out in favor of legalizing abortion. I was never a fan and, anyway, don’t think of rock groups as guides to the moral life.

But like Wynton Marsalis, those disappointed fans were on to something. When you have “a pipeline of filth [as] your default position,” it’s going to have effects. Bad effects.

Because what just showed itself in Ireland already happened here in America long ago. We have a popular culture in which filth is not just an element that’s depicted because it’s part of human life. There’s plenty of wickedness in Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, and every great artist. But it’s there so that we can recognize it for what it is, and beware – not celebrate it.

I don’t listen to hip-hop or rap, but I’m convinced by what Wynton Marsalis is saying. Virtually every part of our popular culture and even our “elite culture” – the blasphemous Met Gala with Vatican co-operation was more the norm than the exception – is part of the destructive “pipeline.”

We’ve been talking about evangelizing the world – reaching out and accompanying people – for the last half-century. It was one of the goals of Vatican II when St. John XXIII announced it.

But as we know, the traffic went largely in the wrong direction. The world evangelized the Church rather than vice-versa. We “traditional” Catholics often lament the dissenters and utopians and misguided religious – including some in the highest reaches of the Church – who have introduced confusion or heterodoxy. They’re one part of the problem.

Have we taken enough notice, however, of our own complicity in accepting our popular culture as the “default position” in the world in which we live?

The Pew Foundation – a reliable survey outfit – says that two-thirds of American Catholics now favor gay “marriage,” the same percentage of Irish who voted for that very thing in 2015. About the same percentage of Irish just voted to legalize abortion, while “only” a slight majority of American Catholic, 53 percent, think abortion should be permitted in some cases.

We didn’t get here solely because of dissidents. We need the Church to provide stronger leadership, of course, especially for Catholics who actually practice the faith and are, therefore, quite different from American Catholics in general. We do not need to “obsess” and “insist” on these matters – to use Pope Francis’ unfortunate criticism of our fellow Catholics. But we do need to continue to raise a ruckus when our moral principles are being threatened, whether in the culture or – as has recently been the case – by our own government.

Actually, we need to do two things to get anywhere with these problems. First, of course, we need to remain active in protecting ourselves by whatever means we can: lawsuits, protests, media blitzes. We’re Catholics – and Americans – and need to constantly remind the rest of the country that we have rights and are not going away.

Second, we need greater numbers. Numbers aren’t always important. God’s anointed are usually like David facing Goliath: utterly at a disadvantage – in merely human terms. Jesus only needed twelve apostles to evangelize the world. But in democratic times – and not presuming on a miracle to save us – we need to have many more well-formed Catholics and others who know why we believe and teach what we do.

This sort of thing begins with oneself. The digital world makes more resources available to everyone than was possible at any time in previous history. It doesn’t take vast sums of money to get a Catholic education now. I just discovered this website where you can download Catholic books for free and read them on any device.

If you’re an adult, it’s probably not convenient to go back to school, but there are all sorts of online courses, seminars, workshops. You’re going to need special resources to swim against the “pipeline of filth.”

Above all seek out holy people: priests, religious, good parishes, but practice discernment. Too many religious people are only trying to sell something or just win an argument. But others truly care because they themselves have received love and mercy and truth. Listen to them. Become one of them.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press.The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.