The documentary Peter and the Wolf is about a farmer who went “back to the land” as a hippie in the 1960’s. The story is inspiring of course, because its amazing what Peter, the main character, has accomplished. But the tragedy is also what he loses. Some mixture of estrangement and alcoholism (I can’t tell what came first) leaves him a man with a farm but no family. I watched the documentary as a wannabe agrarian, but at one point he says something striking that resonated because it transcended the topic of the farm. My paraphrase:
“I loved what we were doing with the hippies, but I never grew my hair out because I didn’t want to lose the respect of the farmers. Their approval was what I really wanted.”
Peter had an intuitive sense that the men in the trenches of work and family, who tussled daily with real things, had a leg up on faddish hippies trying to construct a utopia (which, excepting Peter, failed like so many such projects do). By their virtue and lives the neighboring farmers were more worthy of honor and could, therefore, bestow the honor Peter longed for.
There is plenty of commentary out there about the effects of industrialization and technology on life, but of those effects surely the most un-controversially true one is that we are no longer working men, meaning men in the trenches and fields – outside with our bodies working through the marriage-like tension between man and nature. The men that do those sorts of jobs go unseen and unappreciated. But I would say that, in the eyes of ecclesial elites (those in chancelleries, universities, and even rectories), a working knowledge of working men (even those at desks) is totally absent. They don’t understand them nor appreciate them, mostly – I think – because they don’t even see them. Yes, this applied to women too, but I am speaking particularly of the unseen average Joe, the father doing his best with all sort of weights on his shoulders in a world that is telling him he’s basically the problem.
This is most obvious in manners and habits of speech. Just read the way diocesan officials and even bishops speak. They don’t even know how and what men think about. One of the best examples in recent years (outside of all of the nonsense surrounding never ending sexual abuse and money scandals) is the response to the story of Jamie Schmidt and two other women who were attacked by a man in a Catholic bookstore. The beast sodomized two of the women and, when Jamie refused, shot her in the head in front of the other two.
Any “average Joe” who read that story began boiling immediately. And, I can promise you, while his thoughts may have not rushed to words like mercy, it did rush to other Christian vocabulary like justice, evil, punishment, and martyrdom.
A letter written to Jamie’s Bishop by the head of the bishops in the US, Bishop DiNardo, was tweeted out. The letter was a classic opening, main body, and closing. The “body,” or meat of the letter, was this:
This senseless attack is a painful reminder of how gun violence can tragically alter the lives of those so precious to us. The bishops have continually expressed support for reducing gun violence as it reflects the Church’s moral teaching on respect for all life at all stages. It is essential for us to be engaged in efforts that help build a culture of life. The recent tragedy at Mercy Hospital in Chicago is further evidence of the devaluation of human life in our culture.
See the tweet here (and make sure to read the responses below, which speaks to the point of this post).
Gun violence? That’s the message? “Tragedy”? A true brotherly note would have been personal note. This letter is a calculated and public faux “conversation” written in American Church-speak, the author unaware how repulsive it would be to an “average Joe”. And what about condemning sodomy? That was in the story too.
When DiNardo says it “is essential for us”, that “us” simply does not include us. That letter is not talking to us. It is talking to the media, ecclesial elites, and others in the stratosphere miles above the farmers that Peter wanted to impress in that documentary. Did DiNardo consider how Jamie’s husband would read that publicly displayed letter?
Jordan Peterson has observed this, because he is both academic but also in touch with the hearts of men as they stand in the real world. He recently challenged Bishop Barron this, saying, “I don’t think [you bishops] ask enough of your people,” saying that the Church needs to speak of some justice too, not just mercy. The Church operates in very similar worlds to academia, and outside of that it operates heavily in large efforts and institutions which it seems inevitably lose touch and become bureaucratic. Jordan Peterson seems to know you cannot live in Laputa, you can’t stay in the ivory tower and expect to be heard from there.
Now, Church leaders and those charged with teaching and coordinating Church functions need to be educated, and this, in a sense, draws them up from the lower classes. There is a certain need for a separated group to serve functions unique to the Church. That applies especially to priestly duties. In short, they need to be “above” the average Joe in some ways.
But when they’re totally dislodged from Joe and his work and his world, never having passed through that world on his way up, letters like DiNardo’s get tweeted out, or they actually get confused as to why Joe doesn’t give to the Bishop’s appeal after McCarrick. Peter Maurin, Dorothy Day’s primary collaborator, would often repeat “every working man a scholar and every scholar a working man.” He knew grace builds on nature, and he saw the scholar representing grace, in a way, and the working man representing nature. To separate them is to divide a mode of revelation that God intended for us. Grace is above nature, yes, but not standing aloof from it. There’s a true mutual need; one builds and perfect the other. It doesn’t forget how to commune both ways.
When Donald Trump was elected a whole new group of people and their history came into focus. Essentially, the globalizing and liberalizing elite had for decades taken over all meaningful debate and decision, and the lower strata of the country suffered for it. And they went dismissed and unseen until Trump. Their places and cultures had been decimated. All of these forgotten people came into focus when someone saw them and spoke to them. I am by no means endorsing Trumpism here (he is certainly aware of these men, but not one of them and never was), but my point is in the wake-up Trump has given to the elites of this country. The people whose backs were broken to build your towers just got tired of being ignored.
R.R. Reno from First Things often points out that the liberal elite preach sexual freedom and the solvency of marriage while they by and large remain in stable and intact families. The lower classes, meanwhile, suffer immensely because of the breakdown of family bonds and traditional sexual ethics of restraint and responsibility. There’s an analogy here about the Church. Cardinals and experts and scholars seek constantly a concordat with the world, ways to soften hard sayings so that they can be welcome in polite company. The average Joe, meanwhile, suffers from a Church dissolving in its identity because its dissolving the solid foundation of truth and tradition. Tinkering with liturgy and doctrine has devastated the faithful, yet we still hear about all of the “renewal” of things in the last generation. When vast parts of your field die from your farming practices, you shouldn’t speak too much about your skill of farming. The land has become a desert from your innovations.
In the Church there seems to be a head-in-the-sand complex so amazing that it can only be maintained by the sheer force of ideology. The problem is as big as the Amazonian jungle. For too long now the catechetical and liturgical messes, alongside the leadership vacuums, is so bad, the results so clear, that its inconceivable that the nonsense continues. I think it can continue because the people in charge of the institutions and apparatuses of leadership are so absorbed in their own worlds of speech and posturing that those that suffer are dismissed or unseen.
We need a wholesale “reset” of our thinking, an acknowledgement of failure, and a turn to the real content and people of the Gospel itself. A reset happened in our politics with Trump, when the laments of Hillbilly Eulogy went viral amongst the elite, and they thought, “Who are these people? Were they always here?” No, I do not admire Trump as a man, but the “reset” he forced has its upsides (and, yes, downsides). Perhaps the McCarrick moment will force it, but it is too early to tell. But, as Peter the farmer was worried most with being in conflict with other farmers (and not the idealist hippies), so too it would be a sheer delight if the public message of the Church was spoken to the faithful who have suffered so much, and not the media, politicians, and university. And, above that, may we all fear the judgement of God more than the princes of this world.