“The Catholic Boom”: some observations

David Brooks, writing in the Opinion section on the TimesSelect website (subscription required), argues that the “quasi-religious” have economic and sociological advantages over the truly religious and the truly unreligious.

In making this argument, he seems to insult both Protestants and Catholics even as he praises them for their great financial and educational achievements. You see, quasi-religious people respect history and tradition, and benefit from the stability these afford, but because they are always questioning and dissenting, they don’t get stuck in productivity- and income-quashing ruts.


Protestants, he says, out-earned Catholics until “a generation ago.” One might be forgiven for interpreting this as Brooks’s view that Protestants are inherently “quasi-religious”—and especially in light of his statement about Protestants in an earlier paragraph: “Quasi-religious Protestants, drifting anxiously from the certainties of their old religion, built Victorian England.” We’re not talking about a fringe handful: this group built a whole country.

When Catholics finally started becoming quasi-religious, their incomes shot upward:

Then over the decades, the authority of the church weakened and young Catholics assimilated. Catholic values began to converge with Protestant values. Catholic adults were more likely to use contraceptives and fertility rates plummeted. They raised their children to value autonomy more and obedience less.

The process created a crisis for the church, as it struggled to maintain authority over its American flock. But the shift was an economic boon to Catholics themselves. They found themselves in a quasi-religious sweet spot.

Brooks wants to champion tradition while retaining the option for each individual to reject it; to promote religion, but only as a garment for the important things in life, such as wage stagnation and lack of social mobility. He claims that if everyone went to church, but didn’t really believe in it, we wouldn’t have these problems. Toward the end he gives a foolproof recipe for success in this world, and for the resolution of society’s ills:

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.

I don’t know if Brooks realizes that this is rank opportunism, and that it is bound to fail. He sees traditional morality and religion merely as useful crutches to get us to a better worldly place. He’s loose in terminology and thought: for what kind of “wisdom” entails keeping one’s eyes shut? What happens if everyone “tries to be the least believing member”? Clearly, the “more observant sect” ceases to be observant at all, and you end up with Unitarianism or something like the Church of Brunch. (“Everything you want from a church, without the religion. Join us for non-god-centered Sunday ceremony. All philosophies welcome, leave your dogma at the door. Services followed by potluck vegan brunch. Believers, atheists welcome. Enjoy singing, fellowship, and brunch!”)

And if you “champion piecemeal modernization” (whatever that means, exactly) of traditional morality, why? For its own sake? Out of a belief that “change” is always a de facto Good? Doesn’t “piecemeal” imply a disregard for a systematic approach to the topic? And how many piecemeal modifications of the tradition will it take before you decide you no longer recognize the original, or decide you don’t need this crutch, either?

Brooks hasn’t thought this over, it seems . . . just as in his commentary on the Carhart v. Gonzales Supreme Court decision on the Partial-birth Abortion Ban (TimesSelect, April 22). After recounting the stages of fetal development—with an unmistakable sense of wonder at the process, and profound respect for the humanity of the fetus—Brooks ends with this unbelievable non sequitur:

If we could get this issue away from the abortion professionals and their orthodoxies, we could reach a sensible solution: abortion would be legal, with parental consent for minors, during the first four or five months, and illegal except in extremely rare circumstances afterward.

Of course, all this is just an anecdotal way of stating an obvious truth: Facts can’t stand in the way of someone who has his mind made up in advance. I wonder if Brooks is keeping “one eye open”—or neither. It seems unlikely that he has both open.

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One Response to ““The Catholic Boom”: some observations”

  1. Steph Says:

    Church of Brunch! I love that! Finally, a Sunday routine I can get on board with! Though I do worry that they won’t know how to operate their espresso machine. Getting a proper capuccino is such a chore these days. Also, is it a champagne brunch? Strictly vegan or can I bring a nice foie gras to share? And who wouldn’t enjoy a bit of fine roe with their champagne? I shall look into it. Anyway, thanks for the tip!

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