New Sherwood

The Legion of Decency Test

On the one hand, it is highly unfortunate that Catholics can no longer rely on things like the Legion of Decency or the Index of Forbidden Books. On the other hand, these were only useful in the context of a generally Christian society. Today, pretty much every film and every book would end up being proscribed, so radically has our society departed from Christian norms.

A lively debate over at Inside Catholic, initiated by the rabble-rousing Steve Skojec, has me rather stunned at the degree to which many orthodox Catholics seem to think we can embrace the anti-Christian culture in which we now find ourselves. We’ve been without broadcast television for over 13 years now, but every now and then I get a peek at just how much more depraved television is today than it was when we quit viewing. And so goes the entire culture: music, film, literature, education, art, architecture, you name it, it is all going to ruin, and at an incredible pace. At this rate the arena will not be far behind.

There are a few bright spots here and there, and I seek them out, hoping we can at least patch together a family culture that doesn’t reject absolutely everything produced since 1959. But in general I find it morally impossible to give the prevailing art and entertainment milieu the benefit of the doubt. And I’m simply astounded that otherwise serious Catholics would disagree.

So – we no longer have the Legion of Decency or the Index to depend upon for guidance. Very well. But the principles of Christian discernment have not changed. Here is the Pledge of the Catholic Legion of Decency:

+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures, and those which glorify crime or criminals. I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films, and to unite with all who protest against them. I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pictures that are dangerous to my moral life. I pledge myself to remain away from them. I promise, further, to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.

When the Legion was at its most influential, Catholics were forbidden to see “Gone With the Wind” on pain of mortal sin. How much more sinful are 9 out of 10 contemporary films! “Gone With the Wind” looks innocent by comparison! The principles of this Pledge should be applied not only to film, but to music, radio, literature, comedy, and every kind of “entertainment” our media-saturated culture seduces us with. Let every kind of recreation, and every form of amusement, pass “The Legion of Decency Test” before indulging in it. And don’t split hairs when it comes to terms like “indecent” or “immoral”: you know exactly what they mean.

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July 27, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized

40 Comments »

  1. Jeff, I’m going to confess to having only skimmed both the main post at Skojec’s site and the comments (I searched your last name in the comments). I have little patience for the people who are giving you a hard time in the comments. But in honest (if you’d rather not answer this you don’t have to): Don’t you think the main post rather goes in the same direction as they are going? Yet you seemed pleased with it. All that stuff about finding great depth in R-rated movies and dark music (or whatever it was), all that stuff about how there shouldn’t be a Catholic sub-culture. I got the impression that it was just a more intellectual and suave way of saying, “Don’t shield your kids; don’t shield yourself; that’s not ‘engaging the culture.’ Go out there and immerse yourself in junk, but do it with a Christian world-view in mind, and be sure to note how much of what you see can be spun as a criticism of consumerism. That’s always a good excuse.” It reminds me of Kathryn Jean Lopez’s attempt to spin _Sex and the City_ as something having some value for people to watch. Can you really see Skojec agreeing with what you say in this post, given that he wrote that post? I can’t.

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    Comment by Lydia | July 28, 2008 | Reply

  2. +JMJ+

    Not that I completely agree with Hilary White, Jeff, especially as I’ve just been reminded of why I stopped reading her; but I kind of side with her disdain of stereotypes. To many Catholics, even homeschooling has become the kind of stereotype easy to make funny lists about. (“You know you’re from a homeschooling Catholic family if . . .”)

    Now, as a homeschooler yourself, Jeff, you know how such “descriptions” would barely scratch the surface of what your day-to-day life is actually about. Yet I don’t think Hilary’s concern is to give her readers an accurate idea of homeschooling. I believe that what has brought out Hilary’s gadfly tendencies is the idea that any one type of Catholic should be set up as a model for everyone else in the universal Church–especially when the type is *gasp* an American model. Seeing that she is a faithful Catholic–and a Canadian (*meaningful wink*)–who doesn’t seem to fit any of the “established” types so far . . . well, I don’t expect any less from her. =)

    As for the “compromise between food and poison” that is modern culture . . .

    There are times when I reword St. Augustine’s famous prayer for chastity so that I say, “O Lord, make me a mother, but not yet!”

    With only my own soul to worry about (and I admit that I don’t worry about it as much as I ought to), I feel irrationally invincible. I watch the movies I want to watch, read the books I want to read, enjoy the drinks I want to enjoy, etc. It will all change the day I become a mother (assuming that such an improbability is likely), for reasons you already know. =)

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    Comment by Enbrethiliel | July 28, 2008 | Reply

  3. I believe the root of the problem is that some people think that the world is more real than the Church. They believe that the Church is something in the world and is a part of the world, and that something important about the world will be missed if our sole focus in on God.

    But the truth of the matter is very different. It is the whole world that is renewed in Chirst and His Church. It is the Church that is larger than the world, for it contains not merely the earthly realm, but also the heavenly one. The Church is Greater and the world is smaller, too many have this backwards.

    When we go out into the world and find beauty there, either in a song or movie or artwork, the source of our joy is in finding the Church where we did not expect it. Our joy is in seeing the utter smallness and deficiency of the worldlinesss of the world defeated. Our joy is always in the Victory of Christ, even if that victory is invisible to the multitude.

    Everything that is good BELONGS to God.

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    Comment by ben | July 28, 2008 | Reply

  4. Great stuff. Interesting that we, and others I know, should have independently stumbled across the exact same “few bright spots here and there.” I guess that’s all there is out there.

    That said, I still have some respect for 1980s American Hardcore Punk, which, for all its vices, rejected consumerism and corporatism and tried to create something, I hate to use the word, authentic.

    It was Distributist in that it relied on small-scale, independent entities. It had its Localism: DC Style, New York Style, etc. It had its Puritans, called Straight-edgers, who rejected drugs, alcohol, and pre-marital sex.

    Most of the bands and fans did not have flashy mohawks or piercings or tattoos but instead would have passed unnoticed on the streets with short (or longish) hair and wearing simple flannel shirts and clothes bought from GoodWill or Salvation Army.

    Arvo Part or Allison Krauss it was not, but for kids who were offered no choices, it was, I think, a noble effort to be producers and not consumers. I’ve encountered a few who’ve made the transition from Hardcore Punk to Catholicism.

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    Comment by The Western Confucian | July 28, 2008 | Reply

  5. Jeff,

    The fact that you can only find a few bright spots proves my point – we’re conceding the debate because we’re not engaging in it in a substantive way. Show me Catholics who are retreating from the world wholesale, and I’ll show you Catholics who aren’t writing popular fiction, writing screenplays, directing films or television, or otherwise generating cultural influences.

    I’d guess the one exception to this might be music. I would think a child who is otherwise sheltered but grows up on the great composers and is given music lessons might just as easily produce a great work as anyone. I don’t know that anyone has done this, only that I see no obstacle.

    Generally, though, it seems that once you’ve lost your ability to communicate with the tools that hold popular attention, you lose your ability to influence the populace. I learned this first hand when I graduated from Steubenville with a BA in Communications (Radio & TV production concentration) and tried to apply for a job at a media production company. They laughed, couldn’t figure out why I didn’t have a demo reel, and showed me the quality of work that was being done by kids still in high school in their stack of applications.

    I was out of my league before I even started. We need to know the tools of the trade and the genuine craft of storytelling (or painting, music, architecture, etc.) before we can make a contribution to the arts.

    Point being, it’s a bit shameless to complain about the lack of good culture (and the preponderance of bad culture) when we’re not taking practical measures to create the culture we want.

    On your other topic, I think the Index died a necessary death. It was a stunning obstacle to engagement and evangelization. Among the books banned were the writings of Calvin, Descartes, Hobbes, Voltaire, Locke, and even a version of the Pensées.

    Ideas are not passive in an age where publication is as popular and widespread as it is today and literacy is common. A dangerous idea can infect millions within hours of being published. Those ideas can either be combated, or they can be left to do their damage. We’re the only thing standing in the way.

    There’s plenty of room for discussion regarding what content is legitimate or gratuitous in trying to create a realistic portrayal of a fictional event. It may be relevant to the audience to know that a character is having an affair; it is not relevant to the audience to have the affair depicted in graphic detail. It is probably relevant to an audience that a depiction of soldiers in combat show the blood, profanity, and pain that really happens in such a circumstance, even if that sort of thing isn’t exactly welcome in polite company at a dinner party. Context matters, and I think realism matters too.

    We always run into problems, as Hilary noted recently with Islam, when we try to compel the good. It demonstrates a fundamental lack of faith in free will, a faith (lower-case “f”) that God allows us when he gives us the choice of sin or saintliness, heaven or hell. Things like the index seek to compel the good. I say we’re better off without them, unless they exist primarily as a guide to say, “Whoa…could be some dangerous waters here. Proceed only with caution.”

    Some people prefer to have their autonomy taken away, and to take it away from others. I don’t fall into that category, as you’ve probably guessed, and I’m not apologetic about it.

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    Comment by Steve | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  6. Interesting Josh should bring up punk, one of my daily blog-stops is someone who made the transition from punk to catholicism.

    friarminor.blogspot.com

    He is a young Capuchin priest in Yonkers.

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    Comment by ben | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  7. Lydia:

    Steve’s article was very nuanced, perhaps even over-nuanced. When he writes he anticipates objections and tries to address them. I like him, he writes well and persuasively, and he’s hard for me to argue with. I probably overlooked the thrust of his argument and took to heart the common ground.

    That said, I’m having a hard time figuring out what he’s really trying to say.

    I’m all for “engaging the culture”, insofar as that is possible, without letting the culture set the agenda. But Steve and the others seem to be very comfortable with letting pop culture dictate their choices of entertainment, recreation, and amusement. I’m not sure whether we differ on where to draw the lines, or whether to draw any lines at all. In fact the advocates of “engaging the culture” seem to be mainly interested in defending their personal involvement with pop culture rather than creating alternatives or doing something to change things.

    I don’t see a lot of creativity among Catholics who immerse themselves in mainstream culture. Indeed I would argue that immersing oneself in pop culture stifles creativity. However, I see plenty of creativity among “sheltered” homeschooling families. I have a 13 year old son who composes classical music, a 12 year old daughter who is mastering the Irish fiddle, and a 9 year old son whose appetite for good literature is insatiable. Yesterday they made a corny but very creative video with music and everything – totally on their own. The oldest four take their instruments to local nursing homes and entertain the residents with everything from Bach to Cripple Creek. They’re not child prodigies or anything, but they have plenty of creative energy and that energy is already bringing joy to others.

    I don’t know what more these “engage the culture” Catholics expect from us sheltered homeschoolers. We could do what we do, or we could dive into the pop-culture world of Dark Knight, Sex and the City, and Boston Legal. There isn’t room for both.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  8. I realize this may sound a little offensive (and perhaps I’m more willing to risk being offensive with people I don’t often hang out with on blogs, like Steve, than with people whose blogs I frequent and “know” better in cyber-terms), but when I don’t understand what good thing a person is getting at, I’m not charitable enough to assume that he’s getting at something good. Take, for example, this idea about creativity. And take me, for example: I’m no good at writing fiction, poetry, or making movies. I’m an exceedingly minor musician on the piano and with voice, but the emphasis is on “exceedingly,” and I have no pretensions to being able to compose music. How in the world does it follow that I have no right to complain about a pornified atmosphere in contemporary TV? I totally disagree with this whole “if you can’t do better, don’t complain” idea. It’s baloney. I’m a mother and an analytic philosopher. That’s where my talents, such as they are, lie. I’m under no obligation to pollute my mind or that of my children with disgusting junk (less polite word deliberately not used) from movies, TV channels, or the internet just because neither my talents nor theirs happen to lie in the direction of making good movies or popular culture artifacts. And there is no argument that could possibly link one to the other.

    I engage the culture. I’m spending hours right now, nearly all my free computer time (which is curtailing blogging) in the afternoons, and rushing to get to a stopping point before the home schooling year begins, corresponding with a cyber-friend who asked us about the evidences for Christianity. He’s looking up various Internet skeptics and throwing their (poor) arguments at us, and we’re answering them. Methodically. It’s time-consuming and frustrating work, but you could hardly call it a failure to engage. I talk about these arguments to my children at the lunch and dinner table. Sort of like the mother wolf bringing home pieces of meat for the cubs to stalk and chew on to strengthen their jaws and teeth.

    But I don’t watch, or let them watch, movies with sex and gore. (I don’t like the word “violence.” “Violence” by itself can be bloodless, undisturbing, un-scarring, and can represent and praise the triumph of good over evil. Gore is a different matter.) I don’t watch, or let them watch, movies that glorify sex outside of marriage, even if not portrayed on-screen. And so forth.

    And I really have no patience for the “engage the culture” idea that says, oh, you know, you have to go out there and watch stuff that not only is _inappropriate_ but isn’t even _great_ (like the Golden Compass or the Harry Potter movies or books)–junk, in other words–just to prove to somebody-or-other (yourself, maybe) that you’re “engaging the culture” and aren’t “afraid,” and literally just because the stuff is _there_, because someone chose to produce it in your own space-time slot on earth. What a lousy argument.

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    Comment by Lydia | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  9. “Show me Catholics who are retreating from the world wholesale, and I’ll show you Catholics who aren’t writing popular fiction, writing screenplays, directing films or television, or otherwise generating cultural influences.”

    First – show me Catholics who are “retreating from the world wholesale”, period. I don’t know any. I suspect this is a figment of your imagination.

    Second – show me Catholics who are embracing the world wholesale and I’ll show you Catholics who, quite frankly, are a part of the problem rather than the solution.

    Third – I think your emphasis on mass media is more than a little misguided. There is more – much, much more – to culture than what the mass media makes available to us. A quiet little shrine on a country backroad is “culture”. A bluegrass band at local harvest fair is “culture”. A poetry recital at a homeschool co-op is “culture”. Selling homegrown produce at a farmer’s market is “culture”. An act of charity towards one’s neighbor is “culture”. A procession of children at a May Crowning is “culture”. Singing around the piano with friends at home is “culture”. Etc. The mass media DISTRACTS from all of this. To continually emphasize the mass media as the only significant means of cultural influence is really to subvert the goal of restoration.

    Fourth – Good works of art, music, film and literature will seldom be popular today. Sure, now and then a Hollywood superstar makes a film like TPOTC and it is a wildly popular success. But in general, Catholics need to think smaller. If you tune out the mass media you’ll discover all kinds of opportunities right there in your own backyard. One-on-one, where it really counts.

    Fifth – You may recall that our very own Yeoman Farmer, Dr. Christopher Blunt, has just published a fine novel. Chris and his family may be a little less sheltered than mine, but not by much. He’s a homeschooling father who has “retreated” to a rural homestead in central Michigan, and yet this book is already changing lives. I doubt that it will ever be “popular” in the Harry Potter sense, but it doesn’t need to be. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy. You won’t be disappointed.

    “Generally, though, it seems that once you’ve lost your ability to communicate with the tools that hold popular attention, you lose your ability to influence the populace.”

    I agree that there is a place, for certain individuals, to know the popular culture intimately and to create great popular works within it. But that kind of life is for the few, not the many! For most of us such a life is not only distracting but absolutely toxic. The more likely result of such intimacy will be spiritual stagnation and death, not creativity. In any case the best artists – the best creators – are generally outsiders to some degree.

    “Point being, it’s a bit shameless to complain about the lack of good culture (and the preponderance of bad culture) when we’re not taking practical measures to create the culture we want.”

    I agree, and am taking many practical measures towards that end. But there is nothing I can do to change Hollywood. And I’m not going to raise a family in Hollywood’s sewer in the hopes that one of my kids will write a blockbuster screenplay one day. So we’re moving on.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  10. Enbrethiliel:

    “I believe that what has brought out Hilary’s gadfly tendencies is the idea that any one type of Catholic should be set up as a model for everyone else in the universal Church–especially when the type is *gasp* an American model.”

    Yes, but I don’t know what this has to do with the topic at hand. I have never made any kind of argument or suggestion that all Catholic women have to be married with ten children, read the same books, dress the same way, or whatever. Hilary’s engaging someone else’s argument, not mine.

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    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  11. First – show me Catholics who are “retreating from the world wholesale”, period. I don’t know any. I suspect this is a figment of your imagination.

    Jeff, I’m really not setting out here to give offense, so take it for what it’s worth: my opinion. But when you say:

    I don’t know what more these “engage the culture” Catholics expect from us sheltered homeschoolers. We could do what we do, or we could dive into the pop-culture world of Dark Knight, Sex and City, and Boston Legal. There isn’t room for both.

    That’s what I’m talking about. It’s a false dualism. An absolutist “It must be EITHER/OR, not both/and.”

    As you know, we homeschool, as do many in my family. Most of my siblings are homeschooled. I have major reservations on the results of homeschooling that I’ve seen, but that’s another discussion. For the moment, it’s the best solution for us and that’s what we do.

    So what I’m carping about isn’t homesteading, or homeschooling, or local culture (like all the fine examples you cited from farmers’ markets to fiddling), but a combination of all of those things into an attitude that everything from the world is trash, so we’ll make our own world at home.

    And I don’t think everyone can be creating culture in the broad sense that I’m indicating (remember, here, I’m defending my article in general, not saying what each individual is obligated to do) but that WE as CATHOLICS aren’t making a contribution to mainstream culture. And I mean just about diddly squat. We have given up because we’re afraid, because the culture is “toxic” and we can’t survive exposure to it without losing our souls in the process.

    Come on.

    Public schools, a liberal work environment, exposure to more than my share of mainstream culture, working in a big, corrupt city, and I’m praying more and pursuing my faith and writing about it with a greater fervor than I ever have. Your general assumption that mainstream culture destroys the soul doesn’t necessarily hold water, as long as a consumer of that culture is critical of what they’re taking in.

    Maybe, Jeff, I’m just not holy enough. Maybe a day will come when I’m close enough to the precincts of eternal felicity that I will not be able to stomach pop culture. But as much of pop culture as there is to hate, there’s a lot of genuine creativity, good storytelling, brilliant satire, and stories worth contemplating. I will grant you that the culture is as fallen and corrupted as the men who make it – the men whose souls we are called to love and whose salvation we are to work toward to the extent that we can without neglecting our duty to our families.

    And despite your indictments of mainstream culture, it really is the only culture that reaches people now. If you spend time in a secular environment like I do, you hear it all the time. People reference the same shows, movies, bands and books, ALL THE TIME. It may be a culture of superficiality, of perpetual adolescence, or of poor taste. But it’s the one we’ve got to work with, and if we want to influence them, we have to use the medium that works.

    Local culture, Godly and good as it is, won’t do that. Sure, it might help out on an individual basis, and that’s important, but if we resign ourselves to the idea that that’s all anyone can do unless they drink the poisoned kool-aid, and that sure, some people must be called to produce mainstream culture but that means, again, the drinking of poisoned kool-aid, who will do it?

    I’ll tell you who – it will be unorthodox Catholics. It will be the Catholics who don’t care about the real, true, inspiring depth of faith that you and I love. It will be the ones who weren’t raised to fear all that the world is, most of whom aren’t going to be coming from good families like yours. They’ll be the contracepting, cynical Catholics like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity who think they can redefine the faith in their own image.

    And so, things will continue to get worse.

    I’m so glad my parents, for all their faults (and my mother, God bless her, certainly helped make me scrupulous)didn’t make me afraid of the world. Because if I had been afraid of the world – and of “worldlings” – then I would not have been able to be the instrument that brought my wife to the faith.

    I met her at work, of course, in a crappy environment filled with the kind of people who embrace all the bad things the world has to offer. And at one time, my wife was one of them. She was a tattooed, motorcycle-riding, short skirt wearing single mom with a dark past and a foul mouth. She’s the kind of person, Jeff, that quite honestly (I’m guessing – I could be wrong) would have offended your sensibilities (as you’ve expressed them in the course of these discussions) beyond your willingness to deal with. She shared life experiences with me in passing that I wept over after I was out of her sight. I was terrified of the kind of person she was. She was everything I was not, everything I had been raised not to be.

    But amidst all the bad, there was the good. The bad was potentially toxic. I could have been seduced, or gotten into trouble, or any number of hypothetical worries a Catholic might have when dealing with a young woman of the dangerous variety she was. So every time I went to see her, I put on my armor. I went to Mass, I went to confession, and then I went to her place.

    It took time, but she fell in love with Catholicism. She became more fervent than I have ever been. She is the most loving, generous woman I know, more capable of virtue and sacrifice than I, in all my Catholic upbringing and education, have within me.

    I only know this because I looked through the toxic, dangerous layers of the world and found her.

    And the things that the world produces – the books, the movies, the TV – sure, some of it is absolutely irredeemable. But I know which things are and which aren’t, because I sort through them. It’s easier to just judge them wholesale and say they’re all junk, sure. It’s safer too. But these artifacts of the culture, just like the people who create them, often enough have something worthwhile buried in the muck.

    If we fixate on what’s offensive, we’ll never see anything else. I think that we live in a world that requires us to be tougher than that. What shape that takes for each of us is different, but it’s a question worth pursuing.

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    Comment by Steve | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  12. I don’t believe there’s as much of an argument here as there seems to be. I think the “engage the culture” people are fighting a straw man. The “enclavists” are offended, because that straw man is so often applied to them, usually by people much farther from them, ideologically, than the “engage the culture” traditional Catholics.

    I don’t know anyone who has fully withdrawn from society. All I know are people who draw lines as to what parts of modern culture are too dangerous for their families. The “engage the culture” people do that too. Even the most pop-culture-saturated parents would probably stop their kids from watching outright pornography.

    There are some things an adult Catholic may be able to take in without harming his (or her) soul. I watch certain shows on TV and sometimes see movies, and I’m not too particular about music (though I won’t listen to it if I notice the lyrics are offensive or if the music sounds “wrong”). I hope its not hurting my soul: I’m not perfect so maybe it is, but I wouldn’t be perfect even if I didn’t do these things.

    However, I would not allow my children (if I had any) to do everything I do. If my child WANTED to become a filmmaker, then it would stand to reason that he would study films, even some that are morally unacceptable. However, before it came down to that he would already have learned much about his faith, and could presumably watch a film that celebrates immorality without adopting the film’s point of view.

    I think that it is an important distinction to make: some young children cannot distinguish their own emotions and intuitions from those of the film. Even some adults can’t make that distinction. Films are deliberately manipulative, and try to make you share the sympathies of the filmmaker. I recently watched the movie “21”, about a group of students who win money by counting cards in Las Vegas. In that film, the main character does a number of things I found morally reprehensible, including one that seemed to me the polar opposite of Christian forgiveness. Some people would be unable to make that judgment, and for such people a movie like that would be dangerous.

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    Comment by Daniel A. | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  13. It’s important to remember that we don’t have an eraser for our minds. Scenes of simulated sex, so graphic that you wouldn’t know if it was or wasn’t simulated, nudity, scenes of people’s throats being cut, of torture and rape, portrayals of sexual perversion, deliberately cast in a positive light, shown vividly as only the multimedia world can do–they will stay in the minds of those who deliberately imbibe them, probably forever.

    Do Christians believe in applying Philippians 4:8 anymore? Or would that be too much a matter of “fearing the world”?

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    Comment by Lydia | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  14. Lydia is right, of course. I think even the film student, if he is a dedicated Catholic, would not watch a pornographic film, even if it was beautifully filmed and designed. Some things cross the line for everyone.

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    Comment by Daniel A. | July 29, 2008 | Reply

  15. She was a tattooed, motorcycle-riding, short skirt wearing single mom with a dark past and a foul mouth.

    Well, I don’t want to offend Steve, and I note that he did bring this personal story up as a way of making a point in the present discussion. But our proper response when we do something stupid and God’s infinite grace makes good come from it is to thank God, not to recommend what we did to others.

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    Comment by Zippy | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  16. Zippy,

    So it was stupid of me to evangelize my coworker, who happened to become my wife?

    Good thing Christ took that approach with the prostitutes he ate with.

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    Comment by Steve Skojec | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  17. It isn’t stupid to evangelize anyone. It is stupid to date and court – in your words – a tattooed, motorcycle-riding, short skirt wearing single mom with a dark past and a foul mouth.

    Again, it isn’t my intention to offend — and you brought it up. We could go to some other example to depersonalize it I suppose, or focus on the main subject of imbibing the culture. The general and abstract point is that “it worked out great for me” is a justification for (and only for) thanking God, and is in no way whatsoever a justification for recommending it as a course of action to others. This is true of imbibing the culture, of courting biker chicks, and of whatever other imprudent activity we want to discuss.

    “It worked out for me” does not constitute a demonstration that it was prudent at all, let alone that it is something to be recommended generally.

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    Comment by Zippy | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  18. I’ll grant that “it worked out for me” doesn’t constitute endorsement of a course of action, but I wasn’t advocating that. You made an assumption not implicit in my comments that I was seriously dating a woman who, at the time, I knew I could not have married.

    I liked her, sure. She was cute. She was sweet. She liked me. But I’m not into missionary dating. We didn’t get really serious until the her interest in the faith took root. But that conclusion would never have been reached if I hadn’t taken the time in the first place to get to know her and to work through those issues I saw on the surface.

    I have absolute certitude that God called me to be in that place at that time and to be His instrument for that woman. I was on my way to Japan, not Arizona (where I met her) and she lost her job just in time to find the same one I got. We were in the same training class, despite the odds that she could have been in a number of others. The list goes on.

    Prudence is often the way we mislabel discomfort or fear. It’s always safer and always easier to avoid circumstances which could be problematic. Then again, if we have reason to believe that we are not in proximate grave danger of sin, and we may do some good, don’t you think we should opt for the good?

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    Comment by Steve Skojec | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  19. BTW, my wife reprimanded me just now. She said I made her sound like she drank bud and wore leather and rode Harleys (She rode a Suzuki, not a hog).

    She was a lot more glamorous than my portrayal. I think I was focusing on the negatives that I noticed at the time in my description. Our first lunch was at a sushi place, and she drank Cognac, not Pabst. (She didn’t chew tobacco, either, I swear.)

    The things I mentioned were what were intimidating to me as a Catholic, and for the purposes of this discussion were the most relevant.

    I’m getting hit when I go home. Did I mention she has brass knuckles? ;)

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    Comment by Steve Skojec | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  20. I am wary of entering this discussion at the moment, and plan to expand greatly on the subject later at my blog, but let me venture just a little by suggesting some ideas.

    I think each person has a vocation, and in the same vein each family has a vocation. We must prepare our children to live in the world-but not be of it. Hopefully parents will take advantage of the marital grace bestowed in the sacrament for this endeavor.

    I state the obvious.

    As we think of engaging the culture (and it seems the definition of this is causing much the controversy) we must also try to envision what the culture should be like.

    I think our example in ‘engaging the culture’ and living in this world might best be taken from the early Christians. They lived in a pagan and immoral society and yet gave witness. How was this witness given in terms of their ‘engaging the culture’? (During the actual persecutions, this witness was more dramatic, but how about before and between the persecutions?)

    Just some thoughts to get me started…

    Like

    Comment by Jim Curley | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  21. To a large extent, I think the Pauline and other epistles of the NT answer that. Paul is _constantly_ saying things like, “Flee youthful lusts,” “It is a shame even to speak of those things that are done of them in secret.” “Whatsoever things are pure…if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” “Have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.” I mean, you try to read the advice Paul gives to his Gentile audience, to people who had been converted out of a depraved culture, and you read it as ingenuously and with as much common sense as you can, and he sounds positively Puritanical. I cannot for a moment imagine St. Paul endorsing watching R-rated movies containing sex scenes and feeling oneself “spiritually invincible.”

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    Comment by Lydia | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  22. “I cannot for a moment imagine St. Paul endorsing watching R-rated movies containing sex scenes and feeling oneself “spiritually invincible.””

    Is it me, or are we conservative Catholics obsessed with sex – more specifically, other people having sex? ‘Cause this conversation keeps going right back to sex.

    Histor

    Like

    Comment by Histor | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  23. You’d be amazed at how little one has to think about sex when one is not always “engaging the culture”- or engaging those who want everyone else to “engage the culture”.

    Like

    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  24. Histor: just FYI, Lydia is not Catholic.

    Steve:

    I guess where that leaves me is joining others in puzzlement as to the pertinence of the anecdote, and much of the rest of the material. The basic premise seems to be, as far as I’ve managed to grokk it, that we have to ‘engage the culture’ by seeing the latest R rated movies and watching Desperate Housewives or whatever, so I took your personal anecdote to be an additional proferred example. Otherwise why mention it at all?

    … if I hadn’t taken the time in the first place to get to know her and to work through those issues I saw on the surface.

    OK, but I don’t know anyone who suggests that we should never get to know people or evangelize them or whatever. The issue seems to be where to draw the line in immersing onesself and more particularly one’s children in a corrupt culture. If the anecdotes and examples you are giving are not intended to be examples of doing that, I am left puzzled why you mention them at all.

    FWIW, I’m more sympathetic to the notion that kids need to see enough to develop an immunity to it, and not so much as to make themselves sick, than I am to the notion that the whorehouse can be made more holy by my personal presence in it.

    Prudence is often the way we mislabel discomfort or fear. It’s always safer and always easier to avoid circumstances which could be problematic.

    With all due respect, imputing fear or some other vice as what motivates those who disagree with you is not really a substantive argument in favor of your position.

    Like

    Comment by Zippy | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  25. Sexualized shows and movies are just one example, and a very pertinent one given that that is the type of content that we’re often arguing over exposing ourselves to, but I have also mentioned torture and gory murder scenes. Since someone brought up _The Simpsons_ (Steve, in his original post), I’ll add bad language.

    Like

    Comment by Lydia | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  26. “That’s what I’m talking about. It’s a false dualism. An absolutist ‘It must be EITHER/OR, not both/and.’”

    Some dualisms are true. Sometimes it really is EITHER/OR. Taken as a whole, modern pop culture is simply not compatible with the Catholic Faith. It’s truly either/or in this case – either take your faith seriously, or drink the “poison kool-aid”. I’m not kidding. As Lydia pointed out, sacred Scripture couldn’t be more clear about it. And if appealing to the Bible sounds too fundamentalist for you, try to imagine any of the saints, popes, or doctors of the Church recommending an evening of “Desperate Housewives” or “Boston Legal” as harmless entertainment. And if that’s too traddy for you, imagine Pope Benedict XVI, or even John Paul II, relaxing with a little “Sex and the City” or the latest R-rated production from Hollywood.

    Hilary’s blog used to be named for St. Francis de Sales’ collection of letters titled “The Devout Life”. She’s read them. She knows exactly what the great saint would say about a steady diet of “Boston Legal”. If she can’t live up to those standards, or doesn’t want to, that’s fine, but don’t therefore pretend that St. Francis de Sales and those who take him seriously are puritanical, lemon-sucking, humorless crypto-Jansenists trying to spoil everyone’s fun.

    For the record, I’m a bad Catholic and a hypocrite myself. You should hear what I play on my truck radio (alone) sometimes when I’ve had a rough day. But the solution to hypocrisy is not to pretend that Catholic standards of morality don’t exist, or to bring them down to my own low level, but to repent and strive for them anew, and indeed to confess those standards even if means revealing oneself to be a hypocrite.

    “So what I’m carping about isn’t homesteading, or homeschooling, or local culture (like all the fine examples you cited from farmers’ markets to fiddling), but a combination of all of those things into an attitude that everything from the world is trash, so we’ll make our own world at home.”

    Fair enough. Not everything from the world is trash. I agree that we should accept what is good in it. What is accepted and rejected is a matter of Christian discernment. As Daniel pointed out, that’s what this argument is really about: discernment and where to draw the line. I reject more than you do, but we both accept more than we reject. Fortunately there is much more to our inherited civilization than what the entertainment industry dishes out.

    “… WE as CATHOLICS aren’t making a contribution to mainstream culture. And I mean just about diddly squat.”

    There is something to this. I don’t disagree that more efforts can and should be made. But you don’t seem to accept that mainstream culture places LIMITS on Catholic participation.

    “We have given up because we’re afraid, because the culture is ‘toxic’ and we can’t survive exposure to it without losing our souls in the process.”

    Do you disagree that a situation as you describe is possible? Or, do you merely think we aren’t quite there yet?

    The culture is toxic. Exposure, for most, is dangerous in varying degrees, and for some it is fatal. I like how Zippy put it: we should be shooting for just enough exposure to immunize, but not enough to poison. Where that line is crossed differs from person to person, but not so much that we can’t make sound judgments based upon human nature.

    “Public schools, a liberal work environment, exposure to more than my share of mainstream culture, working in a big, corrupt city, and I’m praying more and pursuing my faith and writing about it with a greater fervor than I ever have.”

    Super. It is likely that God put you right where you are because that’s where you need to be. He knows your past; He knows what you can and can’t handle; He knows the kinds of people you need to meet (and who need to meet you); etc.. But that doesn’t justify any of the sin or mischief that created your life circumstances. Sin happens and stains a world. We live in that sin-stained world and God makes good use of it – but it would have been better if those sins hadn’t happened, and it is better to move forward without them.

    “Your general assumption that mainstream culture destroys the soul doesn’t necessarily hold water, as long as a consumer of that culture is critical of what they’re taking in.”

    True – but anyone who is immersed in this culture is not a competent critic. Most people are like fish who don’t know they have been swimming in water until they are on dry ground.

    “Maybe, Jeff, I’m just not holy enough.”

    Ah! Ya think? No disrespect intended, Steve. I know that you are a fine man and a good, serious and devout Catholic. But no, you’re not holy enough, and if I may be so bold, unless you are a living saint (which is possible I guess), you’re not strong enough or mature enough to live in the thick of mainstream culture and to become the kind of man God created you to be. Same goes for me. In fact, the battle doesn’t really even begin until you finally attempt to crawl out of the gutter and all the forces of hell try to keep you there. (Not that you, Steve, partake of the worst of it, and not that you haven’t experienced this struggle already.)

    “I’m so glad my parents, for all their faults (and my mother, God bless her, certainly helped make me scrupulous)didn’t make me afraid of the world. Because if I had been afraid of the world – and of ‘worldlings’ – then I would not have been able to be the instrument that brought my wife to the faith.”

    I found the story of how you met and married your wife very moving. But like Zippy, I question the relevance. Would you advise your son to do the same? Would your wife? Let me turn this around: if a 20 or 25 year old man wanted to court my daughter, and he were possessed of the same character I had at that age, I would not permit the courtship. I was a decent person in many ways, I suppose, but totally devoid of Christian formation and character. I met my lovely wife at 21 and married at 25; God was merciful to us. But I wouldn’t inflict anyone like myself, at 25, on a young lady I care about today.

    “And the things that the world produces – the books, the movies, the TV – sure, some of it is absolutely irredeemable. But I know which things are and which aren’t, because I sort through them.”

    Do you? How can you be sure that your conscience has not been so desensitized by mainstream culture that it fails to evaluate things properly? “You are what you eat”, my elders used to say. This applies spiritually as well: “you are what you read, watch, and listen to.” Repetition makes things seem normal. Mainstream culture is a repetition machine, keeping sin and depravity constantly before us so that we eventually lose our horror for it (if we had any in the first place). We are supposed to have a hatred for anything that prevents us from knowing and loving God as we ought, but it’s hard to repent of things that seem normal, even when we know, objectively, that they are wrong. At best, mainstream culture dulls the conscience; eventually it seduces the soul.

    “It’s easier to just judge them wholesale and say they’re all junk, sure. It’s safer too. But these artifacts of the culture, just like the people who create them, often enough have something worthwhile buried in the muck.”

    I dunno, Steve. Reminds me of those fellows who say they read Playboy just for the articles.

    Like

    Comment by Jeff Culbreath | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  27. I’ve been thinking about Histor’s comment above, and I can’t resist pointing out that it’s really disingenuous to accuse conservatives of being obsessed with sex when the truth is so obviously the opposite. Conservatives are just trying to get on with their varied lives and are having sexualized content put in their faces at every turn when they are thinking about other things. If anyone is obsessed with sex, it certainly isn’t the conservatives.

    One other point occurs to me in reading Jeff’s exchange with Steve just above. I think we shouldn’t ask ourselves only whether we’re “holy enough” or whatever to “handle” particular content. It’s more like what Jeff said earlier about whether even the greatest saints or Our Lord would put certain things into their heads in the first place. Nor is the possible harm done solely a matter of possibly losing one’s soul. It seems to me something more simple and fundamental than that–something more like just plain hurting yourself by burning certain things onto the disk of your mind. Zippy has talked at his blog about objective harm’s happening to a person who serves as an executioner for the state, even if the death penalty is licit and is deserved in those cases and he is doing nothing wrong. Now, I’m not totally convinced about that particular example, but I do know that I’ve often thought something exactly like this w.r.t. police officers who have to view even small amounts of child pornography in order to find clues to try to rescue victimized children: “What a horrible job. Those poor men. They’re doing a necessary public service, but think how they are wounding their minds.”

    Like

    Comment by Lydia | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  28. Wowee, looky here! I am so impressed with the number of comments! I don’t even know where to start, I have so many things I could say, so I’ll just say a couple.
    1. I agree with the comment about not inflicting myself at age 25 on my kids in a courtship situation. I would hope for someone more virtuous than myself or my husband. But it helps, in case that doesn’t happen, to remember that God put people in our lives on purpose, to lead us to where we are now. It is really important to remember everyone is on a path God put them on, and while we are fighting the culture, we also have to realize God has a plan. I always remember my good friend from high school, who was raised atheist/new age, and now is a born again, pro-life Christian. Her parents sure don’t know how that happened! They are save the whales pro choice types. :)
    2. This engaging the culture thing is something a friend of mine and I argue about once in a while. I think that we homeschool types should work on virtue and create community we trust when they are young, but we also need to gradually work them up to being able to tolerate the outside world when they enter it. My husband is a tech geek (as you know), and even we don’t understand all the functions of a palm pilot or ipod or PS3. We aren’t hiding, it’s just that things are developing so fast, we can’t keep up! I don’t want my kids to go to college or get a job at Starbucks, and not have any idea what their colleagues are talking about, and then when they see it, become completely overwhelmed. We need to find that happy medium so that we don’t do them a disservice. It’s going to be harder and harder to find, though.
    Meanwhile, asking kids and parents to talk about what they see and hear and why we’re avoiding it is probably good advice.
    Thanks for starting this conversation, Jeff!

    Like

    Comment by Ann Marie | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  29. I believe the root of the problem is that some people think that the world is more real than the Church.

    Ding! Ben wins the prize. And we think that grit and edginess is more real than goodness. It reminds me of the torture debates where people looking for exceptions all but directly said that things like “love your enemies” were nice to think about at Christmas, but when the stuff hits the fan, we need to get real. Or, for a engage-the-culture example :), A Man for All Seasons when Cardinal Wolsey asks More what he is going to do about getting the king a son. He replies, “I pray for it daily.” and Wolsey just spits out, “God’s death, he means it.”

    Like

    Comment by Scott W. | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  30. re: “holy enough” — gentlemen, I will willingly submit that I am not holy enough to withstand the corrosive effects of our culture on my soul.

    While I understand (oh, do I!) the desire to be “relevant” and to “make an impact”, I wonder if that isn’t simply a form of Pride.

    And I’m not sure what to think of a line of argument which would seem to condemn St. Francis, St. Benedict, and the Desert Fathers for their withdrawal from the world.

    But there’s a tension here, even in the Scriptural admonitions. It is, I think, fair to compare our current culture with Babylon.

    That still gives the advice of Jer. 29:4-7 vs. that of Rev. 18:4-5.

    Which circumstance are we in? Or is it a matter of individual vocation?

    I wish I knew.

    peace,
    Zach

    Like

    Comment by Zach Frey | July 30, 2008 | Reply

  31. Jeff, Zippy,

    I don’t have time to address everything here, but I want to say that on the question of the circumstances surrounding my wife, yes: unequivocally, I would not only do it again, I would expect my son to do the same.

    I’m assuming, of course, that my son would have the same sort of character I had at 23, when it happened. Maybe I missed out on the whole rebellious youth thing, but I was involved in apologetics as a teenager, my favorite class during senior year of high school was Theology, I’d done the Ignatian spiritual exercises by 18, and I was pretty involved in missionary activity, including door-to-door evangelization.

    I’m not looking for bragging rights on my involvement with the faith, it’s just that I’m realizing (based on your comments, Jeff, about your character at 25) that maybe I was more out of the norm than I thought. I wasn’t afraid of it because I had no reason to believe that with God’s help I wouldn’t prevail.

    The relevance of the anecdote is that I see people as being more of an immediate potential danger to our faith than watching movies or reading books. Fiction is fiction, and if its influence is subtle and can erode at your conscience, a human being is personal and can interact with you, and that makes them far more dangerous. Mass media is created by people, and whatever is wrong with the content of the media finds its source in its creators.

    Maybe I’m blurring the lines too much here – I’m far less a philosopher than Zippy, to be sure – but my take is that if we’re afraid of the popular culture because of its influence, it only stands to reason that we’d be even more afraid of the populace itself. Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. It was an assumption on my part that anyone who found the world toxic wouldn’t give the average hardened sinner the time of day. The fact that Zippy characterized my willingness to enter into a relationship with a young woman who exhibited such worldly characteristics as “stupid” only reinforced this belief.

    I am not characterizing, by the way, those who disagree with me as fearful. I am stating my belief that what we call “prudence” is often mislabeled fear – prudence errs on the side of caution, where sometimes risk is called for. I am risk-averse and riddled with fears and anxieties, so I don’t hold myself up as a paradigm. I think we can get so used to saying that something is not prudent that we can begin to hide behind that excuse when action is needed.

    At any rate, I feel that this exchange, Jeff, has been our most productive on the topic so far. It’s true that this is about drawing lines, and I draw mine differently. I may be wrong about that. It’s why I constantly re-evaluate. It’s why I have these discussions in the first place. I advocate what I believe is correct, but I open myself to criticism so that I don’t turn a blind eye to any truth I may be missing. Or, as Chesterton put it, “I like getting into hot water; it keeps me clean.”

    I will say, in conclusion, that I have watched families employ some of the methods I’ve been critical of in this discussion, often with unhappy results. Parents who over-shelter their children often find that their children over-compensate when they gain autonomy. It’s incredibly painful for good parents to watch that happen, seeing their noble intentions bear bad fruit. Finding that balance is tough, and is to an extent subjective.

    I still have a number of disagreements but I don’t see the point in continuing to hash them out. If I’m wrong, I pray that God will open my eyes to it. If that happens, you can rest assured I’ll admit it just as publicly as I’ve been pushing the perspective I have now.

    Apologies if any of this is muddled, I’m rushing. Lots to do today.

    Like

    Comment by Steve Skojec | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  32. The relevance of the anecdote is that I see people as being more of an immediate potential danger to our faith than watching movies or reading books.

    I guess I’m still really just not getting where how you met your wife pertains to the prudence (or not) of watching Sex and the City in the lazy boy. At all. I just don’t see any connection whatsoever.

    Parents who over-shelter their children often find that their children over-compensate when they gain autonomy.

    That, again, is something with which I am sympathetic. There is a tightrope of sorts between developing the child’s cultural immune system and poisoning her. But the rest of the discussion makes less sense to me the more I think about it. I tend to agree with Zach Frey: While I understand (oh, do I!) the desire to be “relevant” and to “make an impact”, I wonder if that isn’t simply a form of Pride.

    We are called to be witnesses to the truth, not to be Vice President of Marketing to the Modern World for God, Inc.

    Like

    Comment by Zippy | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  33. My own take would be that, while there are concerns (potential problems, dangers, whatever you want to call them) both about the possible bad influence of friends, esp. of the opposite sex, and also about imbibing R-rated imagery and content from popular culture, comparing those sets of concerns is comparing apples and oranges. You could try to find similarities between the potential problems involved, but I think doing so would be a stretch. They are probably most helpfully discussed and thought of separately.

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    Comment by Lydia | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  34. “Parents who over-shelter their children often find that their children over-compensate when they gain autonomy.”

    I wonder if it is not so much the sheltering techniques that most of these parents use, but rather the fact that we cannot see what goes on behind closed doors in those homes? Did the fathers have their hearts turned to their children? Were the children’s hearts turned towards their fathers? (Malachais 4:6) How were those relationships when no one else was looking? Were the parents deeply in love with Christ and His Church? Did they actively work to share that love with their children? Did the children “catch the baton” of a deep love for Christ before they left home?

    I am a convert to Catholic Church coming from a very fundamentalist backgroud where most of the youth from those groups eagerly embrace the traditions of their parents. And they were way stricter than any Catholic (Traditional or otherwise) I have ever met. But to me it seems that the key was that they actively sought to develope strong virtues in themselves, and foster very close, loving relationships with their children.

    I would not be so quick to blame the sheltering techniques of parents whose children “over-compensate when they gain autonomy”. Those are just the quickest ones to place blame on because that is all we see on the “outside” of those homes.

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    Comment by Mrs. C (not Culbreath) | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  35. I guess I must be the most defective Catholic here, because I’m glad we don’t have an Index anymore, and I am amazed that at one time seeing Gone With the Wind would have been the source of mortal sin. In my admittedly uneducated opinion, it makes a mockery of truly mortal sins.

    Like

    Comment by annabenedetti | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  36. …and I am amazed that at one time seeing Gone With the Wind would have been the source of mortal sin.

    Why? The Church can as a disciplinary matter require certain things on pain of mortal sin: abstinence from meat on fridays, for example. The sin in that case isn’t intrinsic to watching the movie per se, or eating the meat per se: it is intrinsic to disobeying the legitimate authority of the Church. Disobeying the legitimate authority of the Church is always serious.

    Now maybe one disagrees that abstinence from meat and Gone With the Wind make good universal spiritual practice for Catholics. That is a somewhat different point, and I might even agree as a matter of judgement in some disciplinary cases. But it is always a serious matter to disobey the Church on a disciplinary matter: mass on Sunday and HDsO, Confession at least once a year, abstinence from meat, avoiding prohibited books and movies, etc.

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    Comment by Zippy | July 31, 2008 | Reply

  37. Zippy, Some Church disciplines have changed over the years. For example, fasting before Communion went from Midnight previous, to three hours before to one hour before. IMHO, Church discipline, being changeable, by not being dogma or doctrine, is more susceptible to human equivocation (and, at one time, a degree of clericalism). Yes, we are required to obey; yes, I am glad that these things today are left to our consciences.

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    Comment by annabenedetti | August 1, 2008 | Reply

  38. […] the “engage the culture” conversation I have taken the position that the walls have crumbled and need rebuilding. There is a time for […]

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    Pingback by The walls of the playground « Stony Creek Digest | August 1, 2008 | Reply

  39. Yes, we are required to obey; yes, I am glad that these things today are left to our consciences.

    And that is perfectly fine. I just wanted to make an important distinction, inasmuch as it is straightforwardly true and right for it to be a mortal sin to watch a certain movie, that indeed this should not be surprising or distressing, if watching it is in fact forbidden as a disciplinary matter.

    Also, even as venerable a practice as priestly celibacy is ‘merely’ disciplinary. So in part what I am resisting – though I’m not imputing it to you! – is the implicit ‘merely’ which often comes before ‘disciplinary’. Disciplinary rules are not, because disciplinary in nature, a minor matter at all.

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    Comment by Zippy | August 2, 2008 | Reply

  40. I’ve read some beautiful comments here. I’m not that eloquent so I’ll go right to the bottom line. Some people here seem to be saying that I can watch Sex and the City and The Girls Next Door and still be a yummy good Catholic. Others seem to be saying that if I watch Meerkat Manor on the Animal Planet channel I’m going to hell because there’s a TV in the house.

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    Comment by dymphna | August 5, 2008 | Reply


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