Casual Saints and The De-Mythologizing of the Church
An artistic representation of Bl. Carlo Acutis is stirring up controversy, but the real problem lies deeper within the modern Catholic mind.
I've been seeing a lot of hot takes about a recently-revealed stained glass image of Blessed Carlo Acutis.
To be honest, I don’t know much about him. I can tell you that he is a contemporary figure on a fast-track to sainthood. A 15-year old Italian boy of real faith and devotion who died of leukemia. What I’ve seen that appears to attract people to him was his normalcy and relatability. He was devout, but also a normal teenage boy. He was gifted when it came to working with computers. He made websites and played video games.
I’ve often thought of how unrelatable the lives of many saints are. I have at times felt pretty depressed at the idea that I could never be like them, because their acts, faith, and devotion were so extraordinary that they felt unattainable for normal people. A project idea I had a couple years ago, but never got very far into, was trying to identify a collection of saints who were the most relatable, the most like us, and present them for consideration and inspiration.
What Carlo Acutis does is scratch that itch. He wasn’t a miracle worker. He didn’t do extreme acts of penance, or go toe to toe with the devil in physical combat. He didn’t suffer the horrific torments of martyrdom (although Leukemia is no easy way to go.) He loved God, he went to Mass as often as he could, he attended to the duties of his state in life, and he had his priorities in order. A life like that makes it appear possible for normal folks just trying to do their best to live their faith and still be in the world to actually become saints.
But his representation in a new piece of sacred art presents him as the normal kid I’m describing, wearing a backpack, jeans, and sneakers. And that image has proven rather controversial.
It should be noted that the stained glass depiction is very similar to the way his body has been entombed and displayed:
Brian Holdsworth, a popular figure in Catholic media, does a good job of explaining the objection to this casual depiction without snark or bitterness:
It’s a fair point. But others strongly disagree.
I think it's actually quite normal to see this disparity of reaction. But that’s because I think it points to a deeper sort of unraveling of the Catholic mythos. This demythologizing of the Church, I think, is due not to a “Modernist campaign” to dumb religion down — although there may be some of that mixed in — but rather to a massive shift in perception.
My thoughts on this are still developing, but let me try to explain.
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A conclusion I kept arriving at time and again in my work over the past seven years is that we cannot compare our present moment in Church history to any moment in the past for the simple reason that our historical context is entirely novel in ways that affect the entire global populace. Namely, the fact that we now live in an information age that is completely unprecedented and would have been wholly unimaginable just a few generations ago.
And because we’re in the thick of it, we’re just not able to fully recognize the uniqueness of our moment in history, and how it has altered our understanding of both current and past events. The technological developments of the past century in particular are absolutely mind-boggling. And we’re often too close to them to even see them. For context, take this image Times Square (then known as Longacre Square) in New York, taken around the year 1900:
And now, here’s an image of Times Square today:
A time span of only a little over a century — a mere blip in historical terms — but it might as well be a millennium for all the difference it has wrought. There are very likely a few centenarians around today who have watched the completer transformation of the world with awe, wonder, and not a little bit of horror.
What undergirds all of this change is the rapid development of technology, but specifically, technology applied to an absolute revolution in how we communicate, and thus, how we perceive the world.
Mass literacy is a relatively recent phenomenon, brought about by improvements first in printing presses, then in electronic media. Radio was only invented as recently as 1920. Television came out in 1927, although it was primitive, and didn’t become ubiquitous until much later. (When I was a kid in the 1980s, I still knew people who had only ever owned a black and white TV.) 24/7 news was a product of the cable-television era, and really got its start during the O.J. Simpson murder case in the mid-1990s. Internet has been around since the 1960s, but its early access was limited to government and academia. When it was finally made available to the public, it wasn’t until the 1990s. I first signed up in 1992 or 1993, and actually got a certificate from the only ISP in my area stating that I was one of the first 200 users in the entire county. Many people didn’t start becoming active users until five or more years later. Even then, the Internet was fairly primitive. Slow speeds, very few images, lots of bare text and hyperlinks. Higher bandwidth speeds gave rise to multimedia content and eventually, social media, which has become absolutely central in our heavy diet of information. Younger readers may not remember this, but Facebook, the first big social platform to emerge, only made itself available to the general public in 2006; Twitter opened its service around the same time, but started really gaining ground around 2007 or 2008. Other, more image and video-heavy services followed as internet speeds continued to improve.
Most of us have spent the better part of the past decade (or more) completely immersed in these interrelated technologies and the world of information they have opened to us. We’re now at a point where we’re producing more data each day than existed in the entire history of the world combined up until the beginning of the 21st century. It’s a staggering amount. Some of us remember The Before Time when everything was analog; you had to memorize or look stuff up in books, and you could only dip your toes in the datastream at the times when the things you were interested in were scheduled. There was no asynchronous access to anything. There was no streaming. The advent of the programmable VCR was a revolution, because you could actually record shows you weren’t physically present to see…more or less. As often as not, you’d find that the timing wasn’t quite right, and the beginning or end of your program was cut off.
But that meant we lived in the real world, and our social interactions were limited to people we actually knew. People we’d met face to face. The closest thing someone might have to an email exchange with someone they’d never met was a pen pal, and that was a slow process involving stamps and envelopes and lots of time in between responses. When accurate, high capacity digital video recorders hit the scene in the early 2000s, it kind of blew our minds. But it also completely changed the way we consumed information - on our own time, on our own terms. No more showing up on Wednesday nights at 8PM to watch the latest episode of your favorite show or you’d miss it; then, we could just record effortlessly and watch later. Now, you don’t even have to record. Just binge watch it on Netflix or Hulu.
I can’t overemphasize how much this changed the way we think. It ushered in the age of personalization and enhanced our own tendency towards selfishness. Everything has become about us - what we wanted, how we wanted it, and when we wanted it.
That trend has only continued to grow.
Back in the day, we also just didn’t know what we didn’t know. We were often blissfully ignorant. If the TV or radio wasn’t on, and the phone wasn’t ringing, the only news you had was as old as the most recent printing of the local newspaper.
One of the biggest issues with politics and religion in 2021 is that we know everything our leaders thinking and doing and saying almost instantaneously. Applied to Catholicism, this has been devastating. The Church has always been scandal-plagued, but we didn’t have our noses rubbed in it every day. And while some will use this reality as a means of diminishing the present suffering of a scandal-fatigued faithful — “Oh, don’t sweat it. It’s been bad like this before. Just look at history!” — this is cold comfort. It’s hard to imagine that the faithful would have weathered around the clock news of the papal pornocracy any better than we are. The behavior of popes like John XII would have shaken them to their core:
Pope John XII has a claim to be the most debauched incumbent ever to occupy the Holy See. We may confine ourselves to Gibbon’s remark that “his rapes of virgins and widows had deterred the female pilgrims from visiting the tomb of Peter, lest, in the devout act, they should be violated by his successor.” John’s downfall came in 963 when he betrayed the German Emperor Otto I, whom he himself had crowned, and was expelled from Rome. Though he briefly returned on the departure of the emperor, he died shortly afterwards, succumbing, according to different accounts, in the act of adultery or by being beaten to death by a cuckolded husband.
Sire, H.J.A.; Sire, Henry. Phoenix from the Ashes: The Making, Unmaking, and Restoration of Catholic Tradition . Angelico Press. Kindle Edition.
And can you just imagine wall-to-wall news coverage of the Cadaver Synod?
One of the most hotly debated topics of the moment among Catholics is whether a pope can, in fact, be a heretic. And if so, how that jives with the dogma of Papal Infallibility. There’s a lot of technical theological debate over when, where, and how a pope might fall into serious error without breaking the dogma; whether he’s only restricted from teaching it formally, etc. I don’t want to get into all that here. It’s mind-numbing and contorted, most of the time, and I don’t find much of it very convincing.
The fact is, Pope Francis, our contemporary theological Borgia, is by any reasonable measure a heretic. And many folks seem to think this is entirely unprecedented.
But is it? Or is it rather a question of how isolated popes actually were from the body of the faithful? Do we really believe that a pope like John XII, who had no problem raping pilgrims to St. Peter’s, was theologically pristine? Or is it more likely that he was as intemperate and debauched in his theology as he was in his sexuality, but the narrative — controlled very much by the Church herself — excluded whatever heretical rantings he neglected to commit to official, public acts?
I suspect very strongly that we read Church history with a 100-proof gloss, and it’s very much intended to preserve an image of a pristine Church, divinely protected and untainted by error, despite her weathering of many storms. It’s a romanticized vision of what Catholicism really is, was, and has been. A romanticism that leads to claims like this:
Vatican I clearly teaches that “the See of St. Peter always remains untainted by any error according to the divine promise of our Lord and Savior made to the prince of his disciples” (Denz.-H 3070; cf. Lk 22:32). This means that Christ and the Holy Spirit will insure that “in the Apostolic See” the Catholic religion will “always be preserved immaculate and sacred doctrine honored” (Denz.-H 3066; cf. the formula of Pope Hormisdas; Denz.-H 363–365).
Can anyone today look at Rome and honestly say that the See of St. Peter “remains untainted by any error”? Of course not. Can anyone claim, with a straight face, that in the Apostolic See, the faith has been “preserved immaculate and sacred doctrine honored”? Please.
The obscurity of a history shrouded in wildly inefficient methods of mass communication, careful concealment of misdeeds from public knowledge, and overwhelming spiritual authority that in many cases spilled over into temporal authority as well, made it much, much easier in the past for the Church to maintain the illusion that she was far more pristine than our present reality indicates. Catholic historians have long lamented the so-called “Black Legend,” wherein anti-Catholic historians painted, so the story goes, the Church in an unjustly negative light. But pro-Catholic historians have also admitted to some of the Church’s faults and controversies. The difference is that these latter usually did so in such a way that it served to accentuate how her core doctrine and fidelity remained always untouched and protected — a masterful bit of public relations.
To give one example, my favorite theology professor in college, Dr. Regis Martin, used to love to quote Cardinal Danielou’s adage: “I love best of all that Church mud-splashed from history.”
More famous is the quip from the historian Hilaire Belloc:
The Catholic Church is an institution I am bound to hold divine — but for unbelievers a proof of its divinity might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight.
Nevermind the fact that there are older religions in the world than Catholicism that have also survived — religions that Belloc would have certainly condemned as false and in no way divine — it’s a rousing defense of the faith he loved.
But is it really honest?
And what does any of this have to do with Blessed Carlo?
I think the debate that is currently happening over Carlo’s image, and over many other things besides, is not nearly as much about a particular artistic representation as it is about the fruit of Catholics feeling as though they’re being ground to a paste by tectonic, epochal change. On the one side are those who wish to preserve Vatican I’s pristine image of the Church and the sterling fidelity of the Apostolic See; on the other are those who recognize that there’s been a lot more mud-splashing by history than the purists would like to believe.
For most of history, those purists, whose flame is carried on today predominately by the so-called traditionalist movement, of which I was counted a member for many years, had the upper hand. The approved history books and theology manuals and “solid” academics were all on their side. There is no greater champion in the mind of a modern traditionalist than Pope St. Pius X who warned staunchly about the rise of Modernists and their belief in the evolution of dogma:
Hence it is quite impossible to maintain that they express absolute truth: for, in so far as they are symbols, they are the images of truth, and so must be adapted to the religious sentiment in its relation to man; and as instruments, they are the vehicles of truth, and must therefore in their turn be adapted to man in his relation to the religious sentiment. But the object of the religious sentiment, since it embraces that absolute, possesses an infinite variety of aspects of which now one, now another, may present itself. In like manner, he who believes may pass through different phases. Consequently, the formulae too, which we call dogmas, must be subject to these vicissitudes, and are, therefore, liable to change. Thus the way is open to the intrinsic evolution of dogma. An immense collection of sophisms this, that ruins and destroys all religion. Dogma is not only able, but ought to evolve and to be changed. This is strongly affirmed by the Modernists, and as clearly flows from their principles. For amongst the chief points of their teaching is this which they deduce from the principle of vital immanence; that religious formulas, to be really religious and not merely theological speculations, ought to be living and to live the life of the religious sentiment.
Blind that they are, and leaders of the blind, inflated with a boastful science, they have reached that pitch of folly where they pervert the eternal concept of truth and the true nature of the religious sentiment; with that new system of theirs they are seen to be under the sway of a blind and unchecked passion for novelty, thinking not at all of finding some solid foundation of truth, but despising the holy and apostolic traditions, they embrace other vain, futile, uncertain doctrines, condemned by the Church, on which, in the height of their vanity, they think they can rest and maintain truth itself.
The Pian vision of the Church is essentially one trapped in amber, a fossil of praxis and belief that moves forward physically in time, but with total unblemished integrity and continuity. It not only never fundamentally changes — it is impossible for it to do so.
I think that for Catholicism to be what it claims to be — the one true religion necessary for salvation, divinely founded by Jesus Christ, entrusted to St. Peter and his successors, and protected from error by the Holy Spirit — the Pian understanding is the only workable one. Evolution of dogma is an impossibility for a Church that claims such origins, safeguards, and the possession of eternal, immutable truths.
But reality, now that we have so much more access to see the theological sausage being made, is proving quite challenging to this view. The old, unflappable Church has long since been eclipsed. Doctrines are seemingly overturned without consequence. Traditionalists are holding onto a memory, an echo of that thing that once was, hoping that it will be so again. Thus, every new deviation from what was perceived as the ideal stings like a slap in the face to folks desperately trying to hold the line before even that memory is lost.
This is why the papal motu proprio last month, restricting the old Latin Mass and reversing Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, was such an act of cruelty and a traumatic event. It’s an unsubtle reminder to those who love the Church’s traditions and choose to believe that she is truly the “perfect society” have, in actuality, zero power to preserve or protect her. They are left, therefore, with no choice but to obey papal innovations and be crushed, or to rebel against them, and thereby become the very opposite of what they espouse. Obedience to everything but sin is what the tradition recommends; rebellion against an unjust but not immoral order is anything but traditional.
(Is it any wonder that some have resorted to the fantasy of sedevacantism, which sees the papacy as so incorruptible and so central to the Church, that it has been dissolved indefinitely in their imaginations due to the failure of its occupants to be sufficiently pure? It’s the No True Scotsman fallacy in ecclesiastical drag.)
When someone of this mindset sees an image of Acutis, this young saint-to-be, dressed casually in jeans and sneakers, they see a manifestation of a Church that has, as one rather strident traditionalist once put it to me, “abandoned the attire of their patrimony.” They see it as a strike against the requisite formality, decency, and elevation of heart and mind (and thus, outward aesthetic) that is necessary to give glory to God.
But what a 15-year-old Catholic boy struggling to be virtuous in a world hostile to everything he believes might see in such an image of Bl. Carlo is likely quite different. He is likely to see someone very much like himself; this is not St. Joseph of Cupertino and his levitations, or St. Pio of Pietrelcina and his stigmata, but a real, relatable figure like himself — one that the Church says attained the only prize that matters: eternal salvation. Does it mean that this young admirer of Acutis will forever go to Mass in jeans and sneakers in emulation of his image? I doubt it. Does it mean that he might be more likely to go to Mass in the first place, rather than retreating into a world of pornography and video games and budding socialistic fantasies and other hedonistic pursuits? I think there’s a reasonable chance, yes. I think that at the very least, it gives him a little push in the right direction. Because he has something to aim for. Something that doesn’t feel quite so out of reach. The only goals worth pursuing, after all, are those that are actually attainable.
But the deeper issue at the heart of this debate, namely, the dissolution of the mythology of an untainted Catholicism that was perpetually noble and austere and dignified in its pursuit of the heaven Christ promised, will continue to rend us as it unfolds. It’s an image of the Church that could, if we’re being honest, never have survived this long if we’d had social media and 24/7 news during the Great Western Schism, or the pornocracy, or the cadaver synod, or any of a hundred other deeply “mud-splashed” moments of our history. And although I very much agree that an aspirational, sublimated vision of Catholicism is better than an indifferent, quotidian one, in terms of motivating people to truly live their faith and seek the ultimate prize, it can become a kind of fetish. A putting on of airs. It leads to the kind of dandy Catholic who makes vulgar insinuations about decent priests who do not meet his ideological standards, all while haughtily (and without the slightest sense of irony) promoting the idea that “Decorum is a virtue.”
Make no mistake: this is a kind of spiritual and ideological sickness. It’s a perfect example of crippled religion. And it can’t be sustained. The reality of the 21st century Church (a reality echoed more softly throughout history) is turning this kind of Catholic against reality; he opts instead for a fantasized image of the past, one that makes him feel safe and comfortable and as though the world is neatly laid out in black and white. I know this from personal experience. I craved that certainty. But I also know that it’s a lie — a lie we tell, first and foremost, to ourselves. Life, as it turns out, is far more complicated than that.
Nevertheless, the appeal of this kind of fantasy is understandably strong, and that is turning Catholic traditionalism into a bitter, ugly, self-parody; one that sees the virtue of charity as something only applicable to those who are already On The Team™, whereas others are fair game for savage tongues and rash condemnations. And so, while this kind thinks he is shining a light on a better path — and to be certain, some of the things they love truly are better — they are instead only turning others away from the those good things by obscuring them within a weird little artificial bubbleverse. A bubbleverse that might grow in the short term as it exploits the fears and concerns of the faithful who are looking for a cause to rally around, but very likely cannot be sustained in the long term. At least not in a way that is spiritually profitable.
Perhaps the hardest thing to accept in all of this is that we’re only just at the beginning of this epochal change. We’ve been dealing with our gluttonous immersion in the torrent of information and opinion for only a very short time. And like a bite from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it’s proving to be far more than we can safely handle. The consequences of that, thus far, are decidedly grim.