Thursday, February 06, 2014

Al Capone, a “Catholic murderer” and a “Pop Tart Catholic”

Al Capone, a faithful “son of the Church” 
Did you know that Al Capone considered himself to be a good Roman Catholic until the end? He received last rites from a priest and a Catholic burial.

In his search to demonstrate that those “Callers” who call Protestants to communion with Rome, Darryl Hart has uncovered a Roman Catholic writer, John Zmirak, who is confirming the kinds of things that we have always known: That if you take away all the “Cafeteria Catholics” who break all the rules (most notably the rule on contraception), then you end up with 1.2 million of “the right kind of Roman Catholics” – those who diligently seek to keep all the rules in the proper, nanny-enforced way.

But let’s use language a good deal more precisely, in a doctrinally rigorous sense. How many people in America actually believe all the central truths of the Catholic Catechism? Public opinion surveys have revealed that high percentages of Sunday Mass-goers do not hold, or perhaps never learned about, transubstantiation (the change of bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist). Depending on which faction of the Catholic fragment you belong to, you can chalk up that ignorance to either the collapse of Catholic schooling, the dumbing down of the liturgy, or even to the suppression during the 1970s of the “unconscious catechesis” that used to occur every time the most unlettered peasant knelt for the Host and reverently took it on his tongue from the blessed hands of a priest.

I don’t know that public opinion surveys have asked “Sunday Catholics” what they believe about the physical resurrection of Christ, or the Immaculate Conception, but if average Catholics believe what I was taught in my Catholic high school, then they are heretics – and probably don’t even know or care.

Practice is not a perfect mirror of what we believe, but surely it tells us something that the rates of divorce, premarital sex, and cohabitation are not a whit lower (and in some cases higher) among Roman Catholics than among most churchgoing Protestants. The explosive growth of annulments is partly an outright abuse on the part of bishops, and partly a recognition that many Catholics enter the sacrament with “defective intent.” Remember that if either party going into a marriage considers divorce and remarriage a possible option it invalidates the marriage. So most of the annulments given out nowadays are quite likely valid – unlike too many Catholic weddings.

He cites the leader of the German bishops’ conference, who, “strengthened” by “Pope Francis”, seeks to reverse or ignore centuries’-worth of Roman Catholic teaching about offering communion to divorced and re-married Catholics.

The problem is much deeper. Noting that “Al Capone was, and knew himself to be, a Catholic murderer” who “did not proclaim himself a ‘dissenter’ on the ‘life issue,’ and align himself with friendly Jesuits whom he found more ‘open-minded’ about the commandment he chose to break”, Zmirak isolates the reason why there are so few truly “orthodox” Roman Catholics:

The elephant in the bedroom, of course, is contraception. The highest, the very highest, number I have ever seen cited for Catholics who accept and obey the Church’s ban on artificial contraception is 5 percent. Now, you could argue that there are large numbers of Catholics who admit that the Church is right on this subject, but they just find the teaching too hard to practice, and so they flout it. I don’t buy that argument; a Catholic with such a conscience, who believed that he was regularly committing a mortal sin, would know enough to avoid Holy Communion. Short Communion lines and long Confession lines would be the direct result.

Outside of Latin Mass parishes where most families include five children or more, I have never seen such lines. Have you? Then scratch that theory. Most Catholics who practice contraception have convinced themselves or been convinced that they can do so with a clear conscience.

The implication of this sad fact is clear: On a grave moral issue where several popes have invoked their full moral authority short of making an infallible declaration, 95 percent of U.S. Catholics (the number is surely higher in most of Europe) have rejected the guidance of Rome. They are not “bad Catholics” so much members of a new, dissenting sect – which happens to occupy most of the seats in most of the churches, and many of the pulpits and bishop’s offices, too….

[The number of “good Catholics” is] a very mixed bag. And a small one. A good friend of mine who works for a major Catholic publisher reported to me the results of some very pricey market research his company undertook, to turn up the actual size of the “orthodox Catholic market.” Many thousands of dollars later, his company learned that if you count Catholics who go to Mass more than once a week, or spend a single dollar on Catholic books or other media, or volunteer for any parish activity, the grand total for the United States of America is no higher than 1.2 million. (Bold is mine, Italic is Zmirak’s).

That is the whole Catholic market. No wonder there isn’t enough revenue to go around. All the quarrels between traditionalists and Novus Ordo conservatives, between the lovers of Dorothy Day and fans of John Courtney Murray, are fights for pieces of this tiny pie. A pop tart, really.

Zmirak’s recommendations regarding the non-orthodox birth control practitioners? “We need to listen to their real questions and objections and do a much better job explaining ourselves. Or else that’s who we’ll go right on talking to – ourselves.”

In my own case, I didn’t leave because I didn’t like the birth control rules. I came to my sensible adulthood in the era of “Pope John Paul ‘the Great’”, and I have six kids.

No, I left because the Bible teaches justification by faith alone, and I could no longer assent to what Rome teaches about how you are made right with God. And again, in my own case, it was a decision to take them seriously in what they teach – you can’t “pick and choose” which Roman Catholic doctrines you’ll believe. So I rejected it in its totality. You have to swallow all of it or none of it. They don’t permit you to pick and choose.

Admittedly, their lack of permission is more of a fist-shaking or a head-wagging than a “we’ll throw you on the rack” kind of thing. But they made their own infallible bed; now they can lie in it.

And those who simply leave are far more honest (and well informed) than the 95% who hang around and pick and choose what kind of Roman Catholics they will be.

At least Al Capone was honest enough to admit he had been committing mortal sins.


  1. I wonder what percentage of the current Magisterium and high-ranking RC theologians can be truly regarded as the "right kind of Catholics".

  2. Well Piers Morgan says he is Catholic so why not?

    1. So long as you think the pope is the pope, you can be a Roman Catholic. That's all they really care about at the official level.

    2. I disagree, John. I feel you discount Canon law entirely when you say "that's all they really care about at the official level." Like most things, it's a bit more complicated than that. I enjoy your writing. FYI; I'm a so-called "good Catholic." I buy it all, and yes, I'm well catechized, mostly from my own doing and not what I learned from growing up in CCD. You're right, the seventies changed how Catholics were catechized and I was a product of that era. Sometimes you have to take your faith into your own hands, test that which is true, and sanctify the Lord Christ in your heart, being ready always to satisfy every one that asks you a reason of that hope which is in you. PAX.