Making “Catholic” Make Sense

The ecumenical phenomenon that Colleen Carroll Campbell dubbed “the new faithful” — accomplished young professionals leading lives of intense Christian orthodoxy — has had interesting manifestations in the Catholic Church.



Is there a major American city that doesn’t have a Theology on Tap program these days? Suds and the catechism seem to be an attractive mix. Then there are campuses like Notre Dame, where students are reconverting their faculties and their schools, often against great odds. And, of course, there’s World Youth Day.

Now comes the new apologetics. Two books by younger Catholic writers demonstrate that the art of “making ‘Catholic’ make sense” has been recovered in a distinctive way for these unique times.

Matthew Lickona’s Swimming with Scapulars: True Confessions of a Young Catholic (Loyola Press) is a sometimes funky, sometimes lyrical explanation of how a cradle Catholic, who buys the whole package, thinks, prays, struggles, and manages to have a lot of fun while being self-consciously counter-cultural.

Lickona, a staff writer for the San Diego Reader, loves wine, movies, “alternative rock” (don’t ask me…), and the Church. He’s frank about his spiritual limits — “In times of suffering, I look first to myself. God is the backup, to be called upon when I find myself insufficient.” Yet he has a firm grip on the faith and a keen insight into what apostasy has done to contemporary society: “We’re living in an awful middle ground. Some might call it Christ-hungover. He lingers, a painful leftover presence that punishes the conscience but brings no comfort. People are left with the sad thrill of transgression: the enraged bumper stickers, the endless appeals to sex that is ‘perfectly natural’ but still sold as ‘naughty.’ Such may be the penalty for knowing His rules without knowing Him.”

Then we have Mark Gauvreau Judge, hitherto known in Washington circles as the town’s most ardent Senators fan. His grandfather, Joe Judge, had played for the team during baseball’s golden years; grandson Mark kept the flame of local baseball passion alive for decades, and is currently locked in an embrace of the re-commissioned Nationals. Now, outside the ballpark, Judge lowers the boom on the silliness that beset Catholic high schools and colleges in the post-Vatican II period in a feisty memoir, God and Man at Georgetown Prep: How I Became a Catholic Despite 20 Years of Catholic Schooling (Crossroad).

Matthew Lickona writes elegantly; Mark Judge’s prose has edge. Looking back from his early forties, he knows he was cheated of a serious Catholic education at Georgetown Prep and Catholic University — and he’s not happy about it. Judge is no plaster saint; he freely admits that his own propensities for wild behavior (especially when fueled by drinking) made a circus out of his high school and (extended) college years. But he rightly asks why formation ceased being part of education in Catholic schools during and after the overheated sixties. Grateful to Alcoholics Anonymous for helping him get his life together, he wonders, appropriately, why the trendy priests and teachers at some of America’s most prestigious Catholic institutions didn’t help him steer a better path.

Local Washington rumor has it that the powers that be at Georgetown Prep are unhappy with Mark Judge. Assuming that the self-examining spirituality of St. Ignatius still plays a role in those circles, the Jesuit panjandrums at Prep might consider whether their ire shouldn’t be redirected, in what was once called an “examination of conscience.”

Having survived the silly season, Matthew Lickona and Mark Judge have built integral, exciting Catholic lives despite the collapse of intact Catholic culture in the United States. Growing up in the intensely Catholic culture of Bavaria, a more famous Catholic apologist, Joseph Ratzinger, discovered that the Catholic Church is a wonderful thing, a treasure-house of insights and experiences to be savored and explored, reflected upon and argued over. Amidst the confusions of post-modern America, Lickona and Judge have discovered what Benedict XVI intuited as a boy: that the Church is everyday life and soaring speculation, liturgy and art and music, all at the same time. Learning the connections is a lifelong project, full of adventure and beauty.

George Weigel is author of the bestselling book The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church. His latest book is Letters to a Young Catholic.

This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.

George Weigel

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George Weigel is an American author and political and social activist. He currently serves as a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. Weigel was the Founding President of the James Madison Foundation.

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