Catholics have been wondering how to live like Christians and still function in the modern world for a long time. We are sometimes tempted to look back to the 30s, 40s, and 50s as days of vibrant Catholicism which were free of our modern ills. However, this was not the case. Many of the ideologies which militate against Catholicism today were already sprouting and bearing evil fruit one-hundred years ago.
The Catholic writer Carol Jackson Robinson (1911-2002) is a good example of someone who prophetically saw the fundamental issues secularism would produce in our lives many years before the rot became as evident as it is today. Writing in the late 1940s, she noted that “already it would not be an exaggeration to say that young adults must make an heroic effort merely to be average Catholics. And it would be folly to expect constant heroism from ordinary people.” In her short book entitled Designs for Christian Living, Robinson therefore explores what must be done to make the world more conducive to living the Catholic life. The root problem according to Robinson is simply secularism, that doctrine that “separates natural human society from the supernatural society of the Church,” as Christopher Zehnder notes in the book’s foreword. Secularism, he continues, views man as best served “when the organs of society, government, and all public institutions are basically agnostic on questions having to do with God and religion.”
Seeing the world in this for all intents and purposes “God-less” state, Robinson challenges the reader to consider what things would be like if Catholics dared to renew and reform the deepest assumptions on which modern society runs. Robinson’s book, says Zehnder, “is not primarily a theological work but an essay into what Catholics can do in the here and now to begin the transformation of society.” Robinson urges not “how can I be a Christian in this society?” but instead “How can I make contemporary society Christian?”
Over the course of a dozen essays, Robinson creatively imagines what a Christian Library called “Fiat Lux” might look like and how it might choose its books. Often using fictitious short stories to make her point, she also explores questions surrounding Women’s fashion, Christian Radio and movies, and various other business enterprises such as Restaurants and Grocery stores.
In the opening chapter to the book, Robinson asks, “Do Christian’s need a new design?” “To walk unscathed in the love of God,” she writes, “in such a world as it is today is possible—but heroically difficult….For the most part they [good Catholics] are still trying the method of remaining unscathed. Either they just withdraw from temporal problems or they try to solve these problems entirely on the level of piety.” Praying for people is fine—as is making a novena for a raise—but ignoring our heathen co-workers need for the gospel and assuming that modern standards of bourgeois living are true goals are deeply problematic!
“Most people lead lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau has said. People are everywhere despairing and we are hiding under a bushel the hope of the world. The world is a sea of rottenness and yet we do not seem to care,” Robinson cries. Given this fact, she asks what could we do in own lives to make a difference? Every man has a job—what could he do in it to help restore society and people to Christ?
In her chapter “St James Market” Robinson imagines Peter, a 24-year old who “has never been to college” but has a “much keener intelligence and understanding than most of his contemporaries.” Recently married to a nurse, he and his wife decide to open a grocery store in conjunction with the local parish and some farmer friends of theirs. The goal for Peter is not primarily money making, although he expects “to make a suitable living, of course”. Simultaneously addressing issues of food quality and health with the question of fair prices. Is it a quick and easy process? No, but Peter has a couple of friends who are helping him, and together they are going to found a “Grocers’ Guild” to help support the initiative.
Robinson’s playful yet slightly cynical chapter on “Women’s Wear” imagines an influential dress designer and his talent for exploiting “concupiscence through the medium of dress.” He and other “top fashion designers operated on the principle that the proportions of the body should confirm to clothes, rather than vice versa. They designed for an ideal of an ideal of a childless, ageless socialite, who must have sexual allure without womanliness.” Robinson follows the story of his “Peek-a-boo” dress as it is bought by a young Catholic girl named Vivian who works for the “Cosmopolitan Fire Insurance Company.” Eventually she and her other Catholic co-workers begin to boycott the pressure from their fellow co-workers to always wear a different outfit each day of the week since this is causing them financial instability and vanity. Instead, Vivian and her friends save up what they would otherwise have spent on clothes to rent a summer house where they can have “Healthy work. Lake for swimming. Good companions. You need not dress up!”
These and other similar playful yet penetrating fictions make up the rest of Designs for Christian Living (recently re-published by Arouca Press). Even if some (or many) of Robinsons suggestions seem 70 years out-of-date, they still provoke consideration on fundamental questions, many of which have not changed. Reading such a book not only reminds us that things have been going downhill for a long time, but also that concrete ways of making a difference have also been proposed for a long time. The real question is: when are we, in the here and now, going to be heroic by doing anything about it?