A good essay is like a good compass: it points north, and the truth of its pointing helps us find our way. Eugene McCarraher’s “Morbid Symptoms” (November Commonweal) is just this kind of “true north.”
The essay– cultural critique disguised as a book review– uses the material in four recent books by Catholic clerics as a runway to gain speed, before soaring wheels-up over today’s American cultural landscape. The view is impressive. This is not McCarraher’s first flight; he knows where to go, and when to dip a wing so that we get a clear view down.
The essay, at 4000 words, is longer than most of us will want to take the time for. Religion in the Balance will be considering the article in smaller bits, over the next weeks. “Morbid Symptoms” gives us so many helpful vantage points, that it is worth lingering over.
It’s important to remember that while a major theme of the essay is criticism of the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, our interest is in McCarraher’s critiques of America’s cultural life, and of a particularly unhelpful response by religious leaders– a response that is by no means limited to the Roman Catholic Church. I’m not into bashing Catholicism, and I don’t think McCarraher’s article is most fruitfully read in that manner.
Here is just a sample of what McCarraher offers– a critique of American culture that is much more penetrating, and therefore much more interesting, than the facile finger-pointing that we often get:
As Stanley Hauerwas perceptively reminds us in War and the American Difference, “America is a culture of death because Americans cannot conceive of how life is possible in the face of death”; as unregulated accumulators and consumers of ever-expanding wealth, Americans share nothing in common “other than the presumption that death is to be avoided at all costs.”
More on this to come.