Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Catholic Distinction in an Indistinct World

Kay Toy Fenner, in her American Catholic Etiquette, gave some admonitions to her readers regarding Catholic life that bear repeating.

Fenner’s book was first published in 1961, prior to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), prior to the infamous Sixties, and prior to the coarsening and confusion that characterize life in the early 21st century. Nevertheless, Fenner’s advice is even more apt now than it was in 1961.

To the contemporary ear, her words may sound radical. Yet, in the same volume are found chapters on such relatively tame topics as wedding etiquette and the proper manner of addressing Catholic clergy and religious.

Here is how Fenner urges her readers to “Dare to Be Different”:
“Many influences in modern living unite to induce the general public to accept a universal standard of morals, behavior, opinion, manners, and dress. To some extent this has always been so; our ideas in these areas have ever been heavily influenced by those of our fellows. Universal literacy, the availability of inexpensive books and magazines, and our public school system have encouraged the spread of common standards. To these we add today television, radio, and moving pictures, and, most important of all, the development of certain psychological theories as to how man can best function in a modern world.

“Some of these influences are good; none of them are deliberately wicked; at least, none are the result of a planned conspiracy of evil. The educators engaged in teaching children how to ‘function in the group,’ to accept the ‘will of the majority’ as the standard of what constitutes right behavior, are, from their own point of view, merely assisting children to live happily with their fellows. All of this would be intensely valuable, if the ideas and standards upheld were the noblest possible. Unfortunately, setting such a universal uniform standard always means leveling down. One can never level ‘up’. . . .

“For society at large, the acceptance of a low dead level of conformity, the spread of a common fear to differ from one’s fellows, is a tragedy. For Catholics, it is impossible. We are, and will continue to be (for how long, only God knows, but He knoweth) a minority group. Socially and governmentally, this is unimportant. In the realm of ideas and moral standards, it is important, and it is just in these realms that we are far more of a minority than we were a hundred years ago. . . .

“This means that present-day Catholics must learn and must teach their children to differ from the majority of their fellows in many basic moral principles, to love and cherish those with whom they differ, while refusing to accept, as their moral guides, standards with which they do not agree.”
Fenner, Kay Toy; American Catholic Etiquette (The Newman Press; Westminster, Maryland; 1961); pp. 294-296. Emphasis in the original.

Image: Zurbarán’s "Mary as a Child" (1630), from Wikimedia Commons. In the public domain.

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