[Editor’s Note: Brandon McGinley is a Catholic writer and speaker based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He worked in politics for several years, including pro-life and pro-family advocacy with the Pennsylvania Family Institute. Most recently, he was the editor for EWTN Publishing. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, First Things, the Catholic Herald, Plough, The Lamp, and other publications. He spoke to Charles Camosy about his new book, The Prodigal Son: Restoring Catholic Tradition in an Age of Deception.]
Camosy: The Prodigal Church, at least to my ears, sounds like a very bold and provocative title for a Catholic author to use–especially when describing his own Church. I know sometimes authors don’t get to pick their titles–did you pick this one? Did you write the book setting out to be bold and provocative?
McGinley: The title emerged like a series of European soccer team promotions. I used the phrase in Chapter 2, in the context of the dissipation (from the word in the Vulgate used to describe the behavior of the Prodigal Son) of a patrimony and, crucially, the possibility of reconciliation and restoration through grace. I liked the phrase, and raised it to a subheading. Then I decided I liked it enough to supplant the original chapter title (“New Normal”). Then I added it to a list of proposals to supplant the original book title (“Renewal 2050”).
Choosing it was a calculated risk, because the book I set out to write (and the book I ultimately wrote) was not primarily cranky and backward-looking, but primarily warm and hopeful and forward-looking. My intention was to be boldly hopeful, not brashly critical. The question was: For most readers, will the title evoke the concept of prodigality specifically, or the parable of the Prodigal Son — including reconciliation/restoration, which for me is the primary association with the parable — as a whole? We settled on the latter.
“The Church”, of course, is a global phenomenon which spans many centuries. Do you have a particular time and place in mind where the term “prodigal” is particularly apt?
The first two chapters home in on the United States from the mid-twentieth century to today, with a brief overview of the deeper history. What I want to capture is the extent to which we have allowed our Catholic distinctiveness—cultural, liturgical, ecclesial, political—to become dissipated into the world around us as we achieved mainstream respectability in a historically anti-Catholic society.
And I think it’s essential to take a comprehensive approach here, not just focusing on a few comfortable hobby horses (like liturgy) or blaming a few easy villains (like Vatican II). The temptations that come with bourgeois respectability are at least as much material as they are theological, such as not wanting to speak out about genuine social justice for fear of alienating donors or other members our new social class. The move that I want to make, which I think is at least somewhat distinctive, is to say that (for instance) insipid modern liturgy is connected conceptually not with an emphasis on social justice, but with the opposite—attachment to the comforts and privileges of respectability.
Pope Benedict XVI — and especially Cardinal Ratzinger — does a lot of work for you in this book. Can you say a little bit about who and why he is so key? And what do you think of the now well-worn criticism of his wanting a smaller and purer Church?
This is a great question. I didn’t set out to write a Ratzingerian book—not least because I’m not familiar enough with his whole body of work to even know what that means. But I also came to see that it was almost inevitable to write about him: no churchman’s career, both in its ecclesial and theological trajectory, is more representative of the era I’m writing about than Benedict’s. (Also, he was pope when I returned to the sacraments in college, so I’ll always feel a certain special piety for him.)
As I say in the introduction, the “smaller and purer” gloss isn’t fair to then-Father Ratzinger’s 1969 address on the future of the Church. First of all, he didn’t say that he desired such a Church, but that one was coming whether he (and we) wanted it or not. Second, he didn’t predict a “purer” Church, but a “more spiritual” Church, one shorn of precisely the trappings of privilege and respect that I write about in the book. Here, I think he was expressing a hope not so much that this might come to pass—in a good age and handled by holy men and women, privilege and respect are not bad things for the Church—but that it would be purifying when it did. That, however, is up to us—and in fact if we’re convinced that we and our cohort are the only faithful remnant, it shows we’re on the wrong track.
You say that the “words of Pope Francis about evangelizing the poor of the Amazon apply just as well to the needs of contemporary America” — can you say more about what you mean?
One of the symptoms of a modern Americanism in the Catholic mind is assuming that we’re as important and powerful and ‘advanced’ ecclesiastically and spiritually as we are politically and economically. First of all, in terms of the history of the Church, the United States is still a newcomer and something of a backwater. But more importantly, at this point in its history, America is at least as much pagan mission territory as unexplored Amazonian wilderness is. Indeed, our idols of wealth and sex and power might be harder to dislodge than indigenous deities, which at least have the advantage of being supernatural.
I quoted Querida Amazonia in the context of my chapter on the family as the “model society” in order to emphasize how the goal of the family isn’t to be American society in miniature, but to demonstrate a more beautiful way of living-together that should transform American society. Thus, while a certain amount of sheltering is important to spiritual and psychological security and growth, the best image for the family is not as an inward-facing bunker, but an outward-facing base camp. (I just checked and in the book I say barracks versus base community, somewhat puckishly referencing the 20th century Jesuit establishments in Latin America. Same idea.)
Happily, you think we are seeing the end of the secular-liberal-individualist order. Do you think the pandemic, racial justice protests, and anarchic riots of the last several weeks have accelerated this trend? Can those who wish to live as Church in the way you describe in this book see the current moment of destabilizing uncertainty as an opportunity?
On the one hand, I hate to rub my hands together thinking of all the opportunities that come out of a chaos that is hurting real human beings. But it’s hard not to see the events of the past months and years as an acceleration of some kind, heightening the contradictions, as Mao would say. The question is: Which contradictions are being heightened, and where should Catholics find themselves?
If it’s just American partisanship getting more and more pronounced, then we have no home. If it’s ethno-nationalism versus neoliberal cosmopolitanism, then we have no home. If it’s an unjust order against disorder that claims the mantle of justice, then we have no home. These are not games we can win by picking a side; we will only further dissipate our distinctiveness and corrupt our moral and spiritual authority.
But, as I say in the note about the pandemic (which hit after I’d drafted the book) at the beginning, there are contradictions that are being heightened that are perfectly suited for the Church: “She is solidity in an unstable world, permanence in a temporary world, sanity in a crazy world.” The key is not to participate in and add to the confusion and instability by throwing in with some faction or another who’s part of the chaotic fray, but to fearlessly promote love and truth and justice no matter the cost.
This begins with Catholic persons, families, and communities demonstrating to those around us that there is, simply, a better way to live than what’s on offer around us — more stable, more peaceful, more joyful. So, yes, this moment is a special opportunity to be a sign of contradiction, but the contradiction we offer is Christ’s, not any partisan or ideological faction’s.