KEY WEST – Despite its reputation as a mecca of debauchery and depravity, Key West, America’s southernmost point and a beacon for tourism, is actually a surprisingly Catholic place. There are several meats in its cultural stew, from a strong military presence to a ubiquitous gay pride ethos, but you can still taste the Catholicism in every bite.
Located just 90 miles from Cuba, the local Catholic community here once belonged to what was then the Diocese of Havana, and the Cuban footprint always has been firmly Catholic. Its ecclesiastical history also includes prominent African-American Catholics (who sat in a separate section of a segregated church until the mid-1900s), white settlers from the north who brought their Irish-tinged Catholicism, and Jesuit missionaries from Europe.
(The Jesuits were granted control of Key West’s Catholic institutions in 1891 In Perpetuum by the newly established Diocese of St. Augustine, Florida, although perpetuity in this case only lasted until 1970 when the Jesuits pulled out and turned the operation over to the newly elevated Archdiocese of Miami.)
One way the Catholic instinct seeps through in Key West is a tendency among locals to compare the present state of the place unfavorably to a half-remembered, half-imagined past.
Seemingly, every generation of Key West residents has been convinced the place is going to hell. When Ernest Hemingway wrote 70 percent of his works here in the 1930s, for instance, he wrote letters to friends in the north complaining about all the tourists mucking around with their Bermuda shorts and bicycles, ruining what was once a properly rowdy fishing village.
I was reminded of the point this week, shortly after having arrived for what I try to make an annual winter sojourn in America’s most tropical setting. (Key West is actually 24 miles north of the Tropic of Cancer, but you’d never know it from the climate.)
I was sitting out on a second-story balcony watching the sun rise when a gentleman obviously still a bit addled from the previous evening was stumbling down the street, and, upon seeing me, wanted to chat. He explained he’s concerned about a friend facing a five-year prison term if he doesn’t comply with certain conditions of release, but he seems stubbornly unwilling to do so, and was soliciting advice.
At one point, the guy took a deep breath, sighed, and, out of nowhere, said: “You know, this used to be a great town.”
I resisted the impulse to tell him that with such an attitude, he could probably run a terrifically successful Catholic blog.
Perhaps it’s because Catholicism fosters such a strong sense of tradition, which inevitably disposes the Catholic mind to look to the past. Whatever the reason, it’s striking how many times in casual conversation one runs into the ecclesiastical equivalent of that guy on the Key West sidewalk – sometimes more sober, sometimes not so much.
The best-known example of such Catholic nostalgia undoubtedly is the Latin Mass movement, which is premised on the idea of a near-constant liturgical decline since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and the transition to Mass in the vernacular.
However, one finds the same impulse in many other circles.
Crux’s Inés San Martín, for instance, recently introduced me to the term “leftist conservatives,” a bit of vocabulary she’d picked up from one of her sources during the Synod of Bishops on the Amazon. It refers, she explained, to a generation of Latin American Catholics formed by the liberation theology movement of the 1970s and 80s, who are still fighting those battles today as if nothing has changed in the intervening half-century.
(Of course, there’s the equal-and-opposite “right-wing radical,” who’s not interested in conserving so much as remaking things, but that’s another topic.)
In general, the Catholic right today tends to see the Church as worse off than it was under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, which, curiously, is exactly how Catholic liberals felt under the same two popes vis-à-vis John XXIII, Paul VI and Vatican II.
Under the right circumstances, one can imagine a member of any one of those groups cantering down a sidewalk and telling a total stranger, “You know, this used to be a great Church.”
Even Catholics whom you might imagine have the strongest reasons for feeling great about the Church today sometimes get in on the act. The most ardent Pope Francis enthusiasts, for instance, often appear to spend an astonishing amount of time decrying what they see as “resistance” or “opposition” to the pontiff, seemingly pining for an era when being pope meant never having to say you’re sorry.
In all reality, every period for which a given Catholic may be misty-eyed likely was never quite what they imagined it to be.
Experts will tell you that Vatican II was a mixed bag subject to multiple interpretations, the experience of the Latin Mass before the council was often drab and perfunctory, and there’s never been a moment in more than 2,000 years in which a pope enjoyed complete deference from his flock.
If one of these folks could be transported in a time machine back to their preferred golden age, it’s a good bet that, before long, they’d end up wishing they’d booked a return ticket.
Personally, I happen to like Key West right now, and experience tells me there’s a great deal to be satisfied with about the Church today as well. I don’t know what that says about my Catholic psychology, but I do know that taking comfort in the present at least helps keep my heartburn levels manageable.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr
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