I am over-caffeinated in an impeccably designed coffee shop listening to its pop music. (Have you noticed how pop music has taken on a kind of grandiose, apocalyptic sound of late? As if all its singers were dying for love in a dark, brooding technoscape? I’ve noticed.)
Anyways, I’m listening to coffee-shop pop in the worst part of central Oxford — the bit where the medieval city stutters and peters out and turns into an American-style mall. (The Oxford Times informed me that the Shopping Centre has become the new city center, as fewer people are shopping on the historic Cornmarket Street. And while this probably has to do with the fact that medieval architecture and cultural history will always be abandoned for convenient stores until a genuine spirit of religious festival gives cities back their soul, it may also be the fault of the fellow who plays the bagpipes too enthusiastically on Cornmarket).
The point is that I am sitting, impeccably-caffeinated, safe from bagpipes, listening to over-designed pop music, and I just heard one girl say to another, “I, like, can’t believe the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist.” (Have you noticed how, when you’re sitting anonymous and caffeinated in a foreign coffee-shop, half-listening to grandiose pop, the mention of the Holy Sacrament terrifies you, as if someone had called your first and last name from a loudspeaker at a free concert you scarcely intended on attending? I’ve noticed.)
John Rawls famously argued that in a liberal society, no one should have a “dominant end,” that is, a purpose, or a goal “to which all other ends are subordinate.” He considers having a dominant end “as irrational, or more likely as mad.” I used to think John Rawls was the mad one, until coffee-girl continued with: “Like, what are they, cannibals? Do they think the bread turns into protein when they eat it?” Now I realize that having the dominant end of “the salvation of myself and others” really is a kind of madness — at least when it makes itself felt in a coffee-shop, where everyone is listening to bagpipe-free music and Facebooking happily. Strange, illiberal, caffeinated feelings swell: I have to break the coffee-shop peace. I have to say something. Accursed dominant end! Perhaps I should just leave.
I should at least note my emotions for posterity. My face feels cold and hot, as if I were at a free concert I scarcely intended on attending and a high-beam stage-light is shining on my face to single me out for winning a raffle that I did not enter. I have just packed up all my things and am sitting with my bag on my lap, not leaving. I am trying not to hear them and trying desperately to hear them. I am sipping thoughtfully from an empty cappuccino cup. In short, I am experiencing the least Catholic of any given reaction to mention of the Holy Sacrament and the most typical reaction that can be expected of any given Catholic — intense awkwardness.
This reaction — I’m telling myself this now — this comes from sipping from the cappuccino of contemporary liberalism. Liberalism, what with its nearly-accepted doctrine that the religious life of individuals is a private affair. Why interrupt? Why bother? Why impose yourself on the private sphere, why shake this peaceful kingdom of loosely assembled opinions with a claim to revealed truth, why follow the banned and castigated “dominant end” wherever it leads? (And besides this, why enforce the mostly accurate stereotype of Americans as horrible, classless, religious zealots to the British, bastions of propriety? I’m not in the academic-medieval part of the city, where I could entertain the fantasy of being roused into an academic discourse, no, I am in the Shopping Centre, where any unsolicited sermon on the Holy Eucharist would sound like, well, an unsolicited sermon on the Holy Eucharist. (Though, on the bright side, if word gets around that the religious zealots of the United States have sniffed out their natural habitat and are preaching in the mall, it might tip the socioeconomic balance in favor of bagpipe-beleaguered Cornmarket.))
Anyways, the battle between the detached liberal and the attached Catholic has been raging in my soul for an embarrassing number of grandiose pop songs. The Facebooking females have flown on to other topics. With every moment my sermon loses its appropriateness. Besides, what do I know about the Eucharist? I have been brain-wracking and have only wracked up a few half-remembered phrases like “the nuptial meeting of the soul with its Maker.” Thanks, brain. I’ll approach this perfectly innocent pair in this perfectly-designed shop, with: “Ladies, I have not been spying on you, but I could not help but notice you wondering whether Catholics were cannibals and I would like to speak with you about nuptials, and souls, and may I please take a seat?” They’ll probably jump out the windows. Or have my Student Visa taken away.
At least I’ve learned a lesson: The trouble with being a Catholic in the world is that the world is completely fine with you being a Catholic, so long as you consider your Catholicism as a sect, a privately held set of beliefs, one which you have no right to trouble others with. Meanwhile, your Catholicism politely suggests that you convert the entire world, and in fact, why haven’t you done it already, you half-wit. In short, Catholicism makes liberal existence impossible. There, I’ve learned something. Now can I go?
Can I pursue other ends?
Now I’m thinking about Campion. Edmund Campion, most British of martyrs; he’s probably rolling over in his grave. (Well he would be, if he hadn’t been quartered. Can the quartered roll?) He’s rolling, and probably with laughter. He had no liberal timidity, only Catholic temerity. I recall a story of Campion in Evelyn Waugh’s biography, how, as a Jesuit sneaking his way back into England, where the Catholic Faith was suppressed, he fell into a furious debate with a Protestant on some theological issue, and, when the debate was not settled by the end of their road together, he suggested that they stop, hold a formal debate on the topic, and the winner would get to burn the other at the stake. And here I sit, quaking with fear over correcting some charming ladies in a charming coffee shop in a safe-as-cotton Shopping Mall. Campion, defend me. Defend me from the malaise. Save me from unassailable walls of decorum and privacy that wrap men safe inside the castle of their own folly and ignorance. As we say in the States: “(sound of large gun loading) Cover me, I’m going in.”
Well, that went about as anyone would expect. I told those two, “Hey, you remember what you were saying about the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist? Would you stake your lives on it?” and started to pour kerosene on the coffee table.
I didn’t really. I introduced myself politely. I asked where they were from. To my great embarrassment, they were from the States. I awkwardly explained the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, wavering between a believer’s description of that marvel, God present to us until the end of the age, and a post-Christian, liberal description of what “Catholics” technically believe — as if I were a sympathetic, disinterested academic, here to correct some false opinions about a foreign religion called Catholicism. Between the two, I hope God found some room to work.
Campion, come to our aid.