A great many keyboards have suffered a great deal of clacking over the topic of “Catholic guilt,” a phenomenon which ex-Catholics blame for their neuroses and dietary restrictions. This confuses practicing Catholics, for whom “Catholic guilt” more often refers to the shame that overwhelms them when their cell phone goes off during Mass.
“I mean, sweet Cyril and Methodius,” one interviewee cursed in my confidence. “I wouldn’t wish it on anyone — not even a visiting Episcopalian. One moment you’re buried under the weight of the divine mysteries, contemplating the infinite humility of a God who condescends to meet his people under the sacramental veil of bread and wine, and the next moment, your R. Kelly ringtone is competing with the Kyrie.”
“You have an R. Kelly ringtone?” I inquired without judgment.
“The point is that like, sure, we’re all happy that the liturgical renewal is taking off; that we understand the value of contemplative silence in the same churches where we once thought young people liked tambourines. But at least when everyone was belting “Let Us Build a City of God” it smothered R. Kelly’s 2001 hit “I Believe I Can Fly” long enough for you to make a dive for your purse.”
“So you do have-”
“But Gregorian chant? Are you kidding me? Zero cloaking value. You may as well time-travel a backhoe into a medieval monastery and expect the abbot to be cool.”
“So what do you do when it goes off?”
“I sort of bow my head and mutter ‘Oh God, I’m so sorry’. Depending on the part of the Mass, this can blend in pretty well.”
I spoke to ex-psychotherapist and current queer theorist Dick Cheney (no relation) from Jesus College at Oxford University. He agreed.
“It’s a rich phenomenon that reveals a serious gap in our study of the emotional regimes deployed by Catholicism.”
“Deployed — like a navy?”
“Right. The conceptual wrack on which I like to stretch out the phenomenon to reveal its inner logic is the (hetero)normative Five Stages of Grief.”
“It’s so crazy that I hear ellipses when I speak with you, Dick.”
“First, there’s Shock and Disbelief. Subjects hear the first vibration of iPhone against wooden pew and they quite literally disbelieve their own ears — or their own backsides, as the case may be. This transitions almost immediately into the second stage: Denial.”
“Oh yeah, I’ve totally been there,” said Theresa-Athanasius, mother of eleven. “Your first reaction is always: ‘That’s not my phone. That’s just the Holy Spirit communicating in groans that surpass all understanding. But that doesn’t usually last, because you’re at Mass, which is the ordinary means by which the love of God is communicated to the Christian soul, so it’s unlikely that the Holy Spirit, in his wisdom, has chosen this moment to speak to you in a private, extraordinary manner, you know?”
“So then you’re like, ‘it’s that punk Theresa-Irenaeus.’ Maggie’s kid. You love her in all charity, but still, she’s the worst, and honestly, if she’s the kind of girl who stays up until three in the morning texting my Dominic-Ambrose, she’s probably not the kind of girl who thinks, ‘Hey, I should really silence my Snapchat-machine out of reverence for the Holy Sacrifice.’”
“Usually by the third ring, you’ve come to terms with the fact that it’s you.”
“You have to apply all the mean things you thought about Theresa-Irenaeus to yourself.”
“I imagine that can be difficult.”
Theresa-Athanasius thought about this, unbuttoning her blouse to feed Christopher Pius, age two. “Self-abasement isn’t difficult.” she concluded. “Not when you realize it as an act of loving obedience to our Savior’s command to ‘take the plank out of your own eye before you judge the speck in your neighbors’ eye.’ What’s difficult is fishing a vibrating phone from underneath a bunker of diapers, cheerios, and extra mantillas, all guarded by a teething toddler with exalted notions of private property. It becomes a very subtle question of which will be more disruptive — my phone going off, or me trying to get to my phone.”
This paradox was consistently restated by my interviewees. Will Torpid, from Holy Comforter parish in Louisville, recalled his own encounter with the problem.
“I was taking up the collection, trying to keep my eye on old Joe, cause old Joe, he’s got a habit of lingering over the basket when it gets passed his way, and it ain’t because he’s tied up figuring out how much a tithe is, if you take my meaning. Then I hear my phone going off at the back, where the ushers like to hang out and shoot the [deleted]. My phone has that ring that everyone has — the one that sounds like maybe Wookies wrote it — so everyone starts checking their phones. Even when you know it ain’t your phone, you still have to pull it out and give it a kind of “not me” frown so that the bum next to you knows that it ain’t your phone.”
“Right. So your phone was ringing-”
“Right, so it’s ringing, and I’m thinking maybe it’s Tony, but then I’m thinking, maybe it’s my alarm, and then I’m thinking, [deleted] [deleted]ing [deleted], what if people think I set my alarm to wake up thirty minutes after Sunday Mass, like some kind of apostate? So I start trying to go to the back, subtle-like. Now, when you pass a basket down a pew you’ve got twenty, maybe thirty seconds before some meathead gets confused and passes it the wrong way, so I’m power-walking, and Karl (he heads up the Knights of Columbus) he’s giving me this look, like, ‘never abandon a moving collection basket, Private!’ but I keep going, and then some homeschooler gets confused and tries to hand me a five for the second collection and I side-step him and blam! walk straight into Sister Deb, and she’s holding the ciborium for the presentation of the gifts-”
“I’m sorry, the what?”
“That’s right, I meant the paten, and it goes flying, but I catch it, along with all the communion bread that the Sisters make. I played catcher in high school.”
“I think I see. And what did you take from the experience?”
“That girls shouldn’t be altar servers.”
“That’s a hot take, Will.”
“No disrespect, but this altar girl is there, and she’s a lucifer-”
“That might be too hot of a take, Will.”
“I mean she’s holding the candle and she’s watching the whole thing and she starts to laugh and she ducks her head down so I won’t see her and her hair falls into the candle and it catches on fire and I panic because I don’t have an extinguisher so I just take my wallet out of my pocket and start smacking at the flames but her mother doesn’t see the flames she just sees a man assaulting her daughter with a wallet so she throws a missal-”
“Right, but regarding phones-”
“Oh, mine had stopped ringing a while ago. One of those calls from ‘restricted’ where no one says anything.”
When I relayed the story to Cheney, he said that it was typical for masculinist Catholics upholding a interminably misogynistic institution to be threatened by the presence of female altar servers as they represented a parodic subversion of the phallic order.
“Right, but about the phone. My article has a kind of phone angle.”
“The phallic order always redirects the angle of discourse to maintain and distribute its power.”
“But this is sort of a ‘tech problems in contemporary Catholicism’ bit, Dick.”
“That’s why the phallocentric order has to assault female altar servers — their abject bodies loosen the strai(gh)tjacket by redeploying gender as a performative act devoid of any natural essence.”
I had to leave. I was late for an interview with Father Murphy. Father Murphy had lived through World War II, Vatican II, Rush Hour II, and the word “meme,” too. I figured he would be able to give a pastoral perspective on the problem of telephonic Catholic guilt. When I found him, he was putting his vestments away in the sacristy.
“I think it’s great,” he said, folding a chasuble. “When you’re reading the Gospel, and you hear a tweedle, a buzz, or some metronomic dinging, it’s a sign that the Gospel is reaching people right where they’re at — right in the center of their busy, technological lives.”
“Wow, you really think that?”
“No one thinks that.”
“Right. Well, what do you think?”
Father Murphy looked at me. His eyes reverberated like twin gongs struck deep inside a Buddhist temple.
“You ever ridden in a sidecar?” he asked, straightening his collar.
I had not. It was exhilarating. Five minutes later, we were outside a bar. The door appeared to be locked, but Father Murphy rapped a triplet on the tinted glass and whispered “Dominus vobiscum” and, with a muttered response of “et cum spiritu tuo”, it opened. Two large whiskeys later, and Father Murphy started quoting Aquinas.
“What’s a habit, Marc?”
“A habit?” I was back in catechism class. “A habit is a disposition of the soul.”
“That’s right. So a man with the habit of courage is disposed to perform acts of courage. And how do you get a habit?”
“Some habits, sure, like the habit of wisdom. But most habits come from repeated actions. Like biting your nails. Eventually your repeated actions form a bad-”
“Good, Marc. A bad habit. Aquinas calls our habitual existence our “second nature,” showing how our repeated actions congeal into the very stuff of who we are, proving the old adage true — ‘we are what we repeatedly do.’ But do you know what Merleau-Ponty would say?”
“No, Marc. You don’t. Merleau-Ponty would say that it isn’t just the soul that is disposed to a certain “nature” by repeated actions. The body is too. Of course, this is already in Aquinas, because for him, the soul and the body are irreducibly unified in the human person. That’s why the good Doctor can speak of physical acts, like “shipbuilding,” as habits, just as much as intellectual acts — like prudence or pride. The readiness to perform acts of shipbuilding doesn’t just occupy some inner psychic space; it’s in the body of the builder body, in his “muscle memory” as the kids say. But I’ll let you in on a little secret, Marc. Everything is already in Aquinas.”
Father Murphy nodded gravely and crushed a peanut under his palm. “Everything. Still, Merleau-Ponty says it well, for a Frenchman. Here, take a look.” He rolled up a clerical sleeve and showed me the tattoo that ran the length of his forearm. I read aloud: “To get used to a hat, a car, or a stick is to be transplanted into them, or conversely, to incorporate them into the bulk of our own body. Habit expresses our power of dilating our being in the world, or changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments.”
“You get that, Marc? And that’s the answer to your phone problem.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Get woke, Marc. What’s a phone? It’s an instrument through which we perform repeated actions. If Merleau-Ponty is correct — and I don’t get tattoos for nothing — then we would have to argue that the repeated action of phone-use incorporates the device into the bulk of our body.”
“So, the phone is — it’s a tool.”
“A tool that becomes a part of our bodies through repeated use.”
“Yes, but slow your roll, Marc, because there’s more to it. A hammer is a tool that gets incorporated into the body of its user. That’s why, for a kid playing carpenter, the hammer appears as an awkward thing that he has to aim at a nail; but when a carpenter is hammering, the hammer doesn’t appear as a thing at all. It is incorporated, an extension of his arm. But here’s the thing about hammers, Marc. They’re made with a particular end in mind.”
“Right. You’re very clever, no matter what they say about you online. And no carpenter feels this lived communion with his tools outside of the actual acts in which his tool-use consists, right?”
“I mean, he doesn’t feel the hammer as an extension of his arm when he’s shaking hands with the Mayor or brushing his teeth, right?”
“But what’s the end of a smartphone?”
“Savvy price comparisons.”
“News-reading, social media, sexual arousal-”
“Confessions are at 9am on Saturday-”
“-navigating, music, recording, photography, videography, seeing what you look like as a dog, seeing what you look like as your mother, seeing what you and your girlfriend would look like if you became each other-”
Father Murphy coughed. “The point, Marc, is that it’s the nature of the smartphone screen, with its capacity for holding an infinite number of objects out for view, to appear as useful for anything in particular. So, while the feeling of bodily communion with a hammer is limited to actual acts of hammering, the feeling of bodily communion with the smartphone seeps out across the whole of a man’s life.
Think about it. We would take it as a disease if a man, having gained habitual mastery over the tools and skills of bookbinding, were to feel the spontaneous motions of sewing and gluing overtake his hands at the dinner table. But we take it as a matter of course that, having entered into bodily communion with our smartphones, we now feel them vibrating in our pockets even when we have left them at home; that we feel the urge to touch them, hold them, and reassure ourselves of their presence, even though we know they are in our pocket; that we need to check them during activities as diverse as sexual intercourse and a professor’s lecture; that their visible presence on our desks or in our room will draw and fascinate our attention. This is because no particular set of acts binds the smartphone in its place. It is experienced as being with us constantly and unreservedly. It is not a tool used for a particular action — it is a tool indefinitely useful for an infinite number of actions, and so its communion with the body is felt as an indefinitely realizable potential. This is why people take pictures that they don’t plan on looking at; this is why they compulsively check empty inboxes; this is why they panic when they find themselves phoneless: they quite literally feel the need to use their phones haloing every phoneless action as a real possibility — something mankind never felt with the hammer, the swiss army knife, or even the Fender bass.
Any act of limitation, in which the smartphone is reserved for a fixed number of acts, times, places and situations, is an act of resistance that runs contrary to the essence of smart-technology. So it’s never a simple limitation (as when I limit my use of the lawnmower to Saturday mornings) but a lenten limitation — one which requires struggle and suffering and a certain violence against what is utterly natural to the device. Without this act of violence, the smartphone, in accordance with its nature, tends towards a life lived totally in, through and with its mediation.”
“But what does this have to do with phones going off at Mass?”
“The smartphone is incorporated into our body. When do we experience a part of our body going off against our will and causing us shame?”
“I was thinking of flatulence, Marc. A phone going off at Mass is a kind of technological flatulence. In the case of actual flatulence, we feel a shame proper to the human condition, the shame of being a spiritual being who is, nevertheless, limited by a particular, mortal body. Just at the moment of our purest spiritual intentions, some gurgle in our guts draws us back down to the earth, reminding us that we are dependent on a body that goes on without us, a body that we do not control, a body that we did not choose or bring into being but a body which, nevertheless, we are. I think God uses flatulence to draw us away from spiritualism.
Technological flatulence is a different matter. It does not remind us of a fundamental dependence of spirit on the body, but of the fundamental dependence of the person on technological systems, over which he exerts little control and almost no understanding, but which are nevertheless incorporated into his total existence. Our shame is not the shame of the spiritual being who remembers he is body, but of an embodied being who suddenly remembers that this body of his is exposed and extended into an extraneous device which connects him, in a total manner, to wealthy men upon whom he depends to provide him with his means of communication, navigation, entertainment, and all the rest.
So when I’m giving the homily, and I hear a cell phone go off, and I see Theresa-Athanasius blush and dive for her purse, I’m really hearing the uncontrolled sphincter of a people whose bodily existence now includes a vital connection to a new digestive system, a new reproductive system, a new vocal system, all owned and operated by the kings of Silicon Valley — and I’m seeing the shame of a slave. That these systems chirp and buzz apart from the will and desire of their users is the sound of a simple fact: they are not merely the users of their phones, they are also the used. This is, I suppose, the new mortality, the new corporeality, and the sounds we make are not our own. The night is coming quick, Marc! The pieces are in order! Awake, O Sleeper! Don’t be lulled into oblivion by the normalcy of our technocracy! There is no idolatry that doesn’t appear as normal, expected, and proper! Resist the machinations of the servile state by an unwavering devotion to the Church, who alone makes men free!”
I thought about this, the whiskey warm in my belly.
“But if you silenced your phone-”
Father Murphy gazed on me with eyes that had seen the depths and comprehended the Leviathan that swam therein. “It’d help,” he said, and stood up from the bar. “It’d help.”