My experience of Southern Catholics is that they are like fried chicken: They may be spicy and crunchy on the outside—living from hand to mouth, building new churches and schools, and raising money for pet projects, realizing they are somewhat suspect and on the edge—but they are warm and tender on the inside.
“Oh yes. Definitely,” she replied, licking her fingers. “Along with peach cobbler, barbecue joints, grits, collard greens, cornbread, gospel music…” And so we could have gone on with the great long list of all things authentically Southern.
We moved to South Carolina nearly fifteen years ago from England. My wife is English and our two oldest children were in middle school when we arrived in Greenville. They remember England and still contrast the American South with Albion. For my part, I never could have dreamed when I graduated from Bob Jones University in 1978 that some thirty years later I’d be ordained as a Catholic priest in Greenville, South Carolina just a few miles from the campus of BJU.
As we live just up the road from Flannery O’Connor’s home in Milledgeville, getting out into the Southern countryside to sample the country culture is still a step into an O’Connor story. Therefore, being a Catholic in O’Connor country is also to share in her unique vision of the “Christ-haunted South.”
Catholics here are still in a minority. Even with the influx of Yankee Catholics from the North and Hispanic Catholics from further South we make up less than five percent of the population. As one picks up from O’Connor, to be a Catholic in the South is to stick out like a sore toe from a hillbilly boot. Consequently, Southern Catholics have a unique character unlike our Northern neighbors.
Like the fried chicken, we’re pungent. In other words, we tend to be somewhat militant in our Catholicism. Many of us are converts and we know that underneath their polite manners most of our fundamentalist neighbors still think the Catholic Church is the great whore of Babylon and the pope is the antichrist. That’s one of the reasons some of us priests wear cassocks and our pro-life teams wield their rosaries with pride. When we built a new, traditionally styled Romanesque church in our parish, the members of the building committee dismissed plans for a typical American suburban church that looks like an enormous concrete teepee. “We want a traditional Catholic Church because we’re in the South and we want the church to look Catholic and be different! We want it to be a statement,” they proclaimed. I could not disagree.
Also like the fried chicken, we’re spicy on the outside. Because we’re in the minority, we know what it means to have some bite and spice as we stand up for the faith. Like the ornery rebels of the South, we stick up for the faith both in the face of a secular culture and the face of the majority Protestant mentality. If we have a public procession of the Blessed Sacrament for Corpus Christi or process with an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we like seeing the raised eyebrows and dismayed expressions—the crossed arms and shaking heads and overhearing the whispered comments about “those Roman Catholic idol worshippers!”
There is no such thing as liberal, cultural Catholicism down here in Dixie, and that makes Southern Catholicism not only spicy, but crunchy. One Yankee East Coast establishment type sneered at us Southern Catholics as being “fundamentalists with incense.” We do like incense. It keeps the devil at bay and helps with the summer smells on a Southern afternoon.
More seriously, we’re crunchy, conservative Catholics and we don’t have time for the wishy-washy, politically correct, moralistic therapeutic Deism that passes for Catholicism in the old, Northern Catholic strongholds. We like converts, we’re not embarrassed about evangelization, and we’re not ashamed of restoring solemn, beautiful liturgy, architecture, and music. We preach from the Bible and the Fathers of the Church. We like St. Paul, not Saul Alinsky, and we prefer Gregorian chant to “Give Peace a Chance.”
Fried chicken is not chicken cordon bleu. It’s a down-home, economic menu item. Likewise, Southern Fried Catholics are low budget. We’re not loaded down with the comfortable, soggy heritage of hob-nobbing with the mayor and the chief of police, or the historic endowment funds, colleges, schools, and rich parishes with which our brothers in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago are blessed and cursed. We soldier on, living from hand to mouth, building new churches and schools, and raising money for pet projects realizing we are somewhat suspect and on the edge. Without lots of historic resources and without the support of an accompanying ethnic culture, Southern Catholics have on the outside the necessary crunch and spice that makes fried chicken so delicious.
Finally, Southern Fried Chicken may be spicy and crunchy on the outside, but it’s hot, juicy, and tender on the inside. My experience of Southern Catholicism is that it is certainly hot. We’re passionate about the Catholic faith, and if we criticize the lukewarm liberals, it’s not because we hate them, but because we love the church and hate to see what they’ve done to it. We’re juicy and tender-hearted because our hearts have been touched by the old-time religion, and because we care for the needy, the vulnerable, the castoffs, and the castaways. If we thought the dear old Baptist churches preached the old-time religion, Catholicism is even more old-time—by about another 1500 years.
So if you’re not from ‘round here and find yourself traveling through the Christ-haunted South, stop in to see us. We might even invite you to sit on the front porch, give you a glass of sweet tea and pork barbecue… and if you listen closely you might even hear the strains of a gospel quartet.
They’re trying to learn the Salve Regina.
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