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The Befuddlement of American Catholicism

Oh, those medieval yearnings!

By From the March 1984 issue

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In the opening volume of his recent two-volume Catholicism, the Rev. Richard P. McBrien describes the present state of the Catholic Church as one of crisis. Though I should prefer the term confusion, and others would speak even more strongly, few are so blind as not to sense that something is wrong. Mass attendance is at an all-time low, as are vocations. Official Church teaching, where it is not misunderstood, is ignored. A generation of Catholics, many the products of 16 years of Catholic education and most far more affluent and privileged than their fathers, are today reaching adulthood ignorant of even the bare rudiments of their faith. The vaunted teaching unity of the bishops is mocked, as American bishops issue letter after letter at odds with those of their brothers in other countries, on issues from El Salvador to nuclear arms. On a local level, weary parishioners force themselves Sundays to Mass, where they are subjected to spectacles ranging from the sentimental to the sanctimonious.

In the United States, the confusion surrounding the Church moved into the front page when the bishops released their pastoral on nuclear arms last May. Even more than Pope Paul VI's birth-control encyclical Humanae Vitae, this recent pastoral letter polarized the American Catholic community: not only is there substantial disagreement concerning the thrust and content of the letter, but a good many citizens--Catholic and non-Catholic alike--bitterly resent the bishops' foray into the area at all. Indeed, the primary enthusiasm for the bishops' pastoral has come from the clergy themselves, and the warm reception the bishops received from the media (who do not hesitate to excoriate them on such matters as abortion and tuition credits) doubtless must be a pleasant change. The bishops consequently plan to preach next on the American economy, and after that--who knows? More important, who will care? In this his much-trumpeted era, the layman has found himself pushed aside by eager clerics plunging into the crassest and most moralistic politicking since the Temperance Movement. It is a clerical intrusion into almost all aspects of secular life.

No one seriously disputes the obligation of the clergy, especially bishops, to speak out on contemporary problems, which occasionally must have some political ramifications. But few religious today are content with "some," forgetting that the Catholic tradition is a rich one, embracing many different peoples and systems and not properly identified with any one (the word of course means universal). Though Catholics must accept much on faith (e.g., the divinity of Christ, the Eucharist) most of daily living is open to various and often opposing interpretations by men of good will (e.g., what constitutes a just war). Moral reasoning--which, after all, has been around much longer than Christianity--is rarely clear-cut with regard to action, involving as it does striking that difficult balance between competing goods and unavoidable evils; otherwise there would be no dilemmas. During the Vietnam War, for instance, Michael Novak and William Buckley reached different conclusions about its justness, yet both conclusions derived from the same principles. This is what gives life its complexity, makes it difficult. It is therefore a long way from the Golden Rule to a moral mandate for national health insurance.

The proper and highly important role of the clergy, then, is to enunciate such principles clearly so that anyone--soldiers, bankers, housewives, clerks, and so on--can apply them to the myriad difficulties that crop up daily, with all the attendant contingencies. Less than answers, what the laity need are guidelines, a special way of looking at and evaluating the world, a perspective on life. The layman's earthly domain is never as neat and precise as the moral theologian's textbook would have it.

Because politics by nature is supremely practical, it most closely resembles daily living in that the best one can hope for often is only a lesser evil. Most people (possibly because they have no, choice) learn to accept this. They are used to the idea that any moral decision typically involves undesirable side effects that can only be borne. So the average parishioner with a wife and some far-from-angelic kids is virtually immune to utopian promises of peace and harmony on earth; he knows he cannot get it in his own home. A far more likely candidate is the pastor's earnest and idealistic young assistant, who may be seduced by how easily problems resolve themselves on paper and in sermons. Like the proverbial absent-minded professor, he is not the person one wants left watching the store.

Yet in the past two decades the American laity has found its role usurped by religious more dictatorial and self-righteous (and far less practical) than any rural nineteenth-century Irish pastor. The degree of clericalization here is unprecedented. Dissatisfied and unfulfilled, a goodly percentage of those priests, brothers, and sisters who did not outright abandon their vows flocked to the political arena, everything from running for congressional office to issuing policy statements on nearly every conceivable issue ("The Church has a particular responsibility to address the moral questions involved in the issue of stripmining"). The difficult and frustrating job of keeping a grade school afloat or even listening to confessions can seem tame next to the glitter of life as a silk-stocking lobbyist for Network (a liberal nuns' group) or director of some diocesan Peace and Justice Commission. Predictably, this has been accompanied by the unfortunate emergence of a Baltimore Catechism of political faith, where everything is spelled out and the wheat is separated from the chaff. Though the prophets speak eloquently of a "hidden God," these religious seem to have no doubt where He would stand on rent control.

IN PRACTICE THE POLITICS that the Catholic clergy and those most prominently associated with the Catholic tag have taken up is almost exclusively of the Left, increasingly the far Left. There is Father Drinan screeching to the Nation of the Reagan Administration's perfidy, using language William Jennings Bryan must have employed against the heathen. Colman McCarthy envisions a one holy Church led by brothers Berrigan and excommunicating insurance salesmen and FBI agents. The Hon. Edward Kennedy is a hero, epitomizing the New Age Catholicism where public posturing substitutes for private virtue. Then there is the charming Father McBrien, usually found on CBS explaining to the uninitiated either that the Pope does not mean what he just said or that he really does not understand what he just said. Michael Harrington, an agnostic who now calls himself a "cultural Catholic" (he wasn't always so scrupulous), no longer believes in God but retains that wonderfully childlike faith in federal soup kitchens. And the ubiquitous Father Hesburgh, celebrated for his independence by everyone from Ann Landei's to Cardinal Bernardin, has a distressing history of basing his independence on yesterday's New York Times editorial. And all through the choir the chorus is the same: No salvation outside the Democratic party.

Despite the "progressive" label these activist religious are fond of applying to themselves, they in fact appear to be lusting for the sort of prestige and authority enjoyed by their predecessors back in the Middle Ages, administering great nations, arbitrating international disputes, crowning emperors. The guiding thinker behind the Catholic Worker movement, Peter Maurin, made no bones about the medievalist nature of his proposals. But against the old notion of reaching out to convert the world, our American churchmen today are intent only on prostrating themselves before the boot of Mammon--the least likely way of getting its respect. Professor James Hitchcock has noted that far from believing the Church has any real mission in the world, these churchmen believe themselves the world's missionaries to the Church. Apparently, they believe politics is the way to do this. Why tell people things they don't want to hear (but will listen to) when it is far less taxing to make lofty proclamations in favor of peace, justice, and mercy. There is much less personal risk. Last year in the New Republic, Patrick Glynn described how after Vatican II it was the political wing of the American Church that emerged the strongest. "The resulting structural incentives have operated powerfully on the bishops," Glynn noted, "since to speak of such matters as birth control and priestly celibacy has been to risk a torrent of abuse." Anyone doubting the validity of Glynn's statement has only to look at what happens to bishops who do not toe the media line, for media respect is a costly commodity. The built-up contempt the master has for his mouthpiece will spill forth whenever the latter attempts to assert himself.

Detroit Archbishop Szoka, for example, was depicted as a hidebound reactionary when he insisted that Sr. Agnes Mary Mansour keep her promise to oppose abortion, one of the preconditions for the archbishop's granting her permission to take the job as Michigan's director of social services. Explaining her refusal to obey Archbishop Szoka, Sr. Mansour stated, "I believe in a tradition of obedience more fully developed." How impossible to imagine a similar statement issuing from the lips of Mother Teresa--or, for that matter, from the lifelong radical Dorothy Day, who always maintained she would shut down the Catholic Worker were her bishop to request it. But in the "more fully developed" tradition of obedience, rendering unto Caesar means first and foremost getting on his payroll.

Confusion over roles is also magnified when religious take up jobs like Sr. Mansour's or Father Drinan's. Non-Catholics understandably have great difficulty separating the postures of individual Catholics (especially of priests, brothers, and nuns) from official Church teaching; Catholic laity sometimes have the same problem, albeit to a lesser degree. Yet the worst danger is to the religious themselves, the tendency to equate their own specific policy choice--practical interpretation of principle--with the only legitimate moral choice. In this way people who disagree come to be seen not as mistaken, but as evil, morally callous. Take for instance a sentence from the failed Trappist Colman McCarthy: "Officials of the Reagan Administration appeared determined not to see anything unfair, much less immoral, about the coexistence of bulging warehouses and empty stomachs, nor anything shameful about a nation of food lines." The world is the less for it that Mr. McCarthy did not stick to his vow of silence.

The reason for all this moralism is human nature: When people feel in sole possession of all the answers, dissent must be evil. How opposed this is to the Catholic heritage of 2,000 years, which emphasizes only the right questions. Yet how characteristic it is of current Catholic discourse in America, from Archbishop Quinn's suggestion that Catholics in the military refuse any order to detonate a nuclear warhead to McCarthy's virtually accusing Ronald Reagan of personally willing hunger in America. It also comes out in cases involving political apostates like Michael Novak, vilified as a sort of Yankee Antichrist not because of any doctrinal differences with the Church but because of his refusal to sing the praises of collectivism. The Rev. Andrew Greeley summed it up when he called Novak a "turncoat." The controversy over Novak led author Robert Benne to make this point in the correspondence section of the liberal Catholic weekly, Commonweal: "I have found that when Christians of a conservative economic and political perspective disagree with me, they often say that I am naive, sentimental, or utopian. When Christians of the left disagree, I am often charged with immorality." Believing they have exclusive rights to moral interpretation, what the Catholic Left actually hold, is an exclusive claim on a Fundamentalism that divides people into the sinners and the saved. The history of theocracies is not a pleasant one, no less so for what a theocracy does to those in charge.

AS A GROUP, the American nuns best personify the confusion in the Church, having succumbed in large number to the most bizarre male conspiracy theories of feminist ideology. During his visit to the United States, John Paul II was publicly rebuked by Sr. Theresa Kane (superior of Sr. Mansour's order), who thus achieved instant celebrity status. Others like Sr. Margaret Trexler speak of the Pope's obvious "psychological problems." "The reason men want us in a habit," Sr. Trexler told the National Catholic Register, "is so they can know we're their property. It does something for their macho."

Today these nuns (the ones remaining) together with their feminist allies are speaking openly of a "Women's Church." According to feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther, "We are Woman Church, not in exile, but in exodus. We flee the thundering armies of Pharoah. We are not waiting for a call to return to the land of slavery and to serve as altar girls in the temples of patriarchy."

Miss Reuther's fiery words were addressed to a conference called "Women Church Speaks," which included Catholics for a Free Choice (a pro-abortion group) and a caucus from the Conference for Catholic Lesbians, piqued because there was no specifically gay topic on the official agenda. A Sandinista feminist named Magda Enriquez accused the U.S. of both attempting to "create world opinion", to "justify aggression" in Nicaragua and preventing "the Church in Latin America from seeing that the revolution and Christianity are the same thing." Many nuns sported "I'm Poped Out" buttons, and of course the air was thick with charges of sexism. The only thing missing was a surprise appearance by Maria Monk.

From the Register accounts it seemed remarkably similar to my own memories of a conference on women's preaching: the ritualistic denunciation of the apparently omnipresent male chauvinists; the neorevivalist fervor as woman after woman jumped up to share her own personal experience of sexism, all to nodding heads and silent "Amens." Everyone, it turned out, was either oppressed or repressed, or both. One prays it is true that, as one nun said, "Many moderates take refuge in silence."

Nevertheless these nuns do show several recurring characteristics. For one thing, most of these nuns are middle-aged (possibly this is because our progressive orders are starving for vocations). For another, it is increasingly observed that those nuns who do make the front page or the evening news present at best an unflattering spectacle: Not plain (which would lend them a sort of charm), an unhealthy percentage appear, as Tom Bethell has noted in these pages, downright dykish. The hatred of all things male spewing from their mouths does little to dissuade people from the unsavory conclusions I have heard even schoolchildren make.

What we really have here, I suspect, is no more than the ecclesiastical contingent of the bored middle-aged housewife, who at least had the grace to take up relatively harmless pursuits like bad poetry. But our nuns have crusader blood in their veins. They aim to stamp out iniquity no matter what the cost. Their claims on behalf of "the people" notwithstanding, the sobering truth is that God forbid the people ever did come to power most of these nuns would find themselves in jail. Had they ever bothered to ask, they would have found that the single most common complaint lay people have about their priests today is that the latter are not masculine enough; I am not sure that the majority of lay people wouldn't be in favor of a little male oppression. Ironically, too, criticism of an effete priesthood appears most popular among women laity.

BUT AMONG THE FUNDAMENTALIST contingent, for whom faith in the correctness of their political opinions is absolute and unquestioned, experience is rigorously excluded. It is not even considered admissable as evidence to point out the way something is. So when Archbishop Hunthausen of Seattle can "say with deep consciousness of these words that the [U.S. submarine] Trident base is the Auschwitz of Puget Sound," he is blissfully impervious to pleas that some important (and obvious) distinctions be made, not only between the nature of the Third Reich and the United States but also between the flesh-and-blood victims of Auschwitz and the alleged "victims" of the Trident. The essence here is that the Hunthausens cannot be argued with, because while they have all the answers they have no rational framework for reaching them.

Obviously, the problem with the Church is not that there are liberal, even radical, Catholics; the problem is when they equate the two words, and the deadly complacency and concomitant moralism it breeds. To prate of the "political implications of the Gospel" in terms of specific policy is sheer rubbish; such specifics as the Church does give almost always proscribe rather than prescribe, for example the condemnations of Nazism and Communism. As for the rest, it is up to people's own adaptation of principles according to conscience.

So when commentators on the Catholic Left accuse their nonradicalized coreligionists of having no more than a misty hankering for pomp and circumstance, Latin and incense, black habits and organ music, they completely miss the boat. Because really quite the opposite is true. For many of these people their greatest peace and consolation derives from the quiet dignity of the daily Mass, a small but invaluable refuge from the carnival-like atmosphere of the contemporary Sunday big-top. There, in humble side chapels of often appalling design, they are able to worship God without distraction from a thousand liturgical gimmicks, ranging from the insipid ("Happy Birthday Jesus" birthday cakes on Christmas), to the polemical (hellfire sermons against tuna factories in Peru), to the distasteful (obese liturgical dancers in tight pink leotards bounding up the aisle at the Offertory). What the tired sinners want is not answers but a touch of the transcendent, a glimpse of things hoped for but not expected to be seen.

This was the vision, after all, that guided the Church through almost two thousand years, a vision that could exert a powerful influence even on an agnostic like Mencken. "The Latin Church," he once wrote, "which I constantly find myself admiring, despite its frequent astounding imbecilities, has always kept clearly before it the fact that religion is not a syllogism but a poem." Just as artists and writers can get so close to their work as to be blinded to its beauty, impervious to its symbols, so too can priests and nuns lose their perspective, taking the drama of life for granted. They need occasionally to step back from the immediate concern to take in the whole, much as the painter steps back from his canvas and the poet reads his words aloud.

Oils, vestments, candles, wine, water, bread--truly they are all preposterous things from which to fashion worship. In fact, a faith in a Messiah born of a Virgin Jewess is preposterous as well. But the only thing more preposterous than faith in an unseen God is faith in a very visible man, who over his several millenia on this orb has amassed a pathetic record of cruelty, barbarism, and fanaticism in nearly every place at nearly every time. The ridiculous spectacle of a crotchety old pastor attempting to remove The Catcher in the Rye from his school's bookshelf pales when placed against the manifest folly of a bloodless Sidney Webb or the lugubrious intonations of a Carl Sagan.

For what is the Bible if not great literature, its people--Abraham, David, Joseph, Mary, Judas--all characters in a divine plot, fashioned in the image and likeness of their Creator. Moses' flight from Egypt, the eloquence of the Song of Songs, the Christ born in a Bethlehem manger, Paul's exhortations to the Corinthians, each has in common with great art the sense of something timeless and transcendent yet taken from the things of the earth. In this same sense sacraments are nothing but holy metaphors, inspiring the imagination to understand where the pure intellect comes up short.

Moral dilemmas are not new. To claim that we face greater burdens than past citizens have faced is to skate on the edge of a special kind of hubris. Certainly the spectacle of a nuclear holocaust is frightening. But what must it have been like to hear with Augustine about the fall of Rome, and all it stood for. Or to live through the Plague. Or to be around during the French Revolution when the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris was first sacked and then renamed the Temple of Reason?

What the American Catholic Church needs to recover most is its unique sense of the world, that of a sacramental Church whose legions are of sinners, a Church of the flesh, rooted in the earth the Lord created and found good but not of it. What it needs least is the sort of Fundamentalism that Mencken spent a lifetime attacking. The crisis of the Church today has nothing to do with politics and everything to do with poetry. At least in the United States, it is a confusion among the poets themselves.


William McGurn is managing editor of This World magazine and contributing editor of The American Spectator.

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