The National Catholic Review

For a lifelong member of a large institution, at what point does a stance of healthy dissent toward that institution become a full-fledged breach? For a dozen years or so I’ve lived in a state of tension with the two most elemental institutions in my upbringing, the church and the state. My experience is not unique. I know countless others who happily grew up in the ways of the church and the nation, who recited the pledge of allegiance and the Nicene Creed, who cannot remember a time before they felt the secure embrace of their Catholic and American identities.

 

In fact, the two went hand in hand to a remarkable degree. When I conjure up images of the parish church of my youth, one of the most enduring images is of two flags hanging side by side high above the altar—the American flag and the flag of the Vatican. What I felt when seeing those two emblems together was pride and something more basic—a deep-seated identification with all that is good and right and godly. Church and country, faith and nationality—the flags symbolized twin truths about myself, unassailable pillars of strength and substance so much larger than myself that I could, I fervently believed, spend a lifetime pondering them.

Discovering the folly of youthful dreams and the fallibility of childhood idols is a needful rite of passage into adulthood and ought not be lamented. I easily relinquished my dream of being a pro football player and quickly forgot the pain of being dumped by a certain high school junior with whom I believed I had found true love. The trouble is, unlike these temporary sources of identity, my membership in the Catholic Church and my American citizenship cannot be casually cast off when they lose their luster.

In the wake of recent months’ events, I find myself increasingly at odds with those two seminal institutions under whose flags I was reared. More and more I find myself suspicious of nearly every dictate from Rome and Washington alike, shaking my head at the righteous claims and pronouncements by Mr. President or Mr. Secretary of Defense or His Eminence. For instance, Saddam Hussein is, by all accounts, an irredeemably heinous thug, but my outrage toward him is less passionate than my disappointment and disdain toward my own country’s bellicose and hypocritical grandstanding on the issues of weapons and the exercise of sovereignty. Similarly, while I loathe the ways in which Muslim extremists play out their equation between religion and jihad, I feel more deeply the pain caused by a church hierarchy that sees itself as unaccountable to laity and priests.

Abuse of power in institutions of which I am a part, institutions whose goodness I was raised to trust, is far more riling to me because it is closer, more personal. I am implicated in its failure just as indelibly as I am indebted to its success. When church leaders, for instance, fail to take responsibility for abuses of power, regarding themselves as above the people and above reproach, I feel even more outraged on behalf of the countless laypeople and priests who have worked tirelessly in the name of the church. North Korea is recognized universally as one of the most unenlightened and oppressive regimes in modern history; but when I see the leaders of my country, which recently announced that it would not hesitate to employ any weapon in its arsenal to defend itself, chastising North Korea for reactivating a nuclear facility, I wonder just how enlightened we really are.

My question—by no means a new one—is, how does one live with a jaundiced eye? The obvious answer is, either opt out or work for change from within. I have tried both. Let’s just say I have too many roots both in my Catholicism and in this country to abandon either one; and I do work for change, albeit in barely perceptible ways. So now what? The larger problems that I have with both the institutions in question are not about to change—perhaps never will.

The real question may be more constitutional than institutional. That is, it’s not so much, how do I live with this pope or that cardinal, this president or that chairman of the Joint Chiefs, but rather how do I live with imperfection. (Now there’s a softball for my friends and family to hit out of the park.) Having a critical disposition brings a discerning and restless temperament to every aspect of one’s experience, including the most trivial observations I may make in a supermarket checkout line.

As usual, tidy answers to this predicament are beyond my ken. I do know, however, that tension and dissent are the voices of yearning, and the possibility for knowing deep happiness and deep yearning at the same time is part of what imbues a people and a faith with an inexhaustible complexity. It is the propensity to mine and celebrate this complexity that makes me who I am; and it is the freedom to do so that makes me, still, an American Catholic. Learning to see the state of tension as a state of grace, feeling in dissent the woof and warp of my humanness, striving to appreciate more deeply the gifts of faith and freedom that I was given at birth—these are steps I can take. At the end of the day, they seldom feel particularly satisfying or just. And I’m not sure I know what would.

Comments

Don Jones | 2/1/2003 - 10:24pm
While you are too old to carry the unreasonable dreams of youth, you are not old enough to be so cynical on church & state. Yes, it seems that we are getting it from all sides -- Church scandals, corporate malfeasance, and an imperialistic government. Not to mention the everyday encounters with the loss of Christianity in the American ethics.

BUT, be heartened -- as the optimistic child when seeing nothing but a pile of manure... There must be a horse for me around here somewhere!

For the Church -- don't try to generalize from a few rotten apples. There are many (most) good Catholic clergy. Perhaps, a silver lining is that the laity is waking up to the fact that they can and will make a difference. That the hierarchy (i.e. Church) is really here for us laity and not vice versa. Recently (25 Jan.), I attended a very inspiring and uplifting presentation by Fr. Thomas Buckley, SJ, from the School of Theology in Berkeley. I was ready to start a Vatican III, but, now realize that, really, the spirit (and intent) of Vatican II is not complete. Pope John XXIII really wanted to throw open the window to let fresh air into the Church. Vatican II was like no other -- and, now, it's spirit must be activated. Groups, like Voice of the Faithful, for example, have great fundamental purposes -- and is making a difference today.

For our (apparent) imperialist government -- I think you're reading or hearing too much rhetoric. You need to put your Jesuit thinking cap on and put some logic between all the "facts" that we are bombarded with in the media. Bush is working with two brains -- the right (extreme) one with Chaney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz who promote imperialism and the "other" brain side with a more reasoned approach (Powell). Yes, N.Korea, Palestine, (and several others) need some "work" done. But, they'll have to wait their turn. For now, we should be supporting the enforcement of international (i.e. UN) resolutions -- which we are doing in Iraq. The "world", via the UN, has voted 15-0 to require Saddam to be accountable for previously known weapons or else receive "serious consequences". Res. #1441 says nothing about finding smoking guns. Saddam has defiantly violated nearly every provision in the resolution. So, now, it's consequences time -- for the sake of the free-world and Iraqi citizens.

So, cheer up, we can make a difference! God expects us to determine our own destiny -- and we can't let governance (church or state) get in the way. The administrative Church, especially in Rome, has little to do with our own personal true Catholic faith or religion. For the state-side, "all" that we have to do is to rally the silent majority -- perhaps, develop a militant middle majority! Yes, I'm still hanging both of my flags -- but, it does take more explanation these days!

John Dahmus | 2/3/2003 - 8:05pm
Thank you, Thomas McCarthy, for your thoughts on Rome and Washington (Jan. 20-27). I, too, "find myself suspicious of Rome and Washington alike." The parallels between the two centers of administration are unsettling--both insisting on their adherence to Christian principles, both claiming power prerogatives that do not seem to fit the humble carpenter from Nazareth who warned His apostles about "lord[ing] it over them" (Matt. 20:25). But unfortunately "power tends to corrupt," as Lord Acton so aptly phrased the issue. Like you, Mr. McCarthy, I often feel "riled" and "outraged." I am perhaps just a little more optimistic than you that the Holy Spirit will one day inspire both Rome and Washington to shift from their current styles of leadership to humble, selfless service of God's people.

Don Jones | 2/1/2003 - 10:24pm
While you are too old to carry the unreasonable dreams of youth, you are not old enough to be so cynical on church & state. Yes, it seems that we are getting it from all sides -- Church scandals, corporate malfeasance, and an imperialistic government. Not to mention the everyday encounters with the loss of Christianity in the American ethics.

BUT, be heartened -- as the optimistic child when seeing nothing but a pile of manure... There must be a horse for me around here somewhere!

For the Church -- don't try to generalize from a few rotten apples. There are many (most) good Catholic clergy. Perhaps, a silver lining is that the laity is waking up to the fact that they can and will make a difference. That the hierarchy (i.e. Church) is really here for us laity and not vice versa. Recently (25 Jan.), I attended a very inspiring and uplifting presentation by Fr. Thomas Buckley, SJ, from the School of Theology in Berkeley. I was ready to start a Vatican III, but, now realize that, really, the spirit (and intent) of Vatican II is not complete. Pope John XXIII really wanted to throw open the window to let fresh air into the Church. Vatican II was like no other -- and, now, it's spirit must be activated. Groups, like Voice of the Faithful, for example, have great fundamental purposes -- and is making a difference today.

For our (apparent) imperialist government -- I think you're reading or hearing too much rhetoric. You need to put your Jesuit thinking cap on and put some logic between all the "facts" that we are bombarded with in the media. Bush is working with two brains -- the right (extreme) one with Chaney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz who promote imperialism and the "other" brain side with a more reasoned approach (Powell). Yes, N.Korea, Palestine, (and several others) need some "work" done. But, they'll have to wait their turn. For now, we should be supporting the enforcement of international (i.e. UN) resolutions -- which we are doing in Iraq. The "world", via the UN, has voted 15-0 to require Saddam to be accountable for previously known weapons or else receive "serious consequences". Res. #1441 says nothing about finding smoking guns. Saddam has defiantly violated nearly every provision in the resolution. So, now, it's consequences time -- for the sake of the free-world and Iraqi citizens.

So, cheer up, we can make a difference! God expects us to determine our own destiny -- and we can't let governance (church or state) get in the way. The administrative Church, especially in Rome, has little to do with our own personal true Catholic faith or religion. For the state-side, "all" that we have to do is to rally the silent majority -- perhaps, develop a militant middle majority! Yes, I'm still hanging both of my flags -- but, it does take more explanation these days!

John Dahmus | 2/3/2003 - 8:05pm
Thank you, Thomas McCarthy, for your thoughts on Rome and Washington (Jan. 20-27). I, too, "find myself suspicious of Rome and Washington alike." The parallels between the two centers of administration are unsettling--both insisting on their adherence to Christian principles, both claiming power prerogatives that do not seem to fit the humble carpenter from Nazareth who warned His apostles about "lord[ing] it over them" (Matt. 20:25). But unfortunately "power tends to corrupt," as Lord Acton so aptly phrased the issue. Like you, Mr. McCarthy, I often feel "riled" and "outraged." I am perhaps just a little more optimistic than you that the Holy Spirit will one day inspire both Rome and Washington to shift from their current styles of leadership to humble, selfless service of God's people.

Robert Z. Apostol | 1/31/2007 - 10:58am
I applaud the latest column of Thomas J. McCarthy (1/27), entitled “Two Flags Side by Side High Above the Altar,” which is very timely. Many of us share the pride and identification with all that is good and godly that we see in the American flag and the flag of the Vatican in our churches.

Abuse of power in the institutions that these symbols represent deserves scrutiny during the adult stage of life. There is yet another danger in viewing national policies and church teachings as well as procedures as though they were eternal verities, objects of fetishism.

Rightly should we be reminded not to abdicate either faith or freedom, without which we shall fail to deal with the problems confronting us. All these demand questioning, if we are to remain active participants.

Bob McArdle | 1/31/2007 - 10:53am
Thomas McCarthy (1/20) seems to present a position somewhat similar to Dorothy Day’s, who wrote in The Long Loneliness: “I loved the Church for Christ made visible. Not for itself, because it was so often a scandal to me.”

Romano Guardini said, “The Church is the Cross on which Christ was crucified; one could not separate Christ from His Cross, and one must live in a state of permanent dissatisfaction with the Church.”

Fortunately for Dorothy Day, Romano Guardini, Thomas McCarthy, myself and a host of others, there is no disappointment in Christ!

Robert Z. Apostol | 1/31/2007 - 12:08pm
I applaud the timely recent column of Thomas J. McCarthy entitled “The Flags Side by Side High Above the Altar” (1/20). We share the pride and identification with all that is good and godly as we see the American flag and that of the Vatican displayed in churches.

Abuse of power in the institutions that these symbols represent does deserve scrutiny. There is yet another danger in viewing national policies and church teachings as well as procedures as though they were eternal verities, objects of fetishism.

All these require questioning if we are to remain active participants.

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