For me, a Catholic bishop, the past four years have been Dickensian—the best of times and the worst of times. How they have been the worst of times hardly needs explanation, but the growing realization that they have also been the best of times has come to me as an ever-deepening conviction and will be a lasting heritage. This unexpected gift has come by way of my experience of the fidelity, courage and stubbornness of the American Catholic people. Back in 2002, how could one even have hoped that the church would survive the engulfing storm? It should be the equivalent of New Orleans after Katrina. The contrast, however, could not be greater.
In my pastoral visits I see optimism, commitment and a widespread willingness to face the challenges confronting the church. The sexual abuse crisis has given me a new awareness of the church as mystery, the primary image of the church of the Second Vatican Council. These years have brought me death, resurrection and redemption through suffering and humiliation.
My experience of parish life continues to be affirming and supportive. Among Catholics, there is a profound sense of attachment to the church they have created since the council. Little wonder they are devoted to it. Over two generations, Catholics—laity with clergy and religious—have brought about what may be the greatest transformation of Catholicism since the Council of Jerusalem in A.D. 49. They have seen the constantly growing participation of lay people in the ministry and governance of the church. Such radical changes have taken place without any major schism and during an era of extraordinary social change. In addition, particularly in the western United States, the Catholic people accommodated themselves to the third and greatest wave of immigration in American history.
In parish life, I find little evidence of the supposedly polarized church. The pastoral conflicts that occupy me center on personnel, personality conflicts and differences about programs, but not on ideological issues. My experience of polarization arises from the disparity between pastoral life and most of the Catholic commentary I read, which is filled with a sense of failure, negativity and pessimism. Typically, this views the time since the Second Vatican Council as one of missed chances and restlessness in a dysfunctional church. Pastoral ministry over the past four years has brought me an awareness of the unfolding of the mystery of the people of God being guided in the most difficult circumstances. By contrast, the dominant images from Catholic commentary of the same period that have impressed themselves on my mind are those of an infantilized people (The Liberation of the Laity, by Paul Lakeland), at sea (A People Adrift, by Peter Steinfels), on a burning platform (a panelist at a Leadership Roundtable on Church Management conference appropriated the metaphor from Jack Welch of General Electric and applied it to the church).
Philip Jenkins, in The New Anti-Catholicism, has pointed out that some Catholic commentators (specifically Maureen Dowd, James Carroll, Eugene Kennedy, Anna Quindlen, Garry Wills and Richard Sipe) write with the ferocity of the most ardent anti-Catholics. Other Catholic writers, however, while they avoid such invective, have actually subscribed to the anti-Catholic paradigm. This held that Catholics could not be true Americans and that they had been reduced by the bishops to ciphers incapable of independent thought. The dominant academic interpretation of American Catholic history, one that portrays the role for Catholic laity as limited to “pray, pay and obey,” is itself a recycling of the anti-Catholic interpretation of Catholicism that prevailed in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The insularity of Catholic commentators renders them largely incapable of locating Catholicism, past or present, within the larger American context. Samuel P. Huntington in Who Are We? (2004), dealing with national identity (in its review The New Yorker referred to it as the “new nativism”), was certainly not writing from a Catholic perspective. Yet he knew so little of Catholicism that he recommended Hispanic immigrants become evangelical Protestants to assimilate into America! Even had he been interested, he would have been hardpressed to find a guide to the role that Catholicism—the largest single religious group in the United States since 1850—has played in the development of American culture or society.
Philip Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State (2002), the most significant statement on American church-state relations since the writings of John Courtney Murray, S.J., was reviewed sparingly and received little notice in Catholic academia. Although his enormously well-researched book argued exhaustively that the phrase “separation of church and state” owed its prominence primarily to anti-Catholic sentiment, Hamburger did not even make it into the index of the two-volume report of the extensive three-year project American Catholics in the Public Square (2004).
The images of the immigrant church and ghetto Catholicism that so dominate Catholic commentary demonstrate how much the anti-Catholic interpretation has pervaded Catholic thinking. Historians now spend their lives in a futile search for an “American” Catholic Church. Acceptance of the anti-Catholic agenda prompts commentators to look for the emergence of something utterly new, an idealized Catholic Church. In reality, however, their vision usually defaults to that of the dominant secular ethos as the hope of Catholicism.
As the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus has commented (First Things, March 2003), both right and left have exaggerated the sexual abuse crisis for their own ulterior purposes: the right to proclaim how deep the rot is, and the left to promote its own agenda, such as married clergy and the ordination of women. Either of the scenarios he outlined, if adopted, would have devastating consequences for the existing Catholic Church. The right would attempt to return the church to an idealized past, a doctrinally pure sect, while the left would assimilate the church into the dominant ethos. This focuses on structures and is largely the agenda of liberal Protestantism, one that receives many plaudits in the media but has led to the decline of the churches that have adopted it. The persistence of the hope that the church can be reformed by proclamations in The New York Times is an indication of the assimilating force of the dominant secularist ethos in “progressive” Catholicism.
Management or Evangelization?
Recent responses to the present crisis mirror the dominant secular agenda by concentrating on the church as organization. The Voice of the Faithful’s motto, “Keep the faith, change the church,” returns to a two-tier vision of pre-Vatican II times, of the deposit of faith and the church as organization. So also does the Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, with its exclusive focus on management techniques, something important for the church but not the key to renewal. Ironically, these initiatives tend to embrace the view of the church embodied in the schema on the church prepared before Vatican II. This view, which focused on the church as organization, was rejected by the council in favor of a vision of the church as mystery.
Catholicism will continue to be transformed, as at Vatican II, primarily by religious renewal, not by organizational tinkering. Catholics at large sense this. In Los Angeles, the archdiocesan synod identified evangelization as its primary objective. Evangelization is both crucial to the renewal of Catholicism and one of the greatest challenges facing American Catholics, who have had little experience of large-scale evangelization. In the past, Catholic immigrants found refuge from a hostile world in the community of the church. That church catechized, educated and nurtured the Catholic faith, but it did not engage in extensive evangelization.
In addressing this challenge, Catholics need to realize that they are more than halfway to the goal. They have demonstrated that they are a people who are deeply attached to their faith and treasure it. During those same years, secularists, together with Catholic allies, huffed and puffed with unprecedented fury to blow the Catholic house down. They failed. Our collective task now is to appreciate the faith of the Catholic people and learn how to share it with families, communities and society.
Often I ask congregations, “Why, during the recent terrible years, have you stayed and not left?” The reflection of many people on this question can generally be summarized by St. Paul’s insight: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us” (2 Cor 4:7). In my experiences of Catholic parishioners, I find a profound grasp of sin and grace. People are well able to appreciate the weakness of the earthen vessels without wanting to replace them with perfect ones of their imagination. The challenge of evangelization now calls us to focus on the treasures and to learn to witness to them.
The continued renewal of the church will proceed by way of two interrelated developments. The first will involve an appreciation of the heroism of the Catholic people over the past four years, of their faith and their attachment to it. They have demonstrated that they are the church, because in the absence of their fidelity, there would be little of the church left in the United States. Second, the strength of the Catholic people in recent years points to the extraordinary heritage of American Catholicism. The vitality of the present church is a guide to its heritage and an invitation to abandon the anti-Catholic interpretation of Catholic history for one that appreciates the richness of the American Catholic past.
The images of an immigrant church waiting to be Americanized and of a Catholic ghetto are self-created prisons of modern Catholic scholarship. From the early 1800’s, as they arrived in greater numbers, Catholics accommodated themselves to the voluntarist American society and challenged the de facto establishment of Protestantism. Given the amount of money poor immigrants and their descendants contributed to the Catholic Church, their fidelity to it in the face of constant opposition and the solace, support and community Catholics found in their church, American Catholicism has undoubtedly been one of the most successful expressions of Catholic Christianity in the entire history of the church. To disparage the experience of that people and to relegate them merely to the role of “pray, pay, obey” is surely one of the greatest blunders of modern scholarship.
Instead of living in a ghetto, American Catholics not only adapted to American society, but transformed it. Anti-Catholicism has always been a mixture of prejudice and the turbulence experienced by a society having to adapt itself to a presence it could neither digest nor homogenize. Catholics challenged the Protestant nation of the past and contributed greatly to its demise. They continue to challenge the secularist nation of the present. Anti-Catholicism has been and remains a backhanded acknowledgment of this challenge.
The Catholic Challenge to America
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the individualistic thinking of laissez faire economics disassociated work from the human person and made it a commodity. In our time, it reduces many human relations, especially sexuality, to commodities to be traded. In a country of extreme individualism, one that kills every third unborn child, where the income from pornography has surpassed that of the movie industry and where half the marriages end in divorce, Catholicism affirms the social dimension of all human relations and the unity of the human community. An appreciation of this defense of the social and communal nature of human life has failed to enter into Catholic commentary at large, and the notion that the social teaching of the church is its best-kept secret prevails as the conventional wisdom.
Catholicism has endured. It continues to experience much opposition precisely because it still engages the dominant ethos in the United States. Although John McGreevy, a historian at the University of Notre Dame, has described American anti-Catholicism as “venerable,” it is—as the Rev. Andrew Greeley has unfailingly testified—as potent as ever.
Father Greeley and the Rev. David Tracy show how by focusing on Catholic imagination, scholars might recover a sense of the role of Catholicism in the United States. In Farewell to Christendom I have argued that Catholics provided the checks and balances Madison recognized as necessary for the preservation of American liberties. Catholics possessed the determination and the strength to check and challenge the Protestant nation and the de facto establishment of Protestantism. Modern American religious liberty especially bears the stamp of Catholic presence in America.
Like the scribes of old, many Catholic commentators believe that Elijah must come first. But as Jesus noted, Elijah had already come, and has come again by way of American Catholics, who have been proclaiming the presence of the Messiah in their midst (Matt 17:10-13). The people of God in the United States, whose moorings could hardly be more secure, have revealed to me the living mystery of the church and point to the higher ground to which they have ascended.