Our Gallup-Given Rights
Thanks to the latest poll released by the Gallup Organization on June 18, we Catholics now know what God should do with His old-fashioned rules. And so do the American Bishops since, by some stroke of divine luck, the poll coincided with their meeting on the role of women in the Church.
802 Catholics, selected from Gallup-knows-where, voted on questions worded by members of “reform-minded” Catholic groups who are pushing for a new Church. The majority of those polled voted against the Church on issues of women’s ordination, priestly celibacy, abortion, and artificial birth control. The “reformers” missed a grand sweep by about five percent when just short of half the 802 voted that homosexual relations were morally permissible.
The study implies that it is our Gallup-given right to vote “nay” on Church teachings and still consider ourselves Catholics. According to the poll, we can even stop going to Mass and still be regarded as Catholics. When I asked Maureen Fiedler, co-director of Catholics Speak Out (the “reform” organization which commissioned the poll), how many practicing Catholics were surveyed, she told me that 40 percent attended Mass at least once a week, 25 percent went once or twice a month, and 33 percent seldom or never attended Mass. These figures were carefully left out of the news reports and press releases.
Asked if the voters were questioned about their knowledge of Church teaching on these issues—had they read any Church documents in support of the Church’s positions, for example?—Fiedler replied that the very idea was “absurd,” since the average American Catholic does not sit down and read papal encyclicals. I agreed this is probably true but added that I, for instance, after reading Humance Vitae, now support the Church’s position on artificial birth control. Fiedler interjected, “You mean the Church hierarchy, not the grass roots Church.”
Though its authors appear not to realize it, their survey’s strongest message is that those who dissent in “good conscience” are uninformed, disinformed, and on a rather meager sacramental diet. If asked whether the Vatican should cater to the degeneration of American society, I pray that we all vote no.
The Difference a Child Makes
Murphy Brown is not off the hook yet. A recent Reader’s Digest poll has revealed what many have long suspected—married persons, especially those with children, are considerably more religious and more conservative on cultural issues than people who are single or married without children. The “family gap,” which ranged as high as a 17 to 21 point difference between the opinions of the two groups, is far more drastic than the five to ten point gap that political analysts consider significant. For instance, 64 percent of those married with children call themselves conservatives, compared to 45 percent of singles. Age was not a factor in this question, as illustrated by the 24 point gap between under-35 married persons with children and singles of the same age.
For some of the study’s highlights, consider the following charts and findings:
•While singles overwhelmingly describe themselves as pro-choice, marrieds with children are split on the issue. They are far more likely, however, to label themselves as pro-life.
•Forty-nine percent of married parents claim that they attend church or synagogue every week or almost every week, compared to 36 percent of singles and 28 percent of childless couples.
•Only 28 percent of the marrieds-with-children believe that homosexual marriage should be made legal. Singles and married couples without children are more liberal on this issue, at 46 and 44 percent respectively.
•An overwhelming 74 percent of married couples with children believed that, barring a financial obligation to work, a mother should raise small children full time, as opposed to only 54 percent of singles and marrieds without children concurring (even the last figure is much higher than one would think by watching today’s movies or TV, however).
•Married blacks with children are often more conservative than their white counterparts. Only four percent of these black parents favored the legalization of marijuana, far less than the 18 percent of whites who are in favor. Nineteen percent of blacks married with children favor state-recognized homosexual marriage, compared to 28 percent of whites in that category.
The beliefs of couples with children, a group that votes quite heavily, are especially important for political candidates, who see them as a swing vote. This category of parent over the age of 25 constitutes 92 million people, or 57 percent of the population. Singles only amount to 21 million, and marrieds without children 13 million. “Distant suburbs are among the fastest growing communities,” said columnist Fred Barnes in his commentary on the poll. “That’s where married folks with children find safe, affordable, single-family housing. That’s where traditional values, conservatism, and religion prosper. And that’s where victorious presidential candidates won impressively.”
The results of the survey expose the need to re-define the meaning of the term “American values.” Those who influence most elements of our pop-culture tend to fraternize with singles and depict a world of ostentation and permissiveness, but they fail to reflect much of the sentiment of mainstream America. Said Barnes, “Their attitudes may be fashionable, but the families with children aren’t buying.”
Condoms and Catholic Students
When reporters for the Washington Archdiocese’s Catholic Standard interviewed students from several Catholic high schools on the idea of condom distribution, one Georgetown Visitation student was quoted as saying that the viewpoints of Catholic students on sex was no different from public school students—”Just because kids go to Catholic Schools does not mean they don’t have sex.” She added, “Most kids in my school are having sex. Being in a Catholic school has nothing to do with it.” As for abstinence, the student, a Baptist who has attended Catholic schools since the first grade, argued, “In our society today, there is hardly anyone listening to that at all. I think rather than to have abstinence as an only alternative, contraceptives should be supported as a second alternative. ”
Other Catholic students, however, were very much opposed to condom distribution in the schools. A student at Elizabeth Seton High School in Bladensburg said that education was the key, not condoms. “If we truly understand ourselves spiritually and physically, we will be able to control ourselves and direct energy that might have gone into sexual behavior into other areas.” Another student, a self-described devout Catholic who attends Laurel High School, said, “I am a conservative person by nature, but drastic problems call for drastic measures.” He cautioned that in distributing condoms the schools are giving the message that they condone sex, but concluded, “I see that as a lesser of two evils.… You’ve got to temper handing out condoms with a sex education program that advocates abstinence.” A student at Bishop McNamara in Forestville contended that many students who are having sex are too embarrassed to ask for condoms in the stores and are, therefore, spreading disease. Although this student believes that the Church is right to promote abstinence, he does not agree that condoms would encourage students to have sex because “many have their minds made up already.” He concluded that educators “are kidding themselves if they believe that by just saying don’t do it, people won’t. It’s just not like that.”
After these comments appeared, many other Georgetown Visitation students wrote that they felt that the Baptist student’s statements about the conduct of Visitation girls were false, unfounded, and rude; the students added that they were outraged, offended, and disgusted by her comments. The human sexuality instructor at Visitation also wrote to say that the students were taught to evaluate critically the messages about sex to which they are exposed. She continued, “I see young women viewing pre-marital sexual abstinence as a choice which promotes emotional growth and self-esteem. They see abstinence as allowing them time to learn about themselves, form their values, and develop relationship skills. I find in these women an integrity and morality that I feel is very different from others their age who lack the benefit of a values-based look at sexual decision-making.”
As everyone has heard by now, presidential candidate Bill Clinton risked liberal blasphemy by criticizing Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition for inviting as a speaker rap singer Sister Souljah, whose comments in the aftermath of the L.A. riots he called “filled with hatred.” The specific thoughts of Sister Souljah that Clinton had in mind were from a taped interview with the Washington Post: “If black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?… So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person?”
Souljah’s message, and the Rainbow Coalition’s apparent approval of it, bothered Clinton enough to speak out against it, although doing so jeopardized his attempts to mobilize much-needed black votes for his election bid. Clinton told the audience at the conference that “if you took the words white and black and reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech.” He also called Souljah’s message “inconsistent” with the Rainbow Coalition and its goal of racial harmony because it contributes to the destructive political tendency of “pointing the finger at one another across racial lines.”
Clinton’s comments, by contrast, show a more honest commitment to the principle of racial equality. They give human dignity to all persons, regardless of morally irrelevant characteristics like the color of one’s skin. The liberal apologist’s conventional wisdom treats blacks only as impotent victims, without regard for their dignity as free rational beings and the personal responsibility that accompanies it. As Jewish commentator Dennis Prager argued after the riots, “if you can’t call a black thug a thug, you are a racist.”
William J. Fidurko
Pleading free-speech martyrdom, artists of dubious craft have once again presented a challenge to the sovereignty of the National Endowment of the Arts. The NEA’s so-called decency standard was struck down as a first amendment violation in a ruling by a federal judge in Los Angeles. Judge A. Wallace Tashima said that the vague decency language in the Congressional statute provides “no guidance in administering the standard” and would be a cause for self-censorship. He added, “The right of artists to challenge conventional wisdom and values is a cornerstone of artistic and academic freedom.”
The case involved the denied applications of four solo performance artists whose repertoires contain sexually explicit interpretations. Included is Karen Finley, known for performances where she smears chocolate on her naked body to represent the oppression of women. The artists were recommended for $23,000 in grants by various peer review panels, but rejected by former NEA chairman John Frohnmayer.
“Grant awards by the NEA always have been made, are being made today, and will continue to be made on the basis of artistic excellence,” said NEA spokesman Jill Collins. The NEA and the Department of Justice are both reviewing the decision, and a government appeal is expected.
Allen Wildmon, spokesman for the American Family Association, said “If they can’t clean up the NEA through a court of law, then it’s time to dismantle it. Then artists will have the freedom to create anything their little hearts desire.” The richest irony is that the radical nihilist artists are themselves Wildmon’s greatest ally.
The Two Cultures
Recently, a national commentator said on the radio that ours is a secular age and certain traditional values no longer hold. He was quite wrong. Every weekend, more than 100 million Americans attend a religious service in a Christian church or Jewish synagogue. That is far more than attend movies, or sports contests, or the theater.
The truth is, as Vice President Dan Quayle said in his speech to the Southern Baptist Convention, there are “two cultures” in America: the first the culture of the large majority of the American people, the second the culture of a small secular elite whose strongholds are Hollywood, national journalism, and the faculty clubs of university campuses.
Secular, often anti-religious, and especially anti-Christian principles do hold sway in the latter, and the media and other symbol makers accordingly portray a distorted image of our country. They leave out religious faith, tradition, and many other important realities. As movie critic Michael Medved properly asks: despite the fact that 40 percent of Americans are in church any given Sunday, and that more than three-quarters of the population describe religion as “very important” to them and pray everyday, when was the last time you saw a serious film in which religion was important to a major character? And when religion is occasionally portrayed, it is often through a character who is kooky, crazy, or morally despicable. American “popular” culture is out of touch with the morals important to the populace.
This goes for family concerns, too. Sixty percent of all children in America live with their biological father and mother, just as in the days of the much-mentioned and much-scorned “Ozzie and Harriet” sit-coms of the 1950s. To be sure, mother is more often working today than in the 1950s, but two comments need to be made about that. First, a majority of mothers of small children do not work outside the home. Second, most mothers of small children who do have outside jobs work only part time. It is a good thing when mothers are able to attend full time to small children, teaching them and imparting lessons which no later years of schooling can equal. Children so taught are quite lucky, and their hard-working mothers ought not to be banished from the families who appear in popular movies and television.
We are pleased that Vice President Quayle has at last introduced a sustained critique of American cultural elites (see his “Murphy Brown” speech, p. 43). It is too bad that the U.S. bishops did not do so, and have no voice of equal eloquence. It is sad that the National Council of Churches is complacent about the elites who mass-produce popular culture. For this issue is too important to be made partisan. American symbol-makers are not only out of touch with the values of American families; they are hostile to those values. A powerful critique of media elites is long overdue. It should be conducted on a non-partisan basis. Still, as the counter-attack on the vice president showed, many of the media elite are not quite rational when talking about conservative values or the Republican party. Their own allegiances plainly lie elsewhere.
Many on the left are also religious and committed to traditional values. It is especially important, then, for the Christian left also to criticize the religious and moral deficiencies manifest in the work of our cultural elites.
Squeezing The Laity Out
Writing last year in Commentary, Irving Kristol reported that secular humanism is “brain dead,” and Michael Novak, recording Kristol’s dispatch from the battle front in the pages of CRISIS urges religious believers to seize the opportunity for a counterattack against the ancient enemy. “In this new circumstance,” he writes, “believing Catholics like believing Jews have an unparalleled opportunity to offer an interpretation of American institutions and American purposes far deeper and truer than the alternatives presented by a moribund liberal secularism.”
This raises anew some familiar questions. How well equipped are religious believers in the United States for waging a culture war? In particular, are American Catholics positioned to take advantage of the Catholic moment? These questions have been debated for a long time. If Novak is correct, there may now be a certain urgency about answering them.
Even on some basics, however, American Catholics lack a consensus. Take the Catholic moment. Some sober people think it came and went in a twinkling in the late 1950s or early 1960s; the window of opportunity for bringing the Catholic tradition into constructive engagement with American culture opened briefly and then slammed shut around the time that representative figure of Catholic surrender to secular values, John F. Kennedy, became president.
Not that Kennedy personally slammed it shut. But to the extent his election caused him to be taken as a model of how to be Catholic and American, his popularity, rather than marking the Church’s coming of age in America, was a disaster for the Church from which it has not yet recovered and may never. Or so it is argued.
Still, Novak’s suggestion that Catholics and other believers now have an unusual opportunity to influence American culture for the better deserves to be taken seriously. Supposing for the sake of the discussion that such an opportunity really exists, are American Catholics ready to take advantage of it? And if the answer should turn out to be no, what must they do to get ready?
Two groups within the U.S. Catholic Church rather clearly are not ready and, very likely, never will be. One is the reactionary right. Ultramontanist and neo-scholastic in their views, these people seem bent on accomplishing the impossible project of recreating the Church as it was in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The tensions and ambiguities of engagement with a decaying secular culture hold few attractions for them.
The other group within U.S. Catholicism with nothing to contribute to Catholic engagement with the secular culture is made up of those culturally assimilated Catholics who have simply bought into the worldview of contemporary secular America.
Not only are such people at home with the principles of liberal secularism—they share them. Writers, journalists, and popular entertainers of this mentality not uncommonly exploit their identity as Catholics precisely in order to lend verisimilitude to their Catholic-bashing. Others of this sort operate within Church structures and work to undermine them by substituting secular values for the principles of their own tradition.
Someone might object, in defense of these proponents of what they call the “American Church,” that John Courtney Murray 40 years ago made a persuasive case for the view that Catholicism and American culture are compatible. In doing so, he gave a high theological polish to the rough-hewn perceptions of men like Orestes Brownson, John Ireland, and Cardinal Gibbons.
Quite so. But that was forty years ago, when American secular culture was still living off the residue of Judeo-Christian culture. This is hardly the case today. Secular humanism in the United States may indeed be brain dead, but as Irving Kristol remarks, “its heart continues to pump energy into all our institutions.” In these circumstances, the Catholic Church and other religious bodies face the alternatives of assimilation or culture war. And in a culture war, assimilated Catholics evidently do not count as trustworthy comrades.
That leaves a third group, sufficiently in touch with their religious tradition and sufficiently open to American culture to be interested in fostering the influence of the former upon the latter. How should they proceed?
Ever since Vatican Council II, one standard formula for Catholic engagement with secular culture has been “dialogue.” Unfortunately, in nearly three decades of trying, it has not worked. And even though the Church undoubtedly must share the blame, still the central cause of this failure lies in the fact that secular society has turned out not to be very interested in dialogue. The imperviousness of secularized institutions and structures to religious influence has been far greater than many Catholics, experiencing the conciliar and post-conciliar euphoria of the 1960s and early ’70s, anticipated.
On these matters the experience of the Catholic bishops of the United States is, or should be, instructive. During the past two decades the bishops, through their national organizations, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and United States Catholic Conference, have issued literally hundreds of statements and pronouncements on social, political, and economic questions of the day.
The secular liberal establishment has welcomed and praised the bishops’ statements when these agreed with its prejudices. But whenever the bishops departed from the secular liberal consensus (as, for example, on the issue of abortion), they could expect either to be ignored or ridiculed by secular organs of opinion formation.
In this situation it seems clear that the Church, instead of pining after dialogue with secular culture, must play a countercultural role. Where dialogue happens to be ancillary to counterculturalism, the Church does well to dialogue. But where the appearance of dialogue cloaks Catholic accommodationism, the Church enters into dialogue at its peril.
This requires that, on many matters, the Church says things which will be unpopular not just with the powers and opinion leaders of secular culture but with the culturally assimilated wing of its own membership. A recent instance of not doing this deserves attention.
Earlier this year the United States Catholic Conference released with modest fanfare a longish episcopal statement on the problems of children in America. Entitled “Putting Children and Families First,” the document catalogues the various threats to child welfare (poverty, bad schooling, abuse, etc.) and advocates remedies. For the most part, it aligns the bishops with the other advocacy groups working to put children’s issues at or near the top of the political agenda in an election year.
Sad to say, however, except for a handful of issues on which their opposition is already well known, and more or less taken for granted (opposition to abortion, support of parental “choice” in education), the bishops come off sounding like every other liberal advocacy group to address these matters lately. That is especially true in the case of a startling omission from the statement’s list of factors affecting attitudes and behavior concerning children: there is not a word here about the vast changes wrought over the last half-century by contraception and the contraceptive mentality.
Why not? Leaving aside the morality of contraception, it cannot seriously be argued that the acceptance more and more bestowed upon artificial contraception in the United States in this period of time have not profoundly altered the way Americans think and behave regarding children and childbearing.
Did the statement’s drafters omit mention of the fact because they are not aware of it (hardly likely), or because they fear that mentioning it would alienate too many people, including Catholics outraged by any questioning of contraception (very likely indeed)? Whatever the reason, the result is a largely bland and “safe” document. This is not the Church in its countercultural mode.
The issues at stake here go beyond the adequacy or inadequacy of particular statements by the bishops, however. It now appears that the interventions of the clerical hierarchy in the socio-political arena are seriously inhibiting the involvement of lay Catholics in the work of culture formation.
To be painfully blunt about it, the clerical hierarchy has entered into de facto competition with the laity, and the hierarchy is winning; in this crucial area of activity—culture formation—assigned to lay people by Vatican II itself, the hierarchy is squeezing the laity out of the picture. That it is doing so with much good will and oblivious to what is occurring does not change the fact.
This happens in at least two ways. The first way is by attracting public attention to the hierarchy’s pronouncements on socio-political matters and away from the informed judgments of Catholic lay people speaking from religious commitment and professional expertise.
Not long ago a national magazine quoted a leading figure in the hierarchy who defended the bishops’ 1986 pastoral letter on economic justice in this way: “The Church has to insert itself into the national debate or else risk finding itself declared—properly—irrelevant.” True enough. But is publishing a bishops’ document on economics the only way to insert the Church into the policy debate? Suppose the bishops kept silent on the specifics of economic justice while the Catholic laity spoke out—would the Church then have no voice? Only if one assumes the truth of a clericalist ecclesiology.
As matters stand, on socio-political issues the bishops judge and prescribe and the Catholic laity, precisely as such, are silent. Indeed, on socio-political issues the Catholic laity as such lack any corporate mechanism to represent their views and interests, except insofar as these may be interpreted, mediated, and articulated by their clerical leaders. Meanwhile, the actual shapers of the secular culture continue to pursue utilitarian aims in their usual Machiavellian manner, with little or no regard for anything “the Church”—however defined—may have to say about issues and the bearing which moral principles have upon them. That some of these people are Catholics does not lighten the irony but increases it.
That suggests the second way in which the clerical hierarchy’s usurpation of the laity’s role in culture formation works to everybody’s disadvantage: it tends to persuade the laity that they have no role. It does so by reinforcing the traditional attitudes and self-understandings of the laity within a clericalist ecclesiastical system, where the laity are viewed as objects of clerical control and direction rather than autonomous subjects in relation to the ecclesial activity which is properly and specifically theirs: the formation of culture.
In this way clericalist activism also reinforces the famous “split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives” which Vatican II found to be among “the more serious errors of the age.” (Gaudium et Spes, 43). This is a problem for many lay Catholics on the level of personal morality but not only there. It also is a grave problem on the level of social morality.
In order to correct this state of affairs, it is not necessary that the clerical hierarchy simply abandon its socio-political commitments and interests. Instead it should make room for lay people to share, on an equal footing, in the process by which the Church’s socio-political agenda is hammered out, communicated, and implemented. It goes without saying that the laity who collaborate in this effort should not be limited to the clericalized lay cadres who staff most ecclesiastical bureaucracies.
Beyond that, the members of the clerical hierarchy should make it their specific task to teach Catholic social doctrine to the laity (first mastering it themselves where they have not already done so). This will involve communicating social doctrine in all its richness and complexity, then leaving it to a now well-formed laity to apply it to specific cases.
A while back, I was party to a conversation among representatives of several Catholic organizations with legislative and public policy interests. A good deal of time was spent lamenting the fact that most Catholics do not pay much attention to what they say. After listening for a while, I said, “Allow me to call your attention to a distinction which probably isn’t made often enough in discussions of this kind—the distinction between teaching social doctrine and making statements on issues. A lot of individuals and groups in the Church make a lot of statements on a lot of different issues. But I do not find many serious, continuing efforts to teach social doctrine in a comprehensive manner.
“I submit that that’s a mistake. It is a case of putting the cart before the horse. In the absence of exposure to social doctrine, people do not experience this stream of pronouncements on political questions as instructive and edifying; they experience it as irritating and alienating.
“Surely, after a hundred years, the Church has an integrated, rich, complex body of principles and norms in the area of social doctrine. Why not teach them? Everyone would be better off if we did.”
It seems to me that this is the necessary formula for preparing Catholic lay people in the United States in significant numbers to take part in the work of culture formation urged upon religious believers by people like Irving Kristol and Michael Novak. Secular liberalism indeed seems intellectually moribund. The challenge is real, and so perhaps is the opportunity. American Catholics, by and large not yet ready to respond, might yet be if the clerical hierarchy were to proceed as suggested here.