The Catholic Moment: A Decade Later

In the company of good friends, after a more than adequate dinner and with a cigar worthy of the merlot, I am usually inclined to a roseate view of the Church and the world. But The Catholic Moment was not written after dinner. Nor was this little essay. The editors, however, have asked me to discuss, as though among friends, the Catholic Moment in America and where it is a decade later. Setting aside more onerous tasks, I am glad to comply with their curious request.

Over the years I have had the frustrating fortune of coming up with titles that are more quoted than the books are read. The Naked Public Square is one, and The Catholic Moment is another. A surprising number of parties have seized upon the latter as the motto for a triumphalist Catholic crusade to smite the enemy hip and thigh, thus carrying the day for Christendom Redux. I happen to think there is a good deal to be said for triumphalism, especially if defeatism is the alternative, but that is not exactly what I had in mind. People regularly ask me how the Catholic Moment is going—or whether it has come yet, or whether it is gone. Sometimes I think I should issue daily bulletins from the front.

A couple of years after the book came out, Peter Steinfels, one of our best religious reporters, did a big story in the New York Times asking whether the Catholic Moment had been missed. After the usual hemming and hawing, he concluded that it had—which I thought very odd, since when the book was published, he opined that there was no Catholic Moment. So here was a moment that had a past but had never had a present, which is a bit of a metaphysical puzzle. But all this misses the point. By a “moment” I meant a period of history, an era, a kairos, if you will, extending over a generation; in short, something like the sense of historical moment evoked by the title of a later and far more worthy book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

If the Catholic Church is what she claims to be—and she is—then the Catholic Moment is from Pentecost until Our Lord returns in glory. In line with this sort of thinking the book ends with ten theses about the Catholic Moment, the last of which is “The Catholic Moment is for the Duration.” I quote:

By virtue of its size, tradition, structure, charisma, and energies, the Roman Catholic Church will have a singular part in shaping the world-historical future of Christianity. And if the Gospel is true, Christianity bears witnesses to the future of the world, who is Christ. Therefore the Catholic Moment is encompassed by an eschatological horizon. Before the final consummation the relationship between Church and world will always be problematic. The world is ever prone to premature closure, turning in upon itself and against its transcendent destiny. The Church is ever tempted to join the world in that fatal turning. . . . Resisting that temptation, the Church must often appear to be against the world, but it will always be against the world for the world. . . . The Church will endure until the End Time, but along the way it is ever being tested as to whether it has the courage to live in paradoxical fidelity. . . . This pope, we all have reason to believe and reason to hope, knows that the paradox cannot be resolved and must not be relaxed. It can only be superseded by the coming of the One who is both the consummation and companion of our common pilgrimage.

Heady stuff, that, but, then, perorations are for reaching. In any event, the eschatological horizon lets me off the hook with respect to predictive accountability. The argument of the Catholic Moment cannot be falsified, as Karl Popper might say, except by the cosmic lights going out without Our Lord’s returning in glory—which is not going to happen. That being said, The Catholic Moment was also chock-full of time-specific analyses of the Catholic circumstance, especially the Catholic circumstance in America, and was not untouched by the vulnerability of predictions. So where are we a decade later?

I gave a large part of my answer to that question in my reflection on this astonishing pontificate in the 15th anniversary issue of Crisis devoted to John Paul II last November, and I will not repeat what I said there. I am asked to address specifics, and so I will. Some of what follows may sound apodictic and excessively curt. Here I can only respond casually to questions frequently asked about the Catholic Moment. As to their reliability, these responses run the full gamut of authoritative pronouncement—from informed hunch to vague impression. Talk enough and write enough about things and you’re taken to be an expert, and I’m too old now to be intimidated by challenges to my expertise. When asked who am I to be holding forth on this, that, and the other thing, my standard response is, “Compared to whom?” That usually settles the matter, unless Father Andrew Greeley is in the audience.

Consider the following evidence about the current Catholic Moment:

Item: The American Episcopate is stronger than it was ten years ago. Exhibit A is Francis Cardinal George in Chicago, probably the most significant American appointment of this pontificate apart from John Cardinal O’Connor in New York. And there are others. By “stronger” I mean more confident, more competent, and more manifestly convinced that “the Catholic thing” is not only true but the best hope of our culture and our world. In short, there are more John Paul II prelates. Committee appointments in the NCCB—from doctrine to catechetics to liturgy—are, all in all, encouraging. Yes, of course, there are notable exceptions in the ranks of bishops. But the timorous handwringers who whined about a new crisis discovered every day and urged that tradition be jettisoned in order to carry favor with the Zeitgeist are no longer setting the episcopal pace. Some years ago a Southern Baptist friend said, “You guys got a pope who sure knows how to pope.” Now we have more bishops who know how to bishop. I’m not talking about a revival of authoritarianism. I’m talking about men who calmly, confidently, gently, firmly, and articulately evince an awareness of what is authoritative.

Item: The Church has held firm on abortion and against the encroaching “culture of death.” Were it not for the Catholic Church, there would be no pro-life movement in America or in the rest of the world. The importance of this fact for the future of the human project is beyond measure. The tide of public sentiment has clearly begun to turn toward life. I do not know whether this will be turned into effective political and legal steps toward the goal of the pro-life movement, which is every unborn child protected in law and welcomed in life. But the Church’s witness has not wavered, and at the end of the day we will be judged by the fidelity of our witness. In the final analysis, the power of our witness is all we have, and all we should want to have.

Item: Catechetical materials are, under the direction of the bishops, being conformed to the Catechism, and the catechetical establishment that wreaked such doctrinal havoc for decades is on the defensive.

Item: International Committee for English in the Liturgy and the mandarins of liturgical debasement are increasingly, albeit still too cautiously, being challenged by bishops who think, quite rightly, that they know a thing or two about Catholic worship and the honest translation of texts.

Item: Catholic elementary and secondary schools are making a comeback, which may be greatly accelerated by the impending victory of vouchers and other instruments of parental choice in education. The demonstrated dedication of lay teachers, replacing devastated orders of women religious, should be viewed as a great gift.

Item: Among the more than two hundred nominally Catholic colleges and universities, the 1968 Land O’Lakes declaration of independence from the Church is history. All the talk now is about recovering “Catholic identity.” Never mind that it may be largely market-driven, aimed at recruitment and alumni support. Markets, too, can be on the side of the angels. Perhaps for as many as a third of these institutions it may be too late. Some will go out of business, some will stop pretending to be Catholic. “Alternative” schools such as Steubenville, Thomas Aquinas, and Christendom can serve, alternatively, as shelters from academic madness or catalysts for change, while University of Dallas may model a future that many others will emulate. (Full disclosure: I am on the board of Dallas.) I believe Phillip Gleason of Notre Dame is right in saying that a “restoration” of Catholic higher education on the basis of a uniform Thomism is neither possible nor desirable. But there are other ways of being vibrantly Catholic, and even a hundred institutions that meet that description would be a great advance over where we are now.

Item: The Catholic Theological Society of America has been put on notice that, without a thorough redirection, it is no longer viewed by the bishops as a partner in the Church’s mission. Theologians who are determined “to think with the Church” (Sentire cum Ecclesia) will develop other associations where it is understood that fidelity is the friend and not the enemy of intellectual excellence and adventure. Departments of theology stacked with tenured refugees from radicalisms past will somehow have to be bypassed until retirement and mortality provide blessed relief. There are many and heartening signs of a younger generation of scholars who are not disposed to spend their lives playing academic games with the rubble of deconstructed Catholicism.

Item: The balance in Catholic and Catholic-related publications has changed dramatically in terms of excitement and readership. There is this magazine, of course, but also Catholic World Report, Catholic Dossier, New Oxford Review, a reviving National Catholic Register, and, dare I mention it, First Things. Nor should we overlook the inestimable theological contribution of Ignatius Press. At the risk of embarrassing my friends there, Commonweal has long since wearied of the intoxication of dissent, although it falls off the wagon from time to time. America is newly up for grabs under the editorship of Father Thomas Reese, S. J., although I expect it will try to keep some distance from the National Catholic Reporter, which languishes in the backwaters of the revolution that was not to be. I admit it is troubling that NCR continues to be the advertising switchboard for chancery curia, academic placements, summer courses, and sundry other contagions that go under the rubric of “networking.” But on the publications front the initiative now is with those who support the revolution that Christ intends his Church to be. Also in communications are enterprises such as Mother Angelica’s EWTN and Bill Donohue’s Catholic League. The last is inescapably reactive and may make some folks wince at times, but it is a necessary antidote for the bedwetting induced by the liberal nightmare that Catholics might be perceived as not quite respectable.

Item: The untold story of the hundreds of thousands of adult converts in recent years. Hardly a day passes that I am not in conversation with people, often talented academics and Protestant clergy, who are on the way. This phenomenon needs more study than it is getting.

Item: There are signs of an uptick in priestly vocations, and in a few places an upsurge. I expect it would be happening in more places if bishops made it a priority, if priests asked the question, if vocation directors did not confuse passionate fidelity with “preconciliar” reaction (these young guys don’t even know what “preconciliar” means), and if parents—especially conservative parents much given to bemoaning the state of the Church—more strongly encouraged their sons to consider the priesthood.

Well, enough apodoses for one day. Not that there are not other items I could cite. An apodosis is a main clause in a conditional statement, and I am sure there are readers who are prepared to qualify all of the above with horror stories indicating that the devastation is beyond repair. Please save yourself the trouble. I think I’ve heard them all and I could tell you a few of my own. I know it’s dark out there, but that’s what the light is for. Remember this is the Church we’re talking about: “upon this rock” and all that. But even without appeal to such sure promise, I believe that the evidence, a decade later, is that the Catholic Moment continues. The Catholic Church, also here in America, is the most maddeningly diverse, conflicted, and hopeful adventure of human history. If we don’t see that, the fault is with ourselves. I may be wrong about some of the particulars I have mentioned. I may be wrong about many of them. Almost everything is arguable. But I am not wrong about the Church. And finally, after all the arguments and counter-arguments, after all the evidences and counter-evidences, the Catholic Moment is just that: the Church.


Richard John Neuhaus was a prominent Christian cleric (first as a Lutheran pastor and later as a Roman Catholic priest) and writer. Born in Canada, Neuhaus moved to the United States where he became a naturalized United States citizen. He was the founder and editor of the monthly journal First Things and the author of several books, including The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (1984), The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World (1987), and Catholic Matters: Confusion, Controversy, and the Splendor of Truth (2006).

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