In the space of less than six weeks, from mid-December to late January, four men died who played crucial roles in the shaping of American Catholicism as it stands today.
The four were Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., the leading American Catholic theologian of the postconciliar era, who died December 12 at the age of 90; the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, the most visible American Catholic public intellectual of his day, who was 72 when he died January 8; Pio Cardinal Laghi, papal representative in the United States from 1980 to 1990, who was 86 at the time of his death January 11; and Archbishop Jean Jadot, Cardinal Laghi’s predecessor, who died January 21 at the age of 99.
A common thread linked their careers. Cardinal Laghi, Cardinal Dulles, and Father Neuhaus — each in his own way — shouldered the burden of drawing the Church in the United States back from the precipice of self-destruction to which Archbishop Jadot, with encouragement from Rome, had unintentionally helped bring it during the 1970s.
Start with Archbishop Jadot. This bright churchman directed the national missions office in Belgium and was a chaplain to native troops in the Congo before he apparently caught some important person’s eye and was brought into the diplomatic service of the Holy See. By 1974 he’d held top posts in the Far East and Africa. In May of that year, Pope Paul VI named him Vatican representative in the United States. (The title then, before U.S.-Vatican diplomatic relations, was apostolic delegate.)
Pope Paul wanted the American hierarchy shaken up and brought into the Vatican II era. Like many European Catholic intellectuals, Archbishop Jadot considered American Catholicism painfully behind the times. From Rome’s point of view, that made him a logical choice for the job.
During the Jadot years, the Church in the United States received 103 new bishops and 15 archbishops. The new men came to be called “pastoral” bishops: The idea was that, unlike their brick-and-mortar predecessors, these were sensitive leaders for the emergence of post-Vatican II Catholicism.
At least, that was the theory. The practice was rather different. In places like Baltimore, Newark, and Seattle, ultra-liberals were named. Two Jadot archbishops — in Santa Fe and Milwaukee — eventually left office under a cloud of sexual scandal involving themselves. By the end of the decade, American Catholicism was worse off than when the decade began.
In recalling those troubled times, it’s important to bear in mind the good intentions of Archbishop Jadot and the others involved. For example: Despite the Humanae Vitae controversy, Pope Paul continued to hope for Church renewal, and his man in Washington shared that hope. So, presumably, did the “pastoral” bishops. There is no reason to suppose any of them anticipated what would happen.
But by 1980, things clearly weren’t working out, and Archbishop Jadot was called to Rome. He languished there for four years at the office for non-believers, then went home to Belgium and spent his final quarter-century in obscurity.
To replace him, a new and very different pope, John Paul II, tapped Pio Laghi. Unlike Jadot, the Italian was a veteran of the diplomatic service who’d held the top posts in Jerusalem and Argentina.
During his ten years in Washington as apostolic delegate — and then, starting in 1984, pro-nuncio — I was occasionally asked to lend a hand with his speeches, especially those to meetings of the American bishops. I once remarked — truthfully — that the drafts he gave me were well-written and didn’t need much work. The archbishop shrugged and said, “I want the bella figura.”
But he was more than bella figura. This was a smart, tough-minded man who knew his job — namely, to alter the ruinous course of the American Church by putting a different kind of bishop in place. The day of the “pastoral” bishops had passed. Now it was time for the “John Paul II bishops”: a tougher breed, more committed to orthodox doctrine and discipline than the Jadot men. The choice in 1984 of John O’Connor for New York was the emblematic appointment of the new era.
This is not to suggest that every John Paul bishop proved to be a rock-solid tower of strength. Leadership failures by “pastoral” bishops and “John Paul” bishops alike underline one of the great mysteries of Catholic life: Who really chooses the pastors of the Church, and on what basis? Still, the episcopal selections that began in the Laghi years overall were a huge improvement on the disastrous 1970s. The archbishop was rewarded with a Vatican congregation (Catholic Education) and the red hat. Sometimes he was even mentioned as a possibility for pope.
Avery Dulles followed a very different career path. Several years ago, I heard one of his fellow Jesuits reply to a naïve questioner who’d asked where Dulles stood on the ideology spectrum: “Avery Dulles is a conservative theologian.” It was clear that “conservative theologian” wasn’t a term of approval with him. If asked, I suspect Cardinal Dulles would simply have said, “I’m a Catholic theologian.” Maybe, as a convert, “Catholic” was good enough for him.
Just after Vatican II, the author of Models of the Church briefly toyed — or anyway was perceived as toying — with the idea of being a liberal theologian. In those days, he talked about the “magisterium” of theologians — an expression with historical precedent, but singularly ill-timed at a moment when some theologians in practice were claiming authority superior to that of the pope and bishops.
By the mid-1970s, Dulles apparently had looked into this particular abyss and drawn back. He was a moving force in a 1975 declaration by a group of Christian theologians asserting the perennial claims of the tradition. Increasingly he became a voice of scholarly, eminently Catholic moderation — testimony that, to be a serious Catholic theologian, fidelity to the Church’s teaching wasn’t merely possible but necessary.
After John Paul named him a cardinal in 2001, he functioned as a norm of intelligent orthodoxy in the ranks of the episcopal conference.
Finally, Father Neuhaus. Interviewing him for a European magazine a few years ago, I asked if he still thought the Catholic Church was on its way to being the dominant culture-shaping force in the United States — in other words, considering all the calamities of the recent past, was this still the “Catholic moment” he’d proclaimed in the title of one of his books?
I’m sure he’d heard the question often before, but he fielded it graciously. Yes, he still believed that, he replied, but he’d never said how long it would take the Catholic moment to arrive. Could be a while, he acknowledged.
The delay wasn’t Father Neuhaus’s fault. This eminent convert was best known for his advocacy of religion’s role in the public square, but at least as important was his dogged commitment to shoring up the Church in its hour of need. This he did with wit and decency — albeit with a pen that now and then seemed dipped in acid.
And the Catholic moment? In his widely read First Things column “The Public Square,” Father Neuhaus returned to the subject last November. “Those who today speak of ‘the Catholic moment,'” he wrote, “tend to be younger Catholics and converts to the faith. Their experience of Catholicism is not that of being adrift but of coming into safe harbor, not that of loss but of discovery.” Still, honest man that he was, he saw little hope of building “a vibrant Catholic identity” on “the typically weak foundation of contemporary parish life.”
The decline of American Catholicism that occurred with terrifying speed in the wild-eyed 1970s may have slowed down a bit today, thanks to the efforts of men like Neuhaus, Dulles, and Laghi. But it hasn’t been halted, much less reversed. It would be hard to say when, or even whether, that will happen.
Image: Archbishop Jadot