Kneeling Before the World

Last week, I interrupted my series of reflections on the Seven Deadly Sins to accommodate the elections. Let’s hope that my dire predictions turn out to be alarmist, even hysterical.
Much as I’d like to jump right back on the horse, and ride through the happy fields of Greed, or among Envy’s icy crags, I think it’s fitting to spend this week reflecting on where American Catholics are and how we got here: a gray, intermediate place halfway between the exercise of power and the pressure of persecution. It’s called Irrelevance. It feels like a straight jacket and smells like formaldehyde, and we’ll be thrashing around inside it for years to come. Let us use that empty time to clear our heads and get our story straight.
Various writers here have wondered aloud why American Catholics seemed to care so little about the sanctity of life; why American bishops and priests, as a whole, were such unreliable allies. Those essays have offered cogent answers, but none was complete. My own diagnosis of the self-defeating Catholic liberalism that enfeebles even the orthodox failed to plumb its lowest depths.
For that it took Philip Lawler, whose book The Faithful Departed is the most important work about the Church to appear in the last two decades — since Anne Roche Muggeridge’s sobering masterwork, The Desolate City. Lawler’s book took enormous courage to write; its naming of names and relentless spade-calling of spades has made Lawler many enemies, and the book has been banned from the shelves of some Catholic bookstores. (From now on, when I visit such a store, I’m asking them about Lawler; if they won’t sell his book, they’ll lose my business.)
What are they all so afraid of? The truth, it seems. Lawler points out that while less than five percent of American priests have been accused of sexual abuse, some two-thirds of our bishops were apparently complicit in cover-ups. The real scandal isn’t the sick excesses of a few dozen pedophiles, or even the hundreds of priests who had affairs with teenage boys — the bulk of abuse cases. No, according to Lawler, it is the malfeasance of wealthy, powerful, and evidently worldly men who fill the thrones — but not the shoes — of the apostles. In case after case, we read in their correspondence, in the records of their soulless, bureaucratic responses to victims of psychic torture and spiritual betrayal, these bishops’ prime concern was to save the infrastructure, the bricks and mortar and mortgages. Ironically, their lack of a supernatural concern for souls is precisely what cost them so much money in the end.
Two-thirds. It takes my breath away. It makes me want to retch. One bishop in my region, Lawler reports, only escaped imprisonment by cutting a deal with the prosecutor, essentially admitting guilt and allowing the D.A.’s office to audit Church decisions, to forestall future cover-ups. So the highest authority governing the Church there is an official of a state that tolerates abortion — and I’m relieved to hear it. O great Diocletian, from our own shepherds defend us.
When you read how bishops — even those of impeccable orthodoxy — were willing to overlook the seduction of altar boys, to squirm away from responsible leadership, it’s much easier to understand their typical response to complaints from the laity (or from Rome) of liturgical or catechetical problems. Men who’ve practiced decades of denial concerning serial abusers like Boston’s Paul Shanley, closing ranks with fellow clergy addicted to sex with teenage boys against the “threat” posed by the laity, found it easy to shrug off “trivialities” like heresy and sacrilege.
The book takes courage to read. Using Boston as a microcosm, Lawler explores with relentless honesty the clerical abuse crisis, which he tags as just one symptom of a systemic Church collapse. We all know the statistics of decline in Mass attendance and vocations, the horror stories of seminaries either emptying or turning “lavender,” the long lists of Catholic colleges and schools that have shrugged off essential doctrines. Having read whole shelves of books on this subject and hundreds of articles — I’ve written dozens of them myself — I’ll say that none of them is as radical as Lawler’s. Lawler’s analysis cuts to the root (radix) of the Church’s modern crisis, in the manner of a surgeon cutting out cancer from the body of his beloved. Cancer that has metastasized.
The problem doesn’t boil down to birth control, modernist theology, or fuzzy documents of Vatican II. We can’t blame it all on the Freemasons or the homosexuals, the guitar-banging nuns or the psychiatrists. Their excesses are merely symptoms. So, in their own way, are the guilty bishops. The illness that has infected them — that infects you and me, in our ways — amounts to what Jacques Maritain called (in The Peasant on the Garonne) “kneeling before the world.”
Lawler demonstrates this phenomenon through his capsule history of the rise of Catholic Boston — a city where Puritans once outlawed the Mass and Irish immigrants arrived half-starving, appearing to native Brahmins at best half-human. When the “world” was spurning us, when American Catholics were viewed with suspicion or dwelt in ethnic ghettos, we pushed back energetically. Our sins, which were surely scarlet, rarely entailed compromise. It’s hard to sell out when no one is buying.
The Church in Boston — in America — was corrupted by success. We recapitulated in less than 100 years a process that elsewhere took centuries, skipping straight from the catacombs to the corruptions of the Renaissance. Having built through the desperate sacrifices of hard-working immigrants a vast infrastructure of wealth and power, the Church began to attract as leaders men who treasured such things: power-brokers, managers, statesmen — but very few saints.
Where was one to find saints, anyway? As Catholic laymen moved up in the world, they chafed at their sense of strangeness in a liberal Protestant New England, the Catholic “difference” in which their parents had taken pride. With the rise of the Kennedy family, they had “arrived.” It was time to leave behind all the shabby, embarrassing baggage. To settle down in the world and of the world and for the world, with the Spirit of the World, for a long and comfy relationship.
The Kennedys were genuine leaders, as Lawler documents. He reports:
In July 1964, several liberal theologians received invitations to the Kennedy family compound in Hyannisport, Massachusetts, for a discussion of how a Catholic politician should handle the abortion issue. Notice now that abortion was not a major political issue in 1964 . . . .
The participants in that Hyannisport meeting composed a Who’s Who of liberal theologians, most of them Jesuits . . . . Father Robert Drinan . . . Father Charles Curran . . . Father Joseph Fuchs, a Jesuit professor at Rome’s Gregorian . . . Jesuits Richard McCormack, Albert Jensen, and Giles Milhaven.
For two days the theologians huddled in the Cape Cod resort town as guests of the Kennedys. Eventually they reached a consensus, which they passed along to their political patrons. Abortion, they agreed, could sometimes be morally acceptable as the lesser of two evils. Lawmakers should certainly not encourage abortion, but a blanket prohibition might be more harmful to the common good . . . (81).
Nine years before the fact, the financial and intellectual elite of American Catholicism were, in Lawler’s words, “waiting for Roe v. Wade.”
I don’t think that the Kennedys or their pet Jesuits especially hated children. They weren’t yet in the grip of Malthusian panic. Instead, as Lawler points out, they were troubled by doctrinal obstacles to their smooth advancement in modern America. These stumbling blocks, these “scandals,” could needlessly hold back the progress of Catholics from the ghetto to the suburbs, from ward-heeling to the White House. Offering some moderate compromise was surely the “Christian” thing to do.
And so we have continued, unto today. Having loved the trappings of the Church, her might as a civic and cultural institution, we’ve forgotten why she was founded — and by Whom. Facing a culture deeply uncomfortable with Christ, or the fullness of Christ, we have proven ourselves great trimmers. We’ve cut a little here, a little there, just enough to prove we’re no fanatics. No superstitious peasants, clinging to outworn dogmas, but sophisticated believers — whose commitment to “social justice” fits very nicely inside contemporary liberalism.
Leave out the infrequent, cringe-worthy interventions by distant Rome, and Catholics could easily “pass” for mainline Protestants. A modernized, milquetoast Church — of such is the Stuff that White People Like. And most of us like it. Insofar as we really do, we have the bishops we deserve.

John Zmirak is author, most recently, of the graphic novel The Grand Inquisitor and is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College in New Hampshire. He writes weekly for

  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

    Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

    Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

We must raise $60,000 to fund our work and continue offering the most incisive commentary in the culture wars.

Will you please donate $25, $50, $100, $250, $500, or more today?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Share to...