A House Divided: What Future for American Catholics?

The Roman Catholic Church is still struggling to meet the challenges of responding to Vatican II. The Church has overcome some of the difficulties that the council sought to address, but it has also inherited a new set of problems: a confused religious identity, an uncertain sense of mission, a precipitate decline in traditional morality, and a host of other spiritual maladies. The pope’s most pressing mission under these circumstances is to give definition to a church that is struggling to find itself, and John Paul II has in fact attempted to anchor Catholicism in its enduring principles, an attempt some of his critics interpret very harshly as an effort to stress orthodoxy over freedom.

Despite John Paul’s efforts, the Church’s problems are not easily eradicated; for they are not peripheral issues, but rather address the very nature and identity of the Church. This situation is exacerbated by a Catholic crisis of identity. It seems that a large number of Catholics, particularly in the West, are not sure what it means to be Catholic. There is an ancestral or an inherited meaning to Catholicism, but that implies only a nominal ethnic or social identification. It does not signify a serious interior life or an understanding of the mediating role of the Church, or of the differences between Catholics and other Christians—in other words, what is the particular Catholic claim to truth? Not only are these issues not well understood, it is a mark of the difficulty of our situation that they are not even frequently asked. For many people, being Catholic has become merely a function of unreflective habit.

For precisely this reason, Catholics are tempted by the appealing secular notion that only those religious ideas that fit their preferred lifestyle should be taken seriously. Indeed, we face a genuine crisis, one that is not vitiated by polls and statistics showing that a large majority of Americans still go to church.

Among the pope’s strategies for dealing with this is his effort to put the right people in the episcopacy, on the reasoning that over a long period of time this is what will have the most lasting effect. Real progress has been seen at the highest levels, where the pope has tried to bring about reform by appointing unquestionably orthodox bishops, and also by using the instrument of Cardinal Ratzinger’s office to issue clear statements of Catholic principles that demarcate what is Catholic from what is not. This process, both institutional and rhetorical, has been helpful.

On the other hand, the Vatican is often glacially slow in dealing with institutional problems that have metastasized throughout the Church, reaching scandalous proportions in some areas. Often, when the Vatican does intervene, it is so tentative that the slightest uproar causes a hasty retreat into a kind of compromise that leaves the original situation modestly changed at best, or in some cases undisturbed. Recently, one thing that has been conspicuous by its absence is the kind of confrontation that was so prominent a few years ago. There haven’t been any Hans Kungs or Charles Currans in a long time.

The Curran case was an example of effective action, both on the part of the Vatican and also on the part of the local bishop—in this case, Cardinal Hickey. Ever since the late 1960s, Curran had been an embarrassment. Whenever there was a dispute over Humanae Vitae, or euthanasia, or women’s ordination, Curran was one of the usual suspects rounded up on “Nightline” or interviewed by the New York Times. He was the most prominent media counterweight to the magisterium, and his power derived largely from the fact that he was able to transmit dissenting opinions with the mantle of apparent Church approval. He was a priest speaking from a Catholic platform.

Despite these provocations, there was considerable fear over the possible repercussions if any official were to state authoritatively that Curran’s teachings were inconsistent with those of the Church. The real issue was never whether Curran could espouse his views or even remain a priest in good standing, but only whether he could teach as a Catholic theologian. In any case, after he was removed from the pontifical faculty of the Catholic University of America, Curran was no longer the darling of the secular media. He has ceased to go toe-to-toe with Cardinal O’Connor or Cardinal Law and has essentially vanished.

But there remains no dearth of similar flashpoints on the Catholic horizon. Cardinal Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is currently guiding the development of a new catechism, which will serve as an authoritative guide for what is and is not official Catholic teaching. The text should be completed this summer. Such a comprehensive and definitive work is virtually guaranteed to elicit strong opposition, from both inside and outside the Church.

Crisis of the House Divided

It seems that dissent and orthodoxy now coexist within the portals of the institution of the Catholic Church. The dissenters are by no means activists beating down the gates from the outside. Catholic teaching is controversial within the institution long before it meets outside critics. Any effort to affirm orthodoxy or to clarify teaching, even of the most fundamental sort, is going to meet, if not with outright denunciation, at least with snickers or subversion on the part of activists within the Church.

There is a crisis of conscience within the Church that mirrors and, in part, creates the crisis of faith seen in the Church as a whole. This crisis is of utmost importance to the Church as it faces the future. It must be recognized, actively dealt with, and afforded a position of prominence. This has not been the case in past years. For example, the American bishops’ major statements in recent years have focused on all manner of issues: the economy, war and peace, nuclear weapons, etc. No one contests the right of the bishops to engage the moral principles underlying political and social questions. Yet by adopting such a worldly focus, the bishops have helped to divert attention from more fundamental religious and moral questions (to say nothing of opportunities for evangelization) that need their urgent attention, and have focused instead on political questions, where they have not had much of a constructive impact. Anyone who rereads the pastoral letters that received the most media coverage cannot help seeing how passé the letters’ concerns have become. One revealing test: would anyone seriously recommend that Eastern Europeans study those letters?

Another source of controversy is the bishops’ ill-fated attempt at a pastoral letter on women. The pope has addressed the subject of men and women with considerable anthropological and theological sophistication. By contrast, the activists in the U.S. Catholic Conference seem to be feeding the bishops little more than the sanitized grievances of feminism. In this and many other areas, it is unclear whether the bishops will seek to interpret modern culture in the light of biblical and Catholic principles, or the other way around.

Women’s ordination in particular has become an obsession on the religious left. Whether there are indeed thousands of American women who seek ordination is highly doubtful. In fact, it is not certain that even some of the most stormy activists for women’s ordination wish to be ordained themselves. A more serious question is the question of priestly celibacy. That is likely to continue to be a subject of serious theological and practical debate in the next few years.

In addition to these internal challenges facing the Catholic Church, one hears considerable talk of a strong and growing wave of anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States. This allegation does not quite fit the reality. It is the Church’s willingness to defend, however meekly, certain moral principles that draws fierce and uncompromising opposition. The target, in other words, is not anyone’s being Catholic per se, it is orthodox Catholic moral principles themselves—the pro-life position, moral criticism of homosexual conduct, an insistence that the relationships between men and women are complementary rather than egalitarian. These sorts of ideas run athwart some of the politically correct notions in our culture. When these positions are espoused by non-Catholic groups, they draw the same kind of hostility.

Neglected Evangelism

A more serious threat, however, lies in the realm of Catholic evangelism. There needs to be a serious reconsideration of the subject of mission and missionary work among Catholics. The evolution—I would even say the degeneration—of the Maryknoll order is a metaphor for the way in which authentic Catholic mission has been transformed into little more than left-wing activism.

Such activism may have its place in society, but it’s unclear what separates the Catholic activist from the secular activist. With this sort of political mission, it is unclear what distinctive Catholic message is left at all. The high rate of conversion to evangelical Christianity in Latin America and in the southwestern United States suggests that a large number of Catholics, particularly Hispanics, have not developed a clear sense of what it means to be Catholic and thus are easily drawn by the back-to-basics Christianity of the evangelicals.

The situation points up a serious deficiency in the Catholic Church. Catholic teaching is intended to build on the fundamentals and end in a more refined understanding of the moral and theological universe. But this beautiful edifice is irrelevant without a sturdy grounding in its foundation. And it is precisely because the foundations are eroding that the evangelical and fundamentalist emphasis on those foundations receives a sympathetic hearing among nominally Catholic people.

The charismatic renewal is also worth examining in this context. It’s possible that this movement has found a niche within the larger institution of the Church and is having an important, but nevertheless localized, influence. Certainly there is too much rote Catholicism, not only in this country but abroad as well, and the tremendous energy and enthusiasm of the charismatic renewal has much to contribute to the Church.

G.K. Chesterton spoke of what he called “dynamic orthodoxy,” one that fuses the commitment to truth with a certain moral passion. Sometimes the two become separated, and one finds an institutional commitment to doctrine, but without evangelical zeal. On the other hand, one also sees people who are fired with ardor, but their energy often leads in unpredictable directions. When you see a fusion of dynamism and of orthodoxy, that is the ideal combination.

The Challenges Ahead

In appraising the Catholic future, we should also keep a close eye on ecumenism. There is an important distinction to be made between intra-Christian ecumenism and a more general ecumenism that seeks dialogue with other religions. One may also speak of an ecumenism that seeks to dilute important differences in the name of a superficial and “feel-good” unity—which I would term bogus or simplistic ecumenism—and a more authentic ecumenism that understands that unity should not be a lowest-common-denominator proposition, but rather a deeper union based upon shared commitments to truths that are truly universal. After a few decades of ecumenical experimentation, and a good deal of silliness, I hope we have learned that a more serious approach to ecumenism is the proper path for the future.

In the coming years the Catholic Church will be trodding across very rocky terrain. The challenges facing the Church are very real and admit of no simple solutions. And yet many hopeful signs dot the horizon. The most significant signs are, unfortunately, political rather than religious. We seem to be entering what V.S. Naipaul has called a “universal civilization” that is by and large committed to the principles of liberal democracy. The Church has articulated strong defenses of both political and economic liberty and thus can rejoice in these developments, which the pope has had no small part in bringing about.

On the other hand, a commitment to liberal democracy says very little about what shape the fledgling regimes will take. The newly emancipated citizens not only of Eastern Europe but also of parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, have to think anew about many fundamental questions.

It is also important for more jaded Americans and Western Europeans to reflect afresh on the principles that animate a liberal democratic society. Is there a place in such a society for the transcendent? If so, how will that place be recognized? Can persons with diverse theological and metaphysical convictions sustain the basic moral strictures that all societies—not least those granting citizens unprecedented freedoms—need to survive? These sorts of questions will become the center for discussion, not just within the churches, but within the larger culture as well. What is encouraging is the emergence, now that certain political questions have been settled, of deeper philosophical problems that are forcing even non-religious people to think for the first time about several permanent questions. Christianity’s answers to those questions have, after all, attracted skeptics like Walker Percy, Edith Stein, and Saint Augustine.

  • Dinesh D'Souza

    Dinesh D'Souza is an American conservative political commentator, author, and former college president.

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