The twenty-first century may witness the flowering of a renewed and purified Catholicism in the United States. As we enter the 1990s it is time to accentuate the positive developments that are all around for those who have eyes to see. While the crisis in the Church continues, there are clear signs that it may be beginning to end as we gradually shed the old skin of dissent and confusion in doctrinal, moral, and liturgical matters that resulted from a sadly distorted interpretation of the Second Vatican Council.
The sources and effects of the crisis have been amply and ably documented by such Catholic thinkers as Maritain and von Hildebrand in their last books before their deaths, and more recently by writers such as Anne Roche Muggeridge, James Hitchcock, and Cardinal Siri. Indeed, there are still newspapers and magazines dedicated principally to chronicling some of the more unfortunate aberrations of the last 25 years. Yet some of these expert analyses of our present-day confusion offer solutions that tend to be rather nostalgic in their character, that is to say, they point backward to a golden era of the 1950s, when Catholicism appeared to be at its zenith in America.
But a natural question then arises: if Catholic belief was so firmly rooted among the faithful of that era, then what can account for the near collapse of the human element of the Church in so many areas less than 15 years after the election of the first Catholic president? It seems that pre-Vatican II Catholicism was not sufficiently rooted in the interior life, the “soul of the apostolate” which alone can provide a durable base for a Catholic influence that would permeate American society and create a church that would, to paraphrase Chesterton, move the world rather than be moved by it.
It may be that now, more than ever in our history, when things look so glum, we are in a position to build a Christian society that in its beginning will be truly counter-cultural. As Andre Malraux, of all people, put it, “In the twenty-first century, the world will either be Catholic or not be.” What follows are ten leading indicators of the good times to come.
Perhaps the greatest reason for a realistic optimism is the continuing pontificate of John Paul II. In 12 years, through his pastoral journeys and magisterial writings, he has traced out in almost every conceivable area an authentic vision of how the teachings of the Council will finally be implemented. It will require years, perhaps decades, for these teachings, expressed through the prism of his own personalist philosophy, to filter down fully to the lay faithful, but the substructure has been constructed for the edifice of the Church in the next century.
In each year that passes a greater percentage of the episcopate in the U.S. will have been appointed by the current pope. With time their energetic commitment to John Paul’s vision of the post-conciliar Church will become evident both in their clear teaching and in their willingness to take necessary disciplinary action in their role as pastors.
Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, St. Charles Borromeo in Philadelphia, and Holy Apostles in Cromwell, Connecticut, are three large seminaries at or near capacity which give their students an integral priestly formation that will produce manly, pious, zealous priests for the next century. All three seminaries have a heavy representation from the relatively small dioceses of Lincoln, Arlington, Lafayette, and Peoria. The example of such dioceses and seminaries shows—all opinion polls and sociological surveys to the contrary—that it is possible to attract large numbers of young men to the priesthood in the current environment.
The main vehicle for the implementation of the teachings of John Paul II will be a well-formed laity who will be the leaven that will give rise to the whole. Throughout Church history the Holy Spirit has inspired the institutions necessary for the health of the Church. These institutions represent, in the words of Jaime Balmes, “the offspring of Catholicity which always converts its ideas into institutions.” The current period is no different. While we hope and pray for a renewal of religious congregations, it appears evident that lay institutions fully approved by the Church, will have a great influence among the faithful. We can watch their steady progress, rooted in loyal love for the Church, deep piety, strong doctrinal formation, and apostolic zeal, slowly transform the Catholic ethos. Over time they will deeply influence individuals who in their turn will influence institutions, both secular and ecclesial, including our parishes. I am thinking not only of institutions such as the prelature of Opus Dei (to which I belong) but also of movements such as Communion and Liberation, the Charismatic Renewal, Focolare, and the Apostolate for Family Consecration.
In recent years there have appeared (at least to the public view) religious congregations for men such as the Oblates of the Virgin Mary and the Legionaries of Christ, among others, that provide an example of total dedication in a truly renewed rule according to the conciliar model. They are only now starting to ordain priests in significant numbers. For women, the Missionaries of Charity are also finding many American vocations. In the future such congregations will provide the “eschatological witness” that is a necessary complement to the “age of the laity.”
This refers to the founding and growth of small, faithful Catholic colleges along with the revitalization of older ones. Among the first group are Thomas Aquinas College, Christendom College, and Thomas More College in New Hampshire, and among the second are the Franciscan University of Steubenville and the University of Dallas. Allowing for the differences in academic focus and student body size that are inherent in institutions of higher learning, all of the above offer the possibility of a serious, orthodox liberal arts education that can both prepare students for professional life or graduate school and more importantly ready them to transmit their Catholic ideals to their future families and colleagues in society.
Over time, the Vatican’s clarification of the definition of a Catholic university will help some Catholic institutions return to their foundational charisms and thus avoid the fate of the Protestant foundations of the Ivy League.
Another encouraging development in the academic world is the growing presence at elite secular institutions of groups of students who are creating, in a multitude of ways, an atmosphere in which a serious Catholic student can mature both in doctrinal knowledge and prayer life. The results have been both conversions and vocations along with a growing, albeit grudging, acknowledgment that Catholicism has a place in “the free market of ideas” that is the declared standard for these institutions.
After the collapse of so many Catholic publishing houses, magazines, and journals in the wake of the Council, in recent years there have arisen new publishing houses, magazines, and journals which—whatever their faults—demonstrate the appeal of forward-looking and intellectually able publications.
Ignatius Press, of course, is the outstanding example of the old and the new in an attractive package, all in total faithfulness to the Church. The English edition of 30 Days has provided a much needed international point of view that heretofore had been largely lacking in our journals.
Crisis, the New Oxford Review, and the Human Life Review are three American journals that have already had a notable impact. These journals also show that there is no conflict between loyalty to the Church and the intellectual life, and at the same time, demonstrate that there is ample room for notable yet charitable disagreement among the lay faithful.
The reprinting of classics, unavailable for many years, and the introduction of newer authors—such as Father Stanley Jaki and Father George Rutler—provide chances for younger Catholics to become acquainted with the Catholic tradition. As the readership of formerly great journals of opinion passes on, there will be a solid group of professionals trained in the visual and print media ready to take their place. Also noteworthy is the Eternal Word network of Mother Angelica as a classic example of the wedding of traditional Catholic teaching with high technology. It is finding an ever-increasing viewership, reaching into homes that rarely receive a Catholic book, magazine, or newspaper.
The Greying of Dissent
Heresy by its very nature is sterile, and the dissenting establishment which has held sway over certain sectors of the Church in America is aging and disappearing. Where are the young dissenters? They simply don’t exist. Only demanding orthodoxy is winning vocations among young people. No doubt the whining of the dissenters in the media and in some institutions where they are entrenched will continue to be heard for some time, but their numbers are dwindling and their power evaporating.
An Open Field
We are witnessing what is likely to be the final collapse of mainline Protestantism. Attendance at church in the principal Protestant denominations has tumbled in the recent decade; combined with the lack of unified doctrinal or moral belief, this suggests that mainline Protestantism’s survival at this point depends largely on the artificial respirator of cash flow. This reality, coupled with the oft-stated goal of John Paul for reunion with Eastern Orthodoxy by the end of the century, will lead many men and women of good will to a simple clear choice between modern paganism and a dynamic Catholicism. The words of Cardinal Newman, the centenary of whose death we are now celebrating, seem even truer now than when he spoke them: “There are but two alternatives, the way to Rome, and the way to Atheism.”
While there has been a resurgence of fundamentalism-evangelicalism on the national level, its ahistorical outlook, lack of tradition, and absence of authority do not leave it as a truly viable alternative for educated Christians. Despite the chaos in the Church, the 1970s and ’80s witnessed a remarkable movement by well-known Protestant intellectuals into the Catholic Church: Peter Kreeft, Thomas Howard, John Haas, Paul Vitz, Deal Hudson, and Scott Hahn, among others. Perhaps the most significant event has been the recent reception of Richard Neuhaus, a true harbinger of “the Catholic moment.” The energizing role of these converts, as they take their places in our universities, colleges, and journals, will influence another whole generation. At the same time they may be precisely the instruments needed in the future to win back the thousands of Catholics, including most unfortunately Hispanic-Americans, attracted by the vigorous Christianity of fundamentalism.
The last reason (at least on this modest list) is, paradoxically, the growing hostility towards the Church in society. Such hostility can come as no surprise. Paul Claudel tells us, “The faith of a Catholic is not a matter of indifference. It is a direct and personal menace to the security of him who does not share it.” Catholicism has often thrived under the most hostile societal conditions—witness the Roman persecution, the onslaught of the barbarians, and the Protestant revolution. The most difficult times have often produced the greatest saints and theologians.
It is no accident that America’s still young Church has yet to produce a saint who was not either a convert or foreign-born. At the same time, with few exceptions, we have yet to produce great Catholic thinkers who have stood the test of time. As the cultural situation may worsen in our country, we should remember Karol Wojtyla telling us in Philadelphia in 1976 that “we may be witnessing the final confrontation between good and evil.”
Persecution serves to clarify the choice between good and evil. It seems likely as we approach the year 2000 and beyond that the Church will be truly countercultural and, through the work of the Holy Spirit, will produce the holy men and women, institutions, and intellectuals necessary to transform American society. As we begin the 1990s, now is the time to leave critique, complaint, and despair behind and look forward to the battles to be won, confident that many of the weapons for these battles are already in place.