Strangers in the House: When Catholics in the Media Turned Against the Church

It’s very rare that I praise a socialist, but we’re approaching a time when Robert Blatchford should be feted. Blatchford was a British reformer who was active from 1890 to 1920. He converted to socialism after witnessing the misery in the slums of Manchester and started his own paper, the Clarion, in 1891.

Yet Blatchford was not what we would consider a typical newspaper editor. After he vigorously attacked Christianity, he did something extraordinary: He invited the opposition to mount a defense in the pages of his own paper. In 1904, almost 100 years ago, a bright young journalist named G. K. Chesterton took up the challenge. Much of what Chesterton wrote would wind up in the book Heretics, which is about to celebrate its centennial.

Blatchford even went to the incredible step of appointing a Christian, George Haw, to choose the defenders who would contribute to the Clarion. The writers wrote repeatedly and at length, the controversy going on for more than a year.

It’s a dispiriting sign of our times that the current mainstream liberal press—never mind the socialist organs— would rather bungee jump off St. Peter’s than allow a Christian into their pages. They claim to represent the faith by giving us folks like E. J. Dionne, Maureen Dowd, Mike Barnicle, and the pro-abortion Tower of Babel Chris Matthews—people who claim to be Catholic but only emphasize it when there’s something negative to say. They define their Catholicism by the leverage it gives them in the liberal culture, and their pronouncements about the Church are only marginally more positive than Blatchford’s. These CINOs (Catholics in Name Only) have a double game going: They can earn points for being pro-abortion and pro-gay rights at cocktail parties and editorial meetings while maintaining insider status as members of the Church. It’s like helping to beat your brother to death then claiming immunity from prosecution because it’s a private family squabble.

“My church is in trouble,” Dionne warns in an indignant column about the sex-abuse scandal—this from a writer who has never, at least in all the columns of his I’ve read over the last ten years, praised the name of Jesus Christ in print. He’s never even burnished a papal encyclical. On CNBC, Mike Barnicle sees the storm clouds because teenage boys are giggling in Mass. (This brought the wonderful rejoinder from Alan Keyes: “If the barometer of the Church’s health is teenagers in Mass, we’re in more trouble than I thought.”) To Dowd, the Church doesn’t represent joy, the eternal, or even love—it’s simply a piñata to string up whenever the Church doesn’t conform to the latest liberal fad.

But the naysayers aren’t as much offensive as they are dull. The greatest Catholic I ever knew, my father, raised us with the belief that the world was an enchanted, fantastic place—a beautiful creation marred by the Fall—and that Christ’s endless self-giving love was a sublime cause for happiness. He taught me not to let what the great theologian Josef Pieper claimed had occurred in the 20th century—that people had lost the ability to see what is around them—happen to me. I once read that Chesterton, who rhapsodized about the very color of grass, could become speechless when a woman walked into the room. Today’s Catholic defenders of the liberal magisterium are like the middle-aged hippies who still gripe about police brutality in 1968 Chicago. There’s never any excitement with liberal Catholics, any spiritual ecstasy at the prospect that God has delivered humanity from death and sin. The dour cynicism that they consider realistic actually is half-blind. The great Catholic writer James Hitchcock once noted that in the 1960s, liberal Catholics asked questions about the liturgy, proper dress, contraception, infallibility…everything except the question of whether they had faith. They never discussed whether they believed in Jesus.

They do, however, feel free to engage in theology—even when the theology is wrong. In September 2003, Dionne eulogized a friend, the liberal priest Monsignor Phil Murnion. Murnion was “an organizer,” meaning he was involved in liberal causes. Dionne offers high praise: “What occurs to me is that the trajectory of [Murnion’s] life, in the church and in the world, centered on hope inspired by the civil rights organizers and by the movement for renewal in the Catholic Church embodied in Pope John XXIII’s call for the Second Vatican Council. Hope is different from optimism. Hope is a tough virtue, not a psychological disposition. Hope insists on taking facts and reason into account and still insisting [that] improvement—along with, if you are religious, salvation—is always a real possibility.”

Dionne gets this exactly wrong. Christian hope is the belief that we are saved through Christ even if the world is plunged into darkness. It has nothing to do with politics. Josef Pieper wrote a book on Christian hope, noting that without hope of salvation, one is left with “the immense effort of a forced optimism, of a radiating trust in life, of a nosily proclaimed ‘progress.” Left, in other words, with E. J. Dionne.

If You Like Maureen Dowd, You Would Have Loved John Cogley

The prime mover and patron saint of the Dionne/Dowd/ Matthews Axis of Dour has to be John Cogley. Cogley was a radical Catholic who in 1965 was named the religious news editor of the New York Times. Vatican II was in its fourth and final year, and there were dissenting voices in the Church calling for the end of the proscription against contraception. The Church would not change its teaching, however, and in 1968-35 years ago—Pope Paul VI issued Humanae Vitae, defending its position.

Cogley was an ardent supporter of contraception, and Humanae Vitae would ultimately drive him, in 1973, to become an Episcopalian. Eventually he would admit that he had privately considered himself a non-Catholic as early as 1960. Reading Cogley’s dispatches from the mid-1960s is actually funny, not dissimilar to perusing the reports in the Times filed in the 1930s by its Russian correspondent Walter Durante, who claimed that there was no starvation or repression in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Durante was a piker compared with Cogley, who in 1966 gave a speech that obliterated the line separating advocacy and hysterical, fanatical zeal. It makes Maureen Dowd look like Brian Lamb.

Cogley’s major article about birth control and Catholicism appeared on June 20, 1965, in a lengthy piece in the New York Times Magazine. He starts the piece with an old joke—the one about the priest who meets a man in a hospital waiting room who is expecting his sixth child. The priest praises the man, only to call him a “sex addict” when he learns he’s not Catholic. “Some council fathers will admit…that the church may be in a bind [over contraception],” he announces. Cogley then notes that Catholics “in various parts of the country have banded together” to make sure that contraception is not accepted by certain state and federal employees. These Catholics are not interviewed. There are, however, lengthy quotes from dissenters, from the director of the Family Life Bureau of the National Catholic Welfare Conference to the Rev. John Courtney Murray, a favorite of liberal reporters.

Cogley declares that “even some more conservative theologians have now let it be known that they believe that with the development of modern anovulents—or ‘The Pill; as it is called in an upper-case tone of voice at informal clerical gatherings—the church has been providentially presented with a graceful ‘way out.— Cogley only quotes one theologian who stands against birth control, but he’s barely audible among the scores of voices in the five-page piece calling for change. Unfortunately, some of these enlightened folks are afraid to speak because of the big bad Church. Indeed, this fear provides one of the money quotes in Cogley’s piece:

The present position of the church, they will tell you bluntly if you promise not to quote them, is sown with ambiguities and contradictions. The more the church insists, they say, the more Catholics with all the goodwill in the world are cut off from its rich sacramental life. The more earnestly many young couples try to live up to such a position, the more they find themselves drifting apart emotionally. (This is challenged by some couples, who claim that for them the very opposite is true.) The more obedience couples give to the present Catholic understanding of the natural law, the more “unnaturally” they are required to behave as semi-celibates sharing the same bed. Frequently, the more children a couple has, the less satisfying and enriching their love life, and the less able they are to live up to their moral obligations as parents.

Any questions? Cogley’s press release was just part of a larger movement in the media of the time to push the Church into overturning its guidelines on contraception. Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report all ran slanted stories about the “controversy” within the Catholic Church, despite the fact that most theologians and bishops supported the ban on contraception. In 1965 and 1966, Look magazine published three articles whose titles gave the game away: “The Catholic Revolution,” “Lady Doctor Defies Her Church,” and “The Pope’s Unsolvable Problem.” In April 1964, the Saturday Evening Post published feminist Rosemary Ruether’s “A Catholic Mother Tells Why ‘I Believe in Birth Control.” In it she announced that the rhythm method “does great psychological damage.” In July 1965 Redbook published a piece called “This Baby Will Be My Last.” And so on.

But despite the appearance of a groundswell of support for contraception among American Catholics, the reality was something quite different. Indeed, the media first created the conditions for dissent and then reported on that dissent as a fact of life. This fact was pointed out by James Hitchcock in The Rise and Fall of Radical Catholicism: “The key concept was that of supposed ‘trends’ that were developing and which the press was merely reporting. To establish such trends, however, it was necessary either to ignore all evidence against them”—and here Hitchcock notes that most theologians and bishops in 1965 supported the traditional teaching on contraception—or “treat it as unimportant. The postulation of a trend…was at best a guess on the part of the reporters, rendered all the more dubious by the obvious desire of most of the press that such a change should take place.”

Cogley’s high point of lunacy—and a rhetorical high point of dour modern Catholicism—came in August 1966, when he addressed the National Catholic Education Association. Cogley’s lecture was so hectoring, didactic, and virulently tendentious against the Church that it actually now elicits a kind of perverse admiration. The man could not have cared less that he was supposed to be the religious news editor of the New York Times and therefore somewhat objective. His bravado is bracing, if idiotic. “We Catholics, thank God, have burned our last heretic,” he exults. “Let us hope the time is not far off when we will have excommunicated our last sinner, anathemized our last dissenter, and perhaps even suspended our last rebellious priest.”

Cogley repeatedly refers to the Second Vatican Council as “revolutionary,” noting the irony of this sea change being brought about by the traditional leaders of the Church: “There were men among the Founding Fathers of this nation who could not foresee the full implications of their own soaring words about human equality, liberty, and justice toward all. Similarly, among the Council Fathers, there were some who apparently did not realize that by opening the doors they were permitting the future to walk in with bold steps.” As for those “conservatives” who would attempt to stem this tide of change, Cogley predicted—or rather, guaranteed—that when the Church tells its followers that Vatican II didn’t change anything fundamental about Catholicism, “the religious news columns will belie all the assumptions.” He would certainly be one person to make sure of that.

Cogley’s Disciples

Cogley’s revolution called for the things liberal Catholics are still fighting for—secularized education, women priests, a shift from the timeless answers found in Christ to the modern answers of politics (as Cogley explains, “a pre-conciliar education for life in a post-conciliar world, I need not tell you, simply makes no sense”). Cogley also assails the Church for ignoring segregation: “When it was clear that we were involved as a community in social evil—for instance, in racial segregation or connivance in political corruption—we had a wonderful way of getting out of it. We merely spouted the appropriate teaching of the Church, preferably citing papal authority, and thereby washed our hands of guilt.” Perhaps he hadn’t heard of the Catholic high schools in Washington, D.C., desegregating years before Brown v. Board of Education.

Cogley left the New York Times in 1967, then the Church. Sadly, his philosophy, not to mention his journalistic technique, lives on—both in Catholics and newspaper editors.

Even classic Catholic books are not safe. A few years ago I picked up a new copy of Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain and was pleasantly surprised to notice that the newest edition comes with extras that were added in 1998— an introduction by Robert Giroux and “A Note to the Reader” by William H. Shannon, the president of the International Thomas Merton Society. Giroux’s introduction is a fine one, a short reflection on Merton and the story of how Storey became a surprise bestseller. Shannon’s piece—not to put too fine a point on it—is an offensive, smug, anti-Catholic disaster. It really isn’t too much to call it a calumny and a defacement.

The problem can be boiled down to four paragraphs under the title “Religious Atmosphere.” It serves as a warning that the reader is about to step into a toxic atmosphere: WARNING…ENTERING PRE-VATICAN II CATHOLICISM. “The Roman Catholic Church you encounter in this book,” Shannon pronounces, “is almost light years removed from the   church that we recognize as the Roman Catholic Church today. Today’s church is the product of the revolution (not too strong a term) set in motion by the Second Vatican Council.”

Shannon gives us the bad news straight:

The pre-Vatican II church into which Merton was baptized was a church still reacting—even three centuries later—to the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Characterized by a siege mentality, wagons circled around doctrinal and moral absolutes, it clung to its past with great tenacity. An institution apart, it showed little desire to open itself to the questions and needs of a world undergoing huge and unprecedented changes. The church prided itself on the stability and unchangeable character of its teaching in the context of a world in flux. At the time Merton wrote his book, Roman Catholic theology had become a set of prepackaged responses to any and all questions. Polemical and apologetic in tone, its aim was to prove Catholics were right and all others were wrong.

Can you imagine that? The Catholic Church had the stunning gall to claim it stood for moral absolutes, unlike those open-minded Protestant denominations. Worse, it insisted that it provided timeless answers—or wisdom ever ancient and ever new, in Augustine’s phrase—that transcended the fads of the day. Further, it claimed that it had the full truth and other sects and denominations (gasp) did not. Were they all drunk?

Such malevolence was obviously behind Merton’s next unforgivable sin—the “complacent triumphalism” that leads him to think he belongs to the “one true” church (note the scare quotes around that phrase) also causes him to disparage other Christian denominations. This is simply beyond the pale, but if modern, enlightened readers will simply hold their noses, “readers today will be better able to put this narrowness in historical perspective and thus be less bothered by it.”

Of course, after this kind of warning, I had no other choice but to reread The Seven Storey Mountain, just for the cheap thrill it would provide—a window into the ramblings of a demented religious fanatic. I was surprised to discover that the book is still the same one I remembered reading the last time. It’s a deeply moving, beautiful, funny, and spiritually stirring autobiography of a man who left the world for the riches of a life in God. It’s also a book written by a man who fell deeply in love with the Catholic Church and made no apologies for it. It was, if you can imagine, a book by a man who was happy to be Catholic.

As for Merton’s alleged swipes at other denominations—well, it’s hard to figure out what all the fuss is about. Merton talks of his disappointment when he investigated the Quakers: “I think I had enough sense to know that it would be madness to look for a group of people, a society, a religion, a church from which all mediocrity would be absolutely excluded. But when I read the works of William Penn and found them to be about as supernatural as a Montgomery Ward catalogue I lost interest in the Quakers.” As for Protestants in general, well, “sometimes Protestant theology does…amount to little more than a combination of sociology and religious history.”

There are a couple more shots, but they don’t get any more severe than this. This is what caused such dissonance in Shannon? The Seven Storey Mountain was published in 1948, and Merton’s jibes are simply evidence of a time— before Maureen Dowd and E. J. Dionne proved that there are Catholics without senses of humor—when lighthearted sarcasm about other cultures and religions hadn’t been outlawed by the thought police of political correctness. (Sarcasm is a common trope in writing from the post–World War II era, from detective novels to movies to Holden Caulfield.) It’s really nothing to get excited about, unless the dictates of our age of “tolerance” have made you an open, raw nerve. Unless, in other words, you write for the Washington Post or New York Times.

What is worth getting worked up about, however, is Shannon’s attempt to secularize Merton’s very Catholic book. In his note, Shannon offers this summation:

People continue to read The Seven Storey Mountain because the story of how Merton arrives at this certitude is so compelling. We are swept along with this young man as he seeks to make something out of his heretofore undisciplined life. Today, as we hover on the verge of a new millennium, we can identify with his searching, if not always with the specific direction it took. Merton’s personal magnetism, the enthusiasm of his convictions, the vivid narratives of this born writer, transcend the narrowness of his theology. His story contains perennial elements of our common human experience. This is what makes it profoundly universal.

Just so we’re clear: The Seven Storey Mountain is not a Catholic book. It is a New Age tale of self-discovery, easily adaptable to the culture of Oprah. After all, the self is the only thing worth celebrating today, and if we have to drag Merton and his Church to that position retroactively, then so be it. It’s all about the imperial self and the search for, well, me. Forget the direction Merton’s search took—in fact, forget the point of the entire book. Pay no attention to Merton’s rhapsodies about Mary, Jesus, the saints, and the Church that gave him his salvation and the salvation of the world. Don’t even bother with the Latin. It’s all part of that narrow theology.

Chesteron once remarked that he loved the Catholic Church because it had prevented him from becoming a child of his age. William Shannon, sadly, is very much a child of his age, as are his Catholic compatriots in the media. I daresay that in a hundred years, his introduction to Merton’s masterpiece will seem far more dated than the text it introduces. Indeed, it is Merton who gets the last word on Shannon. It occurs when Merton realizes the error of his old life:

I saw clearly enough that I was the product of my times, my society, and my class. I was something that had been spawned by the selfishness and irresponsibility of the materialistic century in which I lived. However, what I did not see was that my own age and class only had an accidental part to play in this. They gave my egoism and pride and my other sins a peculiar character of weak and supercilious flippancy proper to this particular century: but that was only on the surface. Underneath, it was the same old story of greed and lust and self-love, of the three concupiscences bred in the rich, rotted undergrowth of what is technically called “the world,” in every age, in every class.

It’s a shame, and a bore, that E. J. Dionne will never have the guts to write something like that.

  • Mark Gauvreau Judge

    Mark Judge is a Washington writer and author of "God and Man at Georgetown Prep," "Damn Senators: My Grandfather and the Story of Washington's Only World Series," and other books.

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