What If Catholics Weren't So Wimpy?

June 1996By James V. Schall

The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Government at Georgetown. His At the Limits of Political Philosophy is due out from Catholic University Press this month.

After breakfast on March 14, I was sitting in our Jesuit community recreation room reading about the NCAA basketball tournament in a newspaper. A friend of mine who was across the room brought over a copy of The Washington Times for that morning. "Take a look at this ad," he told me, showing me a full-page advertisement in very bold and large print, with the glaring headline, "Why Are Catholics So Wimpy?" Well, I confess that this question echoes a frequent concern of mine -- my book Does Catholicism Still Exist? brings up the point in another way. How can it ever have come about, one wonders, that anyone could ever consider calling Catholics "wimpy"? The fact is that to many people wimpy is how we often appear, wimpy and wishy-washy.

Catholicism boldly asserts that it stands for something distinctive, but many calling themselves Catholic who reject Catholic teachings are seldom challenged. Bishops in their corporate capacities have positions on every imaginable public policy, but practically no deviation from doctrine or moral practice, especially by an academic or public official, is addressed, save for rare cases such as -- currently -- by the Bishop of Lincoln. Usually the few bishops who try to correct departures from Catholic teaching take such flak that nothing further happens; they give up, knowing the other bishops will not back them. Llewellyn Rockwell said what many think:

Christianity is now thoroughly politicized. The [Catholic] bishops and [Ralph] Reed have no trouble speaking about the importance of pro-family legislation, or the glories of religious pluralism, but they are shy about such basics as the Christian teaching on salvation. The longer the process of politicization continues, the thinner the faith gets. Political ambition causes people to water down their beliefs for the sake of gaining favor. The hazard is especially prevalent in a society with competing religions. The first stage of sell-out comes with the exaltation of political pluralism above doctrinal truth, the second stage with the denial of doctrinal truth altogether for achieving political goals.

One might note that John Paul II's encyclical on the diversity of religions, Ut Unum Sint, took particular care to avoid this very real tendency to minimize doctrine.

The irony is that there has never been a time in which the Church has been intellectually more coherent and forceful than she is today. For this we owe an enormous debt to John Paul II. And yet, at the same time, at no time has the Church, at least in America, been culturally weaker. The Pope has not been followed. Nietzsche thought Christians practiced a "slave" morality, but not even he thought they were simply "wimpy." Nietzsche thought that Christian doctrine as such, in comparison to his strong-willed, "beyond good and evil" scholar or leader, led to turning the other cheek and all that. But wimpiness means a sort of embarrassment about what one holds, a lack of gumption. Turning the other cheek can require gumption.

The ad was right: We do have to walk a long way to find a vibrant, forceful Catholicism presented in our parishes. The reason Mother Teresa is so effective -- and so much a target of the relativizers -- is because she is not wimpy. With some exceptions, such nonwimpy Catholicism is not found in our Catholic universities, high schools, seminaries, convents, or parishes, does not come out of diocesan chancery offices. Almost the only way a cleric or layman can get in ecclesial trouble today in America is to plead for more orthodoxy, more reverence in the Mass, even calling it a "Mass."

A vibrant Catholicism is, of course, found in the Catechism, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, and in every parish homily of John Paul II printed in L'Osservatore Romano. Calmly, Cardinal Ratzinger articulates this forceful Catholicism. We indeed found it in Flannery O'Connor and Chesterton and de Lubac. It's in Peter Kreeft, Walker Percy, Richard John Neuhaus, Ralph McInerny, Russell Hittinger, and a surprising number of scattered young intellectuals. I think of Susan Orr, Kenneth Grasso, Scott Walter. It is in Robert Sokolowski, Robert Sirico, and Joseph Fessio.

My friend, who was sympathetic to the thesis of the ad, wanted to know if I had ever heard of the NEW OXFORD REVIEW, which had placed the ad. Evidently he never had. I explained to him its origins, that years ago I had even written a couple of essays in it. (The essay that eventually grew into my The Distinctiveness of Christianity originally appeared in the Sept. 1978 NOR). He said he had never heard of the authors cited in the ad as having written for the NOR, except for Avery Dulles. So I said something about the various authors -- Percy, Elshtain, Noonan, Kreeft, Lasch, Lukacs, Vanauken.

Now, I suppose one should expect an ad for a journal to be somewhat "cheeky," as evidently Newsweek once called the NOR. The ad is pretty blunt about what bothers the NOR about the present condition of Catholicism in America; namely, there is little correlation between what comes out of the Vatican and what one hears in the average parish. It is almost as if there is already an American Church independent of Rome in all things but name. The Church's teachings are not systematically, fully, or accurately presented to the faithful on a regular basis. It is not a question of the laity demanding more liberal teachings against a resistant clergy, but mostly the opposite. The local liturgy is too often a product of free enterprise and acting; the Ordo is there to be "improved" upon. Sin is rarely spoken of, or at least the sort of sin Christianity has for two millennia said our salvation depends on our avoiding.

We have, with much relief to our consciences, come up with something called social sin, which can in effect enable us to do what we want, provided we support the right social and political causes. Most Catholics can run for office and have a clear prochoice voting record, and have no fear of ecclesial reprimand. Contrary to the Pope, theologians popular with the media tell us there are no unconditional moral principles. The same Pope also inconveniently tells us that so-called social sin is rooted in personal sin. Evidently, it is not very "pastoral" to talk of personal sin. No real examination of conscience seems evident; everyone goes to Communion, even those from other communions. The correlation between doctrine and sacrament or doctrine and practice is, in effect, tenuous, if it exists at all.

By chance, the week before I read the NOR ad, I had been at a Protestant/Catholic conference here in Washington, where I met a lawyer who has been active in prolife activities. I mentioned to him that I had seen an article in the Milwaukee Journal about the new Jesuit President of Marquette. The gist of the article was, citing several well-known Jesuits, that this President-elect would probably be the last of the Jesuit presidents of Marquette, and by implication, I suppose, of most Jesuit universities. The "pool" of possible candidates is said to be quite low, so Jesuits should be prepared graciously to relinquish these traditional, but highly visible, posts. About the same time I received a letter from my own Jesuit province stating in essence the same thing about principals of high schools.

The issue of declining pools and lack of vocations is almost always put in statistical or actuarial terms, as if the decline were inevitable, as if some sort of fate were ruling this diminishment of numbers. But why are the vocations not there? The Archbishop of Omaha's recent remarks make sense, and are worth citing:
The vocation "crisis" is precipitated and continued by people who want to change the Church's agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching of the Pope and bishops, and by people who actually discourage viable candidates from seeking priesthood and vowed religious life.... I am personally aware of certain vocation directors, vocation teams and evaluation boards who turn away candidates who do not support the possibility of ordination of women or who defend the Church's teachings about artificial birth control, or who exhibit a strong piety toward certain devotions, such as the Rosary. When there is a determined effort to discourage orthodox candidates from priesthood and religious life, then the vocation shortage which results is caused not by a lack of vocations but by deliberate attitudes and policies which deter certain viable candidates. And the same people who precipitate a decline in vocations by their negative actions call for the ordination of married men and women to replace the vocations they have discouraged.
The list of young men who are turned away from entering declining orders because they, the young men, are too orthodox and too prone to Rome, is, in my experience, quite long. The Archbishop of Omaha is right; there is no shortage of vocations as such.

The lawyer, to return to my earlier conversation, replied that the clerical administration of Catholic universities has let things get out of hand: What is taught in most of these universities has little relation to what Catholicism is about. It is time, he thought, for lay administrations to take over, precisely to return these universities to the Catholic principles that have generally been abandoned. I suppose this view somewhat reflects the NOR ad's remark that "cowardly clerics, fearful of being politically incorrect or challenging the flock or offending some stray soul, keep the full Catholic message from us. In effect we're blindfolded." I am not quite so confident myself that such lay takeovers would do anything more than continue the secularization of the universities, though I am willing to be proved wrong.

Practically all universities using the name Catholic today take what goes on in secular universities as their model for curriculum, hiring, firing, and promotion. And in those places where there is some effort to emphasize the "Catholic" side of education, this emphasis, again with exceptions, turns out to be a Catholicism that imitates secular norms, rather than those of the Holy Father or the central Catholic tradition.

This lack of institutional courage to present the full teachings and practices of the faith within its own realm has long puzzled me. Why does the most brilliant and effective Pope of recent times find so few imitators on the levels of episcopal or priestly leadership? I often recall Belloc's remark that as one gets older one increasingly worries about the human side of the supernatural Church. But things are in the hands of God.

Eric Voegelin has argued that, in the last half century, the reason we see Christians plunging into "social action" is because of a loss of faith in the transcendent. The energy that should go into a Christian life aware of the transcendent is now redirected to this-worldly enterprises. But what I think we forget, in considering the wimpiness or worrisome loss of faith of Catholics, is the enormous fear of a coherent, persuasive Catholicism in our culture. If we had a Church in this country that obviously believed in its transcendent purpose and its coherence, Catholics would be in serious public difficulties. The primary secularist worry about Catholicism today is precisely its increasing intellectual coherence and plausibility. Great efforts are taken, even by certain Catholics, to prevent this unified and well-grounded position from being presented in any but the narrowest fora. Too few graduates of a Catholic or secular university today could pass the most minimal test about what Catholicism holds about itself, this in spite of the Catechism -- which has been studiously avoided in most Catholic universities and too often in our high schools, seminaries, and parishes, and which is too little encouraged by our bishops.

There is some talk of persecution for those who are clearly orthodox. I often reflect on Augustine's words: "As the end of the world approaches, errors increase, terrors multiply, iniquity increases...darkness of enmity between brethren increases...." We sometimes wonder why the Holy Father speaks so much about martyrdom. Earlier generations of Catholics asked nothing more than to be left in peace by the state, to live their lives in this world in quiet and virtue. But it seems that true Catholics will not be left alone to live in peace.

Josef Pieper wrote, in words that seem quite contemporary, that "it is a liberal illusion to assume that you can consistently act justly without ever incurring risks: risks for your immediate well-being, the tranquillity of your daily routine, your possessions, your good name, your honor -- in extreme instances...liberty, health, and life itself." Have we been living this "liberal illusion" for so long that we no longer notice that we are not acting justly? that we are not taking risks because we do not in fact believe?

The NOR ad, for all its brashness, put its finger on a widespread opinion about Catholicism today: No one can tell much difference between Catholics and other Americans. Ironically, our mediocrity has protected us. A robust Catholicism that claims to be true, like that spelled out by the Holy Father, will be bitterly combated. And yet, an honestly, accurately presented Catholicism, one that knows about science and politics, about economics and psychology, about what is beautiful and true, is most appealing. It is this Catholicism that is not allowed to be offered and presented in any wide-ranging fashion. Such a Catholicism, if allowed full exposure, could well lead to conversions and more honorable ways of life on a wide scale, in which case the culture and the state would be arrayed against us in full force.

But the lesson of Marxism should always be kept in mind: However powerful the forces of evil and disorder are, ultimately they do not conform to the natural order and are in themselves weak, though they can do much damage when allied to deviant human will. To the question "Why Are Catholics So Wimpy?," I think it proper to remember that the larger question is why the forces arrayed against orthodox Catholicism are so incoherent, and yet so culturally strong. The unexpected NOR ad alerts us to this question as well, for if Catholics weren't so wimpy, our neo-pagan culture just might collapse, if not immediately, then sooner than anyone imagines.

Back to June 1996 Issue

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