February 2009

Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning.  Edited by Kerry Kennedy. Crown Publishers. 247 pages. $21.95.

Kerry Kennedy, long celebrated for her work as an advocate for human rights across the world, has brought to the table a lovingly composed snapshot of current attitudes toward the Catholic Church in the U.S. Being Catholic Now collects 37 essays by politicians, writers, entertainers, journalists, and clergy, all addressing the question: What does the Church mean to you? The answers run the gamut from relatively orthodox if a bit fluffy apologias for Catholicism to near Gnostic misunderstandings of the Church's teachings and purpose in the world.

In the preface to Being Catholic Now, Kennedy makes it clear that the Faith has always been an important part of her life, that it has been a limitless source of consolation and courage for the thirty years she spent fighting for human rights and social justice in different parts of the world. It was her love of the Faith and concern for what she saw as confused attitudes about even the most basic tenets of Catholicism that spurred her on to invite prominent Catholics and ex-Catholics alike to honestly write down what they felt about Holy Mother the Church.

Being Catholic Now benefits greatly from the variety of viewpoints its essays espouse. One is left with a glut of various theological and societal interpretations of the Catholic Church, both in her role as a social institution and as a body of theological and moral assertions. Fr. Robert Drinan -- yes, that Fr. Drinan -- for example, views the Church as both a source of courage and peace for the individual, as well as an important, powerful, and much-needed vehicle for positive social change. In his short essay, Fr. Drinan explicates a classic idea of Catholicism -- namely, that faith is complemented, indeed is fulfilled, by good works. Fr. Drinan's essay, along with several others in the book, offers some hope for the future of the Church's influence on U.S. culture: Fr. Drinan insists that Catholicism is not merely a personal choice, a comfortable belief system that allows us to feel better about ourselves, but rather a very public body of the faithful who earnestly strive to bring Heaven closer to earth for all people. By shying away from the easy cop-out of treating faith as merely a personal choice that has nothing to do with civic action or politics, Fr. Drinan reminds the reader that the truths learned through studying Catholicism necessarily lend themselves toward corporal works of mercy.

The majority of the pieces that compose Being Catholic Now are appreciative of the Church, with various authors ruminating on how their perspectives and ideas of the world have been enhanced by an understanding of the doctrines of Catholicism. It is heartening to read that some people who have ascended to positions of great power have not jettisoned their moral bearings in favor of gaining even more power. There are, of course, a couple of exceptions.

Perhaps the most unsettling of the essays in Being Catholic Now is the entry by Bill O'Reilly. The controversial neoconservative talk-show host exhibits such a transparently pragmatic view of the Church that it makes one wonder why he bothers to call himself a Catholic at all. "If I were in power as, let's say, an adviser to the Vatican, I would say, get your bishops, get a senate in here, and explain to them that the homily matters. It should be ten minutes long and it should deal with stuff that people have to deal with, instead of this mustard seed business." The mind reels. O'Reilly goes on to state that a large factor in sending his daughter to Catholic school was to make sure she wouldn't learn rap lyrics. Throughout his piece, O'Reilly represents a view of the Church that is very materialistic, very practical, and very boring. In fact, one could combine O'Reilly's essay with author Frank McCourt's and create a relatively accurate picture of the cynical, materialistic, ethnic Catholic of today.

The most surprising of the nearly four dozen essays in Being Catholic Now is by Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives. That a politician at such a high level would be as candid as Pelosi is surprising in and of itself, but what is most surprising is what she's candid about. She believes strongly in the importance and sanctity of Catholicism, and her doubts about whether she completely assents to the Creed -- she is an ardent abortion proponent -- are expressed with sincerity and feeling.

One comes away from a reading of Being Catholic Now with a deeper appreciation for the universality of the Catholic Church. How could so many of these politically disparate people share such an abiding love for the same thing? This is the most valuable facet of the book. Whereas some of the essayists in the book display a lack of formation, the majority exude a respect of, a love for, and a strong desire to uphold the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Being Catholic Now won't shock you; it doesn't break any new theological or philosophical ground. It might not even be that entertaining. However, it does serve as a very interesting look into the minds of prominent Catholics and ex-Catholics in the world today. If taken for what it is, reading Being Catholic Now just might be a rewarding experience.

- Paul Bower





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