American Catholicism: How Desolate?

June 1987By James J. Thompson Jr.

James J. Thompson Jr. a Nashville-area writer, is Book Review Editor of the NOR. His latest book is Fleeing the Whore of Babylon: A Modern Conversion Story.

The Desolate City: Revolution in the Catholic Church.  By Anne Roche Muggeridge. Harper & Row. 219 pages. $16.95.

The American Catholic People: Their Beliefs, Practices, and Values.  By George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli. Doubleday. 206 pages. $15.95.

The Politics of Heresy: The Modernist Crisis in Roman Catholicism.  By Lester R. Kurtz. University of California Press. 267 pages. $32.50.

Fishers of Men: Apostles of the Modern Age.  By John M. Janaro. Trinity Communications. 198 pages. $6.95.



"...Catholicism is today like a city ravaged by war. The spires have fallen, the wells are poisoned, the government is in exile" (Anne Muggeridge).

"The fact is, American Catholics are in the midst of a religious revival" (George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli).

It does not require the skills of a highly trained logician to determine that we have here a violent contradiction. Somebody has got to be wrong. Yet these two quotations convey the confusion that roils the waters of Catholicism a quarter-century after Pope John XXIII launched Vatican II. These conflicting statements point up a time-honored truth: one sees what one chooses to see. The poet of the Romantic era beheld the preternaturally bright eyes and exquisitely translucent, blue-veined skin of a tubercular woman and marveled at such ineffable beauty; the doctor observed the advance of a savage disease. With respect to contemporary Catholicism, George Gallup (an Episcopalian) and Jim Castelli (a pro-choice Catholic) are poets, Anne Muggeridge (a pro-life Catholic) is the doctor.

Is that fair? After all, Gallup and Castelli are empiricists, armed with the massive authority of sheer facticity; The American Catholic People bristles with graphs, tables, percentages, and the paraphernalia of social science. Anne Muggeridge, by contrast, evinces the poet's predilection for a more evasive truth that cannot be charted, graphed, or pinned to the mounting board of scientific opinion-polling; The Desolate City is a cri de coeur from a lover who still loves, but is appalled by what has happened to the beloved. Science versus the truth of the heart? Surely science must prevail: the beloved is hale and hearty, and "American Catholics are in the middle of a religious revival." Or are they?

The Desolate City belongs to a familiar genre: the post-Vatican II atrocity story. We have grown accustomed to the dramatis personae of such tales: vacillating bishops, cynical clerical bureaucrats, agnostic priests, liberated nuns, defiant seminary professors, unruly laymen. What distinguishes Muggeridge's book from its predecessors is the bleakness of her assessment: "Dissent has become orthodoxy. The revolution has become the legitimate government at all levels below the papacy.... The Pope is the leader of a rump Church only." Muggeridge does not use "revolution" metaphorically; what has happened in the Church is not like a revolution, it is a revolution, one that has catapulted to power the disciples of modernism.

Etiologists of revolution frequently espy conspiratorial cadres at the source of social upheaval. Whether the culprits be Sons of Liberty, Jacobins, or Bolsheviks, they forge iron discipline, ideological fervor, and compelling vision into a powerful engine that destroys established authority and topples the old regime.

Muggeridge, too, has spotted a band of conspirators. The revolutionary cadres of modernism staged their first uprising at the end of the 19th century. The papacy crushed the attempted coup in 1907 when Pius X issued the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis. Although the revolution failed, its protagonists went underground and bided their time. From 1907 until 1962 the old regime solidified its power, but failed to root out the revolutionary consciousness that survived among covertly dissenting clerics and professors. With the calling of Vatican II the rebels struck again, this time in the guise of theological experts, or periti, who infiltrated the Council proceedings and strove "ruthlessly to let loose the famous ‘spirit of Vatican II.'" Within a decade or so, the 1960s version of Julien Benda's treasonous clerks had succeeded in turning the Catholic world upside down. They transformed dissent into orthodoxy by taking advantage of several favorable conditions: the ambiguity of some of the Council's documents, confusion among the laity, a timorous Paul VI ("the weakest Pope of the past century"), and episcopal knee-knocking.

Muggeridge's schema has weak spots, but she is surely correct in linking the present crisis to the one that unsettled the Church at the turn of the century. It is to this earlier "modernist crisis" that Lester Kurtz turns in The Politics of Heresy, and he does so with an eye on the present: "The modernist crisis set the stage for the great religious and philosophical controversies of our time." As Kurtz points out, the Church faced an increasingly hostile intellectual and cultural environment in the late 19th century. The authority of science seized power under the aegis of Darwinism, subjecting all beliefs to the test of experimental validity. German historicism promoted relativism, and agnosticism became the creed of positivist intellectuals. Anti-clericalism proliferated and mounted a virulent campaign against the Church. The Vatican found itself on the defensive, forced to present its case in a court of opinion loath to credit any belief not grounded upon the rock of empirical evidence.

Modernism insinuated itself into Catholic circles through biblical criticism, and the new scholarship advanced conclusions at odds with official Church teaching. Led by such figures as the French cleric Alfred Loisy, the Irish Jesuit George Tyrrell, and the lay scholar Baron Friedrich von Hügel, the modernists challenged the Church's right to determine how and by whom the Scriptures were to be interpreted. The dispute, however, involved far more than biblical scholarship; as Kurtz remarks: "The controversy shifted...to the issues of freedom and authority."

Kurtz argues that the Church overreacted to the critics; frightened by the tenor of the times, the Vatican misconstrued the work of a "few relatively isolated scholars" as a concerted effort to destroy the faith. By its heavy-handedness - a repressiveness that compelled scholars to unite in common defense - the Vatican transformed disparate individuals into a "movement." The resulting crackdown created a "‘reign of terror' within the Church that lasted for a number of years and affected Catholic intellectual life for decades."

As a self-admitted Methodist, Kurtz could hardly be expected to sympathize with the papacy's position. He permits the Vatican a fair hearing to a point, but ultimately it devolves into a case of iron-fisted authority versus enlightened free inquiry. Muggeridge, by contrast, applauds Pope Pius X's quashing of modernism, for his bold stroke "postponed revolution...for sixty years."

Whatever abuses the Vatican committed against scholarship, it upheld a principle that Kurtz - modern intellectual and heir to the Reformation - finds repugnant: truth must be protected and heresy proscribed. (One wonders, however, if a liberal Methodist seminary would employ a fundamentalist.) Such a belief does not set well with the modern mind, given as it is to the dogmatic assertion that ultimate, transcendent truth does not exist. Here is the nub.

From its earliest days the Church has forthrightly extirpated heresy. That the papacy has acted unwisely and inhumanely at times cannot be denied; the campaign of fire and sword unleashed upon the Albigensians hardly commends itself as the Christian way to refute falsehood. Still, the Church has preserved the truth, and in the absence of such vigilance, Christianity would long ago have melted into a puddle of tepid sentimentality. Illiberal, unfair, and undemocratic as it sounds to the modern secular mind, the duty to weed tares from the garden of life-giving truth forms a crucial part of the Catholic conception of the Church.

Or at least it did until recently. One need not take Anne Muggeridge's (sometimes overheated) word for this; Gallup and Castelli, in their enthusiasm for the current enlightenment of American Catholics, confirm virtually every charge she levels. Statistics bore, and numbers deaden the brain, but one cannot refrain from reporting some of the pollsters' findings. "Only 59 percent of Catholics believe that Jesus will return to earth"; 30 percent deny that one need accept the divinity of Christ to be a "true Christian"; only 60 percent fully assent to the doctrine of papal infallibility; 47 percent favor the ordination of women.

Then there is the reality of sexual morality. Gallup and Castelli bluntly assert that "Catholics are the most permissive major Christian denomination in the nation when it comes to premarital sex": only 33 percent believe it is wrong. In addition, less than half reject homosexuality as an acceptable "alternative lifestyle"; two-thirds believe abortion should be permitted in cases of rape and incest; and a large majority rejects the Church's teachings on divorce and birth control.

One might be inclined to dismiss these findings as mere opinions, but in this day of scientific polling (at which the Gallup organization is among the best), "mere opinion" carries weight.

More distressing than the responses to specific issues is the ethos that now pervades the Catholic community in the U.S. According to Gallup and Castelli, American Catholics "accept church teaching only when it makes sense in terms of their own situations and their own consciences." Catholics look to the Church not primarily for salvation, but for "supportive and dependable fellowship." The authors cite a 1978 poll in which respondents were asked to list the following items in the order of importance for their lives: "physical well-being/health," "love and affection," "purpose - a sense of meaning in life" and "salvation - closeness to God." Catholics ranked them as I have given them above. One would not deny the importance of the three items placed ahead of salvation and closeness to God. But doesn't this ordering suggest that Catholics have their priorities out of whack? For the Christian, salvation and closeness to God should take care of "purpose - meaning in life." "Physical well-being" and "love and affection" are certainly desirable, but aren't they of comparatively little moment in the divine scheme of things? Do they comprise the sum total of the hope that Christ brought to a sin-ravaged world? Gallup and Castelli indicate that increasing numbers of Catholics are embracing the "Republicanism of the suburbs." No wonder they have a skewed set of priorities: suburban Republicans are not generally known to brood over the question of eternal life. Of course, neither are feminist nuns and deistic priests.

What does the future portend for the Church in America? Gallup and Castelli answer: More of the same. They would agree with Muggeridge that "dissent has become orthodoxy." They contend that the bishops - "on a practical level" - have capitulated to the laity's demand to be permitted to pick and choose among the Church's teachings. As older Catholics ("the pre-Vatican II generation") die off, younger ones will push to the fore to insist on greater liberalization; among the latter, for example, the Gallup Poll found a clear majority in favor of the ordination of women.

Despite the gloom that permeates her book, Muggeridge rejects this thesis. She argues that since the elevation of John Paul II to the throne of St. Peter a "counter-revolution" has arisen; "the revolution has been checked" and the Vatican has begun to retake lost territory. Other than the masterful pontificate of John Paul, she adduces little evidence of this. She does, however, adumbrate a strategy for the counter-revolution: the bishops must crack the whip and make their flocks obey Humanae vitae; they must then turn to the "faithful" for their periti; the post-Vatican II "revolutionized" bureaucracy must be curbed, "or better still, dismantled"; and the "sense of the sacred" must be restored to the Mass.

What is the likelihood that this will come to pass? According to Gallup and Castelli, virtually nil; by their reckoning, Muggeridge has erected her hope on a foundation of sand. John Janaro's Fishers of Men speaks to this issue, for in profiling 10 American priests loyal to the Magisterium, he essays "to demonstrate the manner in which the Holy Spirit has prepared and is now bringing about the renewal of priestly life." The biographical sketches do inspire hope: the 10 priests (one of whom is Fr. George William Rutler, a Contributing Editor of the NOR) are diligently pursuing the Lord's work, while remaining loyal to the Pope and faithful to the Church's historic teachings. There are no pessimists among them.

Still, one wonders if their ministries confirm the confidence evinced by Muggeridge and Janaro. Are these men the forward guard of the counter-revolution, or rather a rag-tag band of guerillas futilely sniping at the victorious new regime? One notices that only three of them are below the age of 50 and only one is less than 40. They inspire, yes, but are there more like them among those "younger Catholics" bent on liberalization? One hears persistent rumors that the new crop of seminarians is markedly orthodox. But will these priests-to-be persevere in unfriendly territory?

Gallup and Casseli refer approvingly to the "New American Catholicism" (though because they are partisan, one does wonder a bit about the reliability of their statistics), and Muggeridge observes that "the prospect of national schisms on the scale of those of the Protestant Reformation" appears "ever more likely." Put these two together and one comes up with a possibility not inconceivable: a New American Catholic Church, founded in opposition to the papacy, offering "supportive and dependable fellowship," and dedicated to the proposition that every man is his own pope.

I say possibility, not certainty; clearly, as exemplified by the Curran case, John Paul II has not written off the Church in America as a lost cause. One notes, however, that his pontificate evidences a marked leaning toward Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Here one finds not affluence but misery, not bored leisure but the struggle to survive another day, not the sophistries of intellectuals (despite the machinations of those liberation theologians in the grip of Marxism), but the abiding faith of the unlettered. Perhaps the future will bring a world in which a vibrant, orthodox Catholicism flourishes in the lands of Latin America, Africa, and Asia (as well as Eastern Europe, another focus of the pontiff's energies), while a decadent and spiritually barren West huddles within separated national churches.

Whatever the future may hold, we must believe - else despair will seize us - that the faith of Peter and Paul and the Apostles, of the Fathers, of the saints and martyrs - the faith of John Paul II - will survive, even in the West.



Back to June 1987 Issue

Read our posting policy Add a comment
Be the first to comment on this note!