June 1994By Luis R. Gamez
Luis R. Gámez writes from Hamilton, Ohio.
Why Be Catholic?. By William J. O'Malley. Crossroad. 169 pages. $11.95.
What would Dale Carnegie in a cassock sound like? Read this book and find out.
A Jesuit educator for 30 years, Fr. O'Malley teaches theology and English at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, and is a lively, gifted writer. I hadn't gone far into Why Be Catholic? before I realized that O'Malley's classroom delivery must be electrifying. He clearly excels at engaging roomfuls of Bronx prepsters in, say, debating the difference between Nestorianism and Arianism, with the charged-up boys begging for more. Yet, for all his talents, O'Malley's Why Be Catholic? hits short of the mark and yields an unacceptable return on his investment.
O'Malley enjoys arguing by analogies to popular culture -- we're asked to see the Pope as a director organizing a play, or to compare early heresies to divisions in our schools and offices. But so much writerly energy is spent on these pop hooks that the overall picture of his subject gets washed out; moreover, the voice of Catholic tradition is largely drowned out by the din of culture. O'Malley strains at a street-smart, hip style. The irritated reader asks, for whom is this book intended? Kids in high schools and confirmation classes perhaps, though they will be confused by allusions to Boswell and What's It All About, Alfie? Maybe, judging by the style, O'Malley sees the nation's RCIA programs as peopled with world-weary agnostics out of the pages of some Greeley potboiler; maybe he wants rectories to have reference copies on hand, ready to use when my cousin Vinny stumps in and wants to know about, you know, "dis Catholic ting."
If you want a primer on O'Malley's views, put aside Why Be Catholic? and read his essay "The Church of the Faithful" (America, June 19, 1993). While the early Christians embraced martyrdom rather than compromise with paganism, O'Malley's views imply a disturbing compromise with our modern Culture of Death: "Some devoted Catholics take strong exception to other Catholics' convictions when these convictions conflict openly with those of the Vatican -- for instance, the New York Times columnist Anna Quindlen's stance on abortion. I for one say more power to them and thank God for them. Even if I may differ with them, I'm glad they're with us in the barque. They remind us that, as long as we agree on the non-negotiables -- the divinity of Jesus, the resurrection, the antimaterialism of the Gospel and the worshipping and serving community -- there is no need of schism, much less excommunication. In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas (Unity in necessary things; liberty in negotiable things')" (America). Since when did the Catholic stance on abortion become "negotiable"?
Listen to O'Malley list items that Catholics might reasonably consider inessential differences of opinion in Why Be Catholic?: "Heresy denies some element of the faith that the Church deems essential if the believer continues using the word Christian' about himself or herself.... We're not talking about birth control, or homosexuals, or abortion. We're talking about stances regarding Christian doctrine that may be denials of the core of Christianity." O'Malley's catechesis, in effect, maps out the Cloud-cuckoo-land of those who, like Quindlen, are determined to call themselves Catholics in the vain hope of shaping the Church to fit their fashionable opinions, however heterodox. The hierarchy of doctrines implied by Why Be Cathollc? designates the Church's "opinions" on abortion, homosexuality, and artificial birth control as "negotiable" and "inessential." In contrast, "catechesis," says the General Catechetical Directory, "must be concerned not only with what has to be believed [i.e., O'Malley's essential doctrines], but with what has to be done." John Paul II reaffirmed Christian morality in his Catechesi Tradendae, noting how futile it would be for catechists to "play off orthopraxis against orthodoxy." And most recently in Veritatis Splendor, the Holy Father denounces the separation of faith and morality as "a serious and destructive dichotomy." To the Pope, O'Malley's "negotiable" items are theintrinsically evil products of a de-Christianized culture.
Sadly, O'Malley aims a good bit lower than does John Paul. "If we just awakened" today's unbelievers to their "potential humanity -- their souls," pleads O'Malley, "we would have advanced the Kingdom, even if those people never found their way into the church. Jesus looked at the rich young man and, though the boy couldn't go further, still loved him" (America). But in Veritatis Splendor John Paul reads that same story from Matthew 19 as emblematic of the Church's current crisis, where Catholics turn to Jesus but refuse to respond fully to His call. What O'Malley complacently finds comforting, John Paul views as a spur to vigorous remedial action.
Perhaps the most telling irony in O'Malley's work is his misappropriation of Chesterton to shore up his in dubiis libertas argument. The following quotation from Chesterton's Orthodoxy is apparently central to O'Malley's view of the Church -- it's the epigraph to Why Be Catholic?: "This is the big fact about Christian ethics: the discovery of the new balance. Paganism had been like a pillar of marble, upright because proportioned with symmetry. Christianity was like a huge and rugged and romantic rock, which, though it sways on its pedestal at the slightest touch, yet, because its exaggerated excrescences exactly balance each other, is enthroned for a thousand years...." The Balancing Rock runs throughout Why Be Catholic? as his symbol of the fractured Church -- a Church which needs her dissenting factions to achieve her democratic balancing act: "It is essential to keep remembering Chesterton's image of the Church as a rock of nearly infinite facets, each one making its unique contribution, and yet each one also acting as a balancing corrective to its opposite.... In the church we need both the gentle Thérèse of Lisieux and the bellicose Joan of Arc, the fervent conservative and the ardent liberal...." But Chesterton means nothing like this when he writes of the Balancing Rock in Orthodoxy, addressing himself to far more vital and mysterious "paradoxes of Christianity." How, Chesterton wonders, can Christian charity embrace both courage and modesty? How can Jesus distribute both justice and mercy? How can the lion lie down with the lamb and yet retain his royal ferocity? Chesterton's paradoxes lead him to a far higher plane of contemplation than O'Malley's simplistic let's-have-a-show-of-hands-on-abortion eclecticism. Indeed, if O'Malley would reread Orthodoxy without ideological myopia, he'd see that for Chesterton the "thrilling romance of orthodoxy" is found when the Church does not take the "tame course," does not accept "the conventions," is not "respectable" (i.e., not politically correct). O'Malley implies the inevitability of the Church's bowing to heterodox social degenerations, but in Chesterton's vision, "the heavenly chariot flies thundering through the ages, the dull heresies sprawling and prostrate, the wild truth reeling but erect."
Compared to Chesterton's robust Catholicism, the pop-PC accommodation underlying Why Be Catholic? seems bankrupt indeed. When will we have the courage to witness to the full splendor of the Truth, to proclaim the whole Good News, rather than merely be content to assume that we can win friends and influence people by stooping to their level?