‘Big Tent’ Catholicism

When a Kennedy scion publishes a book about Catholicism in the final stretch of a hotly contested presidential campaign, skeptics might assume the well-publicized literary event is just a political tactic. Read this motley collection of personal testimonials, and the skepticism deepens. 
Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning
Kerry Kennedy, Crown Publishing, 288 pages, $24.95

When a Kennedy scion publishes a book about Catholicism in the final stretch of a hotly contested presidential campaign, skeptics might assume the well-publicized literary event is just a political tactic. Read this motley collection of personal testimonials, and the skepticism deepens. Being Catholic Now includes men and women who reject the existence of God, avoid Mass, and embrace abortion and same-sex marriage. “Cafeteria Catholics” are the rule here, not the exception.
Since the formation of the Reagan alliance, Democratic leaders have struggled to reconnect with Catholic voters. In the final months before the 2008 presidential election, this concern has emerged as a central priority. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has questioned the theological basis for Catholic teaching on abortion. Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama chose Sen. Joseph Biden, a pro-choice cradle Catholic, as his running mate.
The Kennedy family retains an iconic status for Catholics in the Democratic Party. Pro-lifers argue that John F. Kennedy Jr.’s pre-election vow to separate his religious values from political decisions, and Edward Kennedy’s “personally opposed” position on abortion, set the party on its present course.
Kerry Kennedy, the seventh child of Ethel Kennedy and the late Sen. Robert Kennedy, embraces the central themes of the family’s political and cultural legacy. Committed to social justice concerns, she is the founder of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights and has led numerous delegations around the world. She speaks movingly of the solace faith provided her family during times of tragedy. Faith was “the one place that could make sense of all this suffering,” she recalls.
But the author also has inherited a conflicted approach to Catholic moral teaching that defined past generations of Kennedys. Steadfast in her support of abortion rights, she shares her party’s hope that Catholics will put aside their commitment to the unborn and return “to the fold” — as she put it in a recent New York Times interview.
Perhaps this book simply provides further evidence of the tortured state of Catholicism in this country. But with a Kennedy as the author, it feels like an awkward attempt to neutralize inconvenient moral truths that handicap Democratic presidential candidates.
Kennedy’s book offers no objective standard for the selection of contributors, or for the quality of their submissions. Many pages are devoted to the often unformed, idiosyncratic ruminations of popular actors and other public figures. “I’ve always been pro-choice. To me it’s like saying, ‘should we surrender our brains?’ I feel very comfortable with it,” announces Pelosi, in one poorly edited selection that underscores the book’s limitations.
Dan Aykroyd presents some unusual views on bestiality and the afterlife, while admitting that he still sends the occasional donation to his parish priest. Bill Maher, the comedian whose newly released documentary Religulous skewers organized religion, and James Carroll, an author notorious for his vicious attack on Pope Pius XII’s war-time record, also make an appearance.
Throughout much of the book, Catholics of the “progressive” mold recall happy childhood memories of old-time Catholicism, and then catalogue adult grievances regarding the rigid, unfeeling nature of Church authorities and orthodox morality. Still consumed with righteous anger, they forget that such timeworn narratives have lost their power to shock — and, perhaps, even to inspire.
“God minds when you’re cruel, when you lie, when you murder, and when you steal,” explains actress and political activist Susan Sarandon, whose faith-inspired vision of social justice led to her starring role in the film Dead Man Walking, a portrait of the celebrated opponent of capital punishment Sr. Helen Prejean.
“But I don’t think She really cares if you get married or not or if you’re gay,” Sarandon continues. “A lot of these concepts are just inventions to comfort people, threaten people, and manipulate people.”
Another contributor, columnist Peggy Noonan, has an answer for Sarandon: Church doctrine has “always been a struggle for all Catholics,” Noonan tartly observes. “It’s not for sissies.”
A curious Mulligan’s stew, Being Catholic Now also provides a forum for well-known Catholics who actually attend Mass and respect the Holy Father. Retired Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington, D.C., Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly, Domino’s founder and Catholic philanthropist extraordinaire Thomas Monahan, and Catholic social thinker and academic Rev. J. Bryan Hehir are all here.
Some ordinary believers make brief appearances, too, though the reasons for their inclusion aren’t always clear. Most represent specific demographic groups, such as adult converts and the new generation of young Catholics and religious women. Surprisingly, only one Hispanic Catholic — a labor activist — is included.
Depending on the subject, diversity of opinion can be a winning approach for an anthology. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work here. No one is called to judge another’s soul, but Kennedy’s “big tent” version of Catholicism trivializes the faith and accomplishments of real believers. The book resembles a “values clarification” exercise from the 1970s, when progressive types sought to shatter taboos by reducing all moral decisions to questions of personal taste: “Do you like chocolate or vanilla?” “Do you favor euthanasia or oppose it?”
Still, there are a few memorable tidbits here. Perhaps the most interesting — and darkest — passages touch on the Church’s sex-abuse scandal. Actor Gabriel Byrne powerfully recalls his own victimization, the struggle for forgiveness, and his ongoing alienation from the Church.
“I don’t believe we live in a world of order, I believe we live in a world of chaos,” writes Byrne. Vowing not to raise his children to believe in God, he remains “conflicted” about the Church and its inability to address great evil within its ranks. Byrne’s ordeal provides cause enough for his departure. But a Catholic reading his story will ponder the difficulty of his chosen path: living the Golden Rule and passing it onto his children, while rejecting the God who heals the “hardness” of our hearts.
Then Illinois Supreme Court Judge Anne Burke — the one-time interim chair of the USCCB’s National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People that investigated the origins and the consequences of the sex-abuse scandal — takes her turn.
Burke vents her frustration with episcopal clericalism and denial, describing a series of dramatic confrontations with Francis Cardinal George of Chicago and Edward Cardinal Egan of New York. Subsequently, Burke met with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, who, she writes, appeared more receptive to the Review Board’s concerns and proposals for reform.
The mushrooming scandal brought the Church in America to “rock bottom,” Burke contends. Yet, remarkably, her faith seems stronger than ever. “It has been said that faith carries us further than our hearts can see. Faith is an active virtue,” she writes. “People want to know the Lord. They want to know how you have found him, where you have found him, and why you look for him. This is what is so exciting about being a Catholic.”

Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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  • Logan Gage

    Logan Gage is a policy analyst with Discovery Institute in Washington, D.C.

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