Ignoring the Obvious: The Unreality of American Catholicism

As he was to do many times again during his long career, John Henry Newman declared his abhorrence of unreality in religion in his first book, The Arians of the Fourth Century, published in 1832. “If the Church would be vigorous and influential, it must be decided and plain-spoken in its doctrine,” he wrote. “To attempt comprehensions of opinion…is to mistake arrangements of words, which have no existence except on paper, for… realities”

If Newman were to come back for a look at American Catholicism today, he would find it awash in unreality. “Comprehensions of opinion” abound, very much as they did in the fourth century, when there were attempts to paper over differences between orthodox Christians, who believed in the divinity of Christ, and Arians, who did not. Newman knew the harm religious unreality can do. Far from being innocent make-believe for the sake of forbearance and goodwill, it is lack of congruence between surface and core, words and deeds, appearances and truth, ending in pervasive dishonesty that corrupts persons and institutions.

Underlying the scandals and horrors in the recent past and compounding them, the habit of unreality has gone far toward turning American Catholicism into a Potemkin village of the spirit whose imposing facades conceal hollowness within. “He is thy best servant,” St. Augustine remarked in his Confessions, “who endeavoureth not to hear that from thee which he desireth, but rather desireth that which he heareth from thee.” Numerous American Catholics appear to have it the other way around, but nobody tells them so.

This jeremiad needs qualifying, of course. There are many good people and groups doing many good things in the Church in the United States. Commitment, generosity, and even holiness exist. Catholicism in America has serious problems, but what large religious body does not? The Church here is probably healthier than in a lot of other places.

Yet unreality prevails on many matters—the Catholic identity of schools and other institutions, the effectiveness of religious education, the acceptance of the teaching authority of the Church, to name a few. But it is most pronounced on the subject of sex—above all, contraception. On this topic, priests don’t speak the truth to laity, laity don’t speak the truth to priests, and bishops rarely speak the truth to, or are told the truth by, either group. Here is potentially terminal unreality—a community committed to untruth.

While the origins of this state of affairs almost certainly antedate 1968, its immediate source can be found largely in the response to Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI’s encyclical of that year reaffirming the condemnation of artificial birth control. As liberals tell this story, many Catholics who rejected the encyclical didn’t have the courage to say so. Ex-priest Paul E. Dinter, writing in the New York Times, says large numbers of priests stayed in the priesthood but made “their own decisions about licit and illicit sexual relationships—and were silent about it”

That’s probably true. But there is another side to the story, reflected in the famous Washington Case. Fifty-four priests of the Washington, D.C., archdiocese publicly refused to accept Humanae Vitae in their pastoral work and were disciplined by Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle. Eventually, nevertheless, the Vatican ordered the dissenters reinstated, while setting no significant conditions except the meaningless requirement that in dealing with Catholics on birth control, they were to insist on “objective”—but unspecified—”moral norms.” Although by then many of these men had quit the priesthood, the Vatican’s attempt at conflict resolution put a comprehension of opinion in place: Dissent, practically speaking, had been declared as acceptable as assent.

The resulting unreality has had a very high price. Writing from the liberal perspective in a new book, Sacred Silence: Denial and Crisis in the Church (Liturgical Press), Rev. Donald Cozzens, author of the controversial and much-discussed The Changing Face of the Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2000), tells of an elderly, dying pastor who berated himself for upholding the Church’s teaching on birth control when counseling couples. “There can be no denying, no blinking to the truth we know in our hearts,” we are told.

Convinced that the teaching of Humanae Vitae is true, conservative Catholics will deplore the suggestion that it isn’t. But they can only agree that on this issue corrosive unreality now exists. Widely ignored by the laity, the doctrine gets lip service at best from many priests. On this question, as well as others, significant differences—from diocese to diocese and parish to parish—heighten the sense that nothing’s settled, everything is up for grabs.

A Coming Council?

All this has a large bearing on the suggestion to hold a new plenary council for the Church in the United States. The idea was floated last summer by eight bishops at the height of the sex-abuse scandal, and more than 100 have since signed on. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has a committee chaired by Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, O.S.B., of Indianapolis looking into the matter.

The bishops will discuss the question at length at their semiannual general meeting June 19-20 in St. Louis. They haven’t committed themselves to the idea, and in the end they may say no. Even if the answer is yes, they’re far from setting an agenda. But the rationale spelled out by the original eight bishops suggests what an agenda might look like.

Urging that the “root causes” of the sex-abuse crisis be confronted, they called for an assembly in which bishops would concentrate on “solemnly receiving the authentic teaching of the Second Vatican Council and the postconciliar Magisterium: a) on the identity, life and ministry of bishops and priests…, b) on matters of sexual morality in general…, c) on celibate chastity.” In other words, after three decades of ducking the implications of the sexual revolution, the widespread rejection of Humanae Vitae, the institutionalizing of dissent, and of sweeping the whole mess under the rug as much as possible, the bishops—and the rest of the Church in the United States—need to get real about sex.

A friend of mine who is a close student of Church affairs hints at potential consequences of not doing that: “Ever since Humanae Vitae, huge numbers of Catholic laypeople in the United States have been in practical dissent about birth control. They reject the Church’s teaching, and they practice contraception as much as Americans in general do. For the most part, bishops and priests look the other way and pretend the problem doesn’t exist. The heart of the pretending is to suggest that contracepting Catholics are solid, loyal Catholics just as much as those who don’t practice contraception. But if you believe what Humanae Vitae says, they aren’t. The result of all this is that American Catholicism is going through the motions—pretending to be a united body, when in fact it’s shot through with disunity and dishonest at the core. Sometimes I wonder how much longer we can hang together this way… or whether it’s worth the trouble.”

Embracing the Easy, Ignoring the Hard

To some extent, though, this analysis is unfair to the laity in its suggestion that all those who use contraception are doing so in bad faith. Many simply haven’t been told recently or convincingly that what they’re doing is wrong. Speaking in an East Coast Catholic parish on the subject of the lay apostolate, a man I know got a taste of that.

Although his remarks had nothing to do with birth control, a woman in the audience—a pillar of the parish, in fact—brought it up during the question-and-answer period and then kept bringing it up. She made it clear she didn’t buy the teaching of Humanae Vitae and had taught her children not to accept it either. “Surely you don’t mean to suggest that contraception is matter for confession?” she demanded at one point. “Of course it is,” the man replied. The woman walked out in a huff; probably no one had said that to her in years.

Pastoral practice flowing from doctrinal unreality is itself unreal. For instance: Last Christmas Eve in a parish in the Washington, D.C., area, the church was full at Midnight Mass; the congregation included people from the parish, visitors spending the holidays with their families, and Christmas Catholics who come to church once a year. In his homily, the pastor effusely welcomed those who, in his words, might be “returning to the Church after being away for a while.” He suggested they might benefit from a program for returning Catholics scheduled after the first of the year. Nothing was said about the all-but-certain need of nonpracticing Catholics for confession before communion. At communion time, parishioners, visitors, and Christmas Catholics all went up to receive.

In the unreal world of American Catholicism today, it’s customary to gloss over St. Paul’s words: “Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord” (1 Corinthians 11:27). Troubling occurrences accompany this complacency. Between Masses in a Catholic church one Sunday morning a few years ago, I found a host on the floor. After picking it up and consuming it, I wondered how it had gotten there. Had a child received Communion in the hand, taken the Host back to the pew, and, finding It not very interesting, tossed It away? That seemed as credible as any other explanation and less sinister than some.

Unreality explains why homilists rarely preach about contraception—or about sexual morality or abortion or divorce and remarriage or the reality of mortal sin and the need for absolution for those who commit it. Occasionally, nevertheless, someone in authority breaks ranks. Last December Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark published a clearly worded pastoral letter on the theology of the body that pulled no punches about the wrongness of abortion, contraception, homosexual intercourse, and other offenses against the Catholic moral tradition. “Among the disorders of our society, confusing people and leading many astray, is a misunderstanding of human sexuality rooted in deep misunderstanding of the human person and the human body,”

Archbishop Myers wrote. He added that Church leaders are sometimes “criticized for not speaking clearly enough about such matters.” Even more straightforward was the January 22 statement by Bishop William Wiegand of Sacramento that California Governor Gray Davis, a Catholic, should not receive Communion without renouncing his pro-abortion views. The issue of pro-choice Catholic politicians and what to do about them is one that bishops and pastors ordinarily duck.

Another instance of plain speaking occurred at a Vatican news conference during the extraordinary meeting Pope John Paul II convened last April to discuss the sex-abuse crisis. Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois, president of the USCCB, was startlingly candid about homosexuality and the American priesthood. Conceding the difficulty of recruiting candidates for seminaries whose “homosexual atmosphere or dynamic…makes heterosexual young men think twice,” he said the growing presence of homosexuals in clergy ranks was a big problem in the United States.

Schooled in the habit of unreality, American bishops don’t ordinarily say things like that in public. In fact, for all outsiders know, they may not even say them privately among themselves. Indeed, up to the publication of this article, Bishop Gregory appears not to have said anything like it again.

A Cancer in the Church

Unreality is disastrous not only to the intellectual and spiritual lives of individuals but to the Church as a whole. Newman got to the heart of it in an 1839 sermon called “Unreal Words.” He said:

The invisible Church has developed itself into the Church visible, and its outward rites and forms are nourished and animated by the living power which dwells within it. Thus every part of it is real, down to the minutest details.

But when the seductions of the world and the lusts of the flesh have eaten out this divine inward life, what is the outward Church but a hollowness and a mockery, like the whited sepulchers of which our Lord speaks, a memorial of what was and is not? And though we trust that the Church is nowhere thus utterly deserted by the Spirit of truth…yet may we not say that in proportion as it approaches to this state of deadness, the grace of its ordinances, though not forfeited, at least flows in but a scanty or uncertain stream?

Newman was speaking of the Anglican Church of his day. But who would argue that the description doesn’t fit American Catholicism now?

Here, perhaps, is where the plenary council comes in. Or, if not a plenary council, then something like it—for example, a regional synod of bishops convened by the pope for the American hierarchy. Whatever instrumentality might be used, plenary council or synod, the leaders of the Church in the United States need to take serious steps to face the problem of unreality and eradicate it from their own words and deeds. Bolstering the bishops’ conviction and resolve won’t solve the problem of unreality in the Church at large, but there will be no solution unless and until bishops root out unreality from their hearts.

The differences between a plenary council and a regional synod are neither few nor unimportant. The most obvious is that only bishops would participate in a synod, whereas priests, religious, and laity probably would join bishops at a plenary council, where they would have a consultative role. In that case, the total number of people taking part could end up being as large as a thousand, and the bishops might feel pressured by the non-bishops. (This might not be a bad idea in principle, some would point out; but it wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing either—that would depend on who was exerting the pressure and to what end.) The pope has somewhat more immediate and direct control over a synod than over a plenary council, but it is up to him to decide whether to bring together either assembly and to sign off on its conclusions after it takes place. These are matters the USCCB presumably will weigh in June in St. Louis.

Vatican III?

But at this point another reality has to be recognized. To the extent, probably substantial, that unreality is a universal problem in the Church today, it could be that the times require the convoking of a new ecumenical council—call it Vatican III.

The Vatican III project is usually linked to liberals who see this as a way of pressing for changes they want: decentralization, married priests, women priests, a permissive approach to sex, a further smudging of doctrinal clarity for the sake of ecumenism, and a lot else. But some orthodox Catholics also want a new council. Acting by the light of the Holy Spirit and under the headship of the pope, they say, the men who embody the Magisterium need to convene, focus their attention on fundamental doctrinal issues that have become blurred, and recommit themselves to teaching the historic faith of the Church.

For both conservatives and liberals, the sticking point in the scenario for an ecumenical council—or a plenary council or regional synod, for that matter—is the bishops themselves. Many liberals admit they don’t want bishops to meet for serious decision-making anytime soon, either nationally or internationally, inasmuch as, having been appointed by John Paul II, most bishops are too orthodox for their taste.

Conservatives also are leery, but for the opposite reason. As they see it, the bishops of the United States—and probably the rest of the world—aren’t nearly orthodox enough and can’t be trusted to say the right thing on volatile issues like birth control and sex. Let time pass, both sides urge; once a new generation of bishops is on the scene, then—but only then—we can make our move.

Calculations of this sort fail to take into account an important question: How much delay can the Church afford? Catholicism in the United States and many other countries has been in decline for three decades, though the blinders of unreality make it hard for many people to see and acknowledge that. But consider: In the wake of the sex-abuse scandal of the past year, the Sunday Mass attendance rate among American Catholics plummeted from a discouraging one in three to a disastrous one in four, according to the Gallup Organization.

As for the bishops—imperfect though they may be, they are our leaders, and although their collective public image is a shambles just now, their ranks nevertheless do include an encouraging number of good and intelligent, albeit sometimes befuddled, men. Putting an end to unreality in religion is first of all up to them, as it was up to the fourth-century bishops who attended the councils of Nicea and Constantinople. There is no guarantee future bishops will be better than these; the corrosive effects of continued make-believe might make them worse. And even if a Vatican III for the universal Church would be premature now, the same can hardly be said of a plenary council or regional synod for the Church in the United States.

In another sermon, “The Religion of the Day,” preached in 1834, Newman said something scandalous that could serve as the text for bishops—or anyone else—contemplating these matters now: “I will not shrink from uttering my firm conviction, that it would be a gain to this country, were it vastly more superstitious, more bigoted, more gloomy, more fierce in its religion, than at present it shows itself to be.”

Newman hastened to add that he didn’t consider these traits desirable in themselves. But he insisted: “I think them infinitely more desirable and more promising than a heathen obduracy, and a cold, self-sufficient, self-wise tranquility”

Superstition, bigotry, and gloom at least have some hope of being transformed by grace into faith. Obduracy and self-sufficient tranquility aren’t just stuck in unreality but in danger of remaining so. God forbid that should turn out to be the story of American Catholicism—stuck in unreality and pleased to be stuck.

Russell Shaw, a writer and journalist in Washington, D.C., was information director of the Catholic bishops’ conference in the United States from 1969 to 1987.


  • Russell Shaw

    Russell Shaw is the author of Catholic Laity in the Mission of the Church (Requiem Press), Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press), and other works.

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