Press Watch: God Bless America!


October 1, 1983

I’ve been spending some time going through back issues of America, the Jesuit weekly, but I’m afraid it has been rather a chore. Rarely do you learn anything new from it, factually. Its 20-odd pages are filled with the standard progressive waffle. Opinions therein seem to have been called from the Nation, Mother Jones, or the New York Times op ed page. Indeed many of its articles could be transferred more or less intact into those publications. America is more in the business of retailing positions than information, and one of the depressing things about these positions is that you have already come across them a hundred times — starting with Anthony Lewis, then moving on to Bill Moyers and Tom Wicker and so on. Then they are trotted out once more in Jesuitical garb, characteristically hedged about by a few conditional clauses, but otherwise much the same.

What is so sad, really, is that I’m sure the Jesuits thought they were being tremendously up-to-date — “relevant” I think is the key word — when they commenced their obedient recitation of the leftist doxology. And no doubt it did come as a bit of a shock at the time. But today it seems merely safe: no more need to worry about some strategically placed liberal intellectual popping up in the news media with the familiar accusation against the Catholic Church: irrelevant. So. If it was relevance they wanted, it was relevance they would get. I suppose that might have been back in the God-is-dead era. Now, unless I am much mistaken, it is the Jesuits whose health we must worry about — their membership down by almost one-third since the mid-sixties. Have they not been wearing these hand-me-down secular opinions for a decade too long? Here is a sample:

Central America: Relations colored by indifference and even exploitation … never developed far-sighted and comprehensive vision of policies that could lead to … all the peoples … come to terms with the challenge posed by … glaring social and economic inequities . . . not solved by a `quick fix’ … study the roots of . . . (July 30).

Gender Gap: In the U.S. today, biased sexist assumptions are more subtle but just as real . . . National Women’s Political Caucus not yet eliminated oldest form of prejudice in human society. (July 30).

Pope in Poland: John Paul realistic in recognizing lack of any power to force a change in system. (Any power?) .. . Called for a spirit of reconciliation . . . Peaceful resolution of differences . . . do not encourage toppling of unpopular Communist government that zealots seem to dream of … Cannot be complacent about any embarrassment that the regime may have suffered … Hardliners may push for even more severe repression . . . would do little to solve Poland’s real problems . . . Practical consequences of his visit remained dangerously murky. (July 2).

Task Force on Hunger: President’s reaction naturally provoked taunts from editorialists … cries of outrage … rise in unemployment has inevitably meant . . . right here in the United States. (August 27).

Relations with the Soviet Union: At a low ebb but compromise is still possible … New compromise document adopted at Madrid does contain certain small but important advances . . . Skeptics may ask whether any likelihood an international consensus on human rights can be reached … wearying cycle of charges and counterchanges. (July 30).

Nicaragua: If both government and private sector found it profitable to do business with Communists in Eastern Europe and Soviet Union, why would establishment of Marxist governments in Latin America be so unacceptable a threat to our national interest?

Mrs. Thatcher’s Victory: Republicans would be rash, and Democrats defeatist, if they were to conclude that … As James Reston said in the New York Times . . . (July 2).

Society of Jesus: Was established on the Ignatian principal of loyalty as liberation. (Article by Parmananda Divarka, S.J. August 27).

Abortion in America: The choices are not easy except for those who prefer to take ideologically pure stands that have no political relevance. (July 2).

Labor Unions: Assaults on labor movement have in-creased in recent years . . . To meet the challenge different strategies, new alliances will be necessary. (August 27 ).

Challenge of Unemployment: The church confronts it. (July 16)

July Fourth Magnanimous Moment: American experiment based on human dignity, with rights respected, opportunities granted . . . Never lived up to idea fully, experiment unfinished . . attracts immigrants . . . Bishops in their recent pastoral could note grandeur of this idea without being complacent . . . Did not hesitate to judge it morally superior to Marxist-Leninist totalitarianism. Some Catholic critics of pastoral not happy with this judgment . . . But to think otherwise is not to understand the world and time in which we live. (July 2).

So there we are. America proves itself to be the voice of moderate realism after all, eschewing extremist ideologies, whether of the left or the right, and repudiating ideas insufficiently cognizant of the political realities. Just as in the 19th century, no doubt, America would not have opposed the abolition of slavery without first conducting a careful congressional head-count, to ascertain the “relevance” of its stand, so today on the topic of abortion political relevance is adjudged to be a basis for repudiating anti-abortion purists.

One of the most interesting articles of recent weeks in America, and to judge by the mail one of the most read, was about the Sacrament of Penance. It may be worth looking at in a little more detail, since Penance is the topic of the Synod of Bishops in Rome this fall. The author, Ed Marciniak, president of the Institute of Urban Life at Loyola University, Chicago, and on the editorial board of Catholicism in Crisis, pointed out that “abandonment of the sacrament marches on.” despite what the article’s headline called “welcome changes in the rite.” It was reported, for example, that a 1978 poll found that only 18 percent of practicing Catholics had gone to confession in the previous month.” (If my own informal surveys of confession are at all typical, the real figure is considerably lower than that.)

Here, then, was the progressive’s quandary. The rite has been “reformed” — made more relevant, in a word. Yet the practice has declined. How can this be? Ed Marciniak first made some preliminary observations — “familiar themes,” which he attributed to “public discussions”: a sense of personal sin has “by and large withered in the modern world.” The “evil ways by which an unjust institution erodes human dignity are not sufficiently appreciated.” In addition, “many Catholics have discarded the notion of God as supreme punisher.” Indeed, an optimism about salvation “pervades the attitude of Catholics,” who nowadays “view their role” in the church “less and less as a matter of reward and punishment.”

Marciniak further commended as “extraordinarily realistic” the view of Archbishop Tomko that “confession can take on many forms in modern society — a patient talking to a psychiatrist, someone talking to his best friend about his problems.”

Moving on to his main argument, Marciniak opined that current theology is “insufficiently laicized.” It underestimates the “reconciling impact of the updated Eucharistic liturgy.” As it happens, the “radical liturgical reforms” have, among other things, helped “blur for the

faithful the distinctiveness” of confession. Communion itself “leaves parishioners reconciled.” One anonymous parishioner is quoted as saying: “I experience reconciliation . . . ” Another, equally anonymous: “I don’t feel I commit many serious sins.” (All emphasis mine).

It is the oblique message of Marciniak that if people don’t want confession, why then, they don’t need it. Nowadays, in the course of the “liturgy” (the new word for Mass) “priest and people privately acknowledge their sins .. . Anyone who joins actively in the Eucharistic liturgy begins to feel forgiven…” In fact, people are asking why they should present themselves in the reconciliation room. It “appears redundant.” Is one to “deny the authenticity of one’s senses during the Liturgy of the Word?” Is one to disown “the sincerity of a brief but individual examination of conscience?”

Thus the Pope will have to “confront” such questions as these. Is pastoral theology “open enough” to allow consideration of the laity’s “wholesome experience”? As things stand, the “basic rubric” of the sacrament mirrors “the Western culture of the 16th century.” (Irrelevant, don’t you know.)

In short, the article was cast in the form of an appeal to the Vatican not to go against the people, who experience, who feel this and don’t feel that, who are sincere and authentic, who wonder and ask themselves, to whom things appear, and who are thereby inspirited. These alleged feelings are then set up as a bulwark against church teaching and tradition. This in turn creates an obstacle which the Pope will have to “confront.” In the pages of Catholicism in Crisis, as opposed to those of America, I would hope that Ed Marciniak would also turn the confrontation in the opposite direction: self-examination on our part not the pope’s.

The line of reasoning, vesting authority in the people as opposed to the hierarchy, is reminiscent of the use of polls by the media to validate as democratic their policy preferences. It is directly contrary to the line of reasoning that shows up in other America articles, on the topic of the Bishops’ letter on war and peace. On this subject, for example, we read that “the appeal of the pastoral is to a mature Catholic conscience, one that seeks to be informed by religious authority . . ..” In a lengthy article, “Did the Bishops Ban the Bomb? Yes and No,” Francis X. Winters S.J . addressed the question whether Catholics in the pews will listen to their bishops. “In time the flock will probably follow their pastors’ lead,” he concluded.

It’s amusing to see the concept of congregation as flock revived, as it characteristically is when the bishops have some part of the leftist agenda to transmit.

In this case of confession, the flock would most certainly follow their pastors’ lead as well (back into the confessional) were it not for the fact that they are already following their pastors’ lead (out of it). It is not, I submit, the sinless feelings of Catholics that keeps them clear of the confessional today . It is rather the reassurances of priests and bishops that it is safe to steer clear of it. A few sermons about hellfire and the dangers of mortal sin and I feel confident that a good many would be back inside the confessional. A good many would come back in through the church door, too. What is the point of a clergy that continually minimizes its own role and its flock’s duties? The ecumenical search for the lowest common denomination leads inexorably to the smallest possible congregation. A free-thinking clergyman is like a free-market economist: forever talking himself out of a job.

The crucial point about confession, surely, is that it is not the easiest thing in the world to enter a booth, kneel down and recite your is, therefore, something that people would rather not do. And we can be sure that they will not do it if their clergymen reassure them that some other, less stringent form of compliance with God’s will assures a passing grade. In short, what Ed Marciniak represents as an admirable change in congregational behavior occasioned by an equally admirable change in liturgy, is really human backsliding with our fallen nature reasserting itself in response to the hierarchy’s willingness to minimize both congregational duties and pastoral responsibilities.

Well, perhaps that’s enough about the Jesuits for one day. Maybe I have exaggerated as usual. Certainly America projects an image that is more moderate than one might suppose from reading about those Marxist horrors in Central America. I should add that at least one article I came across was first rate. (“What Was Wrong With the Catechism, Anyway?” by a layman named Jerry Becan.)

Still, the fact remains that it is extremely depressing to read the official magazine of a highly trained ecclesiastical order only to find that its editors and contributors very rarely have anything more elevated on their minds than unemployment, union organizing, social “inequity,” and so on; and to find, further, that these opinions are indistinguishable from those repeatedly expressed in the secular press. If America is a reliable guide, Jesuits today are more interested in saving jobs than in saving souls.

One problem, I think, is that the egalitarian ideal sustaining these leftist positions is itself so unsatisfactory. I can get no pleasure from contemplating even its non-coercive attainment. (In reality, of course, people being so stubbornly unalike, considerable coercion is needed to begin to attain it, as the Gulag attests, and such coercion instantly creates its own inequality, as the Soviet elite attests. There turns out to be more equality in a free society than in one in which an

elite group commands everyone else.) But imagine that equality is finally, voluntarily, attained. Then what? Men were not made to be equal to one another. Visualize a thousand Chinamen on bicycles, all peddling along in their blue-serge Mao suits and caps, and perhaps you will begin to feel the egalitarian gloom.

Secondly, the mundane preoccupations of the Jesuit publication are just that — worldly. From the Christian point of view the sheer materialism of the socialist “vision” vitiates it even more than its utopianism. This important point was expressed better than I know how in the pilot issue of Catholic Eye, published recently by the National Committee of Catholic Laymen:

“In a secularist age, politics needs not so much to be limited (though it does need that) as to be sanctified. In reminding us of this the Pope grates on the sensibilities even of priests, nuns and bishops who have assimilated to the prevailing culture by adopting a style of politics that posits worldly well-being — even universal well-being — as the summum bonum. Merely material goods, even if desired for all mankind, remain merely material.”

Priests, one believed, had a more glorious calling. Jesuits who become preoccupied by the mundane details of political life are like Julliard graduates who go into the piano repair business. It’s not that they are unqualified for such work. Far from it. They are overqualified. Modern Jesuits are like medieval knights who could have gone off to faraway lands and had the most tremendous adventures … but opted instead to work on an assembly line. Opinion-assembly line. The truth is that St. Ignatius — leveled down to plain Ignatius in the pages of America — had a far more inspiring vision, and far more important work, for those who followed in his footsteps: assisting in the spiritual salvation of mankind. There is no material salvation.


  • Tom Bethell

    Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).

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