Secularism R.I.P.: Reclaiming the Catholic Intellectual Tradition

In The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor provides three lessons for modern Catholics.

The First Lesson

One of the awful things about writing when you are a Christian is that for you the ultimate reality is the Incarnation, the present reality is the Incarnation, the whole reality is the Incarnation…. For me a dogma is only a gateway to contemplation and is an instrument of freedom and not of restriction.

The Second Lesson

Father de Menacse told somebody not to come into the Church until he felt it would be an enlargement of his freedom…. I suppose it is like marriage, that when you get into it, you find it is the beginning, not the end, of the struggle to make love work… I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa, except to say this: I read it every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during this process and say, “Turn off that light. It’s late,” I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, “On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,” or some such thing. In any case I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the life of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas. His brother didn’t want him to waste himself being a Dominican and so locked him up in a tower and introduced a prostitute into his apartment; her he ran out with a red-hot poker. It would be fashionable to be in sympathy with the woman, but I am in sympathy with St. Thomas.

The Third Lesson

I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater… She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one. I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say…. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning, the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the “most portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.

We don’t have very many people in American Catholicism who write like that anymore—which has to do with something more than the fact that Mary Flannery O’Connor was a rare spirit of the kind a community cannot manufacture, but can only receive and nurture. Is the intellectual life of American Catholicism today such that it could recognize, much less nurture and sustain, some nascent Flannery O’Connor? The answer to this question will tell us a lot about the present state and future prospects of the American Catholic mind.

Decline of the Secular

Few ideas have so dominated American Catholic intellectual life since the early 1960s as what is generally referred to as the “secularization hypothesis” which, simply put, argues that modernization inevitably and inexorably leads to the secularization of society and culture. Whether that hypothesis was accepted in its hard form (radical secularization means the “death of God” and “religionless” Christianity), or in its modified form (modernization creates a supermarket of beliefs and values-systems in which classic Christianity will be one product among many), it came to be embraced by many, perhaps most, American Catholic intellectuals. The Catholics are not alone here, of course; indeed the secularization hypothesis has provided a way for American Catholic intellectuals to vindicate themselves before the bar of what Miss O’Connor would call the “Big Intellectuals.”

To say this is not to yearn and pine for some kind of intellectual “rollback” as seems to be envisioned by those Catholic “restorationists” for whom everything since Descartes has been pretty much a disaster. The scientific revolutions whose hallmarks are names such as Galileo, Copernicus, and Einstein and events such as the codification of the human genetic code; the philosophical revolution occasioned by the Cartesian “turn to the subject” and the Kantian critique of knowledge; the revolutions in the understanding of human society and the human psyche led by Durkheim, Weber, Marx, Freud and Jung; the revolution in our understanding of the past which has come out of the development of the historical-critical method of reading ancient texts—these are part of the universal intellectual patrimony of mankind and, as such, grist for the Catholic intellectual mill.

But cannot one make the case that what was intended, by Pope John XXIII and the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, as a dialogue between Catholicism and modern intellectual life has become something of a monologue? Have Catholic intellectuals opened the windows of the Church to the modern world, but failed to open the windows of modernity to the worlds of which it is a part? Or, to go back to the beginning: Where among us today is the publicly-engaged Catholic intellectual who, fully cognizant of the great Karl Rahner’s seminal research on the nature of “symbol,” will yet say, of the Eucharist (or the Incarnation) and to the Mary McCarthys of today, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it”?

Many Catholic intellectuals seem to find such bluntness a trifle embarrassing. We are great qualifiers, we modern American Catholic intellectuals. Were we to find ourselves in a wee-hours-of-the-morning discussion about central Catholic truth claims with the “cultured despisers of religion,” our culturally-conditioned (and now intellectually-justified, with great panache and aplomb) instinct would be to be, well, understanding. We don’t want to be offensive. We know, now, how to talk about the historically-contingent nature of dogmatic statements. We might refer our interlocutors to Father McBrien’s best seller for a host of opinions on the subject.

These are not bad things, in and of themselves. No doubt some have been brought to the faith, or brought back to the faith, or made less automatically dismissive of the faith, by modern Catholic intellectuals who seem to spend the bulk of their professional energies in a deconstructive exercise to determine how little one has to believe, or do (or not do), in order to be a Catholic. “Naming names” is not my purpose here; but I think we ought to concede that the temptation to de-construct the Catholic classics (in David Tracy’s happy formulation) runs strong in virtually all of us. No doubt, of course, that some of what Catholic “restorationists” think of as “dogma” needs to be de-constructed. But when the historical-critical method and more radical efforts at deconstruction become a kind of end in themselves, rather than a set of (very limited) means to the end of securing the evangelical and community-forming character of dogma, then something has gone awry.

The American Exception

Whatever else can be said about secularization theory—which admittedly illuminates much of the recent history of the West—it has not been empirically confirmed in the United States. Quite the contrary: by no available empirical test can the American people be characterized as “secular,” if by “secular” is meant tone-deaf to transcendently grounded religious belief. According to the relevant survey research, 90 percent of the American people believe in God; 86 percent believe that the Bible is “the inspired word of God”; 60 percent pray daily and 75 percent weekly; 57 percent are formal members of a religious organization; 45 percent attend religious services weekly; and 25 percent do regular voluntary work for a religious organization. Moreover (and of particular interest to educators in the private sector), Americans contribute somewhere between $40 and $50 billion annually to religious institutions in recent years.

Furthermore, and on the evidence analyzed by Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney in their recent study, American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future, it is the churches making more stringent doctrinal and moral demands on their people that are growing, while the churches of cultural accommodation—churches of the Protestant mainline/oldline—continue to bleed congregants. The reasons for this situation are complex, but Roof and McKinney offer one intriguing causal analysis that bears reflection:

Today these churches are sometimes described as old-line—largely because of their once historic significance and currently declining influence. Declines in institutional membership and support and a diminished influence since the 1960s point to a significant loss of vitality, more so for this sector of American religion than for any other. The self-confidence and aggressiveness with which they once engaged the culture is now missing. Optimism about the country and democratic faith, and belief that American progress and prosperity are linked with the work of God in history—once marks of liberal theology—have all faded. Commitment to social action has remained important, yet not without exacting a spiritual price; concerns for personal faith and the cure of souls are judged by many to be neglected in the pursuit of other causes. Having made more accommodations to modernity than any other major religious tradition, liberal Protestantism shows many signs of tired blood: levels of orthodox belief are low, doubt and uncertainty in matters of faith common, knowledge of the Scriptures exceedingly low. A loss of morale and mission shows up in both its public demeanor and its corporate life.

Mainline Protestantism may not be “finished” as a cultural force in America; this past year’s conferences of the Methodist and Presbyterian churches demonstrated considerable doctrinal seriousness, and the various official bilateral theological dialogues continue to produce impressive work. But the history of mainline Protestantism since World War II ought to be read as an important cautionary tale for American Catholics, and especially for American Catholic intellectuals.

The unwillingness of American Catholic theologians to be a self-disciplining professional community (as in the case of Father Matthew Fox); the eagerness of American Catholic feminist intellectuals to find an ongoing place in their deliberations for Mary Daly, who has self-consciously placed herself outside the tradition of the Christian classics; concepts of academic freedom which tend to confirm the hoary nativist charge that “Catholic intellectual life” is an oxymoron and which make it difficult to distinguish a Catholic institution in even the broadest sense of the term; and the patterns of ideological bias on social and political questions—all these straws in the wind suggest that the patterns of cultural accommodation which Roof and McKinney find to be one crucial element in the demise of the great Protestant mainline are not without important parallels in modern American Catholic intellectual life.

As the root of the Protestant demise lay, in considerable part, in the uncritical acceptance of secularization theory as the paradigm for understanding the American cultural situation, it is essential that American Catholic intellectuals assess the degree to which a similar acquiescence to the secularization hypothesis has skewed their own perceptions of American culture, and thus the ways in which they place their tradition and its classics into dialogue with that culture.

John Tracy Ellis Revisited

No conference on “American Catholic Intellectual Life” can fail to grapple with the analysis of this issue proposed some 30 years ago by the dean of U.S. Catholic historians, John Tracy Ellis. At the May 1985 meeting of the Catholic Commission on Intellectual and Cultural Affairs, Ellis delivered a paper which attempted to explain a criticism of American Catholicism first raised by the English scholar Denis Brogan, who had argued that “In no modern Western society is the intellectual prestige of Catholicism lower than in country where, in such respects as wealth, numbers, and strength of organization, it is so powerful.” Father Ellis believed that “no well informed American Catholic [would] challenge that statement.” What interested Ellis was how this sorry state of affairs had come to be.

In answer to which, Ellis offered nine causal factors: (1) The abiding effects of that anti-Catholic prejudice which had been implanted in the English colonies in the seventeenth century; (2) The historical pre-occupation of the American Church with the assimilation of huge numbers of immigrants; (3) The generally “non-intellectual, if not anti-intellectual, atmosphere in the United States”; (4) The absence of a distinctively American Catholic intellectual tradition, despite the urgings of leaders like Bishop John Lancaster Spalding that such be created; (5) American Catholicism’s “unchallenged acceptance” of the national tendency “to follow walks of life which promise high remuneration in terms of money”; (6) Clerical and lay Catholic leaders’ failure to appreciate the “vocation of the intellectual”; (7) The failure of Catholic institutions of higher education to concentrate their efforts on fields “where Catholic thought counts most… viz., the humanities and the liberal arts”; (8) The absence of a “love of scholarship for its own sake,” even among Catholic educators; and (9) The “pervading spirit of separatism” and “inferiority complex” which had long characterized American Catholicism.

The details of the “great debate” which Ellis and then-Bishop John Wright judge to have ensued from Ellis’ paper, and the question of whether Ellis’ rather draconian judgment had a sustainable empirical basis, need not detain us here. But we can pause to note several points: Ellis and those who supported him believed, first, that there was such a thing as a distinctively Catholic intellectual life; second, that there was no fundamental incompatibility between a classically Catholic intellectual sensibility and American culture (the ongoing nativist problem notwithstanding); and third, that Catholic intellectuals ought to seek a distinctive “market share,” based on an historic intellectual “comparative advantage,” in the humanities and liberal arts, i.e. in the chief culture-forming disciplines of the academy.

One can even sense, in Ellis’s argument, a premonition of John Courtney Murray’s later claim that in the construction of an American public philosophy of democratic pluralism, there was no richer intellectual resource to be tapped than classic Catholic understandings of the human person, human society, human history, and human destiny. The problem was not “the Catholic tradition”; the problem was that Catholic intellectuals were not engaging that tradition with sufficient vigor in the ongoing tasks of democratic culture-formation.

By “the tradition,” of course, what was usually meant in the Catholic 1950s was what Philip Gleason has called the “Neoscholastic version of faith,” in which “Catholicism came to be viewed as a culture, a total way of life. There was a Catholic Viewpoint on everything, a Catholic way of doing everything, even, I remember hearing, of tying one’s shoes—but that was perhaps facetious.”

No doubt there was much to be criticized in the more popularized forms of this distinctively Catholic integralism. It was un-ecumenical, indeed at times quite anti-ecumenical, and in its popular expressions it was too often sustained—psychologically and existentially, as well as theoretically—by a separatist ecclesiology. It tended to view education as indoctrination, and while it is true that during the 1950s such giants as Jacques Maritain were trying to engage Neoscholasticism in dialogue with modern critical philosophy, it can’t be said that very many scholars in American Catholic institutions of higher education were paying much attention to the Frenchman’s labors. The 1950s Catholic integralism was also tempted to be a-historical, particularly in its tendency to fix on one period of Church history—from the pontificate of Pius IX through that of Pius XII—as definitive of Catholic self-understanding.

On the other hand, one ought to be careful about too easy a deprecation of what Ellis, Murray, and Gleason thought was possible in the encounter between “integral” Catholicism and American culture, particularly when one looks at what happened next: which was the identification of “the problem,” not with a rich tradition inadequately explored and extended, but with the tradition itself—with what Daniel Callahan called “the American Catholic mentality.” Philip Gleason’s summary of the post-Ellis/Murray turn-of-the-wheel is worth citing at length:

While concepts like intellectualism and anti-intellectualism remained nebulous, a significant development took place between the mid-1950s and the mid-1960s. At first, most writers accepted the premise that although Catholics had made a poor showing as scholars and scientists they could do better simply by trying harder; no inherent incompatibility was posited between being Catholic and being an intellectual. As the controversy waxed, however, more and more Catholic attitudes and patterns of life and thought were listed as obstacles to intellectualism. In order to make a real intellectual breakthrough, it appeared that many things traditionally associated with Catholicism would have to be eliminated.

This trend culminated in the affirmation that prior commitment to a dogmatic religious position could not be reconciled with “love of intellectuality for its own sake.” In other words, true intellectualism was defined in such a way as to exclude religious commitment. To operate as an intellectual, the Catholic would have to set aside doctrinal beliefs. The notion that a person might legitimately employ his intellect—as an intellectual—to explicate or defend the Church’s position was rejected by Edward Wakin and Joseph F. Scheuer…. The expression “intellectual apostolate,” they wrote, is “a contradiction in terms”; the exhortation to Catholics to take it up “threatens to subvert the intellectual and turn him into a holy panderer for the Catholic Church.”

What happened, in short, was that a campaign which was intended to increase the number of Catholic intellectuals had reached the point of denying that there could be such a thing as a Catholic intellectual.

In sum, and according to Philip Gleason, the Catholic baby was jettisoned along with the Neoscholastic bathwater. Now one could argue, theoretically, that the Neoscholastic crust had become so thick and brittle that breaking through it, in the course of “opening the window” of the Church to the modern world” and effecting the aggiornamento of the Council, required, not a chisel, but a sledgehammer, with the

attendant risk of the whole package getting badly shattered. One could argue that. But it seems implausible. For at least one expression of the “integral” Catholicism of the 1950s—namely, the Catholic intellectual sensibility which stressed the organic integration of the intellectual life and relevance of that integrative vision to human culture and to the right-ordering of human society—this sensibility was attractive to some very bright people indeed: and not simply to committed Catholics such as Maritain, Gilson, and Murray, but to certifiable “Big Intellectuals” outside the family like Mortimer Adler, Robert Hutchins, Stringfellow Barr, and Mark Van Doren.

Holy Pandering?

One could go even further and argue that the Ellis critique, contrary to its author’s own intentions, helped open the path to the abandonment (i.e., the view of Catholic intellectual life as “holy pandering”) mourned by Gleason. In other words, one could argue that some in the immediate post-conciliar generation of American Catholic intellectuals internalized an image of pre-conciliar American Catholic intellectual life as irredeemably hidebound, a-historical, and, in brief, out-of-it. Rather than being seen, then, as a platform for development (and development was surely needed), even the work of men such as Maritain and Murray could be (and was) dismissed as hopelessly passe or, more recently in the case of Murray (once it had become important to “reclaim” him), proposed as a prolegomenon to the deconstructionist enterprise.

Contemporary American Catholic “restorationist” fantasies notwithstanding, post-conciliar American Catholic intellectual life has not been characterized per essentiam by a radical rejection of the past and a deconstructive approach to the present and future. Among others, Avery Dulles, S.J., has shown that it is quite possible to be both attentive to the “Catholic classics” and committed to an exploration of what Murray would have called the “growing end” of the tradition. On the other hand, we ought to acknowledge that other prominent American Catholic intellectuals have succumbed to the post-Ellis temptations suggested above. And it is of some interest that the thought and ministry of Pope John Paul II—a pope who was (and is) a practicing “intellectual”—have become a focal point for the polemics of the de-constructionists.

One thinks, for example, of Rosemary Radford Ruether, who writes of the pope’s sexist “pathology,” which reinforces ecclesiastical “misogynists” who deny women “reproductive self-determination” (Professor Ruether means “abortion”) in order to assuage “the need of the celibate male to punish women for their sexuality.” One also thinks of Father Richard McBrien’s relentless bellum contra Wojtyla. McBrien argues that, unlike Paul VI (who “urged compassion”), John Paul II is “tough-minded” (i.e., lacking compassion). Unlike the historically-oriented thinking of Paul VI, John Paul II’s intellect is “ahistorical.” Paul’s theology was “incarnational,” while John Paul II’s is “otherworldly.” Paul VI “affirmed the world,” while John Paul II “condemns it.” All of which, according to McBrien, has to do with this pope’s lamentable biography: “Karol Wojtyla has known only two kinds of political regimes in his adult life: Nazism and Communism,” some of whose unsavory tactics he has learned only too well: “Brook no dissent, place hardliners in positions of enforcement, make an example of those who deviate from the party line by punishment that is swift, firm and highly visible.”

Thus the view from the chairman’s desk at the department of theology under the Golden Dome: John Paul II as totalitarian commissar. Karol Wojtyla’s philosophical and theological work is surely not beyond the boundaries of reasonable argument. But what McBrien offers is not analysis but caricature: one that would be risible if it weren’t so wrongheaded. And the problem that McBrien’s and Ruether’s “analyses” present is one, not for John Paul II, but for American Catholic intellectual life: for if these leaders of American Catholic intellectual life cannot see in this pope one model of their own vocation—which is to be modern intellectuals without becoming uncritical modernists—then perhaps it is time for some latter-day John Tracy Ellis to lament, again, the sad state of American Catholic intellectual life: its aridity, its unreflective absorption of tradition (in this case, the “traditions” (and fads) of the American “new class”), its lack of elan, its boring dullness and smug predictability.

Perhaps that time is not yet here. But there is enough evidence of its possibility for us to urge fellow American Catholic intellectuals to ponder what is often referred to by Jewish humorists as the classic Jewish telegram: “Start worrying. Letter follows.”

A Catholic Reformation?

Neither the deconstructionist nor restorationist impulses in American Catholicism hold out much hope for a reformation and renaissance of American Catholic intellectual life which both our community’s numbers and resources (particularly in light of the “circulation of elites” in American religion identified by Roof and McKinney) make possible. The intellectual deficiencies of both of these enterprises are increasingly self-evident, and perhaps even more to the point, they no longer define the available possibilities of identifying the “growing end” of American Catholic intellectual life. For one senses, in important sectors of the American Catholic intellectual community, an intuition that the task before us is precisely the task identified by the Council, viz., a dialogue with modernity, rather than a monologue (the deconstructionist option) or a retreat into a mythical past (the restorationist proposal).

The following four suggestions, illustrative rather than exhaustive, list possible themes for jump-starting that two-way conversation.

1. We require a new reading of the contemporary American cultural situation, ahead of the standard left/right barricades which, on closer examination, show a striking similarity.

There is a curious point of agreement between the deconstructionist and restorationist camps in their common judgment that American culture is, well, just about appalling—fissiparously individualist, greedy, obsessed with material consumption, arrogant, selfish, etc. On this question, at least, the two ends of what is usually presented as a spectrum of opinion (i.e., left and right) meet, and the “spectrum” reveals itself to be in fact a circle, or, to borrow from Chesterton, a “narrow infinity.”

Self-criticism is a staple feature of American culture and perhaps reveals the ongoing influence of the Puritan ethic; as one friend puts it, “there’s no point in being American if you don’t feel guilty.” But the facile resort to the cultural jeremiad often reveals, not a rigorously critical (and self-critical) spirit, but a sloppy acquiescence to one or another ideological orthodoxy (of left or right). The kind of American Catholic intellectual life that can truly engage a dialogue with modernity would be getting itself “ahead of the barricades” here and vigorously grappling with a number of contemporary cultural analyses which stand the usual arguments on their heads.

It would grapple with Jeffrey Stout’s recent argument that the condition of public moral discourse in America is not quite so awful as once predicted by Alasdair Maclntyre or by Robert Bellah and his colleagues, but is in fact open to what Stout terms an “Augustinian liberalism” that would mediate between the Enlightenment project and the new community-based “narrative ethics” of, inter alia, Stanley Hauer was. In doing so, it would re-appropriate elements of its classic Thomistic moral tradition, in conversation with what we might call the neo-neo-Thomistic proposals made by Maclntyre in Which Justice? Whose Rationality?

It would seriously engage, rather than derisively dismiss (as happens from both left and right, from deconstructionists and restorationists), Michael Novak’s analysis of the American “communitarian individual,” and Novak’s related proposals for a fresh conversation, informed by the American Catholic experience, on the Church’s traditional nervousness about the intellectual underpinnings of liberal political and economic institutions. Such a conversation would also be useful in engaging those arguments from the Vatican which seem to assume a one-to-one correspondence between Western European secularization and contemporary American culture, and which tend to read the history of the modern quest for freedom exclusively through the lens of the French Revolution rather than through the quite different lens of the American founding.

It would seek. an ongoing conversation with the younger “communitarian liberals,” like Harvard’s Michael Sandel, in their efforts to define American public life as something other than life in a “republic of procedures” in which “rights” are reduced to juridical “trumps.” Concurrently, it would engage (rather than ignore or mock) the critique of post-war liberalism mounted by such Ur-conservatives as Russell Kirk.

It would, in short, engage itself in a critique of American culture that pushed the argument ahead of today’s left-and-right barricades of deprecation, rather than derivatively reflecting the widespread tendency (by no means limited to the fever swamps of the left) to blame America first—and early. It would say of America, in the wonderful formulation of William Lee Miller, “Of thee, nevertheless, I sing.”

2. We require a new (in fact, not-so-new) reading of the intentions of Vatican II.

It is a sad fact of the contemporary American Catholic intellectual scene that one risks embarrassment (at best) by citing the work of Joseph Ratzinger, or even works on the work of Joseph Ratzinger. But since the hermeneutics of the Council continue to play a central role in defining “Catholic intellectual life today,” I would suggest, even at the risk of derision, that Aidan Nichols’s summary of the Council’s intention—which concludes his study of Ratzinger’s theological development and reflects his understanding of Ratzinger’s approach to the interpretation of Vatican II worth our pondering in this conference:

…though the conciliar majority rightly perceived that “traditional Catholicism” of the kind now represented by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his followers was really little more ancient than their grandmothers, they underestimated the disorienting effect of its supplanting. In depriving Catholics of the language in which they had habitually ordered their religious universe and through which they had come to their own self-understanding, the displacement of the immediately pre-conciliar tradition, essentially the product of the sixteenth century Catholic Reformation and the Catholic revival of the nineteenth century, generated a sense of anomie, an obscuring of corporate and personal identity….

Secondly, the unity of the Council’s twin imperatives of ressourcement and aggiornamento, founded as this was on the theological anthropology of the Fathers, proved more fragile than had been expected. Once aggiornamento had parted company from ressourcement, adaptation could degenerate into mere accommodation to habits of mind and behavior in secular culture. Using the excuse of pastoral necessity, insouciance towards the tradition as a whole might be justified or even obligatory in an effort to relate the hypothetically reconstructed Christian origin to contemporary needs and expectations. Many of those needs and expectations must, indeed, be taken with great seriousness. However, the manner in which the Christian origin (“the Gospel”) is related (“relevant”) to them cannot be determined by overshooting the past: that is what “Tradition” means. The task today is to take forward the constructive moment of the Council’s achievement: the binding of tradition and contemporaneity into a living unity.

A balanced judgment on contemporary American Catholic intellectual life would concede that, our other notable accomplishments notwithstanding, we have in general done a very poor job of presenting the Council as being based on the “twin imperatives of ressourcement and aggiornamento.” Indeed, the notion of Vatican II as a Council of ressourcement is primarily notable for its absence from our discourse.

This has fed both the deconstructionist and restorationist impulses, in different ways. The deconstructionist failure may be taken, in symbolic terms, as a failure to heed the words of Jesus to his disciples at the multiplication of loaves and fishes: “Gather up the fragments left over, that nothing may be lost” (John 6:12). Deconstructionist works leave the impression that “the fragments” are indeed so much detritus to be left behind, and good riddance. Conversely, the restorationists’ failure to link a true patristic ressourcement to aggiornamento has led to an identification of “the sources,” not with Origen and Cyril and Gregory Nazianzen and Basil and Augustine, but with the theological manuals of the 1950s. In neither case has the question for American Catholics become, “How much of this rich and ancient and growing tradition can I be in touch with?” Rather, the debased question has become, on the left, “How little can I still believe and be a Catholic?” and, on the right, “How can we get those liberal characters out of the family?”

3. We require a new vision of the “authoritative,” beyond the sterile alternatives of “authoritarianism” and the pursuit of the “autonomous” self.

The Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus writes in his call for a “Catholic moment” in American history:

In our individual lives, the trajectory of growth is from authoritarianism, through autonomy, to an acknowledgement of what is authoritative. As in individual life, so this trajectory is also evident in the lives of institutions and communities. As a general proposition, authoritarianism may be viewed as the premodern, autonomy as the modern, and acknowledgment of the authoritative as the postmodern modes of existence…. Vatican II offered relief from what was widely perceived to be an authoritarian church structure. There followed a period of heady freedom, of release from boundaries. This was the phase of autonomy, and almost nobody denies that it gave rise to many excesses, some of which may have been dangerous, many of which were just silly. Silly and yet understandable, for the excesses of the release were in direct proportion to the excesses of the prior oppression—or at least what some people thought to be the prior oppression…. Much of contemporary Catholicism is still in the autonomy phase….

That’s our problem. We are still desperately battling over questions and issues of “Church authority.” Many of those questions and issues are of great importance. But an obsession with them may preclude paying sufficient attention to the far more important question of “What is authoritative for the Church?”—a question now being pressed in an impressively ecumenical fashion by men such as George Lindbeck, Thomas Oden, Thomas Hopko, and William Lazareth (from the worlds of mainline Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Lutheranism), as well as by a host of younger evangelical Protestant scholars. I welcome this new Protestant and Orthodox scholarship, but I also hope that it will be complemented by many more Catholic contributions to the definition of the evangelically and ecclesially authoritative than are evident today.

4. We require a different vision of the “public Church” when Roman Catholicism in America turns its attention to issues of domestic and international policy.

Some readers may be surprised that we have left the “politics” to the end. That is not an accident, though, for the kind of “public Church” capable of taking leadership in the reconstruction of American public philosophy, and capable of being a distinctively ecclesial critic of and participant in the public policy arena, will not emerge until the issues identified above are, at the very least, raised and debated intelligently. Assuming, to be optimistic, that that debate gets underway, then what? What kind of “public Church” would we be? As I put it in Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy:

The vision of “public Church” required today is not one in which Catholicism’s social and political responsibilities are exhausted by forming the consciences of individual Catholic citizens. Nor will the “prophetic witness” model, as that is currently understood in the American Catholic new class, suffice. Still less will a Church widely perceived to be a faction in a partisan camp on questions of domestic and foreign policy be able to capitalize on the “Catholic moment.”

So much for how not to do it. As for the alternative, ahead of today’s barricades:

The “public Church” capable of seizing the Catholic moment will… set about a much more difficult, although potentially much more fruitful, task [than merely informing consciences or providing reams of testimony on Capitol Hill]: to recreate a civil public square in which… genuine moral argument about the right-ordering of the American experiment can take place. Which is to say, the intellectual and episcopal leadership of American Catholicism must take responsibility for creating the circumstances in which the voice of the Church can indeed be heard as the voice of a publicly-welcome and publicly-effective pastor and teacher.

That is not the “public Church” we have today, which in its post-conciliar entry into the public-policy lists has become widely (and accurately) identified as a partisan actor. Some aspects of that partisanship we agree with, on the specific public policy issues engaged; others we disagree with (no surprise, that!). But more important than our peculiar policy positions and their connection (or lack thereof) to the United States Catholic Conference—for these are matters of “prudential judgment,” as we say, about which reasonable folk can and do disagree—more important is the question of whether we are missing an historic opportunity to address, if not complete, the “Murray Project”—the construction of an American public philosophy capable of sustaining disciplined (if occasionally raucous) public moral argument about the ordering of our lives, loves, and loyalties in this republic. This has got to be the first order of business, for unless it is at least begun, the conditions for the possibility of a morally-informed policy debate will not exist.

To argue for this redefinition of priorities in the “public Church” is not to be anti-ecumenical (for the creation of a “public philosophy” is, by definition, an ecumenical task in the U.S.), nor is it to propose a retreat from the public square (which, after all, encompasses far more than the institutions found at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue). But it is to recognize that classic Catholic political theory, with its roots in the natural law ethic, is a precious resource for the Church’s fundamental task, as Church, in our public life, which is not voting “yes” or “no” on this-or-that, but which involves nurturing the many public arenas (not all of them governmental by any means) in which the ongoing renewal of the American experiment is debated. The possibility of a distinctive Catholic contribution to this necessary and fundamental public business is increasingly recognized by ecumenically-oriented public theologians, and it is time that we more adequately explored the treasures buried, as it were, beneath our own feet.

How would these themes, pursued, effect a reformation in American Catholic intellectual life? Put most simply, but perhaps most importantly, they would set up a wider historical conversation by relativizing and debunking the ideology of modernity; in other words, they would open us again to the full range of Christian wisdom, key elements of which have gotten lost in the race to appear thoroughly au courant as that stance is understood in the contemporary American academy.

In addition to reintroducing us to what Father George Florovsky called the “ecumenism of time,” the themes we are suggesting here would also, if carefully probed, drive us back toward that classic Catholic “scandal of particularly,” both in terms of the foundational scandal of Christian faith (Galatians 5:11), the incarnation of God in Jesus of Nazareth, and in terms of the particularity of the American experience of that revelation of God in Christ. Reclaiming that dimension of the Catholic tradition would, in turn, make us better prepared to combat those gnostic currents in modern consciousness which are a fundamental challenge to the enfleshed revelation by which Christian faith, and the community to which it gives birth, stands or falls.

This task of reclamation and extension is, happily, one to which self-critical thinkers more usually attuned to either the deconstructionist or restorationist enterprises seem increasingly open. Perhaps, in the history of ideas (and of intellectuals), it was inevitable that the ideologization of modernity and of the critical method would itself come under critique. However one sorts out those probabilities, though, a new openness—a post-modern openness, if you will—is discernible in various quarters of American Catholic intellectual life. And thank God for that.

Constructive Engagement

The quest for a post-modern American Catholic intellectual life requires a deepened sense of the intellectual vocation as an ecclesial calling. One could spend at least a year, I suppose, cataloguing the articles written since the Council under the title “Why I Stay in the Church,” or somesuch. Karl Rahner found this a strange way to frame the question:

In all honesty, the statement, “Why I remain in the Church,” strikes me as abominable. Faith can be attacked; I can also imagine someone losing this ecclesial dimension of faith without feeling any guilt before God. But the real Christian believer can’t possibly have a patronizing attitude toward the Church that allows him or her to weigh staying in the Church against getting out of it. Relationship to the Church is at the very essence, an absolute of Christian faith. And one should be able to detect this when people who claim to be people of the Church, members of the Church, criticize their Church. Those who stand outside the Church or for whom the Church is not an integral part of faith but only an enormous sociological accident which they have entered by chance, may judge the Church differently. One should be able to tell from the criticism whether it is formulated by someone who does or does not have a real relationship to the Church…. When criticism flows from the center of the Church’s common life, it is justified, even a necessary and sacred responsibility. But only then. We should leave criticisms of another kind to those who have rejected the Church. We should not flatter them.

This—from the perspective and experience of a German Jesuit, a transcendental Thomist and professional theologian—strikes us as not very different from the perspective on faith, culture, and the life of the mind where we began—the perspective and experience of a single Southern woman whose craft was fiction. Flannery O’Connor was hardly a Rahnerian. But that doesn’t matter. The point of contact between these two great spirits—the common experience and vocation on which American Catholic intellectuals need to reflect—is the experience and vocation of being intellectually alive in the Church: where, Irenaeus of Lyons teaches, we find the glory of God which is man fully alive in Christ.


  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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