Seeing Things: Between Two Worlds

Peter Steinfels, the talented religion columnist for the New York Times and former editor of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, begins his new book, A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America (Simon & Schuster), in 1996 with Joseph Cardinal Bernardin’s funeral. Steinfels was born in Chicago and baptized in the very cathedral where the funeral took place; the event stirs a host of memories for him of the Church of his childhood and of today. It’s a moving and poignant reminiscence, but also emblematic in a way of the vision of the Church he offers. To invoke Matthew Arnold, it’s a Church wandering between two worlds. One dead; the other, so far, powerless to be born.

The very terms of the crisis, if we allow that there is one, can be set in radically different ways. The post-Vatican II church that Bernardin, Steinfels, and many others of their generation expected to replace the preconciliar Church itself seems to have weak prospects. As that generation dies out, the only real energy in Catholicism both in America and around the world shows itself in renewal movements of a neo-orthodox or traditionalist cast. Pope John Paul II, one of the council fathers, may not have entirely carried the day in his long and fruitful papacy. No single pope, even one as great as he is, could have. But if you had to bet, what will eventually find the power to be born from current wanderings will be something quite different from the preconciliar and postconciliar Church of recent decades, and is likely to have a Wojtylan cast.

Steinfels is an intelligent and professional reporter with a scrupulous regard for facts and a sharp nose for ideological biases, including his own liberal tendencies. This volume represents a kind of Summa of one take on the Church in America. It combines his long experience as a reporter and wide familiarity with the relevant literature on many issues. If you want to understand the mainstream liberal approach (a welcome alternative to Garry Wills, James Carroll, and others) to the sex-abuse scandal, the crisis of Catholic identity, liturgy, Catholic education, health care and relief services, higher education, and leadership questions, there are fairly comprehensive accounts here along with the references to the best recent studies. But Steinfels’s very method blunts any energetic engagement with the current moment. In the end, his analysis reads a bit like late scholasticism, full of many insights and nuances built on the recent past, but it would be hard to imagine how it might inspire the Church of the future.

Take, for instance, the much-vexed question of the Catholic identity of colleges and universities—the institutions that should be forming our Catholic elite. Everyone agrees that Catholic institutions of higher learning should do two things simultaneously: provide the best intellectual training possible and instruct students in Catholic principles. This seems somewhat incongruous to us because the dominant academic ethos in America is liberal and hostile to religion. In the past, there have been periods when Catholic humanism produced Aquinas, More, Erasmus, and Newman who were at the cutting edge of intellectual life while remaining prominent figures of faith.

Steinfels is aware of all of this and wryly skewers the easy formulas and lax practices of institutions that vaguely invoke Catholic traditions while essentially hiring and operating like their secular counterparts. His solution is for key administrators to understand how to shape the overall mission of their institutions. Concretely, they would have no mechanical quotas or hard requirements about hiring or admitting Catholics. An excellent non-Catholic faculty member could be hired in a sensitive department, for example, to bolster the intellectual level, but the crafty administrator would make sure that other elements in the mix would maintain a general Catholic tenor. Furthermore, orthodoxy would not be imposed along Roman or other lines, which have had pernicious influences in the past.

He recommends that the “Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities, a major foundation, or some other prominent body should sponsor a blue-ribbon committee of eminent scholars with impeccable credentials” to determine how to balance the demands of scholarship and Catholic identity. But this is to ask the very people who have allowed the situation to develop suddenly to depart from procedures they have defended against Rome and other authorities. The chances that any panel, drawn from the same group, with all the blue ribbons in the world will prevail against entrenched interests, tenure, and departmental controls are all but zero.

To be fair, Steinfels is not here wholly concerned to solve problems as much as to understand and present them. But his reporter’s tendency to characterize all situations in the Church as problems that might have practical solutions distorts the picture somewhat. Reform initiatives have already remedied a good deal of the priestly pedophilia problem, Other issues may also be resolved by better study and action. But Catholic identity in the universities, the liturgy, and various other questions are not problems to be solved, but impasses that will be overcome, if at all, by new religious energies. A Georgetown University will achieve a better “balance” between scholarship and Catholicism only if it undergoes and acts on some kind of religious reawakening.

Also, the “balance” Steinfels pursues in other areas sometimes seems quite wrong, at least to me. For example, in an attempt to map out who is an insider and who is an outsider in various Catholic institutions, he rightly says that “at least in the United States, in sectors like academic theology, religious education, liturgical theory, peace and justice centers, and many religious orders of men and women, liberal thinkers and activists are overwhelmingly the establishment.” Quite true. But what about the following: “Conservatives of one sort or another hold sway in sectors like seminary education, Catholic philanthropies, Catholic media, right-to-life networks, a few religious orders, and above all the hierarchy itself—especially the cardinals and archbishops.” Partly right, especially about pro-lifers, but mostly so wrong that it’s puzzling how such a good reporter arrives at these judgments. To take just one category, would any fair-minded conservative agree that conservatives form the “establishment” in American seminaries?

And some large factors are missing. Most importantly, Hispanic Catholics are expected to constitute one-half of all American Catholics within 25 years. This will probably mean, on the one hand, a return to liberal Democratic politics of an older kind (a gain for unions and support for government programs) and, on the other hand, fresh blood in pro-life and pro-family movements. Though predictions are always hazardous in a fluid society such as ours, Latino Catholics are also likely to re-create, at least for a few decades, some of the communitarian and outright ghetto Catholicism that liberal Catholics of a certain age thought was gone forever. In any event, the predominance of Hispanic Catholics in the American Church seems destined simply to swamp most of the things we think are central issues today. Yet there is not a page among these nearly 400 devoted to Hispanic Catholics as a future force, perhaps because it cuts across standard liberal expectations.

Peter Steinfels sincerely wants to serve the Church by moving beyond the polarized camps that emerged in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II, not least because he fears that current weaknesses could lead to the kind of collapse of Catholicism in America that we have already seen in Canada and Ireland. And that is to be applauded. Anyone who cares about the Church in America and around the world can learn a great deal from wrestling with this volume. It represents much of what is good and well-intentioned in the moderately liberal segment of the American Church. But it is a better guide to the drift of the immediate past than to the course that needs to be set if the Church in this country is to find a vibrant future.


  • Robert Royal

    Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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