The Denominational Temptation

Although it is not often recognized as such, a momentous ecclesiological argument has erupted in the Church in the United States. Archbishop John Quinn’s Oxford lecture on the papacy and the curia, the Catholic Common Ground project, the controversies these two initiatives provoked,

speculations and agitations about major appointments to the American hierarchy and about the next papal conclave—these and other indicators suggest that American Catholics will spend considerable time at the end of the second millennium debating just what it means to be the Church of Jesus Christ.

That discussion will be stillborn if it is parsed politically, in the tried-and-failed categories of “liberals vs. conservatives” or “Progressive Catholics vs. Orthodox Catholics.” The Terrible Simplifiers of the national media may find these taxonomies irresistible. Intellectually and religiously serious Catholics should know better.

I propose that we take a lesson from the history and sociology of American Christianity and think about this great debate as posing a choice between “Ecclesial Catholicism” and “Denominational Catholicism.” The terms may seem redundant; Catholicism in the United States has always been both “ecclesial” and “denominational,” hasn’t it? Well, yes and no. Bear with me for a brief review of some important history.

Uniquely Catholic

For all our efforts to maintain a distinctively Catholic identity in what was, for hundreds of years, a dominantly Protestant culture, Catholics in the United States have adopted (and adapted) many forms of Protestant piety and church organization. Antebellum Catholic prayer books show the pervasive cultural influence of the Methodist pietism of that time. The parish “mission” was a Catholic parallel to the Protestant “revival.” There has always been something recognizably and uniquely Catholic about our liturgy and the formal structures of authority in our dioceses. But informal Catholic life—the social, educational, and cultural patterns of organization and interaction in our parishes—had many of the characteristics of the voluntary association.

As Alexis de Tocqueville famously observed, the voluntary organization is a very American kind of thing, and indeed a very good kind of thing. There is nothing intrinsically un-Catholic about the voluntary association. On the contrary, “voluntary associations” (especially those with social welfare concerns) are among the most important ways in which American civil society embodies the Catholic social-ethical principles of subsidiarity and solidarity.

But for mainline Protestantism in America, voluntary association was a theological, not merely sociological, concept. The voluntary-association-as-cultural-model implied the Church-as-denomination; thus American religion was understood by the majority culture to be denominational religion. To be religious in America meant to belong to one among many denominations and to think about religion denominationally.

My suggestion is that beneath the many contested issues in American Catholicism today lies a deeper question involving the theological aspects of denominationalism. The question is whether certain styles of Catholicism in the United States have unconsciously absorbed, or perhaps even consciously adopted, a denominational ecclesiology with a tenuous connection, at best, to classic Catholic doctrine on the nature of the Church, most particularly including the doctrine of Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.

Denominationalism has several defining characteristics. In denominational Christianity there is little that is given or secure about the ecclesial community; rather, the Church is constantly being remade by its members. The Church-as-denomination has no distinctive and fixed form, given to it by Christ; it adapts its form to the dominant cultural patterns of the age. As lived out in mainline Protestantism after World War II, denominationalism has also meant that internal institutional process is more important than binding doctrinal reference points; that the boundaries of the ecclesial community are ill-defined and porous; that institutional maturity requires extensive bureaucratization; and that the charism of religious leadership equals the skill of bureaucratic managership.

A denomination is something we create by joining it: a denomination is an expression of our will. But here, precisely, is the rub. For the Church, according to Lumen Gentium, is a divinely ordered and Spirit-sustained reality into which we are incorporated by sacraments of initiation. Which is to say, the Church is first and foremost an expression of Christ’s will.

Sociologically speaking, American Catholicism will be a denomination (in the sense of a voluntary association) for the foreseeable future. But the temptation to “denominationalize” Catholic self-understanding and the exercise of teaching authority within the Catholic Church must be resisted.

One difficulty in mounting that resistance is that the denominational temptation rarely presents itself as such. Rather, the “denominationalization” of Catholicism in the United States is proposed as an appropriately American inculturation of the teaching of Vatican II. To resist the denominational temptation—to insist, as a matter of the deposit of faith, on the unique ecclesial form of the Church—is thus to risk being branded “anti-Vatican II.” Nowhere is this risk more pervasive than in Catholic colleges and universities today.

Life Among the Intellectuals

In Gaudium et Spes, its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, the Second Vatican Council urged Catholics to read the “signs of the times.” Why? In order to “interpret them in the light of the Gospel.” The point was not relevance; the point was evangelism.

To “read the signs of the times” is not to measure Christianity by the yardstick of contemporary culture; rather, it is a question of discerning, within “the joy and hope, the grief and anguish” of the modern world, openings for the proclamation of a Gospel ever ancient and ever new. “Reading the signs of the times” is not a tactic of accommodation but a boldly evangelical strategy, aimed frankly at the conversion of culture: just as St. Paul did when the apostle to the gentiles used a pagan idol—the altar to the unknown god—to break open the saving truth of God in Christ.

This countercultural aspect of “reading the signs of the times” is weakened, then finally disappears, when Catholics succumb to the denominational temptation. The polarities of Gaudium et Spes are reversed, and “reading the signs of the times” is taken to mean that modern culture always trumps ecclesial identity and tradition in resolving a controverted issue.

Like, for example, the question of the Catholic identity of Catholic colleges and universities.

Pope John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), proposed strengthening the relationship between Catholic colleges and universities and the wider Church, including the teaching authorities of the Church: local bishops and the bishop of Rome.

In the pope’s vision of Catholic higher education, the Catholic college is not a secular university with occasional liturgies. Rather, the Catholic college is an expression of the Church’s commitment to the evangelization of culture through the deepening of knowledge and the formation of souls. There should be something discernibly different about a Catholic college or university: Demanding and manifesting the highest standards of scholarly excellence, it should also be a distinctively ecclesial institution with a clearly defined linkage to the local and universal Church.

I am not a lawyer, so I don’t propose to get into the question of how implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae in the United States might or might not have entangled Catholic colleges in an imbroglio of litigation over tenure, hiring, and so forth. In any case, these are decidedly secondary issues. The issue, as we ponder the denominational temptation, is how the American Catholic intellectual establishment reacted to the apostolic constitution.

Throughout those quarters, the terms of debate over Ex Corde Ecclesiae were defined almost entirely by current fashions in higher education. The first question raised by too many Catholic higher educators responding to the Magisterium of the Church as embodied by this papal document was not, “How can Catholic colleges and universities become more effective expressions of the Church’s mission to evangelize culture?” The questions, rather, were “What will the American Association of University Professors think?” “What will the accrediting agencies think?” “What will the U.S. Department of Education think (and what will happen to our federal grants)?”

That Catholic higher educators should be slavish imitators of the guild mentality of the American academy at precisely the moment when secular American colleges and universities are sunk in a miasma of political correctness and intellectual faddishness is a sad business. Why should Catholic colleges and universities mimic American campuses where Toni Morrison is thought an apt substitute for Shakespeare; where theology is regarded as a subdivision of mythology; and where race, gender, and class are the ultimate determinants of the truth of things? The Church—indeed, the entire culture—doesn’t need Georgetown to be a second Amherst. One Amherst is quite enough, thank you. We need Georgetown to be Georgetown.

The McBrien Prescription

When the reference points for a debate within the Church are not ecclesial—when those reference points are drawn primarily from elite opinion in the general culture—the denominational temptation is at work. The argument over Ex Corde Ecclesiae demonstrated just how far the denominationalization of Catholic higher education has gone. And in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. bishops’ attempt to reach agreement on the implementation of Ex Corde Ecclesiae, we were reminded once again that this process of surrender to a culture in need of conversion is particularly far advanced among certain prominent theologians.

In November 1996, the Chronicle of Higher Education asked Father Richard P. McBrien, former chairman of the theology department and now president of the faculty senate at the University of Notre Dame, for a comment on the U.S. bishops’ debate over Ex Corde Ecclesiae.

“Bishops should be welcome on a Catholic university campus,” Father McBrien replied. “Give them tickets to ballgames. Let them say Mass. Bring them to graduation. Let them sit on the stage. But there should be nothing beyond that. They should have nothing to say about the internal academic affairs of the university or any faculty member thereof.”

A striking response, that. But bracket, for a moment, the fact that Father McBrien has devoted oceans of ink to the imperative of strengthening the power of local bishops against the alleged encroachments of the pope and the curia. And try to forget that virtually every despot in the twentieth century has claimed that his “internal affairs” were his own business and no one else’s. What remains is a singularly un-ecclesial statement about Catholic intellectual life.

Father McBrien swears that he and his theological colleagues are not, heaven forfend, beyond criticism. “But I want the criticism to come from people with the credentials to criticize.” In the tradition of the Church, the office of bishop included supervision of “the transmission of the faith received from the apostles.” (See Richard P. McBrien, “Bishop,” in The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism, Richard P. McBrien, general editor.) In the Catholic intellectual world according to Father McBrien, however, that supervisory function stops at the campus gate. Why? “Because the idea of . . . suggesting any kind of oversight by nonacademic people in the academic operations of a university . . . is odious to anybody in an academic institution.”

Among the characteristics of the denominational temptation is the tendency to displace a distinctively ecclesial way of thinking (sentire cum ecclesia, “thinking with the Church,” we used to call it) with habits of thought derived from American elite cultural opinion. Father McBrien’s variant on Marie Antoinette—”Let ’em watch football”—in the matter of bishops and the teaching of the Catholic faith in Catholic universities is the antithesis of sentire cum ecclesia.

Indeed, the claim that the local bishop should have “nothing to say” about the teaching of “any faculty member” at a Catholic university is a perfect example of the denominational temptation at work among the intellectuals: Academic freedom, defined legalistically by the American Association of University Professors, trumps the teaching authority of the Church vis-a-vis Catholic colleges, defined theologically and juridically by an apostolic constitution issued by the Bishop of Rome.

One might have thought that the travail of thoroughly denominationalized divinity schools across the country would give some pause to Catholic theologians today. For, cut loose from an authoritative ecclesial tradition, mainline Protestant and ecumenical theologates have proven themselves just as vulnerable to the lunacies of political correctness and deconstructionism as university English, philosophy, and history departments. Surely Father McBrien does not propose that the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which features an officially sanctioned “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Caucus,” enjoys a superior relationship to the Church and to the pursuit of truth than does a Catholic university sweating under the supposed rigors of Ex Corde Ecclesiae?

In his new book, Inside the Vatican, Father Thomas Reese, S.J., argues that “the relationship between theologians and the papacy is worse today than at any time since the Reformation.” This would doubtless comes as news to theologians who thought the definition of infallibility at Vatican I inopportune; to Loisy, Tyrrell, and other Catholic modernists; to de Lubac, Congar and the other targets of the 1950 encyclical, Humani Generis; or to John Courtney Murray, during his enforced silence on matters of Church and state.

But Father Reese’s assertion, however peculiar as a historical judgment, nicely captures the fevers of today’s theological guild, in which sentire cum ecclesia, “thinking with the Church,” is assumed to require the abandonment of critical thought. Which means that too many Catholic intellectuals have internalized, via the denominational temptation, the indictment laid against the Church by every anti-Catholic bigot since the Enlightenment.

Business as Usual

Of course, theologians and other intellectuals are not the only Catholics in America vulnerable to the formidable cultural pressures involved in the denominational temptation. Consider the following scenario:

A group of middle-aged men is holding its annual meeting in the ballroom of a large Washington hotel. Each participant is dressed in a dark business suit. The press is omnipresent, as are considerable numbers of professional staff. Staff-generated briefing books determine much of what is discussed and decided. “Consensus” is the goal of every discussion; those who challenge the least-common-denominator concept of consensus prevalent in the group-psychology of the meeting are thought to be behaving badly. The proceedings are conducted according to Robert’s Rules of Order. Speakers are strictly limited in the amount of time they can devote to an intervention; a traffic light, with red, yellow, and green signals, monitors the rhythm of debate.

Visibly, there are two things that distinguish this gathering from the kind of meeting typical of a corporate board of directors, a college board of trustees, or the leadership of a trade union: Each of the participants is wearing a Roman collar, and the meeting is interrupted several times each day for prayer. But with those two exceptions, and judging strictly from the modus operandi of the proceedings, one would be hard put to define what, precisely, is the specifically ecclesial quality of the annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In his magisterial 1986 study, Pagans and Christians, historian Robin Lane Fox argued that the episcopate was the crucial structural reason why Christianity triumphed over the myriad other religious options available in the late Roman Empire. No other religious movement had leaders like bishops, who combined doctrinal and juridical authority in a unique office that not only held a diverse community together administratively, but defined the theological terms by which that unity was achieved. Antiquity had never seen anything quite like the bishop, whose singular charism was to embody the unity of the local Church and link it to the universal Church through his teaching, his preaching, and his celebration of the Eucharist.

The terms “bishop” (in Greek, episkopos, or “overseer”) and “diocese” may have been adopted from the surrounding public culture. But the episcopate was understood to be, and was exercised as, a uniquely ecclesial office. And the charisms necessary to fulfill its obligations were evangelical and theological—in a word, religious.

The singularity of the episcopal office stands in sharp contrast to what much of American Christianity understands today as a “denominational leader.” The latter’s charism (better, “skill”) is managerial, even bureaucratic. His or her authority derives not from ordination, but from election in a political process in which a premium is placed upon balancing various interests and factions within the denomination. And, as things have worked themselves out in mainline Protestantism since World War II, the principal reference point for the work of the denominational leader is the denominational staff, or bureaucracy.

Has this denominational model of leadership had so pronounced an effect on Catholicism in the United States as to endanger the proper exercise of the unique office of bishop?

More than thirty years after the Second Vatican Council, it is surely time to ask whether the council fathers’ welcome call to strengthen the office of bishop, locally and through national conferences of bishops, is best answered by a Catholic adaptation of the denominational-bureaucratic model of religious leadership prevalent in postwar American mainline Protestantism. No doubt Catholicism had things to learn from Christian communities that had a more extensive experience of “consulting the faithful” than was customary in, say, your typical American Catholic diocese of the 1950s. And no doubt the council’s recovery of the idea of the collegiality of bishops warranted creating structures by which the bishops of the country could meet to strengthen their individual and corporate witness.

But episcopacy, in its classic Catholic sense, and denominationalism, in the typical American sense, do not fit well together. (Imagine Cyril of Alexandria in the midst of the Council of Ephesus, zealously defending Mary as the Theotokos—and being interrupted by a red traffic light!) The episcopate is a uniquely ecclesial office. Its authority derives from the bishop’s ordination and his communion with the Church universal, not from bureaucratic process. To transform the religious charism of episcopal leadership into the “skill” of bureaucratic managership is to succumb to the denominational temptation in a particularly dangerous way.

A Church Transforming Fear

So: Is Catholicism in America becoming another denomination? As I noted above, Roman Catholicism in the United States will remain, sociologically speaking, a denomination—an organization with many of the characteristics of the American voluntary association—for the foreseeable future. Few Americans of the twenty-first century will inherit their Catholic faith, so to speak, the way their grandparents did. Catholics in America in the early years of the third millennium will choose to be Catholics through a deliberate decision. And many of them will be all the stronger for having self-consciously chosen, rather than inherited, the faith.

Viewed theologically, however, denominational Catholicism is a contradiction in terms, because “Catholic” and “denominational” are theological antonyms. A Catholicism that understands itself to be, and acts like, another American denomination—a Catholicism that is another market factor in the religion business—is a Church that has lost her unique ecclesial identity. It is also a Church that will be of little service to society and culture. For by absorbing too many of the culture’s habits it will have lost the power to transform it.

Recovering a sense of sentire cum ecclesia, of “thinking with the Church,” is essential to withstanding the denominational temptation and deepening our grasp of what is distinctive about being the Church of Jesus Christ.

To think with the Church means to recognize that we who are the Church nevertheless do not create the Church or “join” the Church (in the sense that we join the PTA, the Rotary, and other voluntary associations). Rather, the Church is the Body into which we are incorporated by baptism, confirmation, and the Eucharist. To be grafted onto that Body means widening the lens of our apprehension of reality. It means grasping that the Church’s story, the story of salvation, is the world’s story. It means living within a transtemporal community whose members include the dead, both those being purified and those who have been glorified.

To think with the Church does not mean indulging a Catholic fundamentalism like that of the English polemicist W.G. Ward, who wanted a papal bull to read alongside the Times with his breakfast every morning. It does mean understanding that a Church without doctrinal boundaries is no Church. It does mean understanding that ecclesial tradition is a positive value—the living faith of the dead, in Jaroslav Pelikan’s phrase—not a pious relic from a pre-enlightened era. And it means understanding that the teaching authority of the Church, embodied in a singular way by the Bishop of Rome, has a privileged position in any doctrinal discussion.

To think with the Church means being committed, with Gaudium et Spes, to the evangelization of culture. Certain features of American culture have undoubtedly helped the Church deepen her understanding of the truths of which she is the custodian: The Church’s commitments to religious freedom, to ecumenism, and to a genuinely theological encounter with Judaism all reflect, to one degree or another, the Church’s experience of American pluralism. The Church learns from cultures.

But a Church beset by the denominational temptation must also recover a willingness to think and live counterculturally. The truths of Christian faith, not the shibboleths of elite opinion in the United States, are the canons by which the Church measures her fidelity. Paradoxically or providentially (or, perhaps, both paradoxically and providentially), those truths also constitute the proclamation that is most relevant to our culture in its current state of crisis.

On which point, a word from Hans Urs von Balthasar:

Fear mercilessly grips the human throat. It fills the psychiatrists’ consulting rooms, populates the psychiatric hospitals, increases the suicide figures. . . . We try to root it out of our souls like weeds, anesthetizing ourselves with optimism, trying to persuade ourselves with a forced philosophy of hope. . . . The Catholic reality does not eliminate fear, it transforms it. In the Eucharist and the forgiveness of sins the event of the cross becomes really present; but its fear also becomes present, its fear that gathered up and exceeded all the world’s fear. This was a fear that had been offered to God, a fear on our behalf, designed to free the sinner from fear.

“Be not afraid!” has been the antiphon of the historic pontificate of John Paul II. If Catholics in America would respond to that challenge, it will be through learning, once again, to be ecclesial rather than denominational: to think of ourselves as members, not of another well-intentioned and decent organization, but of the crucified and resurrected Body of Christ, in which the world’s fear has been conquered through self-giving love.


  • 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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