The Pope and the American Problem

For Some American Catholics the Question Is Not “Am I in Accord With Peter?” But “Is Peter in Accord With Me?”

Born in Judea, raised in Rome, coming of age in the USA,” proclaimed a headline in the National Catholic Reporter, the mouthpiece of the left-liberal establishment of the American Church. There followed excerpts from a discussion by six sociologists (correctly divided fifty-fifty by sex) as well as the publisher and editor of NCR (not correctly divided) on the state of American Catholicism and the beliefs of American Catholics as they prepared to welcome the Pope. The exuberant headline and the discussion that followed praised three features of the American church that are incompatible with any historically or theologically founded definition of Catholicism. The first is secular determinism, the assumption that the political and moral standards of left-liberal Americans of the 1980s are and should be normative for the Church. The second is parochialism in time, expressed in the simplistic notion of perpetual secular progress and in the view that we who happen to live today are in all ways superior to our ancestors. The third, which is both a cause and a consequence of the others, is the naive cultural arrogance that implies that the American Church really is the vanguard of the universal Church. Where lay American Catholics are today, there the Pope should be tomorrow, or the worse for him.

The occasion for the discussion was an NCR/Gallup survey of Catholic attitudes on what it means to be a “good Catholic,” how the Church should be administered, and who should have moral authority. Pluralities or majorities believed that good Catholics need not fulfill their Sunday obligation or go to confession at least once a year, that they may be divorced and remarried, that individuals should have more say than the hierarchy in judging contraception, abortion, pre- or extramarital sex, or divorce, and that laymen should be able to give sermons, teach in seminaries, select priests, spend parish income, and decide canonical and doctrinal issues such as divorce or the ordination of women. In general, the younger and the better educated were more likely to believe or agree with these points.

These opinions, many have said, signify a cultural revolution among American Catholics. Once content to obey, American Catholics now question; once trusting, they are now suspicious. They claim the right to decide what to believe for themselves, but also insist that they can do this and remain “good Catholics.”

Two fundamental beliefs recur in this and other more impressionistic surveys of Catholic opinion in the U.S. One is that distinctions should be eliminated: American Catholics want to give the laity as much influence, control, and pastoral authority as the hierarchy; in other words, a Church that would be indistinguishable from liberal Protestant denominations. The other is doctrinal individualism: the belief that individual conscience is supreme, that the individual’s own sincerity and preferences should determine belief. Gone, or at least very well hidden, is any sense that a Catholic’s conscience is not wholly his own nor an infallible guide to moral judgment; that it must be directed and taught by authority; and that if his conscience disagrees with Church teaching, it is his conscience, and not the teaching, that must yield.

During his visit, the Pope singled out both these demands — that distinctions be eliminated, and that individual conscience be respected as the ultimate moral guide — for specific rebuke. He clearly regards them as the essence of what we might call “the American problem.” It is the prevalence of these demands, and of the emotions and attitudes associated with them, that make it hard to agree with those who see Americans as particularly religious, or who point to the levels of religious affiliation and stated commitment as evidence that, in the United States at least, modernity has not led to a decline of faith. The main theme of the debates and arguments preceding the Pope’s visit was that American Catholics want the Church to be like the political society in which they live — not different, not special, not set apart. Surely this is not evidence of an enduring religious commitment in the midst of modern society, a commitment that disproves the theory of inevitable secularization. Rather it is evidence that secularization can operate just as well by taking over religion as by overtly discarding it.

As the Pope’s arrival became imminent, the major national media began picking up stories about the inevitable clash between the Pope and the American Church. On September 10, the day the Holy Father landed in Miami, the New York Times published the response of 605 Catholics to the question “Is the Church in touch or out of touch with the needs of Catholics today?” Forty-eight percent said “out of touch” and 43 percent said “in touch.” The significant of this result lies only partly in the figures and in the curiously provincial assumption that “the needs of Catholics” and “the felt needs of American Catholics” coincide. It lies, rather, in the perverse view that the most important question to ask about this, or any Pope, is whether he is “in touch” with the desires or needs of some part of his flock, and not whether that part of his flock is “in touch” with him. Throughout the visit, the constant refrain of commentators in the mass media was that there is something wrong with a Pope who does not instantly and obediently adopt the agenda of the liberal establishment of the American Church — the agenda I summarized above as “elimination of distinctions” and “doctrinal individualism.” To listen to this unremitting chorus, one might be led to suppose that the most important question for an American Catholic was no longer “Am I in accord with Peter?” but “Is Peter in accord with me?”

That same evening, the major networks presented special broadcasts on the state of American Catholicism. These broadcasts were the opening barrage in the television coverage of the visit, which at times resembled more a campaign to give publicity to the arguments for dissent. This was markedly more true of the national networks than of the local affiliates. If San Francisco coverage is any guide, these did a fairly good job, although their idea of a discussion of the Pope’s encounters and speeches generally was to have two liberal priests or theologians agreeing with one another, rather than to present genuinely differing views. Still, even the locals were not completely honest. On September 10, Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco celebrated a mass at St. Mary’s cathedral in honor of the Pope’s arrival in the U. S. All three local affiliates of the national networks were there, cameras rolling. In his sermon, the archbishop criticized the media for giving disproportionate attention to dissent and insisted that most American faithful were neither dissenters nor angry. That is undoubtedly true, since even the pluralities in the NCR survey who held clearly unorthodox positions refused to describe themselves as dissenters and insisted that they liked the Pope while rejecting his teaching. However, all that is not the point here. Rather, the point is that in the news clip as broadcast the statement had been cut so that the archbishop seemed to be saying that there was a great deal of dissent and anguish. That was just about the opposite of what he in fact said.

The network specials were entirely predictable. The Pope, according to Peter Jennings of ABC, was a strange “paradox,” a man who called for helping the poor while insisting that Catholics obey Church teaching. This amazing character was a “problem” for enlightened American Catholics who (here came the refrain) demanded to participate in decisions and to make up their own minds. On CBS, Dan Rather intoned solemnly that “Catholics are looking inside themselves for the answers.” ABC illustrated what some of those answers might be by looking at a “typical modern parish” in Moraga, California. The interviewer talked to the youth director, a rather hard-faced young lady who referred to God as “She” and declared Rome and the Holy Father to be of small importance in her life or that of her parish. If her level of theological grounding was typical, as it probably was, we have even more interesting things in store when her generation “looks inside itself for the answers.”

ABC flashed a series of unspecified poll data on the screen to prove that most American Catholics want married priests, women priests, and no Church constraints on sexual behavior. The most interesting but also doubtful item was that 40 percent of American Catholics would rather split from Rome and form an American Church than give up their personal convictions when these differed from the Magisterium. This item completely contradicted the evidence from the NCR poll and elsewhere that Americans want doctrinal individualism, but most emphatically do not want to secede. In fact, the very same ABC program offered evidence that 75 percent — three quarters — of those polled think you can dissent and still be a Catholic. This, and not any honest desire for schism, is the essence of “the American problem.”

The media barrage was aimed at the American people, and God only knows what they made of it. As for the Pope, he was exposed to “the American problem” in a less direct and somewhat less crass form. He encountered it in the three speeches given to him on the state of the American Church. There were, of course, other speeches and other encounters, notably the sermon on immigrants in San Antonio which was perhaps the pastoral high point of the Holy Father’s journey, and the address to the film industry in Hollywood. These three, however, concern us here because they so well expressed the gulf separating John Paul II from at least a significant fraction of the powers- that – be in the American Church. They were the address by Father Frank McNulty in Miami for the priests, the remarks by Archbishops Quinn, Bernardin, and Weakland in Los Angeles for the bishops, and the harangue by Mrs. Donna Hanson in San Francisco for the laity. Each address was less eloquent, less filial, and more importunate than the one before.

Father McNulty, a leader of the left-liberal establishment, emphasized, as might be expected, “the celibacy question.” While not openly demanding that the requirement of celibacy be lifted, he urged to Pope to “continue along paths of support and exploration.” Father McNulty, whose remarks had been submitted to the Vatican months before for approval, as had all other speeches given to the Pope, was no doubt comforted to learn, as the New York Times reported on September 11, that 55 percent of priests want to marry. He also went on to say, in that particularly insistent and concerned manner which priests adopt who, one suspects, feel guilty that women cannot be ordained, that “there is need for study, reflection and, above all, more dialogue with women.” In the Times poll, an equal number of priests (43 percent) supported and opposed the ordination of women.

Father McNulty was careful to note that, as a priest, he could not speak for “women in ministry.” Strictly speaking, that phrase can refer only to those extraordinary women ministers of the Eucharist who, in violation of canonical norms, are so common these days in American parishes and not, for example, to religious or teachers in parochial schools. Indeed, the problem of education was notable for its absence in any of the reported discussions. Spokesmen for the American Church during the visit occasionally made reference, as did the NCR panelists as well as the network specials, to the high level of “our Catholic education” today. Yet these highly educated Catholics are also those who demand the abolition of distinctions and doctrinal individualism. Such demands show, if anything, that those who make them have absorbed the ideology of the culture, not a Catholic education in any recognizable sense.

The problem of Catholic education, to digress for a moment, seems to be a special case of that afflicting all education in this country, namely, the loss of the appropriate “cultural code.” For Catholics, this code should consist of the elements of doctrine, knowledge of the sacraments, how they are to be received and their effects, some knowledge of liturgy and liturgical development, and an outline of Church history including the Church’s social teaching. The main point is that the cultural code, whether of the Church or of American society in general, is not something found by looking at the world around us or simply copying its values and standards, but by learning a certain, irreducible minimum of facts and ideas. In the public schools, the teachers became fearful of imposing any values at all that might offend anyone’s sensibilities or which might imply that there was such a thing as a cultural code of things “literate Americans should know,” in the words of E. J. Hirsch.

This ought not to be a problem in Catholic schools which have, in theory at least, an explicit mission to teach a specific body of knowledge and truth. Yet it has been. Relativism and the various other spinoffs from the broad ideological arsenal of post-1960s American liberalism appear well entrenched in the Catholic school system. That is where young Catholics should be learning about distinctions and doctrines, and where instead too many of them graduate with the idea that to be educated and mature is to argue and make demands. The arrogant importunities of those who insist on doctrinal individualism and the right to selective obedience derive at least partly from a defective education. The most important task of Catholic education may be to transcend, not to copy, the less admirable features of contemporary American political and social life, and to teach the difference between those — political, social, cultural — areas where argument and disagreement are signs of maturity, and the area of faith and doctrine, where maturity is signified by a more complete understanding.

In Los Angeles, where the Pope met 320 U. S. bishops, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, the head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB), told the pope: “We live in an open society where everyone prizes the freedom to speak his or her mind,” and that Americans “instinctively react negatively when they told that they must do something, even though in their hearts they may know they should do it.” That remark got a lot of play in the media, though it is objectively a grave insult. It implies that American Catholics are immature and, above all, uneducated children who have not been taught the distinction between legitimate authority and arbitrary demands.

Weakland and Quinn spoke after Bernardin. Each of the three raised one of the banner issues of the liberal Church establishment — collegiality, the role of women, and the inadequacy of traditional doctrine. Bernardin spoke expansively of collegiality and the new role of bishops. The Pope replied with what seemed like dry humor that “the vertical dimension of collegiality has been less deeply experienced by many who on the other hand have a vivid sense of its horizontal dimension.” He added that the Catholic Church is not a “federation of particular churches.” If the American Church wants that kind of autonomy, it had better face the consequences honestly.

Last year, Archbishop Weakland demonstrated that of the leading U. S. bishops he is closest to open opposition to Rome. That was when the NCCB, under strong Vatican urging, temporarily disciplined Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle for, among other things, allowing general absolution without individual confession and pro-homosexual masses. Weakland sometimes gives the impression that he regards the left of the American Church as the true Church and Rome as being in schism. In Los Angeles he extolled “Catholic education” as better than ever, and as evidence adduced the fact that Catholics now “are more inclined to look at the intrinsic worth of an argument.” That is not quite correct: what Weakland should have said was that many Catholics do not question left-liberal arguments, such as those of the economic pastoral, which bears Weakland’s imprint, and prefer to criticize caricatures of moderate or conservative arguments. Whether American Catholics as a whole have been well served, and their critical faculties more finely honed, by this excellent education of today is, on the evidence, very much open to question.

Weakland then made a pitch for “women who seek to be equal partners” and who “feel they are second-class citizens in a church they love.” He insisted that this was not a plea for women’s ordination, though it was hard to see what else it might be, given that the Pope reiterated several times on his trip that women have “equal dignity” and that we must not forget that the most perfect exemplar of simple humanity was a woman, namely the Mother of God.

Finally, Archbishop Quinn spoke of the difficulty of teaching the Church’s message amidst the social convulsions of the age. It was in response to this that the Pope insisted most firmly on orthodoxy: “It is sometimes claimed that dissent from the Magisterium is totally compatible with being a ‘good Catholic’ and poses no obstacles to the reception of the sacraments. This is a grave error that challenges the teaching office of the bishops of the United States and elsewhere.” Later, in San Francisco, the Pope repeated his warning with specific reference to divorced and remarried persons. While such persons are certain of the Church’s love, he said, they cannot receive the sacraments.

Now everyone knows, including the Holy Father, that many American priests defy this canonical rule, giving the sacraments (mainly the Eucharist) not only to remarried persons but to dissenters of every stripe, so long as it is a liberal or a radical stripe. Since a condition for valid reception of the Eucharist is full auricular confession including an act of contrition and firm promise of amendment, and since many of these dissenters by their behavior demonstrate that, confession or no, they have no intention of changing their ways, it seems morally certain that these people are receiving the Eucharist invalidly and thus putting their immortal souls in jeopardy.

The bishops who tolerate this clearly do not see it as “a grave error” that challenges their “teaching office.” Why then did the Pope bother to make the pretense that they do, or that these practices should and will stop? I suspect the main reason was to go on record for the doctrinal and canonical truth. It was a warning, just as in the old days the Church authorities warned the heretic three times before severing the Church from his harmful influence. In those times, each exhortation had to include a plea for repentance, a demand for firm amendment, and an assumption of good faith, that is, an assumption that the heretic was not wilfully in error, but merely misinformed. Thus, the burden of separation would rest, and would be seen to rest, on the heretic. The Church does not and cannot thrust anyone away, but likewise will not force anyone to stay. It is my feeling that the Pope, in Los Angeles, issued the first exhortation. We will now see whether it is heeded.

To avoid distortion of judgment I had deliberately refrained from following the Pope’s visit on television after the opening shots in the form of the network specials on September 10. On September 18, however, the Pope was in San Francisco, and with some trepidation I checked in with the local affiliates to see how they were covering it. Sensibly, I found, but the main value of autopsy was that I got to see the spectacle of the lay leaders’ talks in St. Mary’s cathedral live. That was important, for the appearance, gestures, and actions of these leaders were at least as interesting, and as revealing of the neuroses and compulsions of liberal establishment Catholicism, as what they actually said.

In Los Angeles, the Pope told the bishops, in effect, that he expected them, if not to teach the truth, at least to prevent scandal by withholding the sacraments from notorious dissenters. More broadly he was also telling lay people that doctrinal individualism was not an option. Now, in San Francisco, he told us that the elimination of distinctions is a folly and an evil. Two such distinctions are, seemingly, of particular offense to the liberal Catholic mentality: the distinction between lay and ordained, and that between men and women. Concerning the first, the Pope said specifically in St. Mary’s that the lay and the ordained state are equal, but separate, and that we should beware of “clericalizing the laity and laicizing the clergy.” Sensible, wonderful, and refreshing words to those who cannot understand why the Vatican Council’s elevation of lay dignity and lay vocations has resulted, in the American Church, in an ugly clericalism, so that people think that lay participation is only respectable if it takes semi-clerical forms. Concerning the second, the Holy Father said that “all the special gifts of women are needed in an ever-increasing measure in [the Church’s] life.”

The problem that many liberal Catholics apparently have with these distinctions was illustrated with unconscious irony by the very people whom the archdiocese had chosen to represent lay leaders. There were four: a couple to introduce the speakers and the two speakers, Donna Hanson, President of the Lay Advisory Council of the NCCB, and Patrick Hughes, director of lay ministries for the Archdiocese of San Francisco. Both the lady introducer and Mrs. Hanson wore nearly identical man-tailored suits of the kind that has become so depressingly familiar in the workplace. Mrs. Hanson even sported a tie. These probably unconscious gestures were, if these ladies had only reflected upon it, amusing tributes to the enduring power of male archetypes in the liberal mind. Such a mind can only conceive of equality as identity, not as difference. To be equal with men therefore means to wear men’s clothes.

The speakers had the same problem with the distinction between lay and ordained. Here, too, they conceived of equality as identity. Both Mrs. Hanson and Mr. Hughes spoke at great length of the importance of lay ministries and asked that “authorities involve me in a process of understanding,” a clumsy phrase that, apparently, concealed a demand for lay influence on the formulation of doctrine. The real give-away in this regard, however, was the introduction of Mr. Hughes as a man whose “career in the Church” began in 1963. This slip was highly suggestive of a certain mindset, namely a mindset that sees the Church as a “career organization.”

This is as far as possible from the Council’s idea that the laity are called to sanctify their work and the world, not to invade the Church organization, just as the clergy are not called to invade the world with pronouncements on all manner of non-doctrinal issues like nuclear weapons or economic policy. Mr. Hughes’ “career” in the Church, like that of every Catholic, began on the day of his baptism and will, we pray, continue through this life in the Church Militant and beyond in the Church Suffering and the Church Triumphant.

Needless to say, neither Mrs. Hanson nor Mr. Hughes nor, for that matter, a great part of the throng at St. Mary’s found it appropriate to kiss the Pope’s ring as a sign of filial devotion. Instead, they offered the egalitarian American handshake and, in Mrs. Hanson’s case, a peck on the Holy Father’s cheek. How grown-up and mature we all are, to be sure.

The liberal compulsion to eliminate distinctions and to favor doctrinal individualism seems an in-eradicable part of our culture. One way of under-standing that compulsion is to see it as an example of what Thomas Sowell, the economist and social critic, calls the “unconstrained vision” of human nature. As he explains in his recent book, A Conflict of Visions, the unconstrained vision is fundamentally historical and superficially rationalistic. Its adherents have little regard for tradition and inherited wisdom; for them, sincerity is more important than fidelity. They see inequalities and differences where, according to them, there should be equality. If they cannot justify a rule rationally to their own satisfaction, they reject it; there is, for them, no such thing as doctrinal authority. They want justice they can understand, and now, whereas adherents of the constrained vision accept tradition because they assume that they do not and cannot know everything.

Sowell’s argument concerns social and economic thinkers, but it has an uncanny relevance for today’s debate in the Church. It seems — and this I offer hesitantly, off-the-cuff — that most Catholics’ classical understanding of the Church, in America as elsewhere, was related to the constrained vision as regards human nature and capabilities. We are fallen, limited creatures who cannot know all and therefore have no right to assert that our individual preferences are just or better than those of other times or places. That does not mean that anything goes, or that Western culture or the Catholic Church are no better than any other culture or religion. Rather, it means that tradition is important, because tradition is one way of drawing on the wisdom of many people none of whom, individually, had the full answer to anything.

Today, if one is to believe the NCR survey and much of the argument over the Pope’s visit, the unconstrained vision has the hegemony. If something does not make sense, reject it. If some rule is a “hard doctrine,” don’t obey it. As long as your personal conscience is clear, you are doing no wrong. Sincerity is more important than fidelity. The submission of conscience and will, the mortification of spirit, the sacrificium intellectus? Ancient hocus-pocus unworthy of us enlightened moderns, probably developed by a gang of male chauvinists for their nefarious purposes. The problem with all this rationalism and the unconstrained vision from which it springs is that not only is that vision, as I believe, false and pernicious, it is also quite simply incompatible with any recognizably Catholic ecclesiology.

The Church, with her Magisterium and deposit of faith, is not only the keeper of truth by divine promise, but also, as a cultural institution, a great repository of the wisdom of many generations. The ancient criterion of Catholic orthodoxy was quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus creditum est (that which has been believed always, everywhere, and by all). This is the very opposite of the primitive notion that what a plurality of American Catholics believes today is somehow the true sensus fidelium, as one of the NCR panelists absurdly argued.

The Pope came to see us, to learn from us, and to pray more fully for us “that our faith may not fail.” How well he succeeded, God only knows. The one thing that we can know is that the arguments within the American Church will continue. Those of us who are outside the liberal mainstream have the greater obligation to add our mite to those arguments.


  • David Gress

    David Richard Gress (born 1953) is a Danish historian, known for his 1998 survey From Plato to Nato on Western identity and grand narratives. When this article was published, he was a Senior Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, where his field was European history, politics, and culture.

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