The decline of the American Catholic Church in the late Sixties has become a statistician’s plaything, as the empty pew is weighted against the growth of Real Concern. Thus: the sprawling seminaries of the Fifties may be ghost towns—but we are all priests now. Likewise, the swollen churches can’t meet their mortgages—but then, our life is our prayer. That kind of argument. The decline of a state of mind is hard to chart and I leave it to the professionals (anything so unanswerable must have money in it). But for those of us who lived through it, the physical fact itself, and the loss of institutional confidence that went with it, formed a psychic event so unmistakably spectacular that we felt as if our tripes had been removed by sleight-of-hand. The Church was still standing solid as the post office in, say, 1966; the Vatican Council had been weathered—better than weathered. In fact, the first death spasm looked like a little dance step. (The first half hour of freedom is always the best: we would be better Catholics without coercion.) And then it was gone.
That Church, anyway: the Catholic Church of America, walled off from its enemies by airtight womb to tomb education: Alcatraz, the Rock, very hard to leave. The Jesuits had been given boys not just till they were seven but till they were thirty-seven, and had used every minute of it: yet suddenly ex-Jesuits were pouring out in beards and atrocious sports shirts. Can one be un-brainwashed? Or was the brainwashing as superficial as most education?
Even if, as some die-hards maintain, it was only a flight of the liberals,1 who characteristically declared the joint closed the moment they left, it was amazing enough. Habits of a lifetime (and even liberals have habits) fell like dominoes. The fatal glass of beer theory we’d been warned about came true. Prayers, fasts, even Sunday mass itself came off in one piece. And of course it wasn’t just liberals—who after all want to believe so much they’ll do anything to make the Church believable, even deface it if necessary—but the well-drilled mob in the middle. God’s foot soldiers, the middle-aged middle-class parishioners, downed rosaries and defected in thousands to the prevailing life-styles, adopting even this barbarous word. (Modus vivendi isn’t good enough any more.) Deprived of their regular brow-beating, they turned out to be just like Americans.
There is plenty left, as there is after most revolutions: ethnics with a cultural grub stake, persons of an ecclesiastical temperament (the Church was once proud of not relying on these), and the quintessential Catholics who glory in being unfashionable. So too, England after the Reformation. The next generation will be the test. Meanwhile the right clings grimly to driftwood from the old Church and even hopes to put it together again, a possible new heresy in the making if the new Church tells them not to (see Brian Moore’s excellent novella Catholics in which a young inquisitor is sent from Rome to shut down the Latin mass in a corner of Ireland). And the radicals wade out bravely for unseen shores, defining themselves by action—fine while the action lasts: after Vietnam, we shall see.
One would expect from such a cataclysm a bristling literature of witness, with survivors rushing conflicting versions into print. But after the first burst, by ex-priests lashing at their past lives with the dull intolerance of outsiders—humility and arrogance snarled like wire wool in their prose—matters seem to have slowed to a trickle of bitter or facetious memoirs about addled sex instruction for boys and ridiculous sex instruction for girls. For instance, Aphrodite in Mid-Century by Caryl Rivers emphasizes that the Church did not prepare one for Mickey Spillane: Miss Rivers approaches this author as it were Voltaire, a yawning trap for the faithful—but of course, it’s all a joke. In the case of John R. Powers’s The Last Catholic in America, the gag is a book called Sandra the Sex Kitten, Hot from. Cincinnati, which young Powers angled laboriously to obtain from the local drugstore, in the manner of a wheezing Woody Allen. For this one needed a Church?
The accuracy of these and similar versions is not in question—scores of parochial school victims can confirm them. What is surprising, coming from the Whore of Rome, is their thinness. The messrs Rivers and Powers write with the resolute brightness of Hollywood or Catholic Digest clergy—or of such real-life celibates as like to be up and doing. By contrast Alexander Portnoy has a sonorous intensity; and the masturbating Irish hero of John McGahern’s The Dark has real tragic force.
The prepubescent jollity of so many American Catholics says something about their obsessions. The problem was sex and the solution was to remain too young for it (viz. the faces of so many elder clergy). A neutral reader confronted with such panicky stratagems might conclude that this was a singularly godless (to borrow its own phrase about communism) or nontheocentric religion in its last days. Sex was at the center, with everyone fleeing outward. The particular contract between God and man that had made this Church either one of man’s screwier pretensions or else, Pascal’s long shot, the actual incarnation of God’s Word—in any event a gaudy thing to have around—had been lost under a slag heap of forbidden movies and atrocious advice about masturbation; it may be written that the rock of ages devoted its last years to keeping its skirts down.
Certainly sex was never the battleground the professional theologians would have chosen. The New Testament is strikingly unsexy, for a religious source, and the fights that fashioned the early Church were over the nature of God, not the availability of condoms in Connecticut. So the Church’s best and brightest weren’t even interested in the only question much of the faithful wanted to hear about. The theologians were off talking of other matters when the roof fell in.
Birth control, a subject of virtually no theological interest, was the agent. Aesthetically it was right that a church that made such extravagant claims should gamble everything on a hopelessly unpopular position: this was precisely the supernatural element, the funky audacity Protestantism lacked. But in this case, the Church’s mind wasn’t even on the subject; the best theologians, like Hans Küng and Karl Rahner and Edward Schillebeeckx, who glittered in the conciliar period, were bored or embarrassed by it. (One of these, whom I knew personally, actually blushed and changed the subject when I brought up the Natural Law argument on birth control.) And one had the sickly suspicion that the official Church was simply saving face, à la Vietnam. The Church of England had reversed itself on birth control: but then smaller powers can give up their colonies and feel all the better for it. “Birth control is not the point,” the dying theologian cried. But it was the point, because sex had long since become more interesting than God, at least to parochial school victims (i.e., just about everybody).
About time, a secular reader might suppose. St. Paul’s central proposition, that he had seen something more interesting than sex, was bound to wear thin after 2,000 years of secondhand repetition. Still, there was much specifically religious experience to be had right to the end, and its sudden disappearance, as if it had never been there, may have social consequences that haven’t been examined yet. One obvious one is that it has left many Catholics with a hole in their personalities that they are trying frenziedly to fill (note the manic activity of ex-Catholics in so many fields from the peace movement to sex itself). It has unleashed a group of people with the highest metaphysical expectations, people bored and frustrated with lesser utopias or even ordinary human happiness. We were promised the sight of God face to face, and now you say it’s a metaphor but come to church anyway.
Well to hell with that. We laughed at the Protestants for that very thing, the noxious quality of religiousness for its own sake, symbolized by the gray suit and the apologetic manner. (And the more you reduce religious content, the more this quality obtrudes.) We, contrariwise, were raised on extremes, real flesh in the host and a real God in heaven; we had beliefs and not opinions. People might laugh at parsons, but they hated priests. Great Protestants were respectable and sensible: we were outrageous, sons of the scarlet woman. (Catholics of this persuasion agonized more over their own bourgeoisification than over any outside danger.) Bear in mind also that we were chronically overtrained for the little we were asked to do—after strict chastity and fasting worthy of guerrilla warriors, we were told to be good examples—and we brought much animal exuberance to the simple fact of being Catholic. This is an element I find missing in post-Vatican ruminations, which tend to be hangdog: one would expect even a false religious experience to have more guts than that.
One reason we may never get this historically valuable testimony is that American Catholics have more than usual difficulty with the first person, using it flippantly or defiantly or not at all. Humility was dumped over us like water on a hysteric, leaving us soggy and irritable, or passive, as the case might be. The sense of the word humility was that, although you were infinitely valuable in the eye of God, this was more to His credit than yours: it proved one more time that He could do anything, and your greatest value might be as a witness to that.
This feeling still makes Catholics uneasy with the school of religious autobiography, religion as autobiography, recently promulgated by Harvey Cox. Seduction of the Spirit is the ultimate in private judgment or black Protestant pride. A Coxite samples all the religion going until his palate is finely turned enough to know a vintage encounter group from a presumptuous High Mass. The book has been derisively called “Playboy’s Guide to Religion in the Seventies” yet I believe Cox would half-seriously defend this title: why shouldn’t the sensuous man add religion to his repertoire?
Catholics might agree to the theoretical worth of such writing, but it has always seemed flashy in the particular, unless the author heavily stressed his passivity to the will of God. And even this was usually best left to converts. Born Catholics wrote their confessional books on the way out, a last fingerwave at humility, and usually very messy (lack of practice, no doubt).
Thus Garry Wills’s Bare Ruined Choirs, which starts out to be definitive and then changes its mind, edges steadily away from the personal. Wills growing up Catholic is “we”; Wills grown up talks about “they”—liberal Catholics for the most part—and modestly disappears altogether. Well since we were “we” to some extent and Wills describes that “we” beautifully, there’s no point complaining about the missing self. But for the purposes of religious rhetoric (and most of Wills’s book is written in rhetoric) a “they” requires an “I”: as in, who’s calling whom a heretic?
Wills clearly has it in for the liberal Catholics, and seems to accuse them of baring and ruining the choirs: but who are they in relation to him? Is he giving us liberal experience from the inside or the outside? In either event, which liberal experience? Although I recognized an eye here and a nose there, I couldn’t find a whole liberal I’d ever met. And small wonder, because Wills’s model contains two trend-setting magazines, Jubilee and Commonweal,2 that were barely on speaking terms, plus geographical zones of wildly different style, plus town and country, academy and soup kitchen, trendy Jesuit and moss-backed Benedictine.
These phenomena can look like the same thing only from a great distance or a special perspective. And Wills’s coyness about where he himself was sitting at the time amounts to a serious withholding of evidence. As a rightwing Thomist at a Jesuit seminary he could actually see all his enemies ranged along a single line, the way the National Review used to. The apolitical arties at Jubilee and the unaesthetic politicos at Commonweal could be sighted down the same barrel, and even Maisie Ward’s (my mother’s) “didactic publishing house”—which was almost entirely my father’s (this last to get mother figures into his sights: mother figures must look truly menacing from seminaries).
To the trained eye, Wills’s scattershot use of the concept “liberal” does in fact serve to place him well outside the fog (which may have a shape from outside) called liberalism. It was one of the ironies of American discourse in the Fifties that conservatives were always referring to “so-called liberals,” but that they themselves did most of the so-calling. Liberals didn’t usually think of themselves as liberals (unless they were debating Bill Buckley) but as this-ites or that-ites or just as sensible-ists; that is, they felt they were dealing with discrete issues discretely, and not as dependent parts of a fixed system. This in a sense was what made them liberals,3 but the definition does not get us very far. There are thousands of ways of being unsystematic. In a Catholic setting, one might believe in the English mass, be open about situation ethics (a nominalist code which treats each case as potentially unique), but want no part of the Death of God. The very variety made you a liberal—but this tells us nothing about the subjects themselves, of the quality of the arguments or the arguers you were swayed by, all of which sound equally modish and superficial in Bare Ruined Choirs. Similarly if you were a magazine carrying, as Commonweal did, punctiliously balanced articles on both sides of these questions, you were again a liberal just for adding to the modern Babel.
But if by liberal one simply means this, a sower of confusion, Garry Wills himself qualifies eminently. No liberal ever made the old Church sound quainter or more unworkable. And in the end, he seems to hold out hopes for the radical witness of the Berrigans—just the kind of authentic-sounding panacea liberals went for every time. If by liberal one means simply a holder of one or more new ideas, the term is too unwieldy and riddled with exceptions to be of any use at all.
I sense that Wills’s use of the word is largely aesthetic anyway: signifying a natural distaste for the pointy-headed social engineer who (to take a secular parallel) believes in busing this year and community control the next, meanwhile irreparably damaging the organism that’s already there. So too, the Catholic liberal empties the church with an English mass, then holds a symposium about bringing back Latin. Clearly it doesn’t pay to make a mistake around Wills. Even though he admits that the old organism was in a desperately bad way, it seems it was the doctors that finally killed it. Otherwise, it might have lived another five minutes.
The aesthetic liberal is not really a satisfactory conception either. Like a National Review’s “typical left-wing intellectual,” he sounds more like a faculty wife or a phys. ed. major grappling grimly with last year’s ideas. The liberals (or nonconservatives) of the Fifties were accustomed to this line of heckling even then and the more intelligent of them learned from it, so that the Willses and Buckleys were constantly flogging the lame and the halt—e.g., Eleanor Roosevelt (great woman though she was) and Jacqueline Grennan, who brought up the rear. But Wills is not only unfair to whatever he means by liberal experience, he also withholds what he does know from within: the antiliberal experience. Or, finally, the experience of his own conversion, if so there be, from conservatism to wherever he stands now. Just a few years ago, he was writing in a hearty Chestertonian manner that the trouble with Catholics was that they thought too much about being Catholic. Yet here he has gone and written a book on the subject himself, and what would his old self make of that?
Wills might very well answer that what he was doing and thinking was not that important, and that his subject is much larger than himself. This at least would be a suitably Catholic answer. For although Christians derive a tradition from Paul and Augustine of beginning the sermon with a confession or testimony—this is where I stand—Catholics have tended to abandon this to Protestants (everyone knows where Catholics stand), talking instead from some unstated magisterium about large matters and nothing but large matters. Wills would not dream of doing this in his fine political writings, but he is speaking here out of an older habit.
This habit tells us something about why ex-priests make such disappointing witnesses to their own history—they were too busy preaching to notice much of anything. To stray from Wills a moment: another dimly considered social consequence of Rome’s troubles is the sudden emergence of all these trained preachers in the secular market: and not just any old preachers, but divinely ordained transmitters of infallible truth. Many priests and longterm seminarians carry the phantom magisterium with them into every field, even after leaving the Church, changing sides without dropping a stitch in their sermons or an ounce of their righteousness.
The habit is hard to shake, and I have heard newly married priests explaining the glories of their new state to battle-scarred laymen as if marriage had just been invented. And of course they mastered the theology of peace even more swiftly than Daniel Ellsberg. When the bright ones do it, the results can be exhilarating—scholastic thought or Teresan spirituality brought full blast to the secular—and a pleasant change from the ego-soaked exchanges we’re used to. But the fact remains that the magisterium is imaginary now.4 We don’t know where Catholics stand, let alone ex-Catholics. And when Wills writes about the Church, his serene flow of Delphic assertions is not enough: we have to know that he himself was one of the alternatives liberals steered by.
Examples could be multiplied of Catholics shrinking from personal witness even where their witness is part of the necessary data. In Michael Novak’s book The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics, he registers a hot but disembodied indignation (something he calls “cultural rage,” not a phrase you’d use if you were really angry) over the bigotry suffered by Poles in western Pennsylvania, omitting to mention that he spent many of his formative years in a junior seminary where presumably Poles were safe. Again it looks like dishonesty, but isn’t necessarily.
The town Novak was born in, Johnstown, Pa., was, I’m told, actually worse than he describes, and one year there could make a Pole feel like a nigger for life. Did Novak enter the seminary to get away from this? If so, it would tell us something about Ethnic Catholicism and its future. And if he told further of his personal rise, as a Polish boy, to the top of the ecumenical tree, feted by Wasp churchmen, it would tell us more. But like many a busy theologian he spurns the specific and escapes into generalization which, however ardently presented, lacks the force of a single fact.
At that, Novak is closer to the secular mainstream than most of his colleagues. There is plenty of “I feel” about Novak’s writing, just not very much “I saw,” and this tells more about Catholic style than most conscious accounts of it do. Abstract theology still smothered the Church when Novak and I were boys, and no human fact was big enough for us. The return to Biblical Christianity, and to the particular Catholic emphasis that “something happened”—not myth or stylized wonder story, but real history—came later. However much we welcomed it, we still tended to go on (as I am here), omitting proper nouns and writing nothing that couldn’t be translated into Latin.
There again Wills is the best, and hence the best example, of his generation. He has a particular gift for writing abstractly for the Romans while naming names for the heathen. His fine book Nixon Agonistes was actually about the end of Calvinism, but with enough good reporting (Nixon crouched in the shadows of his plane—Calvinism at bay) to make it seem like a personal portrait. His journalistic apostolate can produce misleading effects, when scholasticism is set too stridently to jazz. For instance the garish chapter headings in Bare Ruined Choirs, “The Two Johns” (Kennedy and Roncalli) and “The Two Jackies” (Kennedy and Grennan), suggest that names not only make news, they also make theology. But the ensuing text actually comes closer to making fun of this widespread belief. Vatican II was probably called by John to forestall a vast schism, which was being prepared in a thousand places from Amsterdam to Tubingen. He wasn’t opening any new windows; those had already been blown out one by one. He was accommodating to the wind. Or, as Tocqueville would say, a revolution only ratifies what has already happened.
Wills knows this almost too well. His catchy two Johns title conceals the fact that he isn’t writing about either of them, but about the pair of them as liberal trends (the elastic in the word just fitting around both). JFK was in effect not crucially different from LBJ, it turns out, nor was John from Paul VI. “I live, not I, but liberalism lives in me.” People are barely appearances behind which great ideas grapple; Nixon and Kennedy are funny faces worn by history and discarded.
There was that much platonism in every Catholic’s milk, and conservatives had a double dose of it, believing in the style of Pius IX that liberalism “caused” things as opposed to things causing liberalism.5 Applied to Vatican II, American Catholic platonism has a special remoteness: because analyzing the Council from an American point of view is like examining the causes of World War I from Australia. Wills tortuously compares Vatican II with the Vietnam war as liberal disillusionments. But Vatican II was not caused or shaped by American liberals; but by Europeans—different people on a different time scale, in no way comparable to JFK’s pack of adventurers. European theology had been a scene of bloody trench warfare at least from the time of the Modernist crisis early in the century, which Wills, surprisingly provincial, whisks through at tabloid speed. When Hans Küng came here in the 1960s to bring Americans up to date on all this he was shocked at how glibly we’d caught up. “It took us fifty years to get where we are, and you accept it immediately.” I assume Wills knows all this and was happy to chase butterflies and hobby horses through various pages.
America had little effect on the Council—our bishops hardly seemed to know what town they were in—except in matters of Church and state separation, where Americans could bring definite news from the future. But the Council6 had devastating effects on Fortress America, and not just by nibbling away at the 50,000 readers of Commonweal. No doubt the liberal Fifth Column had something to do with these devastating effects. But in retrospect, the only thing that could have prevented them was to keep out Europe altogether, not to mention our own friendly Protestant theologians. The hatches could hardly have been tighter in any case. French Dominicans had a devil of a time getting imprimaturs over here; Commonweal was banned in the diocese of Los Angeles. The hysterical repression, symbolized as farce by Cardinal Spellman’s slashing forays at Baby Doll and The Moon Is Blue, had to burst open. The question was when and how.
The first thing to understand about the Catholic religion is its cultish nature. Non-Catholics were always asking, how can you possibly believe this far-out doctrine or that, and much labor went into the finding of ingenious answers. But not one Catholic that I knew stayed in the Church because of these answers. We stayed because of the sacraments, i.e., actual physical exchanges through mouth, ear, touch with the Godhead, and because of a promise of brotherhood through this. The Church was a constellation of practices, built around specific holy places, but also around a movable temple, and this seemed to meet the paired psychic needs for permanence and change, dignity and recklessness.
The Gospels suggest that God can tear down every one of his temples and scatter his people; yet also that it is good to rebuild the temple. The roster of saints includes abbots and men in rags jeering at abbots, and we were taught improbably to learn something from both: the dispossessed holy man, constantly moving and making a living church out of people, and the keeper of the shrine after he has passed on. Around these shrines there gradually grew a culture, absorbing the local atmosphere and including the previous culture, which in sum was both the Church’s glory and a potential object of the next holy man’s wrath.
When applied to this country, this old-world dialectic presented certain difficulties. European Catholicism, as it was, was never a comfortable culture for a young country on the make. New England Congregationalism and its variants suited the landscape perfectly, with the bright blank white chapel as our fixed holy place. Compare the uncertainties of Catholic Church architecture, from pseudo-European to furtive Yankee. And for holy men America had its bands of revivalists tent singers, testifiers, the gaudiest crop of spiritual entertainers ever seen. Compare the immigrant Catholic preacher, who could bring no eyeboggling word from the religious frontier, telling of gold strikes and the future, but could only instruct his flock to remember certain things from the past.
Even the heresies didn’t match. For native Americans, Pelagianism was the one, the belief that man can do it all, with or without divine grace. (A strange reading of Calvinism to be sure, but the pioneers were not theologians and they got what they wanted from religion: adrenaline and the Coach’s silent approval.) From Catholic Europe another heresy was imported, consisting of various degrees of de facto quietism. Let God’s will be done. Render unto Caesar. Holy obedience (a curious distortion). Know thy place. It was a heresy that didn’t even suit the huddled immigrants for very long, with their new prospects, but it was urged on them anyway for generations and was part of the breaking point later.
John Cogley’s Catholic America is a splendidly concise account of the grouping of Catholics for a cultural soil and I recommend it for its almost eerie balance. Cogley used to be a titan among Catholic under-achievers. At Commonweal he was our sage, an intuitive and unstuffy moralist full of restless good sense. Yet in secular surroundings there was always a sense of stiffness and of best-Sunday-suit about him. Hence his book is a detached source book rather than the full-blooded statement one had hoped for. Typically he describes Commonweal and the Catholic Worker without revealing his own deep involvement in both: hence, no color, no poetry. No ego.7
Brooding over Cogley’s findings, I am more and more convinced (perhaps of the obvious) that the immigrants’ difficulties with English played a cruel part in delaying the alternate American proposition they might have made. Even many Irishmen were relatively new to the language (O’Connell’s assault on Gaelic came only a decade before the Famine) and Catholic schools promptly perpetuated a pathetically bad English prose in which it is difficult to think at all. I was reminded of this prose by certain young Watergate witnesses.
A comical game commenced in which new Catholics tried to plant an American style of Catholic culture while rejecting the ground on which it could grow, i.e., the secular culture around it. The phrase un-American was turned wantonly against those most at home here. Eleanor Roosevelt for instance was a bad American mother. A skeptical old Yankee like Oliver Wendell Holmes was a very dubious American. And so forth. It was pure negation, just as anticommunism was pure negation, because the Church had no serious alternative culture that really looked American, outside of some very American quirks like St. Christopher medals on cars and Bing Crosby, more a hobby than a culture.
Thus the Church could not propose itself, except in the vaguest terms. It could only counter communism with a “return to God” (what God?) and with “spiritual values” (whatever they were). It could denounce bad Americans and praise neutral ones (mostly J. Edgar Hoover) who lacked the bad ones’ qualities. But it could not point to another kind of good American, outside of pure symbols like Knute Rockne or Father Duffy, because there was no content. The bishops were glorified messenger boys from Rome, and they couldn’t do much with the Syllabus of Errors or half the curial output.
Americans can’t think like Italian cardinals (few people can), but this group couldn’t even think against them, like the French or Dutch: because they had been endowed with half-baked Latinate minds with no specific national strengths or stratagems. As for their flocks, these had to be obedient in a vacuum, receiving no instructions worth hearing about life on this continent. Neither leaders nor led could make a culture of this, only an amalgam of quaintnesses plus an awful lot of football. (In the colonial situation, what passes for style may simply be the awkwardness of the natives, at coping with the imperial customs—like a Bushman in a dinner jacket.) The liberals had to look silly with their clumsily worn European styles and their dabbling in the Mexican and Creole; but it would have been just as phony to join the Holy Name or root for Immaculate Conception High. For more substance, the American Church had to look to Europe; and when Europe gave back the wrong signals, the American Church was finished. Because it had nothing to turn to inside itself.
Or at least the fixed temple was finished and the flock was dispersed: time no doubt for the wandering holy men, the Berrigans and we’ll see what else. But more seriously, the brotherhood was broken. It used to be a pious commonplace to say that one would remain a Catholic if one were the last one on earth. But it doesn’t work that way. The set of beliefs might remain intact, but the cult would be gone. The mass is a communal feast, and one cannot dine alone. Many people left the Church because other people were leaving, not so flabby a reason as it seems. We had a pact with each other to believe and to sustain each other in belief; and I sense this pact perversely intact among ex-Catholics. If you don’t believe, then I don’t either.
But the problem is not so much one of personal belief (which for most Catholics grew out of a way of life, an effect as much as a cause) but of building and sustaining cultures of any kind in the modern world. The intellectual side of things hasn’t changed that much since Tertullian’s “credo quia impossible.” We always knew the doctrines were far-fetched. And the arguments that ex-Catholics bring against the Church (as in Michael Harrington’s Fragments of the Century, a showcase of impersonal autobiography—even ex-Catholics can be hag-ridden by humility8 ) were making the rounds in Ivan Karamazov’s day. The difference is that until recently only men of Harrington’s scrupulous intellectual conscience gave these arguments commanding weight.
Against them Catholics offered a living culture and the sacramental experience. Of course, there were rational arguments too, because it was heresy for a Universal Church to neglect the mind; but the existence of an Index of Forbidden Books implied that most people aren’t very good at thinking, either them or us, and if one argued to a tie with the heathen, that was fair enough. (Thomistic phraseology guaranteed at least a tie, on account of darkness.) At any rate thinking was optional, and we answered the Harringtons mostly with the simple fact of Catholicism itself: the liturgical cycle, Advent, Lent, a life within a life that seemed to work whatever its theoretical underpinnings.
Whether this life can go on, without a culture, in strictly movable temples, is the next question. European Catholics could drop dogma and still remain Catholic: leaving the Church was a fundamental act like changing your name, as opposed to an incidental, like changing your mind. But here the associations are thinner. The only authentic Catholic culture was in the immigrant cities and as people began to leave these, their affirmations became strident and their religion jerry-built. The Catholicism of the postwar suburbs was as ersatz as the super-Americanism of the Fifties: something that no longer came naturally and must therefore be mimed ostentatiously. High time for death by television and the present, in which Church business is falling off roughly as much as movie business or any other business that can’t be done from your car. Culture has long since given way to fashion as it has in the arts and elsewhere, and religion has entered a cycle of little fake deaths and rebirths like the rise and fall of the hemline.
If a new culture is now impossible, and the old one can only be restored by cosmetics, religion as have to make do with fashion as a base—quite a challenge to the Holy Spirit. Harvey Cox’s religious smorgasbord, with the customer darting from plate to plate consuming all the religious experience he can swallow, is one style; Andrew Greeley’s trust in archetypal religious symbols is another—though whether these symbols are all that archetypal when stripped of their cultural wrappings has yet to be proved. (Father Greeley’s New Agenda is an awesome example of clerical optimism, i.e., of surveying the current scene and deciding it’s exactly what we wanted. He might be right—but I’d like to know what situation he would not find a wonderful challenge and chance to grow.) An amusing cat-chasing-its-tail game to watch is the hip clergyman making the Church sensible for today’s young moderns only to find that they want it wild and mystical, at which point he gives them witchcraft, at which point…never suspecting that it’s him they’re avoiding. And look for the carnival to roll on of Jesus freaks and holy fools and other illuminati, fulfilling at least religion’s primal duty to be entertaining.
Meanwhile the old Church looks on, waiting to see what it has to work with, still convinced of its survival powers if of little else and ready to pounce. Much has been made of the Church’s fondness for right-wing climates, and no doubt the books that come out every year exposing clerical corruption are all too true. But the quintessential Church simply wants, like ITT, a safe place to set up its curious shop, dispensing sacraments and spreading the Word. Right now I would say that the communist countries present a far more suitable ground for the Church’s work than America ever did—but that’s another subject.
The one kind of society that the Church cannot adjust to is no society at all, i.e., a setup where community has become so fragmented that a communal religion is a fiction, sustained only by talk and make-news items in the press and television. A religion is simply a society in one of its aspects; and if the American Catholic Church is scattered and confused right now (and even its best friends don’t deny it), consider the rest of America. The cure, if it comes, would include a cultural revolution affecting many things besides the Catholic Church.
March 7, 1974
Liberal Catholic is a hopelessly untechnical term, like liberal anything else. In a sense, a traditionalist like John Henry Newman was a liberal because he believed in the growth and development of doctrine, while the reformer Hans Küng is a conservative because he wants to return holus bolus to the practices of the early Church. So too, in politics, Barry Goldwater can accept the twentieth century more easily than Eugene McCarthy. Here I use the words simply as indexes of temperament: the liberal emphasizing the living (thus changing) Church, the conservative stressing Peter’s Rock—without whose solidity he finds life and change random and meaningless. ↩
I had the rare experience of working for both of these. Jubilee was a spin-off of the Thomas Merton group at Columbia and its aim was largely aesthetic: to smarten up the taste of American Catholics. Naturally, it was snobbish. Politics was a dirty word there and mysticism ran way ahead of theology. At Commonweal, we breathed politics and theology, and none of the editors while I was there had any special artistic interests. In texture, dialogue, haberdashery the magazines were two different worlds. Yet the word “liberal” was slapped on both, even as the Daily News‘s “pinko” stretched from Dean Acheson to Pablo Picasso. ↩
I recall an exotic conservative of the period (a Habsburg restorationist no less) asking a roomful of liberals what their “vision” was. They were nonplussed; he was triumphant. You see? No vision. ↩
In Daniel Berrigan’s recent admonition to the Israelis, he seemed to want them to be victims or Christ-figures indefinitely. But neither they nor many new revised Christians share the assumption that this is a good thing. ↩
If our definition of this word has been vague so far, observe the nineteenth-century Roman use of it. In the famous “Syllabus of Errors” liberalism covers pretty much the whole of secular thought and practice, including democracy itself. This was ideologism run riot. To the Romanist mind, the Enlightenment “caused” the French Revolution, liberalism “caused” the modern industrial state, and so on. That industrialism might equally have caused liberalism was an affront to the primacy of the Soul, and a hard pill for even contemporary Catholics to swallow. ↩
By Council I mean the whole continuum of change; the Council itself had a surprisingly conservative place in this continuum. ↩
Since writing the above, I learn that Cogley has jumped to Lambeth. His reasons are quite logical—he prefers the doctrines over there—yet again he may underestimate the poetic and cultish associations of religion which make such comparison-shopping psychologically difficult, as Jews who christianize have discovered. These are the associations I miss in his book. ↩
Fragments of the Century is only partly about religion, and therefore out of bounds for this essay. In passing, I would say it makes the case for its method: the author is a historical object, sometimes witness, sometimes victim, occasionally initiator. Who can say more? ↩