Commentary Magazine


The Catholic Moment, by Richard John Neuhaus

Christian Unity

The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World.
by Richard John Neuhaus.
Harper & Row. 292 pp. $19.95.

In another twenty-nine years, it will have been half a millennium since the autumn day in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the castle church door in Wittenberg. Luther intended that gesture, standard practice in the academic disputations of his time, as a challenge to internal debate on the Church’s sale of indulgences. But in retrospect it looms as a pivotal event in the fragmentation of Western Christianity, the case that launched a thousand sects. After five centuries, Roman Catholics have come around to endorsing much of the Lutheran critique of the pre-Reformation Church, but the chain reaction of institutional fission set off in those turbulent years has proved far more difficult to reverse.

Or even, for that matter, to stop. Indeed, the ongoing process of denominational mitosis seems to have an especially powerful momentum in a society as prone to individualism, anti-institutionalism, antinomianism, and ecclesiastical unruliness as the United States. The history of American Christianity, begun largely in acts of protest and separation, has always been one of a bewildering mosaic of sectarian feuds, its many-colored pieces arranged according to all imaginable points of reference: New Lights against Old Lights, Northerners against Southerners, fundamentalists against modernists, Anglo-Saxons against immigrants, and so on, with each new dispute leading to a further subdividing of institutions. Our intellectual history in general, too, has been dominated by figures of rebellion, following in the anti-authoritarian footsteps of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

But the time has now come, asserts the distinguished Lutheran pastor and writer Richard John Neuhaus, to begin reversing the process, in the United States and the rest of the world, and the Roman Catholic Church should play a crucial role in that reversal. Neuhaus clearly savors the irony inherent in a Lutheran’s putting forth such a position, for he concludes his book with ten theses—propositions meant both to undo the disunity Luther helped precipitate and to fulfill the desire for ecclesiastical and spiritual renewal that fueled Luther’s sacred rage.

How, then, is this end to be accomplished? In a sense, the argument of The Catholic Moment is contained in the title. The Roman Catholic Church, Neuhaus believes, is perfectly positioned at this precise historical juncture to serve as “the lead church” in proclaiming the Christian Gospel to the world and in promoting the recovery of Christian unity. This leading role has been made possible partly by the broadly ecumenical opening-up of the Roman Church wrought by the Second Vatican Council, which helped to remove the aura of “otherness” which Protestants had so often projected onto Catholics. It has also been made possible, in Neuhaus’s view, by the extraordinary influence of John Paul II and his associate Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, who have convincingly articulated a postmodern (rather than neo-medieval) understanding of the Church and of its paradoxical standing in this world. They see a Church standing in neither pure transcendence of the world, nor as a signatory party to the quarrels of the world’s principalities and powers, but in tense and paradoxical relation to both stances, in simultaneous engagement and disengagement, fully answerable to a perfection which the imperfect Church is inexorably required to embody.

This idea of “Church and world in paradox,” which Neuhaus derives from the work of H. Richard Niebuhr, can help Christians make sense of the ecclesiastical pluralism that continues to flourish, despite the scriptural requirement that there be but one Church. Pluralism, in his view, is a persistent reminder of inevitable imperfection, “evidence of the incompleteness of the world and of the Church within the world.” It is here that Rome enters the argument. Neuhaus believes that the Roman Church’s ability to manage immense internal diversity—its many orders, national cultures, traditions, and patterns of thought, all of which illustrate its uncanny ability to assimilate internal dissent—makes it “the paradigmatic instance of the unity in diversity that other churches should emulate,” a kind of model for pluralistic Christendom.

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Like everything Richard John Neuhaus writes, this is an argument at once ambitious and thoughtful, richly informed by his intimate acquaintance with the principal currents of theological thought and ecclesiastical politics in our time, and deeply ecumenical in spirit. It is an unusual position as well, not least because ardent admiration of Vatican II and ardent admiration of John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger so rarely coexist in the same person. Perhaps it helps to be a Lutheran. Neuhaus sees these matters through dialectical glasses, and urges that the new forces coursing through the Church, far from representing a sterile antagonism of revolution and counterrevolution, or progress and reaction, ought to be understood as reinforcing one another, even if the cunning of history prevents contemporary observers from knowing it.

This book can also be read as a logical extension of Neuhaus’s influential recent work on religion and democracy, which has done so much to enrich our understanding of the public realm. In The Naked Public Square, Neuhaus argued that in America the public arena should not be regarded as a value-neutral libertarian free-fire zone, to which only considerations of religious faith and conviction are denied admission; instead, a healthy public life presupposes the possibility of appeal to a culture’s shared values, of which religion is the most potent source. The Catholic Moment attempts to put meat on the bones of that argument, declaring that the Roman Catholic Church “can and should” now assume “its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty.” Neuhaus’s argument, therefore, has implications extending well beyond the orbit of Christian institutions.

Needless to say, such a development, were it to occur, would represent a dramatic reversal of much of our history. Consider, for example, the long record of anti-Catholic sentiment among Protestant Americans, or the deep distrust of Rome currently felt by many American Jews. Yet as a possibility it looks a good deal better when one begins sizing up the alternatives. The mainline Protestant churches have the virtues of institutional stability, intellectual sophistication, and ecumenical tolerance, but their increasingly this-worldly orientation has led to political radicalization, spiritual vacuity, and waning membership, making it virtually inconceivable that they will be able to serve in the responsible capacity Neuhaus envisions. The fundamentalist and evangelical denominations have the swelling numbers and swelling energies on their side, but in their enthusiasm they often lack the liberality of spirit, the breadth of cultural sympathies, and the commitment to institutional continuity which Neuhaus requires.

The Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, possesses in his view many of the best qualities of both camps, while managing to be relatively free of their weaknesses. Hence it represents the best hope for a middle ground between secularism and dogmatism, a middle ground whose example will also serve to support “the American proposition” of political and social unity-in-diversity.

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It is all very attractive, as Neuhaus relates it, but I am afraid it is also too good to be true. Neuhaus has certainly offered a striking rethinking of the Roman Church’s possible future relationship to American society, and vice versa, and one that deserves further exploration. But as a plausible description of the Church’s current disposition and direction, it is simply too far from the mark; so far, indeed, that one feels that Neuhaus is allowing his imagination to run away with him. In general, he greatly underestimates the degree to which the Roman Church in the United States has been following the same pattern of polarization, radicalization, and disintegration as the Protestant churches, with the added consequence that such a drift has furthered the tendency to disregard Papal authority selectively—a tendency quite as evident on the Right as the Left.

It is not that Neuhaus has forgotten the intense conflicts, rehearsed with numbing regularity in the news media, concerning priestly celibacy, birth control, abortion, ordination of women, liberation theology, and tutti quanti. Nor is he unaware of the astonishing drop in the number of entrants into the priesthood and monastic orders which seems to point to profound institutional decline. Neuhaus knows the arguments against him. Indeed, one wishes that he had been willing to risk presenting his theses very sharply (as Luther did his), instead of attempting to anticipate and answer all the difficulties that readers might have with them—a decision which contributes to the book’s unnecessarily murky and self-interrupted style. In the end, however, his sense of the grand possibilities latent in this historical moment overwhelms all the problems.

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A more skeptical observer could feel fully justified in predicting, on the basis of evidence that Neuhaus himself provides in abundance, a far different ecclesiastical future. Is there, for example, any sign that a great ecumenical groundswell is likely to take place? To some extent, yes, given the ongoing rapprochement between Lutherans and Catholics, or Anglicans and Catholics, and the decline of anti-Semitism among the fundamentalists. But it is difficult to imagine fundamentalists ever accepting the leadership of Rome, even in the most provisional sense—a fact which immediately eliminates from the picture the most dynamic force in institutional Christianity. Nor are Jews ever likely to feel comfortable with the dispensationalist theology that currently makes fundamentalists so friendly toward them, since that is no substitute for being understood and respected on one’s own terms.

As for the ecumenism of mainline Protestant churches, that is in large measure a necessary response to their decline, in the light of which old differences have suddenly come to seem insignificant. This ecumenism is increasingly built around specific positions on political and social issues, in which leftist Protestants, Catholics, and Jews gravitate together in order to align themselves against conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. In other words, it is an ecumenism based upon the rise of unbelief, the attenuation of tradition, and the primacy of politics—an ecumenism which follows the concerns of the public square rather than informing them.

Such, of course, is exactly the outcome Neuhaus is trying to avert. But it seems far more likely than what he envisions. The Ninety-five Theses engendered a Protestant Reformation not only because of Luther but because all the necessary historical conditions were ripe for it—the rise of national and ethnic consciousness, of urban centers, of a commercial middle class, of printing and literacy, of political challenges to the empire, of intellectual challenges to the Church’s hegemony, and so on. It is not at all clear that the waning of the modern age, if that is what we are now living through, provides a similar basis for some sort of reunification. To be sure, we can only know in retrospect what “the necessary historical conditions” were, and one should never underestimate the transforming power of ideas. Neither, however, should one overestimate them, at the expense of powerful and longstanding social forces. One can be sympathetic to the intentions of Neuhaus’s argument and yet find little reason to believe that what he recommends can happen.

Still, in all fairness, these objections show how difficult it is to move from an abstract understanding of consensual values (provided by something called “religion”) to more specific descriptions of those values, which end up touching on particular creeds that have often come into conflict with one another. It is very much in vogue now to write wistfully about our neglect of the public realm, and the need for shared values; but one generally finds, as in Robert Bellah’s much-acclaimed Habits of the Heart, that the writers who work these themes scrupulously avoid specifics, particularly in the area of prescriptive values, preferring to talk about “biblical” or “republican” traditions whose precise contents are to be defined later, if at all. That way, everyone comes away feeling good about our “commitment” to “values,” no one is offended or made to feel left out, but nothing is accomplished. It is hard to see that this advances us much beyond the “therapeutic ethos” such authors frequently decry.

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Richard John Neuhaus has been far bolder, basing his reasoning on an awareness that real institutions, not ad hoc “traditions,” are the true carriers of culture. But this approach runs greater risks, precisely the risks that other writers so skillfully avoid. The Catholic Moment is unabashedly and insistently Christian in its outlook and in the presumptions it makes of its audience; hence, there may be plenty of otherwise sympathetic readers who will have the uneasy feeling that they are being drafted into someone else’s campaign. It presents, in a sense, the same problem posed by the concept of the “Judeo-Christian tradition”—a vague and denatured thing at best, which is all too suggestive about who is to be considered the junior partner, and which serves to smooth over a history that needs instead to be confronted and honestly explored. Yet it is also a concept that, in the end, we badly need, and we are certainly likely to learn more about it from Neuhaus than from the current crop of sociological sages.

In sum, the intellectual and practical problems of a unity-in-diversity seem unlikely to yield to gentle persuasion or Hegelian synthesis. Neuhaus is profoundly right that the only way to find enduring cultural common ground is—paradoxically—by acknowledging the enduring claims of the past, in all their diversity and particularity. There is no guarantee, however, that these divergent affirmations will add up to any sort of unity, even within the still-fragmenting house of Christendom. The reforming of society can be a significant by-product of religion, but it is not religion’s raison d’être.

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About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.




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