Commentary Magazine

American Catholicism after the Council

The city of Rome rests placidly in the crystalline Italian sun, century by century, and generations of men appear within her walls and disappear. There are men today, on all continents, who shed tears when they confront her beauty and her seeming eternality. But today the city is the symbol of crisis, not of peace.

Countless Roman Catholics of the present generation are challenging, not the essential truths of the Catholic faith, and not even the role of the bishop of Rome, but the mystical hold which the limited traditions of the city of Rome have long exercised upon the Catholic world. It is inevitable that a Church be secular. How else could a Church live in history, except by entering into the historical forms of its time and place? But if a Church must in any case be secular, many Catholics in the middle of the 20th century are asking: why must its secularism be Roman and of the baroque Italian period?

Hardly a conflict at the Second Vatican Council has not been colored by this fundamental issue: whether the Church shall be Latin or Catholic. The fundamental opposition is between a party of nostalgia on the one hand, and a party of the present and the real on the other. Yet it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the intelligence, seriousness, conviction, and past successes of the party of nostalgia. The Church over which that party has presided has for generations captured the imagination and the intellectual allegiance of legions of talented men. Through most difficult and disturbing times, defended and guided by the party of nostalgia, the Church has come to the threshold of a new age intact and robust.

It is a remarkable fact that although anti-Catholicism has long been the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals, and although the atheist has appropriated to himself all the moral pro-words which attract the young—honesty, courage, integrity, and the rest—the Catholic Church is at the present moment more intellectually fit than she has been for centuries. There have seldom been so many first-rate artists, writers, theologians, philosophers, and men of affairs who are also Catholic. It is true that countless young people of sensitivity and intelligence have left the Church in these centuries, and continue to do so at a high rate. But her present health is a direct result of the imagination and intelligence and energy of those many who have remained within.

For some ninety years and longer, an intellectual underground has been building up in Roman Catholicism. Small at first, centering in groups of writers, theologians, and philosophers, now in Paris, now in Tübingen, now at Munich, London, Louvain, Milan, or even Rome, this underground has self-consciously labored for the renewal and reform of Roman Catholicism from within.

Since early in the last century, young theologians like Johann Möhler of Tübingen (d. 1838) have been working for the reunion of the churches, and writers in France and Germany have strained every nerve to draw Catholicism out of her isolation from the contemporary world. A curious phenomenon all these years is that outsiders writing or speaking of Catholicism have often been as Roman, hierarchical, and monolithic in their view of the Church as the most conservative Catholics. Such outsiders called “Catholic” only those manifestations which bore the stamp of curial and official Rome; perhaps 95 per cent of their utterances about Catholicism had the curial hierarchical pyramid, not the living underground, in mind. Hence the great sense of surprise, shock, and at first hesitant pleasure which nearly everywhere greeted the “new” attitudes of Pope John and the Council.

To be sure, this preoccupation with the outward appearance of pre-Johannine Catholicism was in large measure justified. “Every time one of us succeeds in stirring a little flame in the ashes,” François Mauriac once wrote, “someone from curial Rome comes and crushes it.” Nevertheless, the unpreparedness of most professional commentators on Catholicism (H. Stuart Hughes is one notable exception) for what has come to the surface since 1962 is the symptom of a sickness in contemporary intellectual life. The antipathy and prejudice which have in the main prevented sympathetic studies of the role of Catholicism in Western civilization are something of a scandal. All too often, especially in the United States, intelligent Catholics, under questioning, have stated what they believe their faith to involve, only to be faced with the rejoinder: “But you can't be in good standing and hold that, can you?” The stereotype is a burden, and the Catholic, like the Negro and the Jew, would like to be taken for what he is, not for what Cardinal Spellman, Graham Greene, Charles de Gaulle, and other assorted Catholics are.


The present turmoil in the Catholic Church has been occasioned by the official recognition at the Vatican Council of the fact that there are in the Church countless styles of Catholic life, many competing theologies, many philosophies of man, and many conceptions of freedom and law, Italian Catholics and Irish Catholics live in quite different emotional worlds. When the French say liberté they do not mean what Americans mean by freedom; Englishmen and Spaniards speaking of law have different concrete experiences in mind; a German and a Latin American mean different things by order; some Catholics in Africa understand spontaneously the notion “people of God,” since they are still living a tribal life which is more like that of biblical peoples than is Western life today. “Catholic” does not mean universal and the same, but universal and diverse.

Moreover, it is impossible to make sense out of the current restlessness among Roman Catholics without recalling that, after 1789, nearly every major Catholic institution of learning in Northern Europe—and often in the South as well—was seized by the state. Originality and imagination in Catholic studies were at a low ebb in the 18th century; but in the 19th, Catholic studies were virtually wiped out. Moral theology, for example, as a recent book by John T. Noonan, Jr.,1 intimates, endured a gap in scholarship for almost the entire first two generations of the 19th century. Only toward mid-century were libraries reassembled, eclectic surveys of previous scholarship organized, seminary manuals hastily put together. Too early to benefit by the fruits of historical scholarship just being organized, but cut off by two generations from a living tradition, 19th century Catholic moral theology had virtually to be begun from scraps. Into the vacuum rushed the canon lawyers; about four-fifths of the material in standard textbooks on moral theology used in Catholic seminaries (Regatillo-Zalba, for example) is borrowed from canon law. Here lie the roots of the present Catholic dilemma on birth control.

In 1870, the First Vatican Council articulated the faith of Catholics in the infallibility of the Church, in which the pope shares; marching armies drove the Council from Rome before the complementary role of the bishops could be discussed. Theologically, the chief effect of what the Council did was to establish stringent conditions upon papal teaching, so that the line between the pope's personal opinions and his articulation of the faith of all is now clearly marked. Nevertheless, the chief psychological effect was a heightening of the baroque monarchical view of the papacy dear to certain Roman hearts.

Worse still, modern means of communication were shortly to change the impact and universality of papal teaching; the stage was set for the most pyramidal period in the history of the Church. The pope would be seen as the peak of the pyramid, the papal curia as an intermediary between him and the bishops; below the bishops would come priests and religious, and, like an iceberg nine-tenths of which is under water, laymen would be left by canon law with hardly a mention. (Even now when laymen speak about the Church, they speak of “they.” “When will the Church do something about birth control?” means “When will they. . . .”)

This same period marked the Celtic ascendancy in the Church: not only did Ireland gain political independence from England and ecclesiastical subservience at home, but Irish bishops multiplied in the United States, in Australia, in England, and throughout the mission lands of the British Empire. The Celtic bishops have maintained a theological tradition largely isolated from the life of our times, unfertilized by dissent or pluralism, greatly inclined to viewing the Church as a pyramid and seriously vulnerable to establishing a personality cult around the pope. On the other side of the ledger, the Celtic bishops are in the main excellent organization men, whose primary virtue is loyalty.

In an era of radio, teletype, and television, meanwhile, papal teaching suddenly became not merely the theology of the bishop of Rome, distant and localized, but the ordinary teaching of the Church spread through the world—particularly wherever the non-intellectual Irish were in charge. The whole system of checks and balances in Roman Catholicism was upset. Now, because of radio and the daily press, and a heretofore unheard-of deference to Rome, the “ordinary teaching” of the bishops had lost its crucial theological role. Whatever the pope said was now known everywhere, on the instant, and was much more gravely discussed than hitherto. It has become a serious, novel, and yet common misconception among some Catholics to accept all papal opinions as if they were gospel truth.

Three amusing ironies are at work here. The first is that the hyperpapalists often try to comfort non-Catholics by noting that the exercise of papal infallibility is, necessarily, a most rare occurrence. But before their own people, they endow nearly every papal instruction with some subtle measure of infallibility: “near to being infallible” or the like. (Their opponents retort that infallibility, like pregnancy, is or isn't; there's no in-between.)

The second irony is that most of the hyperpapalists, in practice, are selective in their attitude toward Rome; they discount the instructions they don't like—Pius XI on social reconstruction and the sins of capitalism, for example, or Pius XII on liturgical reform.

The third irony is that since 1878 and the pontificate of Leo XIII most of the popes, skipping over the heads of the bishops, have been in alliance with the intellectual underground. The popes have been “liberal,” the bishops in the main have not. Leo's Rerum Novarum, for example, was a belated effort to awaken the baroque apathies of Roman Catholics to the magnitude of the social reconstruction required in our time; it was a response to the challenge of socialism. Even Leo's choice of Thomas Aquinas as special teacher of the Church was an appeal to historical studies-Leo well knew the low estate of Catholic scholarship in the 19th century, and Thomas Aquinas was infinitely better than the manuals then so recently scraped together (and misleadingly purporting to be “Thomistic”).

The popes since Leo XIII have been an extraordinary series of leaders. Fr. Gustav Weigel, S.J., said once, not long before his death: “We've had good popes for too long; nothing would be better for the faith than a bad one.” Fr. Weigel had a horror of Christians who put their faith not in God but in men; and he seemed to believe that overemphasis on the pope was a characteristic vice of the Catholicism of our time. Others, less gentle than Fr. Weigel, call this vice the Celtic heresy.

Yet every heresy contains a portion of truth, and its error is usually by exaggeration. The Second Vatican Council has set in motion the elaboration of a more authentic view of the role of the bishop of Rome. The distinguishing mark of God's covenanted people is its service to others, and the relationships which unite that people are also relations of service. Bishops and priests are chosen from among the people to represent them before God, to minister to their needs, to preside at their worship, to teach, to govern. They are clearly warned not to rule as the rulers of the Gentiles, but by service. And the servant of these servants of God, the center of unity among them, is the bishop of Rome.

The pope has two special services to offer the Catholic people. In the first place, he is a focal point of unity—one of the college of bishops, and yet not merely one among equals, because also the central focus of the others. (The relations between pope and college are not yet thoroughly worked out in history; a great deal remains to be learned through future developments.) In the second place, he offers a single clear voice by which, in time of need, the conscience of the Church can be articulated—in exceptional cases, even without consulting the bishops. Hochhuth's play testifies to the usefulness of such a ministry in Christianity; he does not single out the World Council of Churches or the Catholic bishops for equal blame with Pius XII.

Just before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, one of the outstanding theologians of the Catholic underground, later to become the chief light of the Council, voiced his pessimism. “The Council is coming fifty years too soon; if only we had more time!” Everywhere the men working for renewal and reform were hitching their belts for another long siege; they knew renewal would win in the end, but a retrogressive Council might postpone the day. They feared that the many hundreds of Italian bishops, the Spanish and Latin American bishops, and the Celtic bishops would rubber-stamp the seminary theology of the last three generations. “We thought we would come in October, say yes, and be home for good by Christmas,” one American bishop later confessed.

Pope John's opening address to the Council on October 11, 1962, was the beginning of the end of the Roman style in the Church. The Pope called for a pastoral Council—a realistic Council, a Council attending to the needs of men. No condemnations. No definitions. No subtleties. Traditional Romanità could not thrive on that sort of ground.


There is no need to recapitulate here the story of the Council thus far.2 As to its repercussions in America, however, from 1962 on, pioneering ecumenical gatherings in city after city, attracting thousands, have been electric in their impact. In 1964, Cardinal Gushing urged Boston Catholics for their spiritual profit to listen to Billy Graham. Nuns from St. Louis marched in Selma, Alabama, in 1965; and in quiet defiance of orders from the chancery (while Cardinal Cushing was ill and in the hospital) hundreds of priests and seminarians then marched with the Catholic Interracial Council in the South Boston St. Patrick's Day parade. All of a sudden, things which long ago should have happened are happening. The distance covered between 1962 and 1965 is little short of amazing.

But the distance covered is only, let us say, from 1789 to 1945. Pope John wanted an aggiornamento that would bring the Church “up to today.” The Council has, in the end, let him down. The Council has hardly begun to cope with the world of the coming era on which we have already embarked. Looking backward, the Council is an astonishing success. But looking forward, the Council is in many ways a failure. Perhaps a Council—an unwieldy organ of more than two-thousand men—must inevitably work twenty years or so behind the time, dealing with issues that are ripe for institutional resolution. Perhaps it is enough that the Council has established the principle of renewal and reform, and that the old Roman will to eternality and changelessness appears to be broken. The Church is an historical, ever-changing institution, as the Council has recognized; that very fact liberates the energies of the Church to meet the future on its own terms, to enter the coming secular culture as enthusiastically, though in an entirely new manner, as she entered the secular culture of ancient Greece, or Rome, or the early Northern countries of Europe.

But a vision of the secular civilization of the future hardly seems to have entered the minds of many of the bishops. Too many of them are more concerned about the “confusions” which the recent changes are causing among their previously undisturbed flocks. Some of the bishops are of an appallingly rigid and frightened cast of mind: Bishop Hannon of Scranton has forbidden his people to take part in Bible vigils (a danger to their faith); Bishop Topel of Spokane has called 1964 “a year of shame” because the newly awakened Catholic press has been calling spades spades, and naming bishops by name for what they do or don't do. Unaccustomed to being held to account for their actions like other men, some bishops may be forgiven for sighing after the good old days.


Nevertheless, the world in which we live is a serious world, not a toy for timid bishops. Between thirty and fifty million people in Europe have been killed by violence since this century began, and the same moral, political, social, and economic factors which contributed to this bloodshed are still operative. A new civilization, as Albert Camus saw in The Rebel, is rising on the rubble heap left by the Second World War, a civilization technical beyond any ever known, international in scope, and secularist in attitude. The Church has no time to worry about how deeply a bishop's feelings may be hurt. The question for her is whether the yeast of religious faith will be able to penetrate this technical world at all.

Pope John XXIII was sufficiently sensitive to feel the malaise which after the Second World War gripped Europe and the world: old traditions have been discredited, old beliefs are mere words on the lips even to many who hold them, and for values like justice, human dignity, and liberty it is very difficult to give an intellectual justification. From a coldly scientific point of view, the planet Earth is insignificant; among men, the species is of more significance than the individual; the natural course of history treats men cruelly. It is difficult, as Albert Camus found, to argue one's way out of the nihilism which facts seem to force upon us.

In the United States, few saw dramatized in fire and in pain the depths of modern nihilism; besides, the more limited illusions of the pragmatist live longer. Anglo-American life has always maintained amenities of fair play, liberty, and law, for which no creditable account is to be found in Anglo-American philosophy. Such amenities are a part of the Anglo-American inheritance, part of our acquired fund of sentiment which David Hume extolled and which is not yet bankrupt. So long as this inheritance lasts, many philosophers will be able to continue their games with words. But one day they will have to resume the hard work of articulating why we value individual persons more than things, why persons are valuable beyond their usefulness or beyond the contributions they make to the economy, and what, in short, a man is.

These are questions in which believers and non-believers have an equal stake, and which are absolutely fundamental for the future. The Council convened by Pope John has barely touched these questions, having become deeply involved in ecclesiastical problems. Thus, as Cardinal Lercaro of Bologna recently warned in Rome, there is a grave danger that the Council will not have lived up to the vision of Pope John. In no case are the documents approved by the Council representative of the best that Catholic theology has to offer. In every case, compromise with the men of Romanità or with the bishops who lacked theological sophistication was required. The Council was, under the leadership of Roman minds, badly prepared. It was snatched from disaster only by the ardent hopes and example of Pope John, assisted by the energy, intelligence, and determination of a score of leaders among the cardinals and bishops of the world.

It seems that the bishops, particularly those of the United States, have hardly grasped the extent to which not only the Middle Ages but also the modern age are at an end; a new, technical, secular, urban, pluralistic age has begun. Language appropriate for an agricultural society no longer conveys meaning; even the word “father” means something different for the human spirit after Freud, not to mention what it means in “broken” homes or in those millions of families whose lives center not on parents but on teenagers.

“Secularism” for many of the American bishops is a dirty word; they blame on it virtually every ill that plagues society, from racial discrimination to lurid advertising. The bishops hardly ever recognize their own complicity in the evils of modern life; one seldom hears them, as a group, confess their own sins. There are, after all, bishops who have in the name of prudence compromised their professed moral code in the matter of race (but who even in the name of the same prudence brook no compromise in the matter of birth control) . But most of all, the bishops have yet to come to grips with the fact that atheism and agnosticism represent a noble way of life, a way of life which is more attractive than Celtic folk religion to many young, educated Catholics.

A fourteen-year-old girl was recently overheard to say on a campus where she had come to attend a Newman Club meeting: “They're talking about Scripture and liturgy. But I came here to find out whether there's a God.” The Catholic people have changed in character under the system of universal education the atheists of the Enlightenment saw fit to pioneer, and under the system of parochial schools the German and Irish bishops of the United States insisted on providing for them. Catholics in the United States constitute the largest body of college-educated Catholics in the history of the Church.

In the last few years, partly under the release granted them by Kennedy's election, partly under the impact of the Council, partly by the ripeness of time, Catholics in the United States have “aged” remarkably. In the schools and universities, in the Catholic and secular press, and in Church meeting rooms, the atmosphere is charged with questions, criticisms, and initiatives. The drive to understand, the drive of inquiry and personal appropriation, has clearly been awakened, and pupils from the schools the bishops took such pains to build are, as it were, turning around to bite the bishops' hands. Teachers of the old style hardly know how to cope. The defensive speak of a “breakdown in the spirit of obedience.” But in reality nothing has broken down but the image of the pyramid; the questioners and the doers are obeying the Council's directives and following the Council's example.

It is in this sense that the Council has had its greatest success. Catholics now want the whole Church, every day and everywhere, to be one large Council: full of free speech, argument, dissent, respect for diversity, and the slow search for consensus. Not all the bishops are like Pope John; not all like this kind of Church. But who, then, are the better Catholics, those of the Church of silence, conformity and comfort, or those of the Church of freedom and dissent?

In fact, the spirit of faith and obedience among Catholics has seldom been more alert; but this faith is directed toward the whole Church rather than toward the local pastor or diocesan bishop. Catholics listen now with two ears: one for the local voice, one for the voice of renewal and reform which is stirring in many other places, including the Council, if not locally. It is difficult for some pastors to be reminded, perhaps for the first time, that they are stewards and not masters of the faith. In the old days, the great ideal of many a pastor was to let nothing disturb the waters; now such a man hesitates, for fear the disturbance might be the Holy Spirit.


But if the newer Catholics have two ears, they also have three eyes. That, at least, is the claim of Daniel J. Callahan's new collection, The Generation of the Third Eye.3 The title is taken from a phrase of John Courtney Murray's, about the introspective, analytic temper of the times, and the contributors are writers, artists, and scholars who are under forty. John Cogley, who at forty-eight finds himself untimely placed in an older generation, adds an “afterword” which shows, if anything can, that there is a difference between the generations.

Two points emerge from this collection. One is that for nearly every contributor the ordinary parish life of the Church in America has been virtually bankrupt. The sermons are abominable, both in theology and in culture; the churches are run as “parish plants” rather than as praying and believing communities. The financial strain of building and maintaining parochial schools seems to have made practical materialists out of the Catholic community.

Secondly, nearly every one of the writers represented has found his nourishment as a Catholic not from the ecclesiastical structure but from the intellectual Catholic underground. Years ago, this one discovered Bernanos and Bloy, or that one Simone Weil. Through a friendship here, a prophetic book there, they developed against the stream of unintellectual Catholicism. It seems likely that the next generation of such Catholics, now in the colleges, will number in the scores of thousands; for the Council has made the underground official.

To be sure, some members of the underground are reacting as if the war were still on; everyone is anticipating a backlash among the bishops. It is perfectly plain that the bishops of the United States, especially those along the Eastern seaboard (Cardinal Spellman and the two recent Apostolic Delegates purportedly share a large responsibility for their nomination) were unprepared for the Council. Many of them for years strenuously opposed liturgical reform, did little to publish the social encyclicals of the popes, treated the new theology of Rahner, Congar, Danièlou, and others as vaguely heretical, and knew almost nothing of the intellectual revolution in contemporary biblical studies. It would be too much to expect that all of these bishops, after a brief “graduate school” exposure at the Council to what has been going on in Catholicism these last ninety years, will be able to relay their discoveries to the often unread, firmly set monsignors and pastors who preside over the daily life of their dioceses.

Still, most of the bishops of the United States appear not only to have benefited immeasurably by the Council, but also to have begun to win over their clergy and their Waugh-like laymen. One of the touching aspects of the Council was the sight of old men changing the ideas of a lifetime, and voting—for the good of the Church—for ideas they had many long years opposed. “If you had told me last week that I would vote yes this morning, I'd have said you were crazy,” one Archbishop from the Midwest told a reporter at the Council, “but I did.”


What, then, of the future? The fact that the underground is now official has temporarily brought a wavering in the sense of direction. Since their inception, journals like The Commonweal and Cross Currents had been saying that reform and renewal are required; suddenly Pope John and the Council have concurred. Now what?

There are enormous institutional problems to be dealt with in Roman Catholicism. There are too few places in which the insight, experience, and concern of the laymen are made institutionally effective. Laymen are given no responsibility; in the business world and in government they are treated as adults, but in the Church as children. The extreme spiritual poverty of parish and diocesan community life seems to be due chiefly to this enforced childlikeness.

One of the brightest spots is the fact that the nearly two hundred thousand nuns in the United States, especially those from the Midwest and the West, are moving swiftly into 20th-century and secular American life; the example of the six from St. Louis who marched at Selma was a shot heard round the country: even in Boston.

Serious sectional problems are also involved. The Catholic cities of the Eastern seaboard are depressingly dead; the Celtic heresy has killed them. Sister Marie Augusta Neal's thesis for Harvard, Values and Interests in Social Change,4 a study of the Boston clergy, indicates that the future in Boston, at least, is hopeful. But the Boston Catholic paper, The Pilot, often has to be ecclesiastically careful, and, when the Cardinal is out of the office, the chancery can be as narrow, complacent, and restrictive as any in the country. Let us not speak of Providence, New York, the major sees of New Jersey, or Philadelphia.

Wherever one visits in America, one finds again and again that the fundamental problem of American Catholicism lies in the bureaucratic minds who hover like flies around many of the bishops, the nervous Nellies of the chancery offices who censor books, discourage talks with Protestants, fear that the Council has caused “confusion” among the faithful, and build (as in one diocese) $400,000 and (in another) $90,000 rectories for the use of no more than four priests. Such men may be loyal administrators and genial golf companions and they may often think of themselves as the most select group in the world; but many of them should recognize that they are among the most unenlightened, mediocre, and complacent men who ever represented the gospels of Jesus Christ.

This problem is formally like that which afflicts civil government and even universities: how can a living institution make effective in its midst not only bureaucrats but also prophets? How do you get, and keep, open minds and free spirits in administrative posts?

The problem is only exacerbated by the tradition of authoritarianism in the Church and by the tradition of celibacy. The fact is commonly discussed among Catholics that too many of those who advance in the hierarchy seem attracted to these traditions because of their own emotional disturbances. It is probable that some manifestations of ecclesiastical power reveal deep personal insecurity. There are very few checks-and-balances in Church structure to minimize the potential dangers of such disequilibrium.

St. Augustine, that great bishop, once wrote in self-reflection that bishops are the enemies of the Church, and surely it is true that every blindness of the local bishop injures the life of the diocese he serves. The Catholic people, and the clergy, need institutional safeguards against abuses. The monsignori in Chicago who resisted Cardinal Meyer's every effort to integrate the parochial schools—for fear those who form the economic base of their huge, brick parish plants would move away—and some among the clique who form a purple guard around Cardinal Spellman are by their impenetrable complacency scandals to every alert man who encounters them.

Connected with this issue are several others. The ordinary parish priests, particularly the assistant pastor, are at the present time the least free members of the Church. In canon law, they have almost no protection for what may be called in imitation of Thoreau “evangelical disobedience.” How can the gospels be preached when those of sensitive conscience are forbidden by administrative prudence to avoid disturbing the present order? Many a priest finds himself saying one thing in private, another in public. What is the use of giving one's life to the service of the gospels if one is made to serve, instead, the timidity of those who, with whatever good intentions, flatter the rich, the powerful, the secure?

Besides, the Catholic people have, until recently, been unwilling to let a priest speak in his own name; he is taken much too seriously as speaking for the entire Church. Consequently, many priests do not speak their own minds; they mouth accepted conventions which will “disturb” no one. Their acquiescence has entangled them in spiderwebs of their own weaving, and only their own courage will free them and the gospels to which they are dedicated.

Thirdly, the descendants of Europe's peasants are only now beginning to lift their eyes from the vulgar and aggressive search for dollars which they found to be the obvious requirement for coping with the Protestant Establishment of the United States. No one is deceived into thinking that “the emerging laymen” (a descriptive phrase for the religiously and intellectually alert) in this country number more than a few score thousand, perhaps a few hundred thousand. Apathy, indifference to religion except as a vague and ultimate comfort, and docility in early assimilating the pyramidal view of the Church mark the vast majority of American Catholics. Here, again, the situation faced by Catholicism in the United States is formally similar to that of the life of general culture and the intellect: the vast majority of the people belong spiritually to the hucksters of Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the thoughtless pulpit.


But these are largely intramural issues. The internal political structure of the Church as it exists at present inhibits spiritual and intellectual development; and it is the business of laymen, nuns, priests, and bishops who care about such things to reform the structure and practices of the institution they love.

On a wider front, there are a whole host of issues of concern to all Americans in which the Church is more or less “officially” involved: education, for example. An increasing number of educated Catholics are critical of the parochial schools not so much because these are intellectually inferior to the public schools (often they aren't), but because their graduates do not seem noticeably different in behavior and attitudes from those who go to the public schools. Why put millions of dollars into a program of such meager religious fruitfulness?

The younger Catholic intellectuals—often products of the Catholic schools—are the most vociferous critics of the schools. But in many new suburbs, the people of the parish rather than the clergy insist on the building of a Catholic school. Many parents seem to feel incompetent to educate their own children in religious matters; they seem to need the feeling of security which comes from placing their children under the moral protection of priests and nuns. Meanwhile, those who teach in the schools, trying valiantly to reach new standards both in secular disciplines and in the “new theology” of Vatican II, become increasingly sensitive to criticism, whose truth they are often willing to admit but whose practicality they sometimes question.

Three relatively modest propositions appear to be developing as a feasible and widespread attitude toward this question: (1) At some period in their education, Catholic children ought to have some formal Catholic education; otherwise, their theological education will fall below their general education. But they should spend part of their career also in public and secular schools; (2) At least one important part of religious education can best be given in the home, through public prayer in church, and through personal reading and organized discussion groups; (3) The maintenance of an independent Catholic school system, for part of the education of at least part of the Catholic population, contributes to the diversity and richness of American education.

On a second important public issue, racial justice, only a year ago the inactivity of Catholics threatened to dissipate the trust and good feeling of the then just budding ecumenical movement. For the very Jews and Protestants who were most apt to be open to new dialogue with Catholics were among the first to become sensitive to the moral demands of the racial revolution; and they were scandalized by Catholic inactivity. But gradually, through the lonely witness of such men as the Berrigan brothers (one a Jesuit, one a Josephite), and through the pressure of other active spirits who increasingly allowed themselves to be diverted from the work of Vatican II and other intramural matters, more and more Catholic consciences were touched. An institutional mark of sorts was reached when the well-known Paulist Center on Boston Common threw open its doors, in May 1965, to an ecumenically sponsored teach-in on the emotionally charged issue of racial imbalance in the Boston public schools.

Several important traits of the American Catholic community came to light in these developments; and these traits illuminate Catholic attitudes on other problems. In America more than in Europe, many Catholics are victims of the serious flaws in late scholastic philosophy and theology; many interpret reality through eyes blinded to certain important features. For example, American Catholics commonly interpret a generalization as a normative statement; they register the descriptive mode only with difficulty. If a psychologist or a sociologist describes what frequently happens, they take him to be recommending a course of action; detached analysis is seldom credited. “Is” (in the tradition of the Aristotelian final cause) is taken as an “ought.”

Again, many American Catholics are fond of verbal solutions to concrete problems. If the American bishops said in 1957 that racial discrimination is immoral, and said it solemnly in their annual proclamation, many Catholics feel the problem has been solved.

Again, if the essential position of the Church is once enunciated, then many American Catholics believe it is illegitimate to blame the Church for the concrete, individual actions or attitudes of the Catholic clergy or people. Thus, if Pius XII in (as Albert Camus sadly noted) an obscure encyclical condemned Nazism, then the Church was not involved in Hitler's wars, only errant individuals were. In fact, even if Pius XII had not spoken, the Church would have “spoken,” silently. For the Church is a pure, immaculate, spotless Platonic ideal, not to be confused with the sinners who give her flesh in history. The Church, for example, has always believed in religious liberty, never persecuted Jews or Protestants, always fostered truth and scientific inquiry, ever championed the rights of man, never approved racial discrimination.

Again, the upper blade of Platonic unreality in late scholasticism makes necessary a lower blade of Machiavellian “prudence” in dealing with actual complexities in history. The very bishop who believes most in the sinlessness of the Platonic Church is apt to have a finger in many deals involving local real estate; another is warning the local newspaper not to print a certain story; another is pressuring politicians in this direction or in that. Italian and Irish bishops, in particular, seem to have mastered the regular swing of the pendulum from the rhetoric of sermons on the sinless beauty of the Church to the vigorous use of power for the worldly needs of the Church.

Finally, many American Catholics still seem to prefer group loyalty to truth; self-congratulation to honesty. There is at present a vogue of criticism and self-accusation, to be sure; but many are still untouched by it, and many who voice it seem surprised at the new possibility of speaking out; like Edward M. Keating of Ramparts, they sound not a little strident.

This group loyalty has largely blinded American Catholics to the needs of other groups. The oscillation between idealism and cynical prudence has led American Catholics to believe in racial justice while tolerating racial injustice. The emphasis on essential definition rather than on personal appropriation and responsibility, and the confusion of the normative with the descriptive, have enabled American Catholics to be blind to concrete realities in the name of “unchanging principles.”

These same traits of mind characterize the usual American Catholic foray into American social or political life, on the censorship of movies, on birth control clinics, on aid to parochial schools, etc. Often the values which Catholics wish to uphold in these matters are commendable in themselves; but the political and social techniques for defending them smack of Italian or Irish scholasticism. Essentialistic, non-historical, and abstract ideals are voiced on the one hand, and ecclesiastical prestige is wielded as political power on the other.

Increasingly, this mental scholasticism is yielding to the sunshine of American liberties and the brisk winds of American realities. Cardinal Cushing has recently recognized that the Catholic conscience need not be articulated in public law, and tentatively approved the amendment of the birth control laws of Massachusetts so that they would be more in conformity with the general public conscience. Catholics can maintain their stricter views in private; the domain of public law is distinguishable from the domain of personal conscience.

Pope John XXIII, Cardinal Cushing's closest ecclesiastical model, made another important distinction in Mater et Magistra, concerning Communism: the original ideology is one thing, the reality which has evolved under historical pressures is another. Late scholasticism pure and simple was unable to make such a distinction; in its purview, only logic and essential definitions mattered.

In proportion as American Catholics learn to distinguish essences from existents, norms from descriptions, logic from history, their political and social actions will become increasingly more nuanced, reasoned, and appropriate to a democratic society. Catholics will ever have a moral code more strict in certain matters than many other Americans, but their way of defending the values they cherish can become both more effective from their own point of view and less repugnant to others. A more historically minded and concrete philosophy and theology, already gaining in acceptance, will gradually make this transition in intellectual style possible.


* * *

Many of the younger Catholic intellectuals, however, are involved neither in the intramural problems of the Church nor in the problems of the “official” Church and American culture. They are getting their degrees or are teaching in the whole spectrum of academic studies, are entering political life or the professions, are active in urban renewal or journalism or the arts. They have little or no interest in ecclesiastical matters; they often resent the ecclesiastical establishment as vaguely stupid, or narrow, or merely professional. They have never had a conversation with a bishop and, except with a personal friend or relative, rarely with a priest. They often remain practicing Catholics, faithful to the sacraments. But the world of the spirit in which they live is that of the general secular world rather than that of the Catholic community at large.

They are concerned about the fact that automobiles are choking our cities; that the very poor continue to suffer gravely in our society; that our complex democracy requires the replacement of venal-minded and unintelligent politicians with men of talent, of some vision, and of suitably thick skin. They are worried about the inequalities suffered by women in our society. They are disturbed to the depths of their consciences by the risks of wider warfare the U.S. is courting. As Christians, they may feel they have a special stake in these problems, and special emphases in defining and attacking them. But they receive little enlightenment in how they might cope with such problems in church on Sunday morning.

Thus the great irony of American Catholicism is that, after decades of ecclesiastical warnings about the dangers of “secularism,” the most sensitive and inquiring young Catholics are presently finding the spiritual values represented by American secularism more compelling than the spiritual attitudes of the Catholic clerical establishment. The secular world has little to say, of course, about God, about ultimate questions of hope, destiny, and conscience; for such matters, and for the Eucharist which is their communal symbol, many young Catholics maintain their ties with the historic Church and its spiritual tradition. But they find a broadly conceived pragmatism to be a more adequate philosophical language for dealing with reality than late scholasticism. And they find contemporary political, economic, and social theory more morally relevant than most of the sermons they suffer through on Sunday mornings.

The future of American Catholicism will probably manifest an increasing secularization of the thought patterns of clergy and people, to the benefit of the religious faith they cherish. For though most varieties of American secularism appear to be agnostic, few appear to be absolutely closed to religious values. Consequently, many more Catholics will probably adopt some version of pragmatism, with an existentialist emphasis upon self-appropriation and self-criticism, as their basic philosophical and theological language. Given this language, they will add to the pluralistic values usually championed by secular philosophers, special religious values of their own. And their fundamental ethical and political decisions will involve balancing one of these values against another, in establishing what is best to do here and now on each occasion.

If this prediction is correct, American Catholics will in a sense be recovering the Aristotelian tradition of phronesis and the short-lived Thomistic tradition of concrete prudentia and caritas, which were swallowed up in the abstract, essentialistic “Reason” of late scholasticism. Neither Aristotle nor Thomas Aquinas, however, shared what would today be called “historical consciousness.” Thus, the contribution of modern secularism to the wisdom which can be assimilated by the Church is above all an acute awareness of the historical and contingent factors which characterize human history and the development of human intelligence.

American Catholics have little to fear, and much to gain, from the critical assimilation of secular wisdom in their attempt to understand the meaning of their faith at this moment in human history. In so doing, from their own treasury they also bring their own special contribution to the general wisdom of our culture. Their tradition of contemplative life will have much to say to a world of greater leisure; their tradition of emptiness and abandonment in prayer will have much to say to those, like the Anglican Bishop J. A. T. Robinson, who suddenly discover that God cannot be imagined nor, strictly, conceived.

American culture and American Catholicism benefit by the mutual criticism and guarded but respectful cooperation they lend to one another. American Catholicism is becoming, and ought to become, different from any other form of Catholicism in history, because it is American. And America, without its minority groups and their special values, is homogenized and vulgar.

Each man who cherishes the needs of the human spirit is a precious asset in a land of buyers and sellers. Every analysis of the life of the spirit in the United States leads to the same conclusion: the real war, the bitter war which lies ahead, is for the soul of the American people. Who will get there first, the huckster and the demagogues, or men of reality and statesmen? On every corner there are barkers who desire, for a fee, to cover up the realities of the world of bloodshed in which we live. There are too few who speak with honesty, with reverence for human personality, with compassion for the weak, with restraining intelligence for the strong, with realism in action. Secular intellectuals and religious men who value such things need each other—and that is why American Catholicism needs soon to be making its intellectual and artistic contributions to American culture.


1 Contraception, Harvard University Press, 561 pp., $7.95.

2 See, e.g., the reports by the pseudonymous Xavier Rynne, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

3 Sheed & Ward, 256 pp., $4.95.

4 Prentice-Hall, 192 pp., $4.95 (paperback, $2.95).

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