Commentary Magazine

Five Books on Catholicism

American Catholicism Today

A Catholic Primer on the Ecumenical Movement.
by Gustave Weigel.
S. J. Newman Press (paperback). 79 pp. $.95.

American Freedom and Catholic Power.
by Paul Blanshard.
Beacon Press (2nd edition). 402 pp. $3.95.

The Emergence of Liberal Catholicism in America.
by Robert D. Cross.
Harvard University Press. 328 pp. $5.50.

Christian Thought and Action; the Role of Catholicism in Our Time.
by Dom Aelred Graham.
Harcourt, Brace. 241 pp. $5.00.

Protestant and Catholic.
by Kenneth Wilson Underwood.
Beacon Press. 484 pp. $7.50.


In 1938, just after publication of the Pope’s famous anti-Nazi encyclical “Mit Brennender Sorge” and on the eve of Hitler’s invasion of Austria, Freud observed that he was now living under the protection of the Catholic Church—that “Catholic Church,” he marveled, “which so far has been the implacable enemy of all freedom and thought.” Freud was uncomfortable in his gratefulness to the church. Mentioning the Nazi suppression of psychoanalysis, he observed that “such violent methods of suppression are by no means alien to the Catholic Church; she feels it rather as an intrusion into her privileges when other people resort to the same means.” He did feel, however, that “the new enemy” (Hitler) was “more dangerous than the old one, with whom we have learned to live in peace.”

Such ambivalence toward Catholicism is historically deeply rooted in secularists, in political democrats, in Jews, in non-Catholics generally. Quite aside from the impressive ancient Catholic ritual and worship, all can find something to admire and appreciate in Catholicism; on the other hand, Catholicism is feared because it is felt that it aims at a Church-dominated culture; Catholic theory and practice, so distinctly authoritarian, has more often than not stood in opposition to the democratic traditions of the French and American revolutions. Believing itself to be the only true religion, Catholicism has frequently ridden roughshod over the consciences of others. Beyond all this, there is a certain mystery in the persistence of the Roman Church. It has adapted its ways to those of the modern world, but it has also retained its ancient (or, perhaps more precisely, its medieval) characteristics.

How to come to terms with this phenomenon is a real problem, particularly in America, where Catholicism stands in rather unique relation to the general culture. It is a minority religion here, though it represents the largest single religious communion in the country. Partly in response to its minority position, many of its leading thinkers have made democratic political theory part of their Catholicism (I refer here particularly to men like the Jesuit Father John Courtney Murray); nevertheless, for the most part the Church retains its essentially pre-modern world-view.



Gustave Weigel belongs to that school of Jesuit priests and scholars who have perhaps gone furthest in trying to adapt Catholicism to modern America; he counsels friendship with democracy and understanding and tolerance for non-Catholics. His monograph is marked not only by close reasoning, but also by sincerity and clarity of style. Concerning the Reformation, Father Weigel remarks that “The Reform was not lacking in prophetic inspiration, even though it lacked the prophetic charism. There was much which the Reformers criticized which the Catholic admits was worthy of adverse judgment. Under the divinely permitted blows of the scourge of secession, he forced himself to correct abuses” (my italics).

In this and other passages, Father Weigel sounds as if he were a modern philosopher, discussing problems of truth with others, regardless of religious communion. In fact, such are the functions he envisions for a Catholic “theologian.” But in addition to this contemplative theologian, Father Weigel assigns a high place to the non-contemplative episcopal authorities under whose direction all work proceeds, and who presumably express the will of God more directly: “. . . the theologian will do this work of the Church under the direction of the members of the Mystical Body structured and empowered for the work of guidance. These directors, the episcopal regimen, have a charism for their function. The theologian does not immediately share in that charism, though he has the charism for theological meditation and exposition.” So, despite his “theology’s” concern with problems of truth, Father Weigel returns to a view of God-through-Church which makes his speculations almost irrelevant.

Concerned with the necessity of loyalty to one’s opponents, Father Weigel offers this advice to fellow Catholics: “One cannot begin a work of study with the antecedent decision to refute the thought of the author to be studied. . . . A Catholic does not go to non-Catholic sources in order to learn the revelation of Christ. . . . However, he can learn, first of all, what the other man said.” This is an example of that irenic strain within American Catholicism which writers like Paul Blanshard have altogether overlooked.



Blanshard, indeed, has so obvious a distaste for everything connected with Roman Catholicism that it imposes severe limitations on the usefulness of his book (first published in 1949). He clearly considers himself a liberal, but many of the assumptions of what is commonly thought of as liberalism yield to his unrestrained antagonism. He uses the term “American,” for instance, in a prescriptive sense that calls to mind the “Americanism” of the American Legion. According to Blanshard, the Catholic philosophy of education is “alien to the American outlook”; Catholic religious orders for women are “utterly alien to the typically robust and independent spirit of American womanhood.” Blanshard criticizes Catholicism because it demands conformity and restricts individual initiative. But of Catholics he demands a rather curious conformity and disregard of conscience. He tells disapprovingly of a Catholic government employee who “refused to swear allegiance to the entire Constitution. She would defend all the laws of the commonwealth, she said, except those opposed to divine law.” But is not this in the spirit of Thoreau?

The often-quoted judgment of Peter Viereck, “Catholic-baiting is the anti-Semitism of the liberals,” catches something of the tone of Blanshard’s writings, and also some of the response to his work. I believe, too, that there are historical similarities between anti-Semitism and extravagant anti-Romanism. Both tendencies have attracted paranoid fringe groups, always ready to detect conspiracies; both have been based on a sense of strangeness which we all feel when confronted with the anachronism of ancient survivals.

Blanshard, by virtually equating Catholicism with modern totalitarianism, fails to comprehend the uniqueness of the Church, just as those who seek to dispel the prejudice against Catholicism by pretending that it is a denomination like any other (the approach of the brotherhood movement) fail to comprehend it. It is of course easier to explain strange phenomena in terms of well-known categories. Blanshard does this by assuring his readers that, after all, there is nothing difficult about Catholicism; it is the same sort of thing which Nazism and Communism have made familiar to us. This procedure is not only unhistorical, but it also has the unfortunate practical consequence of increasing the emotional component of attitudes toward Catholicism.



All this is not to say, of course, that Blanshard’s complaints against Catholic authoritarianism are without legitimacy. As Dom Aelred Graham observes in his thoughtful book of contemplations on the relationship between Catholicism and modern culture, “The divine constitution of the Catholic Church, indefectible in its essence and hierarchic in its structure, necessarily precludes any criticism by its members of the Church itself. It is not our business—nor, if we are wise, should it be our wish—to call in question what God has ordained. But the mental attitude engendered by this state of things, one of unquestioning acceptance, can sometimes extend beyond its due limits and so lead us to leave unexamined what in fact has every claim to searching attention.” There is a certain justice, also, in thinking of Catholicism as “un-American” in the historical sense, since the idea of a human organization as a direct representative of the divine, with powers to censor and coerce, certainly runs counter to the religious ideas of the Puritan founders of our republic. But no sooner do we say this than we must recognize these traits to be not uniquely characteristic of Catholicism, for the Calvinist-inspired tendencies toward restrictive theocracy, an important factor in our culture to this day, are sometimes not so very different in their practical consequences from Catholic attempts to intervene in the social order.



There is some interesting indirect evidence on the relation between Catholic and Puritan restrictive activities in Robert Cross’s book on the rise of what became known among European Catholics as “américanisme,” an American “liberal” Catholicism, in the 19th century. This development, affecting most particularly the higher American clergy, appears to have been a Catholic adaptation to the dominant American Calvinist-derived Protestantism. Cross calls these priests “liberals,” and so they were if we use that term somewhat loosely. But what is most interesting here is that it was a sign of Catholic liberalism in that period to favor the (Protestant-inspired) temperance movement; whereas the Catholic “conservatives” were inclined to a hands-off policy toward such “reforms” as dry laws. To favor the “coercive help” of civil authority in regard to temperance thus marked Bishop Keane as a liberal. Here is a clue to an otherwise puzzling phenomenon of nomenclature: Bishop Keane desired restrictive legislation, but since what he wanted was also advocated by the aggressive Protestant churches, he was able to go down in history as a liberal. Had he opposed only birth control instead of drinking as well, he might, by modern standards, be termed “conservative.”

As we have indicated, the kernel of validity in Blanshard’s position—the relatively greater propensity of Catholics to restrict individual freedom as compared to either Protestants or Jews—becomes obscured by his insistence on making this difference an absolute one. He discusses at length the Catholic use of economic boycott to enforce Catholic points of view in the moral sphere, but he does not mention current Protestant moves against liquor advertising; neither does he mention Jewish attempts to censor movies and books when these appear “anti-Semitic” (see “The ‘Militant’ Fight Against Anti-Semitism,” by David Riesman, COMMENTARY, January 1951).

There is nothing wrong with having vigorous opinions on religious matters, and I think that Blanshard is quite right in attacking the sentimentalism of those who, for the sake of illusory “unity,” refuse to discuss matters of religious difference. But what is disturbing in Blanshard’s vigor is his naivety, his lack of discernment. To him, there seem to be two simple, quite sharply defined types of organization, one authoritarian (including Communists, Catholics, and Nazis), the other democratic (“American”). This view, in addition to its historical blindness to which I have already referred, ignores the great complexity of Catholicism. For instance, it is an open secret that the formal autocracy of Catholic parish and diocesan organization is modified by lay and clerical influences and pressures of various types. And this, of course, is true at the level of the Vatican itself. Blanshard also does not take into consideration the great differences within American Catholicism on important issues. A very informative unpublished Harvard B.A. thesis by Michael McCloskey (“The Diversity of Opinion within Contemporary Catholic Political Thought in America”) shows a range from the pacifist and libertarian Catholic Worker movement, through the highly influential New Deal type of liberalism of the Jesuits, to conservative and rightist views of various kinds.



The most satisfactory current treatment of American Catholicism, to my mind, is Kenneth W. Underwood’s sociological study of Protestant-Catholic relations in Holyoke, Massachusetts. Underwood has a sense for the various levels of relations between American culture and Catholicism. The latter is seen not only as a formal hierarchy but also as a living organization, influenced by the diversity of its human components. It is seen, also, as a congeries of ethnic sub-cultures—Irish, Polish, and French. The importance in Catholicism of the tensions between hierarchy and laity is at least hinted at. On the other hand, American culture is not dealt with as if it consisted simply of “American freedom.” There is in Underwood an appreciation for the complexity of inter-relationships between formal parliamentarism, the mass culture, a Puritan-derived ethos, a class-divided society, and a business economy.

Underwood’s book has the additional advantage of discussing the strictly religious issues involved in Protestant-Catholic relations. Unfortunately, such competence is still all too rare in social science publications, so that many of the best discussions of the sociology of religious differences are from the pens of religious writers. (Here Father Weigel and Dom Graham continue the tradition of H. Richard Niebuhr, whose classic Social Sources of Denominationalism remains an essential work.) But Underwood’s volume, despite its great virtues, unfortunately lacks an adequate historical dimension, without which all discussions of Catholicism tend to remain somewhat shallow. For not only is Holyoke Catholicism a contemporary American phenomenon—and from this point of view Underwood deals with it superbly—it is also a manifestation of ancient Roman Catholicism in the 20th century. This interplay of the ancient with the modern constitutes an additional dimension which future studies might well analyze in order to gain a better understanding of Roman Catholicism today.



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