From The New Oxford Review, LXIII (June, 1996), 17-20.
-- James V. Schall, S. J.

THE FULL CATHOLIC MESSAGE

 

After breakfast on March 14, I was sitting in our community recreation room reading the morning paper about the NCAA basketball tournament. A friend of mine who was at a table across the room brought over a copy of The Washington Times for that morning. "Take a look at this ad," he told me, showing me a glaring, full page advertisement beginning, in very bold and large print, "Why Are Catholics So Wimpy?" Well, I confess that this question echoes a frequent theme or concern of mine -- my Does Catholicism Still Exist? brings up the point in another way. How can it ever have come about, one wonders, that anyone could ever consider calling Catholics "wimpy"? The fact is that to many wimpy is how we often appear, wimpy and wishi-washy.

 

Catholics boldly maintain that they stand for something distinctive but those calling themselves Catholics who likewise reject what is its official teaching are seldom challenged. Bishops in their corporate capacities have positions on every imaginable public policy but practically no particular instance of deviation from teaching or moral practice, especially by an academic or public official, is addressed, save for rare cases such as that of the Bishop of Lincoln. Usually the few bishops who try to account for departures of practice or doctrine take such flack that nothing further happens; they give up knowing the other bishops will not back them. Certainly no concerted or cooperative effort of all bishops seems on the horizon.

 

Llewellyn Rockwell said what many think:

Christianity is now thoroughly politicized. The (Catholic) bishops and (Ralph) Reed have no trouble speaking about the importance of pro-family legislation, or the glories of religious pluralism, but they are shy about such basics as the Christian teaching on salvation. The longer the process of politicization continues, the thinner the faith gets. Political ambition causes people to water down their beliefs for the sake of gaining favor. The hazard is especially prevalent in a society with competing religions. The first stage of sell-out comes with the exaltation of political pluralism above doctrinal truth, the second stage with the denial of doctrinal truth altogether for achieving political goals (Chronicles, April, 1996).

One might note, in this context, that John Paul II's encyclical on the diversity of religions, Ut Unum Sint, took particular care to avoid this very real doctrinally minimizing tendency that Rockwell noticed.

 

The irony of such concerns is, I think, that there has never been a time in which the Church has been intellectually more coherent and forceful. We owe in the area of Christian intelligence an enormous debt to John Paul II. And yet, at the same time, at no time has the Church been culturally weaker. The Pope has not been followed. Nietzsche, to recall, thought Christians to be slaves and weak-souled on principle, but not even he thought that they were simply "wimpy", if there was a corresponding German word. Nietzsche thought that Christian doctrine itself, by comparison to his strong-willed, "beyond good and evil" scholar or leader, led to weakness, the turning the other cheek and all that. But wimpiness means a sort of embarrassment about what one holds. It is not just a lack of courage or knowledge, but a lack of gumption, a lack of any will to take seriously in public what one apparently stands for or, even less, to do anything about it.

 

The NOR advertisement was right. We do have to walk a long way to find a vibrant, forceful Catholicism presented among us in our sermons, in our media, in the way we live. The reason Mother Teresa is so effective and so much a target of the relativizers is because she is not wimpy. Except in rare cases, such non-wimpy Catholicism is not in the universities; it is not in the high schools, not in the seminaries or convents, not in many parishes, does not come out of diocesan chancery offices which are usually full of the utmost caution in things orthodox and, simultaneously, the utmost experimentalism in the things liberal or secular. Almost the only way a cleric or layman can get in ecclesial trouble today is to plead for more orthodoxy, more reverence in the Mass, even calling it a "Mass".

 

A vibrant Catholicism is, of course, found in the Catechism, in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, and in every parish homily of John Paul II printed in L'Osservatore Romano. Calmly, Cardinal Ratzinger speaks this forceful Catholicism. We indeed found it in Flannery O'Connor or Chesterton or de Lubac. It's in Peter Kreeft, Walker Percy, Richard John Neuhaus, Ralph McInerny, Russell Hittinger, and a surprising number of scattered young intellectuals. I think of Susan Orr, Kenneth Grasso, Scott Walter. It is in Robert Sokolowski, Robert Sirico, and Joseph Fessio.

 

My friend, who was sympathetic to the thesis of the NOR ad, wanted to know if I had ever heard of The New Oxford Review, as evidently he never had? I explained to him its origins, that years ago I had even written a couple of essays in it. (The essay that eventually grew into my The Distinctiveness of Christianity originally appeared in the NOR [September, 1978]). He said that he had never heard of the authors mentioned except for Avery Dulles. So I said something about the various authors -- Percy, Elshtain, Noonan, Kreeft, Lasch, Lukacs, Vanauken.

 

Now, I suppose that one should expect an advertisement for a journal to be somewhat "cheeky", as evidently Newsweek once called the NOR. The ad is pretty blunt and to the point about what bothers its editors about the present condition of Catholicism in America; namely, there is little correlation between what one reads coming out of the Vatican and what one hears in the average parish. It is almost as if there is already an American Church independent of Rome in all things but name. The Church's teachings are not systematically, fully, or accurately presented on a regular basis to the faithful. It is not a question of the laity demanding a more liberal teaching against a resistant clergy, but mostly the opposite. The local liturgy is too often a product of free enterprise and acting; the Ordo is there to be "improved" upon. Sin is rarely spoken of, or at least not the sort of sin that Christianity has for two millennia said that our salvation depended on our avoiding.

 

We have, with much relief to our collective consciences, invented something called social sin that pretty much allows us to go on our own way doing what we want to do provided we support the right causes and vote the right way in elections wherein the big problems are settled by majority or by Court. All moral and political things are questions of proportion and consequences, not principle. No one can have every thing right, so if anyone gets two or three out of ten, he is not doing so bad. As a theoretic not moral position, compassion for everything reigns. Someone can still run for office as a Catholic and have a clear pro-choice voting record with no fear of ecclesial reprimand. What we hear too often in our churches in fact is warmed-over liberal culture dressed up in sort of pious language, a kind of "ethical humanism" with little grounding in any absolute principles.

 

Popular theologians, not the Pope who maintains the opposite, tell us that we can have no unconditional moral principles. The same Pope also inconveniently tells us that all so-called social sin is rooted in personal sin. Evidently, it is not very "pastoral" to talk of personal sin. No real examination of conscience seems evident; everyone goes to communion, even those of other communions. The correlation between doctrine and sacrament or doctrine and practice is, in effect, tenuous, if not non-existent.

 

By chance, the week before I had read this advertisement, I had been at a Protestant-Catholic Conference here in Washington. There I met a lawyer who has been active in many pro-life issues over the years, a very articulate and effective man. I had mentioned to him that I had seen in the Milwaukee Journal an article about the new Jesuit President of Marquette. The gist of the article was, citing several well-known Jesuit respondents, that this president-elect would probably be the last of the Jesuit presidents of Marquette, and by implication, I suppose, of most Jesuit universities. The "pool" of possible candidates is said to be quite low, so Jesuits should be prepared graciously to relinquish these traditional, but highly visible, posts. About the same time I received a letter from my own province stating in essence the same thing about principals of high schools.

 

The issue of declining pools and lack of vocation is almost always put in fatalistic, statistical or actuarial terms, about the inevitable decline in vocations, as if some sort of fate were ruling this diminishment of numbers. I have never heard a frank discussion of why the vocations are not there. The Archbishop of Omaha's quite sensible remarks on vocations are worth citing here:

The vocation "crisis" is precipitated and continued by people who want to change the Church's agenda, by people who do not support orthodox candidates loyal to the magisterial teaching of the Pope and bishops, and by people who actually discourage viable candidates from seeking priesthood and vowed religious life as the Church defines these ministries.

I am personally aware of certain vocation directors, vocation teams and evaluation boards who turn away candidates who do not support the possibility of ordination of women or who defend the Church's teachings about artificial birth control, or who exhibit a strong piety toward certain devotions, such as the rosary. When there is a determined effort to discourage orthodox candidates from priesthood and religious life, then the vocation shortage which results is caused not by a lack of vocations but by deliberate attitudes and policies which deter certain viable candidates. And the same people who precipitate a decline in vocations by their negative actions call for the ordination of married men and women to replace the vocations they have discouraged (Social Justice Review, November/December, 1995, 164).

The list of young men who are turned away from entering declining orders because they, the young men, are too conservative and too prone to Rome, is, in my experience, quite long. The Archbishop of Omaha is right; there is no shortage of vocations as such.

 

The gentleman, to return to my earlier conversation, replied that the clerical administration of this Church patrimony that is the university system -- it is really owned by the Catholics who faithfully built these schools -- has let the whole matter get out of hand. What is taught in these universities has little relation to what Catholicism is about. It is time, he thought, for lay administration to take over precisely to return to a Catholic university philosophy that has generally been abandoned. I suppose this view somewhat reflects the NOR advertisement's remark that "cowardly clerics, fearful of being politically incorrect or challenging the flock or offending some stray soul, keep the full Catholic message from us. In effect we're blindfolded." I am not quite so confident myself that such lay take-over would do anything more than continue the secularization of the universities, though I am willing to be proved wrong.

 

Practically all universities using the name Catholic today take as their practical model what goes on in other state and secular universities for all purposes of curriculum, hiring, firing, and promotion. And in those places wherein there is some effort to emphasize the "Catholic" side of education, this emphasis generally, again with exceptions, turns out to be a Catholicism that already imitates the secular standards and not that reflected in the intelligence of the Holy Father or the central Catholic tradition. What is ironic here is that one notices of late within the Jesuits at least a distinct attitude that would want this "laicization" of the universities and schools to happen. We hear talk of a broader Jesuit vocation that would include laymen and women, families even. A cynic might see here a belated Jesuit effort to imitate the successes of Opus Dei, but in another ecclesial direction! I have had at least one superior tell me that he thought Jesuits would be mostly out of higher education fairly soon except for an odd faculty member here and there.

 

This lack of what I call institutional "courage" to present the full teachings and practices of the faith within its own realm has long puzzled me. Why does the most brilliant and effective Pope of our time find so few imitators on the levels of episcopal or priestly leadership? I often recall Belloc's remark that as one gets older that he increasingly worries about the human side of the supernatural Church. Things are in the hand of God. And yet, one of Christianity's most recent claims is that it should be existentially, locally effective. We have seen in the past quarter century an enormous emphasis placed on "social action" by the various bureaucracies of the Church. On content examination, this social action, however, is too often less than distinctly Christian but a very close imitation of secular liberal ideas on poverty, wealth, family, population, and the extended use of government to solve human problems.

 

Eric Voegelin has argued that, in the last half century, the reason we see Christians so suddenly plunging into such social action and taking their criterion from the secular world is because of a loss of faith in the transcendent. The energy that should go into a Christian life aware of the transcendent is now redirected to this-worldly enterprises as if the two things were exactly the same and never conflicted with each other. Nietzsche implied somewhat the same thing. The "death of God" was not a theory but his practical conclusion based on the way Christians acted. At first, this reasoning that there is in fact a subtle crisis of faith among believing Christians might surprise us. After all, it is not a modern idea that Christianity should affect our lives and aid others. This is already in Scripture, in Augustine. What is new is the reliance on the world not reason or revelation for a criterion of what Christianity is.

 

But what I think we forget, in considering the wimpiness or worrisome loss of faith of Catholics, is the enormous fear of, or perhaps, prejudice against a coherent, persuasive Catholicism in our culture, one that is pervasive and mostly unacknowledged. It cannot be called simply innocent or ignorant. One might, in fact, argue that accommodation of so many Christians to essentially secular values has partially lulled the enemies of Catholicism in particular. If we had a Church in this country that obviously believed in its transcendent purpose and its coherence, we would be in serious public difficulties. Chesterton's famous remark that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting, but tried and found difficult can be improved on. The Christianity that is not found wanting is not found easily.

 

The primary worry about Catholicism today is precisely its increasing intellectual coherence and plausibility. Great efforts are taken, even by Catholics, to prevent this unified and well-grounded position to be presented in any but the narrowest fora. No graduate of a Catholic or secular university today, even those of the best of wills, could pass the most minimal test about what Catholicism holds about itself, this in spite of the Catechism which has been studiously avoided in the universities and too often in the high schools, seminaries, and parishes, too little encouraged by the bishops.

 

There is some talk of persecution for those few who retain clear orthodoxy. I often reflect on Augustine's words: "As the end of the world approaches, errors increase, terrors multiply, iniquity increases; the light, in short ... is very often extinguished; this darkness of enmity between brethren increases...." We sometimes wonder why the Holy Father speaks so much about martyrdom, as he did in Veritatis Splendor, a document devoted precisely to the widespread deviation from the truth within the Church. And it is a Christian paradox that it is the good and the innocent who suffer most from iniquity's growth. Earlier generations of Catholics asked nothing more than to be left in peace by the state, to live their lives in this world in quiet and virtue. But it seems to be true that Catholics will be required to accept more and more of the principles of modern life at variance with that is handed down in tradition. They will not be left alone to live in peace. Neither Socrates nor Christ, to recall, were left alone, nor can their disciples expect it for long.

 

Josef Pieper wrote, in words that seem quite contemporary, that "it is a liberal illusion to assume that you can consistently act justly without ever incurring risks: risks for your immediate well-being, the tranquillity of your daily routine, your possessions, your good name, your honor -- in extreme instances possibly even more: liberty, health, and life itself" (Josef Pieper -- An Anthology, 1989, p. 67). Have we been living in this "liberal illusion" for so long, I wonder, that we no longer notice that we are not acting justly? that we are not taking risks because we do not in practice believe, as Nietzsche suspected?

Let me go back to the NOR advertisement, in conclusion. For all its brashness, I think that it put its finger on a widespread opinion about Catholicism today. No one can tell much difference between them and anyone else. This accommodation would be a good thing were it not for the haunting suspicion that the vibrant Catholicism that the ad intimated ought to be among us would not be at all welcomed. Ironically, our mediocrity has protected us. A Catholicism that claims to be true, that claims even that there is such a thing as good and as true, that spells it out as the Holy Father does, in clear, philosophical and human terms, will be bitterly combated. The other side of this equation, if that is what it is, is also true. An honestly, accurately presented Catholicism, one that knows about science and politics, about economics and psychology, about what is beautiful and what is true, is most appealing and attractive. It is this Catholicism that is not allowed to be offered and presented in any wide-ranging fashion. If there were any sort of real indication of that vitality leading to conversion and a more honorable way of life on a wide scale, all the forces of the culture and the state would eventually be arrayed against it.

 

If we read attentively Veritatis Splendor, Ut Unum Sint, Evangelium Vitae, or Crossing the Threshold of Hope, it becomes clear that Catholicism is making every effort to carry out honest and thorough considerations of what is right and true in other religions, with philosophy, science, with any source of or claim to knowledge of right living. The lesson of Marxism should always be kept in mind that however powerful the forces of evil and disorder are, ultimately they do not conform to the human condition and are in themselves weak, though they can do much damage when allied to deviant human will.

 

To the question, "Why Are Catholics So Wimpy?", I think it proper to remember that the real question today is not so much about the Catholics, especially clerical and intellectual Catholics, who do not believe or whose faith is weak. Rather, the question is why are the forces arrayed against Catholicism, and more broadly, truth and good itself, so weak and incoherent, and yet so culturally strong? Why is it that Catholicism is quite willing to talk with all systems on their own terms in any responsible forum, whereas every effort is made, especially academically and in the public forum, to prevent a clear and adequate statement of Catholicism? The unexpected advertisement of the NOR, for all its brashness, does alert us to the right questions and issues about the status of Catholicism in our society.