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State of the church: A synthesis

Richard Gaillardetz has delivered a noteworthy summary and synthesis of where the Catholic church in the U.S. stands today. It's worth reading here.

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Very interesting.On paragraph particularly caught my interest. "First, we must acknowledge two inter-related types of authority. On the one hand, we can recognize what we can call a legal or de iure authority, that is, the authority that one possesses by virtue of office. A civic example of this would be the authority of a police officer who is legally authorized to pull you over when you've been speeding. The Catholic Church grants an analogous kind of authority to its priests and bishops in canon law. There is a genuine need for this kind of legal authority. However..."Why is there a need for this kind of legal authority? All I can think of are all the abuses of authority...

I know that the JPII generation's backlash against Vatican II wants more visible signs of religiosity. But I must confess that showy religion, theatrical religion, now provokes in me deep skepticism. I do not trust made- for-television holiness-- or these days, made for the blogosphere holiness. In that respect my response to John Paul II's theatrical style has been shaped by my response to the theatrical style of the Legion of Christ.

Peter, your point about switching Protestant denominations not being the same as switching away from Catholicism is exactly right. You can find the third and fourth generation Mass. Puritan thinkers downplaying those Protestant denominational differences even in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century .

This was written in Commonweal 20 years ago and is as true today and was then:"It is not so much the authority one questions in the Roman Catholic church as the lack of the qualities of good leadership, including respect for the persons involved, the efforts at persuasion, and the explanations to which associates and subordinates are entitled - in fact, the lack of ordinary good manners." Abigail McCarthy, Mending Catholic Manners/Of Several Minds. Commonweal, January 11, 1991.

Gaillardetz is wrong to speak of Catholic "exodus" according to the Pew researchers:http://ncronline.org/blogs/all-things-catholic/americas-religious-market... quit churches at about the same rate; it's just that very few join our church.

This is a nice summary. However, the problem I have with speeches like this is that they are too long. Many good points are lost when so many are covered, no matter how relevant they all are. As for the constant talk about Vatican II causing the church to shrink because of the progressive interpretation, there is a strong argument that because of the reforms of Vatican II the church has not only increased in size but has not suffered the massive decline the Protestant churches have. This is brought out most strongly in the new intriguing book "The Spirit of Vatican II" by Professor and author Colleen McDannell. Written through the lens of American Catholic history and especially her own mother, Colleen gives us an authentic recounting of how so many solid Catholics embraced Vatican II. Not only that but she also shows how Catholics in this country have opposed their bishops when they felt he was overstepping. We need to discuss this book further.As for Gaillardetz, he did make many important points, albeit too many. But I love this one from him."If what we want is a transformation in the way authority is exercised in the church today, a good start would be to focus on calling forth as candidates to lay ministry, the diaconate, the priesthood, and perhaps especially the episcopate, those who actually possess a gift for pastoral leadership. "Now wouldn't that be fantastic?

It was not until Gaillardetz named it that I realized how shaped my norms and expectations of US Episcopal leadership were by those two pastorals of the 80s. As a 25 year old (and newly minted Jesuit Volunteer) I found them thrilling and a source of pride. Now, as one Bishop Tobin's Rhode Island flock I most decidedly acknowledge those times ain't coming back round these parts. I find Gaillardetz's admonitions to parishoners ("where must we go from here") to be modest and probably insufficient, since he is mostly calling for self-reform of the episcopacy. In our small, self selecting, marginalized parishes of nostalgic "vatican two types" and urban poor, it is getting mighty lonesome as we wait for that...

Christopher, are you in my parish? St Mary's on Broadway.

I believe that any group of people larger than about twelve and acting together in ways that significantly shape their lives over a number of years, from a tenants' organization to a political movement to a town to a nation, to say nothing of large numbers over many generations, need to have de jure authority of some sort. The forms of such de jure authority can vary a lot but if any important life-affecting decisions have to be made, de jure authority is required. I welcome some counter examples. Regarding "exodus" or "mass exodus," maybe the term is too strong, but I'm not convinced by John Allen's article, which reflects in my view his deep conviction that the church is by and large doing quite well (except maybe in public relations) and simply has to do it more of it, i.e., it's serving its existing members well but not reaching new ones; its losses are only the more or less inevitable ones experienced by all religious groups. Apart from the odd fact that Catholics should now accept as the rather low standard the patterns of a Protestantism it has always criticized for lacking staying power, I think that Lugo's and Smith's answers in the interview reflect a line of questioning that never, never takes up an important point: Are Catholic losses and the losses of individual Protestant denominations, taken separately, really the same thing? Or should we be comparing the losses of Catholicism overall with the losses of Protestantism overall? A great deal of the losses or gains among Protestant groups, taken separately, seem to reflect losses or gains to or from other Protestant groups. I believe that this is an old pattern in American religion. It has to do with the social class hierarchy that long existed among Protestant denominations; the more well-off and respectable you were, the more you went from being a Baptist to a Methodist to a Presbyterian. Nowadays it has even more to do with the disappearance of doctrinal or disciplinary distinctions among Protestant denominations. All of this means, for instance, that when a Methodist and Presbyterian married couple decide that both will go to the same church, although strictly speaking it registers as a loss for one denomination and a gain for the other, I don't think it is the same thing, certainly not by historical terms, as the Catholic partner in a mixed marriage becoming a Methodist or the Methodist partner converting to Catholicism. I know that's probably a rather Catholic-centric view of the matter. But without it, I think that comparisons between rates of losses and rates of retention are deceptive. Allen's interview contains some very good points. For example, that there is no single answer to this problem, and that a major area of concern should be adolescence and early adulthood. It might be complemented, however, with some of the findings of Robert Putnam and Chris Smith, which do not really support Allen's conclusion that "the Catholic church's struggles aren't really with pastoral care, but missionary muscle" and "Overall, Catholicism serves existing members fairly well, as measured by the share that chooses to stick around; what it doesn't do nearly as well is to evangelize." I would propose that the data about sticking around suggests the church is not serving existing members well AND it doesn't evangelize well either.

I blurbed the book "The Spirit of Vatican II" that Bill Mazzella mentions above. I thought it a very accessible history that makes an original contribution by weaving the story around the experience of Catholic women and especially of those in her own family. If I had any major reservations about the book it was that the story ended in too rosy fashion with her mother's fascinating and ultimately positive experiences. Now I read a profile of the author in yesterday's Salt Lake Tribune that ends with this: "While it was not part of her mothers story, McDannell talks about one of the other consequences of Vatican II: the hemorrhage of American Catholics out of the church.'Its ... indicative of Catholics thinking the church did not go far enough in making changes, in its attitude toward homosexuality, toward women in the priesthood, toward birth control,' McDannell says. 'For many people, they just got frustrated with that. The promise that we moved so far but not far enough.'"McDannell says she has stopped practicing her faith and now describes herself as a secular humanist."From the book's Acknowledgments, I learn that McDannell and her husband have a daughter. I wonder how that will work out.

Gaillardetz's historical survey goes over ground many of us have been over before, but it is presented well, and yes, refuting Weigel's version of the story is worthwhile. I was struck, though, by the latter section in which Gaillardetz offers advice to the laity who might want to respond to the obvious needs of a priesthood formed in seminaries offering a vision of their own role so exalted as to make it hard for them to listen and learn from ordinary Christians. His observation of this as a problem is right on the money, even if his suggestions about how to deal with it sound pretty hopeless. (Invite a priest to dinner? say encouraging things? make suggestions?)

It seems to me we need to distinguish two main kinds of dissatisfied Catholics. Many, many people have severe problems involving dogma and repressive church authority and hierarchical corruption. These "dissenters" are often made to feel unwelcome by self-proclaimed "orthodox" Catholics who even encourage them explicitly to leave the Church. Other people have problems primarily of practice (e.g., uninspiring sermons and liturgical forms, lack of spiritual guidance, lack of close feelings of community), Many of these join fundamentalist churches, though they sometimes have both sorts of problems. Solutions to the problems will be very different, I think, with the praxis problems being more amenable to solution.

Damn, Peter. I read everybody's blurb on the jacket but yours. I am disappointed by McDannell's descent into secular humanism. It does not take away from her great scholarship. Sometimes a little knowledge is dangerous. Or is it better to say that faith is a gift. She seems to be more on target when she describes herself as a confusing Catholic. Why she goes from Catholic to humanist is interesting. Why not Catholic to Christian? Although I value scholarship wherever it is objective, when there is a resultant lack of faith I suspect that the scholarship may be tainted by a need to justify one's decision rather than genuine searching. She seems to be in transition from my vantage point. While I acknowledge that many humanists lead better lives than many identified Christians, I believe that at least so far she has lost much.

Ann Olivier,In my experience there is a third main, and growing, group. After a Catholic upbringing, they just don't see the point of it, or of any faith practice. Often this happens in the late teens or twenties. We used to console ourselves with the belief, supported by some evidence, that these young people, after marriage and children, would return to Catholic practice. It does still happen, but less and less.

John P.==Yes, there are such young people. I wonder if the bitter squabbling they see in the Church is a reason not to return.

While Gaillardetz makes some worthwhile observations and suggestions, anybody alive in the 70s and 80s would have to acknowledge that Weigel offers a much more accurate description of what was going on in that period. Thank God that's behind us and we do have a new generation of brilliant young JPII priests with a true zeal for saving souls.

One of the things I took away from my RCIA experience was a deep appreciation for Gaillardetz's clarity and good sense; we were given a piece on Church teaching that (at the time) seemed to put teaching, tradition, conscience and obedience in perspective.I appreciated Gaillardetz's thoughts here, but, for me the crux of the piece is his "parable" of Michael and Marie--one superficially rejects Catholic teaching out of hand, and one considers it carefully, but arrives at the same conclusion. While he sees a difference between these two characters--even the Pope has said that it's "not nothing" when divorced and remarried couples continue to go to Mass but don't receive--both reject the teaching.In my view, the important bit of the picture Gaillardetz leaves out is where obedience and wrestling leave you in regard to the Church. If Michael dismisses Church teaching about artificial insemination, but circumstances never tempt him to sin by engaging in it, then he remains a Catholic in good standing. Marie's wrestling with tradition may imperfectly inform her conscience. For instance, she might decide to opt for artificial insemination, but with some caveats (e.g., her husband would be the only donor; she would not opt for in vitro fertilization or embryo implantation; etc. etc.), she ought no longer be a Catholic in good standing unless she can go and make a free and full confession of sorrow for her decision.One also wonders whether a priest, in good conscience, ought to baptize a child born of artificial insemination, if its parents, however much they've wrestled with the faith, have not been faithful nor sought absolution for their sin.

"Thank God thats behind us and we do have a new generation of brilliant young JPII priests with a true zeal for saving souls."Certainly, a lot of these youngsters seem very concerned with preventing the "wrong" people from approaching the Table. Whether this will save souls or simply result in a stronger faith by distilling away the impurities so that only the strongest spirits prevail remains to be seen.

Why do you think they're "brilliant"==or have a real zeal for saving souls? I've met a number of them that want to say the Latin mass without actually going to the trouble of learning Latin--something that never would have happened in the 1950s.

One of those brilliant JP2 priests had the privilege of celebrating Mass in Latin with JP2, who scolded him for his incompetence in the langauge. Undaunted, the brilliant young priest denounced his seminary for failing to teach him Latin. In contrast, seminarians in the 1960s entered the seminary with a good knowledge of Latin, due to years of study in high school.

My husband is a Baptist, where church organization is the polar opposite of the RCC. Basically, every church entity in every generation has to persuade a new generation of its importance in their lives. The result is an endless cycle of maturity and rebirth, sometimes in the same church building, sometimes in the auditorium of the nearby elementary school. It's exhausting and at its worst it descends into out and out pandering (which is almost never successful, BTW), or in models like Willow Creek (which Gaillardetz called "Cedar Creek"), that only survive by sheer size and scale of social outreach. Many of those have seriously cratered during the recession.However, as the years go by I do see the value of the congregationalist model -- the constant attention to God at work in life, the constant re-examination of Biblical sources (extremely helpful for new believers), and the constant need to ensure the relevance of church in life, or else, simply vanish. Instead of seeding new parishes to take advantage of demographic opportunities, we see the opposite, the closing and merging of parishes and all the trauma that goes along with it. In my oh so humble view, until the priest shortage is addressed nothing else can be, because the defensive crouch the church finds itself in is impossible to get out of when organizational decisions are motivated almost entirely by the reality that the church's hierarchy is disappearing from the ground up.

". . . JPII priests with a true zeal for saving souls."This is a contrast -- about the priests who do not have a true zeal etc.)For Lent I'm going to point out the insults -- the ones that help to keep people away from the Church.)

"In my oh so humble view, until the priest shortage is addressed"Hear, hear!!

It's no secret that one of the primary reasons that the Church, not only in the US but in Europe as well, is that the Second Vatican Council has never been fully or completely implemented. JPII, and now BXVI, have established and are implementing a 'restoration' of the pre-Vatican style of Church. This is not news to anyone who reads this blog regularly. This coming Advent, we will witness the latest effect of the Restoration when we are faced with a "new' translation that renders English in a Latin idiom. Administratively, the Restoration is being implemented with the choice of Bishops solely by the Vatican, with no real consultation with local Churches.The genuine theology and ecclesiology of Vatican II are what need to be implemented.But first they have to studied. The exciting theological thrust of Vatican II was based, to a large extend, on a movement that began in France and Germany called Ressourcement, a "return to the Sources", notably the Fathers of the Church who wrote during the first four centuries of the Church's history. The fruit of this Ressourcement is the the theology and ecclesiology of Vatican II: the Church is the People of God. What Ressourcement gave the modern Church a picture of what was essential in the Church in those early centuries, how the Christians in those celebrated Eucharist and the other Sacraments, howministry was understood and exercised.Much more is at stake in the contemporary Church than simply 'rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic'! There's an old saying, "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it hasn't been tried!" I would add a corrolary: Vatican II has not been tried and found wanting; the real essence of it has not really been understood, let alone tried.,,.

"For Lent Im going to point out the insults the ones that help to keep people away from the Church."For Lent, I'm going to read everything Ann posts (not that I don't already ...)

Is j.a.m. one of the"orthodox" who wants to kick out "dissenters" and one of the problems?I thought Susan's comment to be quite germane and it made me think of Abp. Martin's addess at magdellan Colege abou tIreland, how demoralized the clergy are there and the issue of re-forming clergy WITH laity.Yesterday, our well liked(a "nice guy") JPII pastor reminded us in the homily of all the ills we're facing in the church because of "secular humanism."That kind of fortress mentality will keep drift or implosion or whatever going apace.Gaillardedtz mentions Catholic Common Ground, bu not its (I beleive deliberate) demise and Weigel crowing the Bernadin years are over.It seems to me tha sans the possibility of some of that late cardinal's vision, the continuing crisis will not abate here (or Ireland, or Australia, or on much of the continent.)

Let me be the first to alert the Commonweal blog that Charlie Sheen has become a verb. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/06/fashion/06NOTICED.html?scp=1&sq=charli... might recall that Charlie's father Martin Sheen, asked and was given permission to use Bishop's Sheen's name as a stage name. Martin Sheen's real name is Estevez. Now can we say that Bishop Sheen has been Sheened. Or have the faithful been sheened by a hierarchy who now is recruiting priests who are into empire and domination. Not to mention the complete elimination of masturbation. So there is a story somewhere in being Sheened. And it ain't your shoes.

"The bishops wisely drew on the Catholic natural law tradition, making arguments based not on divine revelation but on a form of ethical reasoning that was intelligible to all American citizens."How exactly does one make an argument that wisely draws on the Catholic Natural Law Tradition, while denying that the Catholic Natural Law Tradition is grounded in The Divinity and Unity of The Spirit of Love?

"How exactly does one make an argument that wisely draws on the Catholic Natural Law Tradition, while denying that the Catholic Natural Law Tradition is grounded in The Divinity and Unity of The Spirit of Love?"Nancy --Good question. The classic answer going all the way back to the Middle Ages is that human beings have the ability to generalize and reason from those generalizations. The discovery of natural law ethical principles is thus grounded on the common experience of mankind, just as scientific knowledge is available to all on the basis of non-religious experience. In other words, everyone -- atheists included -- can discover natural law ethics without relying on revelation.This is the reason, may Catholics think, that we can find agreement with people of other faiths or no faith at all when we are looking for principles upon which to ground our political life. In fact, that is exactly what happened with the invention of the American Constitution -- Thomas Jefferson was highly influenced by the natural law political philosopher JOhn Locke. So it simply isn't true that only people of faith can know what virtue is and be virtuous. This is the teaching of the Church and has been for over 700 years.You can disagree, but if that is the case, then I predict that Aquinas will win the argument. Yes, Thomas *also* drew on revelation, but at times he stuck to what we can know by unaided reason. See his many, many natural law arguments in the Summa theologica.

One of those brilliant JP2 priests had the privilege of celebrating Mass in Latin with JP2, who scolded him for his incompetence in the langauge. Undaunted, the brilliant young priest denounced his seminary for failing to teach him Latin. In contrast, seminarians in the 1960s entered the seminary with a good knowledge of Latin, due to years of study in high school.---------About fifteen years ago, I read the catalogs of courses offered at many/most American seminaries. Shocking to see how few offered Latin and Greek. (Can't remember if any offered Hebrew.) Many/most offered "English as a Second Language". That was shortly after Katarina Schuth's book on seminaries, theologates, etc., came out with the sad truth about the men who would be priests.True that the guys who entered in the good old days learned Latin in high school. Also in grade school. We went to Mass every morning, and with Latin and English side-by-side in the daily missal, and Engish in red under the Latin in the hymnal, it would have been impossible not to learn Latin. Funny how the "traditional" Catholics butcher the pronunciation, put the emPHAsis on the wrong syLABles, ham it up, etc.

Actually Bill I think Charlie Sheen might or could represent a form of radical individualism. In an interview he stated that he had been around the corridors of treatment and therapy for the last 20 years. He had an epiphany like moment and argues that he is now in possession of remarkable clarity and creativity. He now eschews all association with AA, therapy, etc. arguing that it does not work.Interestingly he argues that the one size fits all model of treatment augers for failure for 90 percent of people.Is he in a hypomanic phase or has he been transformed through grace to be free of alcohol and drugs? He carries around updated urine and blood samples. (yes i know that there is questionable morality...the "goddesses" and all that).The parallel point here is that institutional mental health and addiction is facing similar challenges that institutional Christianity is facing.

PSI read that his father prays the rosary daily........let's see what happens...maybe those intercessions will now bear a fruit and maybe that kind of piety has more value than we might think.

Thanks, Peter! Bravo Richard - I think we should elect him pope by acclamation.

Mr. Steinfels,I think you make a good point about the fact that leaving Catholicism is different than leaving Protestantism, especially historically.But, I wonder if that is actually a change that is happening now. In another words, post-Vatican II, post Kennedy's election, Catholics became part of accepted Christian mainstream in the U.S. Catholicism appears to be more like Protestantism, and has just become another denomination in the U.S. If this is so, it is still a serious problem since the Catholic Church is not just another denomination. Perhaps that is really the more significant change than whether or not there is a mass exodus.

Ann, no doubt, Thomas Jefferson was aware that our unalienable Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness has been endowed to us from our Creator, not John Locke.That being said, If it is true that, according to St.Thomas Aquinas, "Eternal Law is the decree of God that governs all Creation and that Natural Law is the human participation in The Eternal Law, then in the inherent natural order of The Law, Natural Law must be grounded in Eternal Law, which is The Divine Law, to begin with.According to The Catechism of The Catholic Church, (H/T also to wiki) "Sexual intercourse ouside of Marriage is contrary to its purpose. The conjugal act aims at a deeply personal unity, a unity that beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and one soul, since the Marriage bond is the sign of the Love between God and Humanity."Those who claim that we can be People of God without being in Communion with Him, are simply mistaken. We cannot be in Communion with God if we do not abide in His Word.Regarding the importance of Communion, The Eucharist and the Unity of His Church http://www.usccb.org/nab/bible/john/john17.htm

. . . JPII priests with a true zeal for saving souls.I hate (actually, I relish doing so) to point out that neither the Catholic Church nor her priests can save souls. Souls are saved by Jesus Christ. Period.

Nancy --You seem to think Jefferson was a Christian. He wasn't. He was a Deist. He respected Jesus as a moral teacher, but he thought Jesus was just another man. A great teacher, but another mere human being.You also seem to think that if someone doesn't believe in Jesus as God our Savior he will go to Hell. But that it not the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Not now, anyway. Vatican II made that crystal clear. And even if a person chooses to turn his back on Jesus, that doesn't mean that he can't know what is a virtuous human life in relation to other people. In other words, you can discover your rights and duties to others and live an upright life without believing in God.Yes, ultimately the natural law is grounded in divine law. But not everyone knows that. Yes, there have been some Catholics -- nuns and priests and maybe bishops -- who in my own lifetime taught that if you weren't a Catholic/Christian you would surely go to Hell, but I certainly wasn't taught that as a child (b. 1930), and I know very few people who were. There were a few who were taught that in a Christian Brothers school here.There is also a strange phenomenon in the U. S. -- some Catholic Americans believe what Protestants believe although they weren't taught Protestant theology. I have even known some Catholic women who were convinced that at their own marriage ceremony they promised to obey their husbands. But it's Protestant wives who promise that (or used to), but it it not part of the Catholic ceremony. Weird.

Ann, F.Y.I., Although it is a great mystery, we are taught to trust in Divine Providence. The Church has always taught that outside of The Body of Christ, there will be no Salvation:http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents... am reminded of the good thief who converted at the hour of his death.

"... no doubt, Thomas Jefferson was aware that our unalienable Right to Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness has been endowed to us from our Creator, not John Locke."I don't think Thomas Jefferson was aware of any unalienable Right to Liberty, given that he had slaves. Since his notions about libert extended only to white males, I wonder to what extent he might have extended the right to life and happiness to all.Moreover, the Church has not always perfectly interpreted these unalienable rights. It was not always apparent to all Catholics in every age that slavery was a vile institution. While the Church never condoned slavery, I don't know of any Southern Catholics who were excommunicated for holding slaves. (Ann, correct me if I'm wrong.)

As to dissention and how to avoid it within His Church, I am reminded of Jude 16..."But you, beloved, remember the words spoken beforehand by the apostles of our Lord, Jesus Christ, for they told you, 'In the last time there will be scoffers who will live according to their own godless desires.' These are the ones who cause division; they live on their own natural plain, devoid of The Spirit. But you, beloved, build yourself up in your most Holy Faith; pray in The Holy Spirit. Keep yourselves in the Love of God and wait for the Mercy of our Lord, Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life. On those who waver, have mercy; save others by snatching them out of the fire; on others have mercy with fear, abhorring even the outer garment stained by the flesh."According to Jude, we should all strive for that zeal to help each other get to Heaven and thus participate in the saving of souls.

"I dont know of any Southern Catholics who were excommunicated for holding slaves."Not antebellum, but in 1962 (long before Selma) the Archbishop of New Orleans excommunicated Catholic politicians who obstinately refused to integrate parochial schools.

"in 1962 (long before Selma)"D'oh. That should have been "in 1962 (before Selma and before Vatican II)..."

I dont think Thomas Jefferson was aware of any unalienable Right to LibertyIs this a trick question, or are you really claiming TJ was unaware of the immortal words he himself bequeathed us? Would love to hear the mental gymnastics behind that (not really).And no, the slave-holding Jesuits were not excommunicated. Nor was the father of Georgetown University's founder, who owned a few dozen slaves, one of whom became his common law wife and bore him three priest sons.

Georgetown University was founded in 1789 by John Carroll, first bishop and then first archbishop of Baltimore. Father Patrick Healy,SJ, referred to above, was president of Georgetown in the 1880s.

I think we've strayed from the topic of the problems Gailardetz noted.Let me make two points about that:1)authoruty - it's clear that there needs to be authority of some sort as Peter well noted.What's problematic is the rules and regs have become"sacred" canpns, the policy makers almost all canonists, and the impact has been to preseve that kind of authority at all costs. What is lost is the pastoral balance that Gailardetz talks about as charismatic and the lack of communication being heard up the line.What this says is there is a systemic governance problem,2)which leads to the second point about priests coming along.They are being trained, I posit, in the same poor goveranace approach that some noted here.I would have a given a few shekels to be a fly on the wall of Abp. Dolan's "visitation" of the Irish seminaries and what his message was.It strikes me that Gaillardetz, in reacting to Weigel, was saying that the triumpahal(ism) call there was more like Nero fiddling while Rome burns. iMO what we'll get is the impoverished "distinct" Catholicism of today.

Not antebellum, but in 1962 (long before Selma) the Archbishop of New Orleans excommunicated Catholic politicians who obstinately refused to integrate parochial schools.P Flanagan, Archbishop Rummel excommunicate three Catholic politicians who were defying his authority by attempting to put roadblocks in the way of his effort to integrate the Catholic schools in his diocese. He did not excommunicate them because of their views. He excommunicated them for interfering with his own actions as archbishop. It was a good and proper thing he did, but he was not in the forefront of the civil rights movement. Brown v Board of Education was decided in 1954. The New Orleans public schools integrated two years earlier than the Catholic schools.

David N, given the unfortunate propensity on this blog to preemptively condemn each and every action by the "hierarchs" of the Church as greedy, corrupt, power-hungry and self-interested, I'm not surprised you can do no more than toss a few crumbs toward the memory of Archbishop Rummel.As for "their views" and "their actions", current pro-abortion Catholic politicians are not only opposed to Church teachings in their views, but very concretely in their actions, in their votes supporting, funding and expanding abortion. They should be no less liable to denial of Communion - much less excommunication - than the Catholic politicians who opposed desegregation through their actions.

I agree with Claire: why is it "clear" that there is a need for de jure authority within the church, and what does that even mean? Most of the examples given by Peter are not in and of themselves "legal" except in the sense that they are contractual in nature, e.g., association membership. Even under that standard, the church does not possess "legal" authority. Excommunication is a symbolic exercise -- just as, basically, membership in the Church is a symbolic exercise as far as the law cares. I think there are a lot of people who would agree with Peter that de jure authority is necessary, without thinking through that the church does not function as a de jure institution -- it doesn't even have a contract with its members -- and I only say this because to call for a "de jure" solution in an enterprise without any claim to de jure authority is likely to result in even more of the bluster on display we see in actions such as threats of excommunication, which is to say, completely useless and looking at the problem from a wholly irrelevant angle.

"[Rummel] was not in the forefront of the civil rights movement. Brown v Board of Education was decided in 1954."No dog in this hunt for me, but according to Wikipedia,"In 1953, he [Rummel] issued 'Blessed Are the Peacemakers', the pastoral letter that officially ordered the end to segregation in the entire Archdiocese: [5] 'Ever mindful, therefore, of the basic truth that our Colored Catholic brethren share with us the same spiritual life and destiny, the same membership in the Mystical Body of Christ, the same dependence upon the Word of God, the participation in the Sacraments, especially the Most Holy Eucharist, the same need of moral and social encouragement, let there be no further discrimination or segregation in the pews, at the Communion rail, at the confessional and in parish meetings, just as there will be no segregation in the kingdom of heaven.' Rummel, Most Reverend Joseph Francis. 'Blessed Are the Peacemakers.' Pastoral letter 15. 1953."

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About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.