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Bishop Curry in 'America'

From "The Best and Worst of Times," by Bishop Thomas J. Curry, an auxiliary of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in the November 20 issue of America:

Inparish life, I find little evidence of the supposedly polarized church.The pastoral conflicts that occupy me center on personnel, personalityconflicts and differences about programs, but not on ideologicalissues. My experience of polarization arises from the disparity betweenpastoral life and most of the Catholic commentary I read, which isfilled with a sense of failure, negativity and pessimism. Typically,this views the time since the Second Vatican Council as one of missedchances and restlessness in a dysfunctional church. Pastoral ministryover the past four years has brought me an awareness of the unfoldingof the mystery of the people of God being guided in the most difficultcircumstances. By contrast, the dominant images from Catholiccommentary of the same period that have impressed themselves on my mindare those of an infantilized people (The Liberation of the Laity, by Paul Lakeland), at sea (A People Adrift,by Peter Steinfels), on a burning platform (a panelist at a LeadershipRoundtable on Church Management conference appropriated the metaphorfrom Jack Welch of General Electric and applied it to the church).

Philip Jenkins, in The New Anti-Catholicism,has pointed out that some Catholic commentators (specifically MaureenDowd, James Carroll, Eugene Kennedy, Anna Quindlen, Garry Wills andRichard Sipe) write with the ferocity of the most ardentanti-Catholics. Other Catholic writers, however, while they avoid suchinvective, have actually subscribed to the anti-Catholic paradigm. Thisheld that Catholics could not be true Americans and that they had beenreduced by the bishops to ciphers incapable of independent thought. Thedominant academic interpretation of American Catholic history, one thatportrays the role for Catholic laity as limited to pray, pay andobey, is itself a recycling of the anti-Catholic interpretation ofCatholicism that prevailed in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Theinsularity of Catholic commentators renders them largely incapable oflocating Catholicism, past or present, within the larger Americancontext. Samuel P. Huntington in Who Are We? (2004), dealingwith national identity (in its review The New Yorker referred to it asthe new nativism), was certainly not writing from a Catholicperspective. Yet he knew so little of Catholicism that he recommendedHispanic immigrants become evangelical Protestants to assimilate intoAmerica! Even had he been interested, he would have been hardpressed tofind a guide to the role that Catholicismthe largest single religiousgroup in the United States since 1850has played in the development ofAmerican culture or society.

Philip Hamburgers Separation of Church and State(2002), the most significant statement on American church-staterelations since the writings of John Courtney Murray, S.J., wasreviewed sparingly and received little notice in Catholic academia.Although his enormously well-researched book argued exhaustively thatthe phrase separation of church and state owed its prominenceprimarily to anti-Catholic sentiment, Hamburger did not even make itinto the index of the two-volume report of the extensive three-yearproject American Catholics in the Public Square (2004).

It's a wide-ranging, unwieldy piece, of which much can be said, but I'd like to get people reading it first. Click here to view the whole thing.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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Grant's right that much can be said about this article by Bishop Curry. He is a good writer, and the paragraphs quoted by Grant are but the preamble to his main point in the article: that too much attention is being placed on the organizational structures of the Church and not enough on evangelization, which the Bishop believes should be the Church's primary focus.Here are a few additional quotes:Catholicism will continue to be transformed, as at Vatican II, primarily by religious renewal, not by organizational tinkering. Catholics at large sense this. In Los Angeles, the archdiocesan synod identified evangelization as its primary objective. Evangelization is both crucial to the renewal of Catholicism and one of the greatest challenges facing American Catholics, who have had little experience of large-scale evangelization."...."In addressing this challenge, Catholics need to realize that they are more than halfway to the goal. They have demonstrated that they are a people who are deeply attached to their faith and treasure it. During those same years, secularists, together with Catholic allies, huffed and puffed with unprecedented fury to blow the Catholic house down. They failed. Our collective task now is to appreciate the faith of the Catholic people and learn how to share it with families, communities and society.Often I ask congregations, 'Why, during the recent terrible years, have you stayed and not left?' The reflection of many people on this question can generally be summarized by St. Pauls insight: 'We hold this treasure in earthen vessels, that the surpassing power may be of God and not from us' (2 Cor 4:7). In my experiences of Catholic parishioners, I find a profound grasp of sin and grace. People are well able to appreciate the weakness of the earthen vessels without wanting to replace them with perfect ones of their imagination. The challenge of evangelization now calls us to focus on the treasures and to learn to witness to them."I don't disagree with the importance of evangelization, but my reaction after reading the whole article was the same as some of those who wrote letters to America in response to the article, i.e., that to a great degree Bishop Curry is critical of the introspection of Catholics towards the workings of the Church, and that he equates such introspection with anti-Catholicism. As to his reliance on St. Paul in 2d Corinthians, perfect earthen vessels are impossible, to be sure, but that doesn't mean that we as a Church shouldn't work towards that goal.

I read this a few weeks ago and dismissed it as a one-sided oversimplification.Though Greeley may agree (see his review of Gibson( that we're not divided, I think John Allen's view that we're polarized leaning towards balkanized is far more the case. Catholics are undivided in their loyalty to the sacramental part of the Church (though how they understand that may differ) but are torn apart between the left and the right on who's Catholic and what it means.The bishop's piece sounds like a house organ op-ed for The Tidings. His swipe at "anti-Catholic" writers like Steinfels is on the face of it absurd. His idea of Catholic writing is that it proceeds from hierarchical adulation (I can understand , as a Bishop., why he'd like that.)But the case is that the moral authority of the bishops is severely wounded and this kind of piece won't bring it back, nor will the utterings of Mr. Donohue or Diogees, etc.

"In parish life, I find little evidence of the supposedly polarized church," says the bishop.Where in God's name has Curry been?!? My diocese has two Catholic parishes that are distinctively "traditional" and not without reason. People wary of Vatican II attend them.The bishop goes on to say that most of the Catholic commentary he reads is filled with negativity, a sense of failure, etc. I ask the bishop, "I wonder why?" A little introspection on his part would not hurt.I agree with the earlier comments. I see our bishops doing their best to "move beyond" lay scrutiny of past episcopal failures, coverups, etc.His article has no credibility.

A postscript:We've always been encouraged to "grow in personal holiness." Might not this same admonition apply to the Church at large including (and perhaps especially) her institutional trappings?Criticism of the institutional church arises for a reason and does not appear out of a vacuum. In the case of our church, lingering criticism is undoubtedly due to observers' perceptions that our bishops have continued to do darn little to address various problems and issues seen as important by Catholics in the pews (and out of the pews). Is Curry a "JPII bishop," by any chance?

I forgot the Bishop's comment about the "dominant secularist ethos in 'progressive' Catholicism." Maybe I'm naive, but I just don't see that dominance. While I dislike the compartmentalization of Catholicism that's going on, I guess if I were pressed I'd say I'm more in the progressive camp than any other, yet there many things in secular American society that I find offensive. Bishop Curry also mentions his pastoral work, and I applaud any pastoral work he has done, but I have to wonder if he was able to do any more than scratch the surface of day-to-day parish life and learn what is really on the minds of parishioers. Of course, parishes differ among themselves, but if mine is any indication, many of the hot topics in the Church today are not discussed on parish grounds but at social gatherings in the homes of parishioners.

His Excellency comes across as a classic American type, the booster. No doubt he believes that if the critics would only be quiet, all would soon return to normalcy. His quite wrong evaluation of Peter Steinfels indicates to me that he quite lacks discernment. There is an aspect of humility be which we recognize that our critics often have more useful things to say to us than our admirers.

I characterize this as very good sophistry. Nice touch, quoting Greeley, Tracy and Neuhaus in agreement, although all three are part of the polarization.It is true that much of the polarization does not reach most parishes because questioners are not invited back to parish councils and the like.I dont quite get what he is trying to say when he writes "separation of church and state owed its prominence primarily to anti-Catholic sentiment"True, but what's the point? Does not mean that it is not a good thing. So Curry is at least well balanced with reference to Academia. He shows no academic skills here.

This just reinforces the fact that I learned years ago: I don't like curry in anything.

These days it is a good idea to look carefully at fulsome clerical compliments on the virtue of wonderful ordinary lay Catholics. Recently, in Baltimore, we saw our Bishops, dazzled by JP IIs theology of the body, pressuring the faithful to live out a clerical fantasy of what a wonderful married life without false notes might be. And now America gives us Bishop Curry praising to the skies the fidelity, courage and stubbornness of the American Catholic people who have stuck with the church through the last few painful years of the sex abuse crisis-- but granting them these virtues to the extent that they are unlike the really bad guys who have apparently made the Bishops life miserable during the same period. No, hes not talking about the sexual predators, or those clerical functionaries who protected them and exposed the innocent to further harm. His targets are Catholic journalists, commentators, activists and intellectuals who have been suggesting that the church as an organization could use some reform. Curry keeps criticizing an anti-Catholic paradigm holding that Catholics cant be true Americans because they have been reduced by the Bishops to ciphers incapable of independent thought,( an anti-Catholic attitude I would have thought somewhat old-fashioned). But he doesnt seem to appreciate independent thought when he gets it. Two cases in point are writers he singles out for criticism, Garry Wills and Peter Steinfels. He cites Philip Jenkins, apparently with approval, as saying Wills and a few others write of church matters with the ferocity of the most ardent anti-Catholics. This is grossly unfair. It is the strength of Willss argumentation and his ample documentation that carry the day, and it is his love for the church, not any fierce hostility, that motivates his work. Curry speaks scornfully of A People Adrift by Peter Steinfels as describing a church at sea, and classes it with work he describes as filled with a sense of failure, negativity and pessimism. Steinfels does give a sober assessment of current problems, but argues for a coming together of presently polarized parties within the church in a bold, fresh, and balanced set of proposals at the end of his book, which concludes on the notes of hope, comfort, and pilgrimage.Grant speaks of Currys essay as wide-ranging and unwieldy. Apart from my many disagreements with its content, the article is much in need of editing. My first reaction on reading it in America was to wonder what on earth the editors had in mind when they decided to publish it.

I think that the unhappiness many people have with the administration of the church transcends ideology these days. It is widespread among both laity and - if the church in NYC is any indication - clergy. The bishops need to realize this.

I don't know if she has been asked. But I nominate Susan Gannon as a Contributor to this blog.The Lady can write and always gets to the heart of the matter.

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