Defenders of the Faith!

A Personal Reflection on Recent History

“Defender of the Faith” was the title bestowed in 1521 by Pope Leo X on Henry VIII as a reward for the English king’s “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” against Martin Luther. When Henry broke with Rome, Pope Paul III rescinded the title. It was restored to the king by Parliament in 1544 and is still used by his successors, though Henry’s turnabout made the title an irony rather than an honor.

Irony remains a characteristic of the title even in the Catholic Church. Following the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), Catholicism abandoned its self-understanding as Defender of the Faith and made peace with its enemies. Yet nearly five decades later the title is brandished again by some Catholics and calls are sounded for the church militant to take up the banners of war, or at least of the culture wars.

The church has had enemies. U.S. Catholicism certainly had them, especially after immigrants from Europe inundated American cities during the nineteenth century, overwhelmed the locals, and raised fear among their historic enemies, the Protestants, that the papists would soon rule the country. (But whoever imagined six Catholics on the Supreme Court?) In the midst of this struggle, Catholics took full advantage of the separation of church and state and the reigning ethos of individualism and entrepreneurialism, making themselves Americans while maintaining their religious defenses against the enemy. The powerful Catholic subculture that developed had two effects. First, schools, colleges, parishes, hospitals, orphanages, etc., flourished under the Catholic brand, and Catholics prospered within them. Second, whatever the inroads of secularizing influences on U.S. culture, the Catholic ghetto long staved off what Max Weber called the “disenchantment of the world.”

By the end of World War II, there was fraternization, especially among the lay members of different religions: The creation of a Judeo-Christian movement (remember Will Herberg’s Protestant–Catholic–Jew?) became a religion in itself. Other shifts and adjustments—the dialogue Mass, the reformed Easter liturgy, and vital lay movements—presaged the changes of Vatican II and eased its reception. The council declared a truce with Protestants and everyone else.

John O’Malley’s brilliant What Happened at Vatican II recounts how the council moved the church “from the dialectic of winning an argument to the dialogue of finding common ground.” This change in language and style invited a new configuration of relationships. Most U.S. Catholics received the changes enthusiastically, as did many Christians and Jews as well as the world at large. For a decade (1965–75) the Catholic Church was a darling of American culture. As the author Peter Quinn, chronicler in fact and fiction of American Catholicism, has observed: “The idea that we were besieged just disappeared.”

But it’s back!

As we now discover, the old ways were not so much demolished as put in storage. The strut work of battlements remained in place, in Rome and within the clerical culture, especially among some in the hierarchy and those who yearned to join its ranks. Once again, Defenders of the Faith behave as if the church is under siege. Unlike the hoary past, the sources of this siege seem to be within the battlements as much as without.

How have we reverted to this threadbare image of the church? Here are four illustrations: (1) using the bogeyman of secularism to explain our troubles, (2) misconstruing the sexual revolution, (3) the pontificate of John Paul II, and (4) our failure as a religious community to find common ground.



The idea and significance of secularism—its origins, meaning, and history—have been bandied about for so long that there is now talk, at least by some, of “postsecularism.” Dumping secularism in the waste bin of history, however, is not the current Catholic view. Rather, secularism is the designated enemy of the one true faith.

Weber’s “disenchantment of the world” described the loss of the spiritual or mystical sensibility in human thought and human affairs and the ascendancy of the rational and scientific sensibility not only on the grand scale of human events, but on the small ones of everyday life. Matthew Arnold’s elegiac words in “Dover Beach” captured that loss and the regret Arnold felt in 1851 standing with his bride overlooking Dover Beach in England.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Except as poetry, Arnold’s sentiment hardly reached American-Catholic shores. Even a hundred years later, had it crossed the Atlantic and reached the New World? Had it reached the western shores of Lake Michigan, where I was growing up? Didn’t the disenchantment have to be more local to make inroads, more peculiarly American? Or was Catholic exceptionalism at work here? Was disenchantment staved off by the dense subculture of Catholic institutions and wholesale Catholic pride in being, as the comedian Lenny Bruce proclaimed, “the THE church”?

Whatever the state of alienation or unbelief, of skepticism or religious disillusion besetting the “modern” world, it hardly existed in my Chicago Catholic landscape—or in any other large Northern, urban conglomerate—with its Catholic sense of impenetrable wholeness. Even reading “Dover Beach” my junior year of high school, where it was fully explicated by Ms. Biederstadt, I saw no sign that the sea of faith, with “its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,” was retreating from the shores of Lake Michigan, or any other Catholic lake, in the middle of the last century.

Everything made sense, and if it didn’t, it could be made to make sense: just ask for an explanation, and you got one. Of course, there were the doubters and the scoffers, but even they practiced the art of the Catholic apologia; well-honed questions produced well-honed answers. Cosmological sense led to metaphysical integrity; the world was of a piece—the inner and the outer, the sacred and profane, the parish and the precinct, the Catholic and the Democratic Party, the family and the neighborhood. Whatever Arnold’s lament, it was not ours.

But...things began to change. Let one set of facts stand for many: more and more young Catholics were going to college, especially Catholic colleges. The Official Catholic Directory offers these stunning figures:


Year                  1940        1950        1960

Total Students  40,673    230,829   328,555


Enrollment in the 1950s was 5.5 times larger than it had been in the ’40s. By the ’60s it was 8 times larger. The GI Bill, low tuition, and a recognition of the value of a college degree all helped to shift the deference equation between clergy and laity, between leaders and followers, between men and women. This mass of Catholic college graduates increased social mobility and assimilation. Catholics knew more and had more questions, and with this came a nascent skepticism. A college education decreased the willingness of people to accept matters on authority alone or on easy answers from the store of apologetics. People began to say, politely enough, “Who says?”

And then, on October 11, 1962, at 8:30 a.m., the Catholic Church took a dramatic turn: Vatican II opened. Of course, one single item or strand of the ’60s did not make Catholics secular. During the 1960s, young and not-so-young Catholics began to face the disenchantment of the world, but what did this mean? The church had held for most of its long history to a vigorous commitment to reason and to reasoned explanation. We were not fundamentalists or literalists. But the assumptions of this Catholic notion of reason, perhaps too mechanical or innocent, even naive, were overtaken, above all, by historical consciousness and a more expansive practice of reason. Reason used to support authoritative statements turned out to be different from reasoning based on empirical evidence and human experience. The Catholic apologetic came to seem more rationalizing than rational.

Historical consciousness fills out the sense of the past, illumines and corrects it, but it also exposes ambiguities. Consider what happens when historical consciousness enters into our understanding of the sacred. Reading Scripture in light of archeological, historical, and linguistic studies—both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures—renders a more layered and multifaceted understanding of Revelation. The life of the early church turned out to be far more complex than the straightforward trajectory from the Resurrection in Jerusalem to a pope in Rome and then onto the wholesale conversion of Europe and the emergence of Christendom. So too, the liturgy, priestly celibacy, and other eternal truths—each had a history and context. In a similar way, the ground of moral rules began to shift from eternal truths embodied in natural law to the experience and observation of ordinary people. Laypeople, and some clergy as well, began to see parts of the sexual ethic of the Catholic Church as impediments to holiness rather than the royal road.

Some of these notions were in play before Vatican II, but clearly the council accelerated the pace of change. Many Catholics quickly adjusted to the challenges of living with historical consciousness and the ambiguities of an adult faith. But some have departed for more fundamentalist pastures, while others have concluded that to adjust is to lose the essence of their faith. Secularism and relativism have become the bogeyman of the church. From the perspective of fifty years, however, what ails the church is not secularism as such but the failure of Catholic leaders to grasp that an adult faith depends on persuasion, and not on fiat. As America’s former editor Thomas Reese, SJ, remarks, “The church is a lazy monopoly.”


The Sexual Revolution

A more dramatic example of fiat and the failure of authority could hardly have been engineered than the one that erupted in 1968 over Humanae vitae. Though the encyclical was an advance on the traditional view that the primary purpose of sex was procreation, the long-awaited decision upheld the prohibition of artificial contraception. A papal commission, originally appointed by John XXIII, had concluded the opposite: the use of contraception should be left to the conscience of married couples. Those findings had been leaked (to the National Catholic Reporter—then a new publication) and had quickly raised expectations that the church’s teaching would be modified. When Paul VI decided otherwise, he faced not simply the wrath of disappointed expectations, but the overwhelming conviction among Catholics that he was just plain wrong.

Theologians, philosophers, some bishops, and many priests supported the laity’s views, and perhaps the ensuing conflict might have achieved a standoff as time went on. In the Catholic casuistic tradition, laypeople could have followed their consciences while the pope stood by the traditional teaching; this would not have been the first time, even on matters of birth control, that teaching and practice had come to an accommodation. Instead, the Catholic ethic and the so-called sexual revolution came into conflict. The encyclical created a chasm within the church and with the culture that has only deepened in the decades since.

The gender, sexual, and reproductive revolutions that emerged in the late sixties and seventies challenged all traditional sexual ethics, not simply the Catholic one. There was the sexual liberation movement, calling for more sex within and without marriage, with whomever, and without remorse (the “without remorse” part was often short-lived), as well as an easing of divorce laws. The 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion (Roe v. Wade) has come to reshape the church’s role in U.S. politics. The reproductive revolution (sperm and egg donations, in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, amniocentesis, genetic manipulation, etc.) changed medical practice and attitudes about sex and babies. New understandings of same-sex relationships have emerged more slowly, but are likely in the near future to change the civil definition of marriage. Finally, embryonic stem-cell research, part snake oil, part medical-industrial complex, comes ever nearer to loosening the tie between human procreation and reproduction.

Catholic teaching opposes most of these technologies, laws, and practices, and so do many Catholics. Yet because Humanae vitae stands at the beginning of these struggles, it has disabled the arguments and discredited church authorities from effectively persuading even their own members that this brave new world of technological reproduction and genetic manipulation presents as many dangers as benefits. Finally, whatever casuistic standoff might have emerged between the laity and the hierarchy was relentlessly closed as Rome made Humanae vitae a litmus tests for church office, bringing back a sense of siege and a new role for Defenders of the Faith. For that story we turn to Karol Wojtyla.


John Paul II

Wojtyla was elected as pope in 1978. The election of a Polish cardinal to the papacy surprised and pleased most Catholics. The choice signaled an opening to the global identity of the church. Out of Italy! Out of Western Europe! Wojtyla wasn’t simply an important churchman; he was a heroic figure in the struggle against communism. Tad Szulc’s 1995 biography offers an authoritative account. An American-Polish-Jewish journalist with good sources and a command of Polish, Szulc shows how Wojtyla personified the deeply rooted alliance between religion and culture that kept Poland alive over centuries of domination by its neighbors. Wojtyla was a master of the oratory and theatricality that had transmitted this history from generation to generation. Martyrdom and suffering, the lifeblood of Poland’s history, were the keynotes of his life. Szulc makes clear that Wojtyla and his fellow Poles believed that his papacy was destined for great things.

John Paul II reigned for twenty-six years; the first half of his papacy coincided with the rise of Solidarity in Poland, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the liberation of Eastern Europe from communism. Solidarity, which the pope supported and counseled, looms especially large in the story. Solidarity’s link to U.S. Catholicism and the pope’s relations with Ronald Reagan have been cited as important factors in the ability of Poland to resist Soviet pressures and ultimately to free itself from the “evil empire.” For this, the pope was widely admired.

At the same time, and perhaps for the same reasons, the pope took a dim view of Catholic lefties, especially priests and sisters. A photo of him visiting Nicaragua in 1983, wagging his finger at Ernesto Cardenal and reprimanding other clergy who had joined the Sandinista government, captures something of the gut-level response he must have had toward any sign of the church cooperating with socialism or communism. In fact, the pope subsequently prohibited the vowed and ordained from serving in any political office, even in democratic governments.

It is a mistake to see John Paul II as a liberal who became a conservative as he surveyed global Catholicism and found it wanting, especially in the United States and Europe. Rather, he was a priest steeped in the traditions of Polish Catholicism, with its deep resistance to outside forces, including other religions, other national influences, and secularism, and with a deep commitment to the priesthood as a unique and heroic role in preserving the traditions of Catholicism. He had an affinity for public celebration and dramatic gestures—a man of action. His actorly talents kept him on many front pages and made him popular among Catholics and non-Catholics alike, even those who disagreed with him.

John Paul’s personal characteristics became widely institutionalized. For example, in appointing John O’Connor archbishop of New York in 1984, the pope said, “I want a man just like me in New York.’’ O’Connor, for his part, described himself as having “a sense of fierce loyalty to the pope.” A wider range of qualities had traditionally governed episcopal appointments, yet under John Paul imitation of the pope became paramount. This was reinforced by the practice of transferring bishops from see to see, creating a mentality that promotion to a better spot could be had by strict loyalty to this pope and his theology (hence the curious fad for John Paul’s “theology of the body”).

Other policies—demands for liturgical and clerical discipline, litmus tests for theologians and bishops, restrictions on the authority and collegiality of bishops’ conferences—not only thwarted changes John Paul found unacceptable but also served to reassert papal and curial dominance in decision making over all aspects of the church. Consider, for example, the decade-long discussion that culminated in the apostolic letter Ex corde ecclesiae (1990). While Catholic university educators recognized that the religious identity of their institutions needed a sharper focus, most dismissed the Roman view that this could be accomplished through a canonical framework that would alter the university’s governance and control theologians. These ecclesiastical mechanisms were regarded as a challenge to hard-won reputations for autonomy and academic freedom in U.S. Catholic higher education.

Ultimately the pope’s words and actions recreated the atmosphere of a church under siege not by Protestants, but by the forces of secularism, relativism, materialism, and hedonism, summed up in the dichotomous and polarizing language of the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” John Paul first used the term “culture of life” in 1993. “The culture of life means respect for nature and protection of God’s work of creation. In a special way, it means respect for human life from the first moment of conception until its natural end.” While this echoed the consistent ethic of life enunciated in 1983 by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, its Manichean shadow emerged when Cardinal Bernard Law urged Americans to “spread the culture of life over the culture of death.”

The opposing terms appeared in Evangelium vitae (1995) when John Paul described the “deepest roots” of the modern struggle as

the eclipse of the sense of God and of man, typical of a social and cultural climate dominated by secularism, which, with its ubiquitous tentacles, succeeds at times in putting Christian communities themselves to the test....

This situation, with its lights and shadows, ought to make us all fully aware that we are facing an enormous and dramatic clash between good and evil, death and life, the “culture of death” and the “culture of life.”

Given the wars, genocides, and human depredations of the twentieth century (and twenty-first), who could deny the human capacity for death-dealing violence and evil? Yet in the divisive state of American politics, the phrases “culture of life” and “culture of death” ceased to be simply religious metaphors and became political slogans in the struggle over abortion, the culture wars, and partisan political advantage, a struggle that many U.S. bishops foolishly joined.

During the long years of John Paul II’s pontificate, we can trace the emergence (or reemergence) of a structure and a mentality that tightened boundaries and helped create slogans for those judged to be more Catholic (“orthodox”) or less Catholic (“cafeteria” Catholics). Add to that the resurgence of a pre–Vatican II clerical and curial culture that served to alienate many Catholics from their bishops and led to an unprecedented level of sectarianism within the church and the sharp division we now see among U.S. Catholics.

John Paul II’s long pontificate has been hailed as a beacon of hope and light in a world going dark. I think that judgment is premature. In the meantime, the impact of his words and policies has recreated the sense of an embattled church. Did John Paul II intend to create enemies so that he could play the role of Defender of the Faith? It was a role his biography fit him for.


Failure to Find Common Ground

Events as disruptive as the reforms of Vatican II inevitably generate reconsiderations. The pontificate of John Paul II was part of such a rethinking, but he was not alone. The “consistent ethic of life” was another. And another, also proposed by Cardinal Bernardin, was the Catholic Common Ground Initiative announced on August 12, 1996, with the statement “Called to Be Catholic.”

The working group that wrote that statement was an effort in which I participated and which ultimately—and ironically—demonstrated how besieged the church had become not by its traditional enemies but by its own members. The group’s first meeting took place December 7–8, 1992, in Ypsilanti, Michigan. It gathered the cardinal, two bishops, five priests, one religious sister, and seven laymen and laywomen. By the last meeting, July 1, 1995, the working group added up to twenty people, five women and fifteen men. Philip Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center, was the organizing spirit of these gatherings. He often talked about polarization within the church and one of its chief effects, paralysis—an inability to tackle a problem or a subject because of attacks from both right and left. The gathering at Ypsilanti was meant to address this paralysis.

As someone whose everyday work—I was in 1992 the editor of Commonweal—involved a good deal of polemical fireworks and public jousting, even I was surprised by the rough treatment given the priests and sisters that was reported at our meetings. Their words and deeds were twisted and misused for partisan purposes both in the United States and in Rome, graphically illustrating the divisions among the U.S. bishops and highlighting the Roman effort to weaken the bishops’ conference. The Leadership Conference of Women Religious was being co-opted by Rome’s establishment of a group for conservative women religious. There were stories of Roman refusal to resolve canonically the cases of priests guilty of the sexual abuse of minors—a subject of grave concern then, which has now exploded worldwide.

We heard about the declining morale of the bishops and the interference by curial officials in mundane diocesan affairs. We discussed the liturgy wars, along with the poor quality of many liturgies and the personalizing of liturgical celebrations. Catechesis for primary- and secondary-school students was producing religious illiterates, while the largely liberal catechetical establishment failed to address the problem. In short, the culture war that raged in the country flourished in the church.

A conscientious study examined positions of right and left. The point was not to split the difference, but to understand where and how these differences arose. Given the rhetorical flourishes and extreme partisanship that went along with the Catholic culture wars, the group believed it would be a real achievement to specify where the differences and disagreements actually lay.

From these inquiries were extracted a set of themes and potential alternatives to the status quo. There was an effort to describe what a resolution of these divisions might entail. For example, the lack of self-criticism on the left was compared to the outsized claims of orthodoxy on the right. Were there ways to attend to the criticisms and concerns of right and left without recourse to rhetorical flourishes and ad hominem attacks, without questioning the motives of one’s opponent, without indulging in conspiracy theories?

The direction of these discussions is easy to see in the opening lines of “Called to Be Catholic: Church in a Time of Peril”:

Will the Catholic Church in the United States enter the new millennium as a church of promise, augmented by the faith of rising generations and able to be a leavening force in our culture? Or will it became a church on the defensive, torn by dissension and weakened in its core structures? The outcome, we believe, depends on whether American Catholicism can confront an array of challenges with honesty and imagination and whether the church can reverse the polarization that inhibits discussion and cripples leadership.

The statement called attention to disenfranchisement, confusion, and drift especially among the young; to the erosion of the Catholic identity of Catholic institutions and to the suspicions and acrimony that led to the denial of problems and inhibited candid and constructive discussion. The subjects of the group’s concerns were enumerated as well: the role of women, the meaning of human sexuality, the morale of priests, lay leadership in the church, responsibility to the poor and to our political life, collegiality, and subsidiarity between the bishops and Rome.

The criticism from conservatives that followed Cardinal Bernardin’s announcement of the initiative focused on what they saw as the liberal genesis and construction of “Called to Be Catholic.” Several prelates declared there was no need to search for common ground, that Jesus Christ was common ground. Of course, the initiative’s official statement had already made that clear. On one level, critics simply denied that the church was factionalized and paralyzed. On another, they embodied a paradox of the Catholic liberal/conservative divide: The very means that liberals proposed to help people to agree about their disagreements—namely talking about them—only raised conservatives’ suspicions. In the end, the initiative was plagued by the divisions it proposed to discuss: in inviting conservative voices to its dialogues it limited the number of liberals, while including more conservative voices did nothing to foster common ground. The effort became another source of polarization mirroring the fractured state of the church rather than healing it.


Now What?

Forty-five years after the conclusion of Vatican II, the church is beset by sectarianism and factionalism. My four illustrations account for some of that; many others could be added. Laypeople, women especially, no longer trust the bishops, much of the clergy, or the Roman bureaucracy that issues so many ill-considered decisions. The declining influence of bishops and clergy that began with assimilation and education has been exacerbated by the sexual-abuse crisis. The affront to women religious, once the hierarchy’s steadfast ally, has further eroded ecclesiastical authority. Lack of trust and polarization over partisan political struggles further hardens intraecclesial divisions. “A people adrift” perfectly sums up the state of U.S. Catholics and their church.

In 1965, Vatican II launched the church on a renewal meant to make it a more resilient force in the modern world. By the end of John Paul II’s pontificate in 2005, a chokehold had been put on that agenda. The drift that came with the pope’s prolonged illness has continued under his successor, Benedict XVI. His appearance and pronouncements evoke the classic image of Defender of the Faith, yet he seems more its captive than its embodiment. His intellectual brilliance and rigor notwithstanding, he has so far proved oddly inept.

So? In a church without enemies, what is the Defender of the Faith to do? The short answer is get new ones, and so we have. And when there are not enough of them outside our ranks, we pounce on ones we detect within. To invoke a well-worked phrase, we have met the enemy, and it is us.


This essay is adapted from a talk given at the University of San Francisco's Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Studies.

Related: My Chicago Catholic Bubble, by Margaret O'Brien Steinfels

Published in the 2010-12-03 issue: 

Margaret O’Brien Steinfels is a former editor of Commonweal. 

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