Each Easter sees a predictable resurrection of serious interest in Christianity from the nation’s usually skeptical or indifferent secular magazines and newspapers. This year was no exception. Newsweek featured a digitally enhanced portrait of Jesus on the cover and an assertive essay by Kenneth Woodward on "How Christianity Shaped the Modern World." With typical British drollery, the Economist ran an "obituary" to mark the anniversary of Jesus’ death and the approaching third millennium of Christianity. Reviewing the historical Jesus debate, the obit writer laid out the contradictory aspects of Scripture, the historical triumphs, tragedies, and sins of the church, and the competing theological visions that now seek to clarify the meaning of Jesus. In the end, the obituarist somewhat limply concluded, "it would seem that Jesus, in his older years, has grown more tolerant."

Well, maybe. Not to be left out of this Easter parade, the New York Times Magazine devoted countless pages to an Easter Sunday story about Catholic seminarians ("Why a Priest," April 4, 1999). The magazine’s cover featured three smiling, breviary-wielding seminarians, pointedly dressed in black and wearing Roman collars. Mischievously printed across the men’s loins was the title, "The Last Counterculture." "No one lives at further remove from consumerist, sexualized, technocratic America than its Catholic priests," read the consumerist, sexualized, technocratic cover copy. "And nobody feels the disjunction more acutely than young seminarians."

What followed inside was yet another rehearsal of the demographic facts and ecclesiological conundrums surrounding the growing shortage of priests. In an essentially sympathetic portrait, the article focused on seminarians at Mount Saint Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the nation’s second largest seminary and one of its most theologically conservative. Inevitably, questions about celibacy and sex took up a good deal of space. After all, the article repeatedly asked, what sort of a man would give up sex for a low-prestige job with pauper’s wages like the Catholic priesthood?

What sort indeed? Although the seminarians described are in many respects quite appealing and their vocations seem genuine enough, it was hard not to feel despondent upon finishing the article. It is worrisome, for one thing, that the seminarians’ opinions seem as uniform as their clothing. More worrisome still, is that what the seminarians confidently proclaim to be "the future" of the church looks and sounds a great deal like the past-the 1950s to be precise. Are Catholics in the pews ready for a return to sermons on the evils of contraception and masturbation? Evidently they better be. Will celibate seminarians who shield their eyes and ears from the sexual decadence of "Seinfeld" and the seductions of rock-and-roll be capable of hearing what their future parishioners say about life in a pluralistic, secular society, let alone about sex within marriage? Catholics should get ready to hear plenty about the redemptive meaning of suffering and Pope John Paul’s highly mystical "theology of the body." Can seminarians who believe there is some "supernatural element" to priestly garb or who talk blithely about guardian angels and fawningly about the pope’s every utterance, make themselves heard by an educated and questioning laity? They’re going to give it the old seminary try!

In short, if the Times article is accurate, seminaries like Mount Saint Mary’s are preparing priests to serve a church in full retreat from the modern world. "Countercultural" is a notoriously promiscuous term, used by those at every point along the ideological spectrum, from advocates of free love to champions of unfettered capitalism. What is striking about the countercultural stance of Saint Mary’s seminarians is how much it lacks self-reflection. Each man had a conversion story to tell, usually tracing a trajectory from a life of ordinary secular ambition and materialistic desires to one stressing self-denial and religious obedience to the hierarchy. Yet the distance traveled from obedient, rule-following careerist to obedient, rule-following seminarian is perhaps not as great as it at first appears, just as abandoning the mysticism of rock-and-roll for the often questionable mysticism of Mariology may represent a spiritual transformation that is more apparent than real. In short, these future priests seem to be in dire need of a crash course in the fiction of J.F. Powers.

It is instructive to place the Times Magazine and Newsweek stories side by side. In Newsweek, Christianity, though flawed, is seen transforming Western civilization’s understandings of God, of death’s finality and the afterlife, of ethics and the meaning of suffering. Christianity is largely responsible for our ideas about the very nature of individuality and individual conscience, for elevating the status of women and children, moderating the violence of war, creating universities, bringing rationality to bear on the legal system, and upon occasion, providing a basis for unity among diverse peoples. That agenda isn’t countercultural, but cultural, in the best sense of the word. It speaks of a world intellectually engaged and transformed, not piously scolded and dismissed.

In throwing open the windows of the church to the modern world, Pope John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council confidently asserted that the church had much to learn from secular institutions, especially from democracy’s emphasis on tolerance and pluralism. Error, the church belatedly admitted, does have rights. Yet the Times Magazine tells us that the "crux" of the seminarians’ countercultural convictions rests on a belief that "the so-called freedoms of our secular and relativistic culture have not paid off...on the contrary, they have created a dangerous and uninhibited world where families are ravaged by divorce, abortion, addiction, and violence." Echoing the pope, one seminarian offered the following alternative view of freedom as a possible solution to these problems: "Freedom is knowing your choices and then choosing the truth."

No reasonable person can deny that the cost of modern freedom and toleration can be high. Nor can we be complacent in the face of moral failure. But freedom entails spiritual risk, not religious certainty. The "truth" these seminarians want "to propose, not impose," remains an unvarying and ahistorical truth, one that is naively thought immune to change or error. What is woefully missing in the seminarians’ perspective is some sense of the moral damage caused by the church’s long refusal to acknowledge freedom of conscience as a fundamental Christian value-and a fundamental form of Christian loyalty. This is a lesson, it appears, that Catholics-or at least some Catholics-may have to learn all over again.

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Published in the 1999-04-23 issue: View Contents
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