A People Adrift argues that American Catholics are all at sea. If their great ship has lost its masts and compass, good navigators and shipwrights like Peter Steinfels must get busy to prevent a shipwreck. He is more successful than most analysts of post-Vatican II decline because he manages to go beyond the familiar criticisms made over and over again by the Catholic left and right. The left sees Vatican II and its aftermath as stronger on promise than fulfillment—a terrible missed opportunity—while the right sees it as an era of betrayal, heresy, and surrender. Steinfels believes that the evidence is more surprising and ambiguous than either side will admit. The cultural landscape in which American Catholics live has been transformed in the last forty years and would have caused an upheaval even without the impetus of the conciliar reforms. Making sense of Catholic problems today, he argues, requires a study not just of the church but of the changing world in which it moves.

Steinfels, the New York Times’s religion columnist and a former editor of this magazine, is equally at home in churches, newsrooms, and classrooms, and has loyalties to all three. He wants the church revitalized, reporting accurate, and education illuminating. When he examines the recent priest/pedophilia scandal, for example, he can see it through the eyes of an investigative reporter, a sociologist, and a damage-control-minded bishop, even while weeping over it as a dismayed parishioner in the pew. He notes that headline writers, eager to make the story as breathtaking as possible, relied heavily on verbs in the present tense. They, and unwary readers, could easily miss the fact that most of the offenders were elderly men whose crimes had been committed long before, and that the number of new accusations was declining even as the amount of media coverage was rising. Without in any way excusing the culprits or the bishops’ instinctive secretiveness, Steinfels recognizes the genuine difficulties they faced. Many of the victims preferred not to have their cases publicized, for example, and the extent of the scandal in 2002 itself bears witness to a delayed but now genuine eagerness to bring former sins to light and set things straight. On this and a dozen other issues Steinfels puts his vast and varied experience to good use, analyzing Catholic activities around the nation, comparing them to those of other religious groups, and weaving into his text descriptions from dozens of news assignments.

How can Steinfels tell that the people are adrift? First, by looking at what happens every Sunday when Catholics go to Mass (see “Fixing the Liturgy,” Commonweal, July 18). It ought to be the climax of the week, reinforcing their sense of the link between the natural and the supernatural worlds, and energizing them to carry the lessons of their faith out into the world. But it isn’t. More laity than before Vatican II participate in the Mass, by reading Scripture and prayers and distributing the Eucharist, but the inert majority still just watches and mumbles. Steinfels offers a shrewd comparison to show that this is a serious matter: “Imagine a birthday celebration where two or three out of ten family members actually sang ‘Happy Birthday’ and the rest stood silent or barely moving their lips. What would be the message?”

One of the book’s heroes is Bishop Kenneth Untener of Saginaw, Michigan, who videotapes his priests’ liturgies to find specific ways of improving their priestly craftsmanship and, hence, the quality of Mass itself. That kind of practical, hands-on approach to improving Catholic life is, Steinfels says, needed in many other areas.

A second sign of drift is apparent in Catholic religious education, passing the faith on to the next generation. Where nuns used to teach religion, laity usually teach it now. They are, says Steinfels, far less well informed than their predecessors in doctrine and many of them do not really endorse church teaching, especially on sexual matters. Polls show that sizable numbers of young Catholics do not know what “sacrament” means, and that many consider the consecrated bread and wine of the Mass to be no more than symbols of Christ’s body and blood. On the other hand, Stein­fels, never deceived by nostalgia, recalls that the preconciliar style of Catholic education was not the stuff of golden ages. In those days the catechism, taught and learned by rote, emphasizing God as a rule maker and dispenser of terrifying punishments, often appeared mechanical and heartless. He speculates that religious education, drastically reconceptualized in recent decades, perhaps makes up in the spirit what it loses in the letter.

As for Catholic schools, they have gone through two transformations, one in their structure and another in their significance to outsiders. They appeared to be doomed in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when critics like Mary Perkins Ryan found them dogmatic, inflexible, unimaginative, and overcrowded, when nuns began to leave in large numbers, and when their lay replacements had to be paid proper salaries. Costs soared and enrollments tumbled; many schools were forced to close. Yet, by the late 1980s and 1990s parochial schools that had survived were, for the first time in American history, drawing favorable notice from secular observers who described them as ideal places for the basic education of urban children. Suddenly they were models to be emulated by public-school reformers rather than object lessons in what not to do. They now seem assured of a healthy future, so long, Steinfels argues, as they can maintain their distinctive spirit under the guidance of principled Catholic principals.

Catholic colleges, like the parochial schools, have had to face an identity crisis. Created to serve the Catholic immigrant subculture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and long scorned by the rest of the nation, some of them became prestigious after the 1970s as academic powerhouses. Georgetown and Notre Dame, at each of which Stein­fels has taught, are cases in point. The explicit Catholic identity of many colleges declined as their status rose, however, until there was almost nothing genuinely Catholic left in them, prompting Pope John Paul II to insist on their acceptance of the decree Ex corde ecclesiae (1990). Steinfels believes the Vatican was heavy-handed in imposing on them what looked like an orthodoxy test, but also that it was right on the main point. Catholic schools ought to be Catholic in some sense beyond mere lip service to tradition; they and the education they offer ought to be pervaded by the Catholic ethos. Faculty are the key here. He advocates alerting every academic job candidate, right from the outset, that the college’s or university’s mission is essentially Catholic. The successful candidate need not be a Catholic but will have to be dedicated to the primacy of a school’s religious mission as well as to the imperatives of a secular discipline.

Where do Catholics stand politically? Since Vatican II, says Steinfels, politics has mattered more to Catholics than formerly; it is now a religious duty for them to get involved in the world. At the same time, however, they seem to have become politically homeless. For much of the twentieth century, most Catholics were Democrats. Now, the Democratic Party’s commitment to prochoice politics is so fierce that Catholics like Pennsylvania’s former governor Robert Casey, an exemplary Democrat on almost every issue except abortion, was prevented from addressing his party’s national convention in 1992. “At the party’s national level, opposition to abortion was becoming literally unspeakable.” No longer entirely at home among the Democrats, Catholics can’t get comfortable with hardhearted Bush II Republicanism either. After all, “Catholicism’s positive attitude toward active government and parallel suspicion of profit-driven market competition collide with Republican denigration of government and celebration of free markets.” Steinfels argues the need for imaginative Catholic leadership here too, especially among the laity—“fresh formulas to do for the next decade what Cardinal Bernardin and his consistent ethic of life did for the 1980s and 1990s.”

Cardinal Joseph Bernardin is another of the book’s heroes and Steinfels, a pre-Vatican II Chicago altar boy, meditates on Bernardin’s death and funeral in 1996 (where he was both reporter and mourner) as symbols for the end of a Catholic era. He praises the cardinal for attempting to give Catholicism a distinctive, contemporary role; Bernardin’s metaphor of a “seamless garment” on human-rights issues had the power to attract and reconcile argumentative Catholics from all points on the spectrum, as did his “Common Ground” initiative. His imaginative, conciliatory, and faith-imbued approach to Catholic leadership seems to Steinfels a profitable model for the future.

Where will Catholicism go from here? A long and thoughtful chapter on the crisis of vocations, the nature of seminary training, the celibacy dilemma, and the inevitable shortage of priests in the immediate future, brings Steinfels back to the idea that lay participation in leadership, and clarification of Catholic goals, are vital. The Catholic left needs to learn, he concludes, that the church must “foster distinctive identities, maintain recognizable boundaries, and make significant demands on adherents.” At the same time, the Catholic right needs to learn from history that no religion can stand still; it “must acknowledge and engage great transmutations in civilization history.” Both sides should devote less time to theoretical squabbling and more time to “practical skills, pastoral results, empirical measures, and organizational effectiveness.” In the efforts to take control of the drifting ship and get it back into the trade winds Catholics could hardly do better than to take Steinfels’s book as their sailor’s almanac.

Patrick Allitt is associate professor of history at Emory University and author of Catholic Converts: British and American Intellectuals Turn to Rome (Cornell University Press).
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Published in the 2003-08-15 issue: View Contents
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