On Not Skipping the Sermon

From the November 16, 1984 issue

When I was a boy I loved to stand in the back of the church with the men. This was in Alexandria, Virginia, and the men of our parish were a varied lot. Some like my father worked in nearby Washington for the federal government, but most practiced the trades or worked at blue-collar jobs which was more typical of the place Catholic men occupied in American society at the time. This was just before that first huge crop of young Catholic veterans on the G.I. Bill graduated from college, found jobs, wives, and houses in the suburbs, and changed American Catholic life forever.

But before that happened kids like me learned in parishes everywhere that women went to the brightly lit front pews and men hovered in the shadowy rear comer between the purple draped confessional and the car-sized hissing radiator. I imitated them, leaning against the wall, arms folded, then dropping to one knee at the Sanctus bells and staying abjectly hunched over until it was time for the women to receive communion and us men to leave. One moment in particular stands out in my memory of those Masses, and that was the instant between the priest's finishing the Latin reading of the day's Gospel and his turning around to face us, to read the same passage in English and preach his sermon. In that instant the men around me slipped out the side door like burglars, and for the duration of the priest's sermon they huddled on the steps outside, smoking cigarettes. And I, awed by their daring, nevertheless remained in the church, stunned by the discovery that these men, exemplary Catholics who wouldn't have thought of missing Mass or eating meat on Friday, had nothing to learn from Father. Not that they were anti-clerical in the style of European men or that they didn't regard the clergy with great respect, but simply that the sermon was considered as addressed to the women and children. Women's and children's lives were what priests knew about.

The lesson of the sermon-skippers made a profound impression on me, though it would be a long time before I would consciously understand exactly what it taught me. Like all mid-century Americans those men took for granted the division between the two great realms of emotion and reason, or as it played out in their lives, between family and work. The church was concerned with the family, was indeed the bulwark of it; work belonged to the men, however, and the church had even less to say to them about the world of their workaday lives—their real lives—than their wives did. Because they accepted the church's authority over everything having to do with family—that is, over personal relationships, over courtship and marriage, over sex, over the rearing of children—and because their investment in family, however much they loved their wives and children, was subordinate to their investment in work, it was natural for them to feel that the priest's message had its proper relevance to the women. No offense intended, Father. It was true. And even Father whose sermons were being walked out on knew it, but Father didn't mind because, implicitly, he accepted the dichotomy and his place among the ladies as much as their husbands did.

Much is made of the enormous changes the Catholic church has undergone in the last thirty years, but one thing hasn't changed—the attitude of the men in the back.

One hardly ever sees us literally in the corner anymore, but the certainty that clergy have little to say to us as men is as implicitly and firmly held by my generation of American Catholic males as it was by our fathers. And at this moment when, as it were, the priest is in the act of turning toward us with his sermon—i.e., the bishops are about to read to us their long-promised (or is it threatened?) pastoral letter on the American economy—one senses the sermon-skippers 'scooting out again. Already "Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy" has been dismissed by many Catholic men, and some have even been moved to publicly rebut it.

The rebuttal may be new, but the dismissal isn't. "Mater si," William Buckley's National Review cracked about Pope John's seminal criticism of capitalism, "Magister no!" Pope Paul's Populorum Progressio, a blast at the most basic assumptions of profit and ownership, was largely ignored in America, even by the Catholic bishops who felt compelled to promulgate with such dutifulness his encyclical condemning birth control, Humanae Vitae.

Ah, but birth control, there's a fit subject—unlike economics—for clerical discourse. My generation of American Catholic men arrived at positions on conception in consultation with women, not with bishops, but aside from that noble collection of dissenting priests centered in

Washington and various critics writing in this journal and others, ordinary Catholics had no real way of publicly rebutting Paul VI on Humanae Vitae. There was nothing to do but slip quietly away. Even now, as some Catholic politicians tentatively suggest that the bishops' position on abortion is insufficiently nuanced, no Catholics challenge their clergy's right and duty to make absolute pronouncements on the matter. Birth control and abortion fall into the realm that men have already skipped out on in this country. They are resigned to considering these two questions, as some women want them to, as the ultimate women's issues. So let women and the preachers have it out; we men are gone.

When the bishops issued their strong condemnation of nuclear weapons in 1983 they deferred implicitly to the testimony of men whose expertise they had dared to challenge. They allowed that peace may well depend not only on the deterrence of present levels of arms, but on major escalations. The bishops thus acknowledged that serious people can differ on this great issue and the way to resolve it, but in doing so they blunted their own courageous effort to actually affect the arms race. In the old pattern that is being played out again on the pastoral letter on economics, they were cheered by those who agreed with them and dismissed by those who didn't. They found it impossible to address this crisis of the nuclear threat with anything like the authority they habitually exercise on equally complex, though infinitely less threatening, matters of personal and sexual morality.

THE TRAGEDY of the American Catholic church today is not that its teachers have so little moral authority with the American public, but that they have so little with their own people. And what people Catholics have become! Because of the achievements of our parents and grandparents and in no small measure because of the triumph of our church itself, we are in the very center of American society now. We are the entrepreneurs, the tycoons, the Senators, the scholars, the editors, the reformers and for that matter the National Security Advisers, the Secretaries of Defense, State, and Treasury, and the SALT negotiators, too. But because we have in some way come of age as Americans does not mean we have left behind our Catholic faith. In many ways, precisely because we see up close the numbing and dangerous effects of secularism, we cherish our roots in the humane tradition of religion all the more. No one is more sensitive to the moral bankruptcy of the American marketplace than some of its Catholic managers. No one is more perplexed by a deterrence policy that depends on the will to murder the human race than some Catholic generals. No one is more determined to stay in touch with the Catholic liturgical and theological traditions than some parents who constantly search out ways to introduce them to their children. No one needs clarification of the moral issues surrounding abortion more than some Catholic men and women who know both that abortion is wrong and that, in part because of church teaching on birth control, it is inevitable.

In other words many of us Catholics long to hear nothing more than the clear authentic and effective voice on these and other issues of church authority. But even we, serious as we are about our faith and disposed as we are to make our most important choices in its light, have exceedingly low expectations. We have been lectured and condescended to far too often. We have come to know that bishops not only do not look to us for answers, but hardly hear our questions. Our reservations may have become by now true biases. But still we give the bishops our attention, for we remain loyal Catholics de­ spite ourselves if not them. And always, we sense the contradiction that permanently underlies the position of the church and that inevitably undercuts its authority with us, not to mention with secular society. Even the most attractive figures of the Catholic leadership are still sponsors of the great divide that Americans are desperately trying to leave behind. At its most superficial level this is the divide between women and men, but it cuts across everything of importance, making opposites of peacemaking and "national defense," child­rearing and business, human experience and the imperatives of science, art, and rampant technology.

Clearly the American bishops want to be heard as having authority on the economy, as they want to be heard as having authority on family, and on war and peace. Despite the fact that their numbers now include some of the boldest and most gifted priests in the world, the American bishops still are not heard as having any such authority. If their views never carry beyond those who already agree with them (doves on the anti-war issue, right-wingers on abortion, liberals on their criticism of capitalism), then it is not authority. Authority is the moral capacity to compel the minds and change the hearts of those who disagree. Why can't these earnest, good men who have such convincing concern for the world and such resources at their command do that?

I said before that at its most superficial level the division which undercuts their authority is the one between men and women, but it is so also at its most profound level. That division wreaks havoc everywhere, destroying marriages left and right, preventing rich businessmen from even seeing the poor who are mostly mothers and their children now. That division guarantees that the peace movement which is mostly in the hands of women will remain ineffectual, and it makes possible the mad policies of our government which are created by rigid, unfeeling men and which so threaten the earth.

This deadly pattern—home against the world—is at the heart, I believe, of what undercuts the authority of church figures. The church herself, as my memory of standing in the back with the men indicates, has long been marked by the division between women and men, and some would say the church has been a major cause of it. The church is unapologetically patriarchal, even if its sub-institutions from parish schools to parish councils have long been dominated by women. These women, of course, know their places which are the kitchen, the kindergarten, and in church, up front listening to the sermon: Catholic clergy have long accepted the tenuous hold their authority has over men, but what they can't stomach are uppity women. There was a clue of this in the peculiar anger some leading bishops displayed toward Geraldine Ferraro. What was this? A Catholic woman daring to hold the same position on abortion that the most prominent male Catholic politicians in America had held unchallenged by the hierarchy for over a decade? The church is suspicious of the new roles women are claiming for themselves and, in fact, in its alliance with the religious right's campaign for "family values,'' its tacit opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, and its rigid adherence to traditional teaching on sexuality, the church upholds an image of womanhood that would make those new roles impossible. In addition, clergy continue to define women's areas of service and expertise mostly in terms of family and the rearing of children. Even if more and more men have made family life their primary focus or emphasize the home as much as the marketplace, attempting to carve new roles for themselves, too, they are not likely to get much help from the bishops and priests who have yet to admit that much has changed in the way men and women are trying to .build their lives today.

THE PROOF that this is so lies in the way that chur.ch authority has dealt with the one direct challenge with which it has been confronted by women. I refer of course to the movement for women's ordination to the priesthood. What are these ladies thinking of? What can they have in mind?

Well, perhaps they think the time has come to stop this business of dividing things in two: home-world, peace-war, woman-man. Why should women make the altar breads but never consecrate them? Why should they aspire to every responsibility in the world, but to none in the sanctuary? Isn't it possible that in ordaining women bishops would begin to alter the gender-defined rigidity of role and images in the church? And isn't that what must change finally? It may seem a huge leap from my question about the bishops' overall lack of credibility to this one controversial issues. I don't mean to argue that women's ordination is the only problem or the only solution. But I do think the church 's rejection of women at this point reveals something fundamental about the dichotomizing mind of Catholicism; men here, women there; men initiate, women submit; men do, women feel; men preach the Word, women hear it. But the Word, as Paul says, cuts both ways. At bottom this is a question not only of justice, but of community. If the church is to survive as a community in a meaningful sense, then this dichotomy must be ended. This structure must be changed. We have seen the beginning of such a change in the body politic this year, and who can argue that all of us Americans—men and women both—are not better off for it?

Not that women are superior, more sensitive beings whose exercise of authority as clergy would be wiser or braver, any more than their service as politicians is. My point is not that simplistic, but it is very simple; the division in the church which has rendered our clergy so nearly irrelevant to men, if not to women, to business, if not to family, to warmakers, if not to peaceniks, would be mitigated by the obliteration of its most telling manifestation. The bishops who accomplished such an act of rudimentary justice would surely be heard as having crucial things to say to all of us on the entire range of human issues, from sex to economics. They would preside again over a community of union, not division, having learned, with many outside the church, that resolving the ancient conflict between the sexes is a crucial step toward healing the dichotomies that keep the world in turmoil.

No matter how battered it is, our old instinctive, Catholic respect for bishops and priests abides. We value enormously their service as protectors of sacramental ritual, and they will always have us, and with luck our children, at their Masses. What we want, though, not only we men but we women as well, is reason to stay for the sermon. We will have it when they stop playing us off each other, perpetuating the division between us, and affirming the ancient dichotomy that rends the world, in the sad, bitter effort to keep their power.


JAMES CARROLL's books include Mortal Friends, Fault Lines, and Prince of Peace, his most recent novel, published this fall (Little, Brown).

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