A Refuge?

Catholics, the Church & the Culture Wars

An amusing description recently appeared in the Times Literary Supplement regarding what talents and temperament an editor needs. “Rat-like cunning, a plausible manner, and a little literary ability,” went the quip.

I seem to be a little deficient in the rat-like cunning department, but otherwise that resumé rings true. Of course, different magazines require different kinds of cunning from editors. At Commonweal, I spend a lot of time looking for articles and writers. This is partly because we pay very little and partly because professional writers would rather place their work in magazines with larger circulations. The curious mix of topics we cover is yet another difficulty. There just aren’t many magazines that do theology and politics, movies and encyclicals, literature and bioethics. As a result, I often look for someone who knows something I think readers want to know about or someone who has an important story to tell, rather than for a particular writer. Once I start working with a writer, things usually pan out well, but sometimes they don’t, and for interesting, often telling reasons. From time to time, hints about where American Catholicism might be headed surface in the editing process.

Last spring, thanks to Commonweal’s Speakers Program, I gave a talk at a prestigious secular liberal-arts college. At my talk, I met a young woman from the college who was about to enter a religious order. Here’s a good story, I thought. The order she was joining evidently embraced traditional forms of community life and piety. An even better story, I thought. How did a young woman, educated in the aggressively secular and notoriously politically correct environment of an elite college, come to discern her religious vocation? Yes, the traditional character of her order raised questions for me, but her teachers spoke highly of her and she made a positive impression on me when we met. Perhaps she had something to teach Commonweal readers about how committed younger Catholics think about their faith.

After my visit, I asked her if she’d be willing to write something for Commonweal about her decision to become a nun. She eagerly agreed. Over the next few months she worked on several drafts of her essay. My initial hope was to pair the piece with one about the Vatican’s visitation and investigation of American sisters, which was being written anonymously by a nun who had been in religious life for nearly forty years (see “Cross Examination,” October 9, by Sister X). These contrasting views might provide a window into the tension that now exists between younger, more conservative nuns and older nuns who have been so strongly influenced by feminist thought.

At some level, the vocation my young author felt so strongly called to was inexplicable. Some things were clear, however. She was an exceedingly determined, sincere, positive, and idealistic young person. She was also hesitant to reveal details about the community she was joining. Perhaps she thought that its conservative outlook and disciplines would raise problems for me or Commonweal. Actually, the traditional and somewhat arcane nature of the rule the order observed was one of the attractions of the story. Pope Benedict, after all, has been stressing the importance of traditional markers of Catholic identity and practice. Whether that approach can work remains an open question. The young woman did not need to express doubts about the order’s practices, but I wanted her to explain to readers how she made sense of things like wearing a habit, taking a vow of obedience, leading a life of voluntary poverty, sleeping on a wooden pallet on the floor, and mortification of the flesh. Eventually these things were mentioned in the piece, but in a cursory fashion.

I was eager to get the finished story into the magazine. It was at that point that I got a phone call from my young author. In a halting manner, she told me that she had been in communication with her prospective religious superiors. As an act of humility and an important step in her spiritual development, she had been urged (or was it instructed?) to withdraw the article. I’m embarrassed to say that her request took me by surprise. Obviously, what rat-like cunning I possess had deserted me: I had failed to anticipate this sadly predictable turn of events. (With traditional practices come traditional mindsets, which I guess is the point.) Since the young woman had never expressed concerns about interference from the order, and because the piece was an entirely positive depiction of her progress toward a religious vocation, I couldn’t imagine what objections could be raised. Given that she would not be entering her order for a few months, I thought permission from any prospective spiritual director was not an issue. Perhaps she was just getting cold feet. Stunned and a bit perturbed, I suggested that doing a hundred pushups would be just as useful an exercise in humility. She laughed and seemed to agree. She did not understand the objections to the article either, she confessed, but went on to say that this was the sort of life of obedience, sacrifice, and faith she wanted and hoped she could accept.

Frankly, I’m skeptical—skeptical that a return to the supposed golden age of “corpse like” Catholic obedience is going to do anyone, least of all young women, much good. There’s obedience, often a necessary virtue, and then there’s blind obedience. A desire to preserve a certain kind of innocence seems to be at work in those so eager to place decisions in the hands of their religious “superiors.” Yet it seems to me that one of the responsibilities of adults, and especially of those in positions of religious authority, is to temper the naive enthusiasm of the young. Idealism is a powerful and admirable quality, but it is easily manipulated. And when disillusionment comes, as it comes to all of us, it can be devastating-just ask the Legionnaires of Christ. There must be better ways to fashion even a “traditional” Catholic identity.

Where does this fierce nostalgia for being given marching orders come from? It seemed to animate the more apocalyptic protests over President Barack Obama’s visit to the University of Notre Dame last spring. There were some good arguments for criticizing Notre Dame’s invitation to a prochoice president, although ultimately I did not find them convincing. Those who were determined to read Notre Dame out of the Catholic Church, however, were another matter. For many of them, marching orders from the bishops about universities not honoring prochoice public figures were as clear as the church’s teaching on abortion itself. Public disagreement with bishops over prudential moral judgments was seen to be out of bounds. Notre Dame, they insisted, was thumbing its nose at the hierarchy.

In that vein, my old friend Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, took Commonweal to task in the Weekly Standard for defending Notre Dame’s invitation to Obama. In his view, those not outraged by Obama’s presence at a Catholic university fail to understand how central opposition to abortion is in shaping authentic Catholic identity and culture in the United States today. “For American Catholics,” Bottum wrote, “the church is a refuge and bulwark against an ambient culture that erodes morality and undermines families. Catholic culture is their counterculture, their means of upholding the dignity of the human person and the integrity of family.”

Is that true? Well, the church is and does many things, and certainly one of the important things it tries to do is uphold the family and the value of every human life. Still, Bottum makes it sound like the church—or at least one part of it—is the only American institution with any moral integrity. Nor does he examine in any realistic way how well the church fosters those values in its members. As best we can tell, Catholic families are not in much better, or worse, shape than most other families. I suspect that building a new, ideologically driven Catholic counterculture is beyond the church’s capacities, and probably for welcome reasons. I don’t doubt that opposition to legalized abortion is what sociologists call a cultural marker, but I do doubt that the abortion issue alone can re-evangelize the Catholic community. When I look at my fellow Massgoers, I do not see many people who think themselves at war with the society that surrounds them. Perhaps that complacency is an indictment of them and of the church. Those on the far right and the far left seem to think so. I’m not so sure. Perhaps the refusal of Catholics to give a full measure of obedience to everything bishops ask of them reflects their sober assessment of the church’s—and their own—flaws and limitations. After what the church has been through in recent years, issuing a wholesale indictment of the larger culture seems like hubris.

For better and worse, my fellow parishioners reflect the strengths, weaknesses, and foibles of their mostly non-Catholic neighbors. There is the starchy, well-dressed woman who sits near the confessionals and deflects any attempt to shake her hand during the kiss of peace. Then there is the friendly and pious older couple—missals stuffed with holy cards—who look up and roll their eyes when the homilist denounces unnecessary and unjust wars. And the young, the vanguard of the new evangelization? What about the wide-eyed teen-aged girl who serves as a Eucharistic minister? She is sincere and dutiful, but in typical teenage fashion her outfits are a little too tight and too low-cut. Something tells me that the only “counter” in her cultural vocabulary is the checkout at the Gap. And then there are those awful “hymns” from the 1970s (where is the Catholic musical counterculture when you really need it?). If all this is “a refuge and a bulwark,” it is a remarkably porous one.

Could it be otherwise? In my experience, Catholics don’t make very plausible Mennonites. Truth be told, they seem much more convincing as Republicans. Catholics don’t want to thumb their noses at bishops—or at presidents. Some think that bourgeois instinct a sign of spiritual inertia, but most think the alternative is much worse (observe the bombastic antics of Catholic League president Bill Donohue). Opposition to abortion or same-sex marriage or embryonic stem-cell research, however necessary, is not going to usher in a new age of lay obedience. If a greater depth of spiritual humility is in our future, it will not come from a revival of top-down discipline. Whatever the shortcomings of the ambient culture, issuing marching orders will not get most Catholics to fall in line. Authoritarianism is bad for the church’s authority among Catholics and its credibility among non-Catholics. Doesn’t anyone have a better idea? A plausible manner and even a bit of cunning might help.

Published in the 2009-11-06 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

Also by this author
‘The Nun’s Story’ Revisited

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