Smile When You Say 'Laity'

The Hidden Triumph of the Consumer Ethos

“We already run the church.” Reacting to Charles Morris’s question on women’s ordination, Joan Peters of Saint Cecilia Parish in Houston could have been speaking about the American Catholic laity (see Commonweal, “A Tale of Two Dioceses,” June 6, 1997). Though the reality and depth of the laity’s victory may be obscured in certain ways, I want to argue in this essay that the laity have emerged triumphant in the course of a velvet revolution in U.S. Catholicism. Without the usual manifestoes and vehicles—the expropriation of the means of salvation and declarations of principles, grievances, and announcements of a new era—this lay revolution has now overcome or marginalized most pockets of resistance to its victory. Unlike other successes that have many parents, this one is an orphan. Liberals, fearful that a gray, frosty Thermidor threatens the tender plants given life by the spirit of Vatican II, do not recognize how successful their efforts have been. Conservatives, whose pandemonial scenarios reflect at least a sense that something monumental has occurred, do not see how they themselves have fostered this lay revolution, indeed, represent one of its most powerful elements. Yet unless we recognize and come to grips with this revolution, we are in danger of misunderstanding and misconceiving the challenges facing the U.S. Catholic church in the twenty-first century.

The most open and yet best-kept secret of the revolution has been the identity of its partisans. U.S. Catholics of the professional and managerial classes have been in the vanguard of the American aggiornamento and they now set the tone for much of the Catholic church in the United States. Their participation in the national culture of expertise, consumption, and therapeutic spirituality marks the triumph of a new American Catholic religious culture: a Starbucks Catholicism embodied in a Church Mellow.

This “lay” revolution has been a century in the making. The first wave of insurgency arose around the turn of this century (at the same time, not coincidentally, as the Populist and Progressive movements), as several lay congresses met to encourage among laity and clergy a greater “confidence in the intelligence and motives of laymen,” in the words of Henry Brownson (1835–1913). These congresses (including Negro Catholic congresses, which augured a racial liberalism that was to be a defining feature of the lay movements) paralleled the crises of “Americanism” and “Modernism.” Together, these episodes constituted both an imbroglio over the place of the laity in the American church and a harbinger of the laity’s future class-character. Isaac Hecker (1819–88) wrote in The Church and the Age (1887) of his hope that Catholicism would prove “compatible with a high degree of liberty and intelligence.” This, coupled with the declaration of Modernist cleric William Sullivan (1872–1935) that Modernism bore the religious fruit of “the American spirit in the political and social order,” marked the clearest challenge to clerical hegemony since the lay trustee controversy at the beginning of the nineteenth century. But where lay trustees had appealed mainly to republican ideals of self-government and constitutional democracy, Americanist appeals to “intelligence,” as well as Modernist praise for “disinterested scientific inquiry,” pointed to the nascent culture of corporate professionalism and its ideals of expertise and service. When Bishop John Ireland (1838–1918) complained that “there is, on the part of Catholic laymen, too much dependence on priests” and enjoined Catholics to lead “wherever intelligence is at work”—”in literature, in scientific inquiry, in the management of large enterprises”—he prophesied the ascendancy of the professional-managerial bloc in American Catholicism.

While Vatican condemnations of Americanism and Modernism at the beginning of the twentieth century temporarily aborted this movement, they did not prevent the development of a clerical cohort of social-service professionals-Monsignor John A. Ryan (1869–1945) of the National Catholic Welfare Conference and Monsignor William Kerby (1870–1936), head of the sociology department at The Catholic University, most prominent among them—who, dedicated to the scientifically informed solution of social problems, prefigured a lay middle class informed by a gospel of professional expertise. Moreover, the Vatican itself promoted the second, and in many ways pivotal, stage of the lay revolution: encouraging the development of the lay apostolate movement between the First and Second World Wars. Conceived to counter the appeal of communism and socialism to industrial workers, the lay apostolate—along with the reformist politics of Catholic Action—assumed a prominent if carefully circumscribed place in U.S. Catholic religious culture. However benevolent and supportive of the laity in the fostering of racial integration, the creation of the CIO, and the emergence of a vigorous female cohort that included Dorothy Day, Catherine de Hueck, and members of the Grail, the clergy exercised a very real power in Catholic Action movements. Nonetheless, the lay apostolate provided both a substantial experience of lay power and, perhaps even more significantly, an explicit theological blessing of lay initiative.

The laity remained circumscribed, however, because they lacked a legitimate cultural warrant to invoke against the clergy. Lay Catholic intellectuals (especially in the circles of Commonweal and the Catholic Worker) possessed a broadly humanist cultural capital which linked and subordinated them to the clergy at the same time that it made them potentially formidable rivals. Working-class Catholics, the focal figures of the Catholic Action movements, were in the beginning stages of emerging from the brick-and-mortar ghettos and entering the broader American culture of consumption—a culture which, however pervasive, had not yet achieved a mass critical enough among Catholics to make it an alternative source of values and symbols. Thus priests retained virtually unquestioned authority because the laity did not yet have a sufficiently independent and liquid form of cultural capital.

In the decades after World War II, as the sons and daughters of the CIO generation entered the educational, residential, and technological mainstream, that cultural capital fell into the hands of more and more American Catholics. The burgeoning of a Catholic professional middle class—possessing, in its panoply of expertise, a form of accredited knowledge that rivaled the venerable wisdom of the clergy-marks the third and continuing movement of the lay revolution. The “layman”—organization man, technopolitan knight of faith, and darling of two successive generations of Catholic intellectuals—emerged from suburban sidewalks with his cross, his briefcase, and his ball-point pen that parted the clerical waters. “Westchester County,” the Reverend Andrew Greeley predicted in The Church and the Suburbs (1959), would be a “seedbed for future prophets.” Jesuit Walter Ong’s prospect of Frontiers in American Catholicism (1957) included an “apostolate of the business world” to replace the working-class apostolate. Daniel Callahan, then an editor at Commonweal, probing The Mind of the Catholic Layman (1963), observed that the layman was now “judged in terms of his professional skills” and predicted that this mobile prophet, deprived of all the ghetto’s “props,” would be less dependent on priests and even on his faith community, relying instead on “his personal integrity and his power to sustain his values.” Ave Maria editor Donald Thorman—who described The Emerging Layman (1962) as “a junior executive-type businessman on his way up”—likened the “laity” to third-world partisans of national liberation, “newly formed nations who have just won independence from a colonial power.”

This post–World War II celebration of the layman proved prophetic in two important ways. It envisioned a new clerical sidekick for the new layman, one who met, in Callahan’s words, “rising expectations of clerical excellence.” This new priest would stand at the hub of a finely reticulated ensemble of parish experts and be a “quarterback,” as Greeley put it, “who calls the signals and then cooperates with the rest of the team.” American Catholic religious culture assumed a more therapeutic, corporate-consumerist cast in these prefigurative writings, one more accommodating of the personal elasticity required of organizationally and geographically mobile professionals. The propless professional would need an “easy adaptability,” one Commonweal writer asserted in 1957, while Greeley speculated on the array of “spiritualities” that would be open to Catholics in different walks of life—a notion quite amenable to the “lifestyles” consumed by rootless suburbanites.

Thus, Vatican II marked a culmination rather than a commencement, a consolidation of forces at work in the U.S. Catholic church throughout the twentieth century. Exhorted to “enter into the world”—a world they were already involved in destroying and creating—those laity who acquired a (not entirely unprecedented) theological purchase were the professional and managerial classes from whom the postwar image of the layman had been fashioned. In his report on the Council sessions in The Open Church (1964), Michael Novak praised “the articulate layman” located in “the university, in the business world, and among the professional men of the parish” as the cross-bearer of a new witness to “a world come of age,” in the chic Bonhoefferesque parlance of the time. This rhetoric of maturity, which comported well with the gray-flanneled mien of Catholic professionals and their intellectual spokesmen, gave way, in the 1960s and ‘70s, to a rhetoric of “creativity,” “openness,” “honesty,“and “flexibility”—key words shared by cultural radicals and corporate marketers, both of whom envisioned a future of psychic and material abundance. This vision of abundance that energized the assaults on clerical authority in the ‘60s was part of a larger Catholic front organized against poverty, racism, male supremacy, and the military-industrial complex. It also helped to sweep aside much of the rickety spirituality of the preconciliar church: As Garry Wills wrote in Bare Ruined Choirs (still moving and provocative after twenty-five years), the greatest threat to faith “is not doubt, but pretending to believe.”

Yet as the professional middle class’s own self-understanding and self-representation has shifted over the last three decades from staid conformist to breezy rebel-part of the broader corporate cooptation of cultural rebellion that Thomas Frank has dubbed “the conquest of cool”—so the matrices of the laity have shifted from IBM, the Great Society, and the underground church to the Starbucks chain, the consumer dreamland of infinite choice and abundant lifestyles. Most of the sea changes that have transpired in American Catholicism since the midsixties—in liturgy, gender conventions, sexual mores, and priest-laity relations—have been variously initiated, scuttled, or corrupted among the college-trained, technoburban, consumerist enclaves of the flock, and it seems likely that these zones of professional and managerial culture will become only more powerful in the twenty-first century.

This overview and my argument—perhaps a bit breezy themselves at points—are meant to provide a challenge to the way we conceptualize the problems facing the Catholic church in the United States in the next century. We especially need to contest the idea that the current confusion and drift derive from a horde of “new class” iconoclasts. The enragés who, in this view, now abound in the cultural apparatus of American Catholicism, are in fact the counterparts of others, paid much more highly and lavishly, to be “critical” and “iconoclastic”: scientists, engineers, doctors, lawyers, advertisers, executives, and managers. What all of these people share as a matter of occupational outlook is a commitment to inquisitiveness, innovation, and a rather narrow conception of rationality—exercised, for the most part, for individual or corporate profit. Since, as I have tried to suggest, the lay revolution has dovetailed with the broader history of corporate capitalism in modern America, the confusion and defiance among American Catholics must be seen as deriving from the cultural transformations wrought by that history.

Consider, for instance, the rhetorical portfolio usually managed by liberal Catholics: “inclusiveness,” “diversity,” “empowerment,” “choice.“ These key words have arisen from the corporate culture of fin-de-siècle America, where “options” and “flexibility”—not “rigid” and “confining” “limits”—are the discursive amulets crafted in numerous seminars, workshops, conferences, and advertising campaigns. Thus, they are routinely employed by conservatives as well, who use them to bless the freedom supposedly afforded by the marketplace, and who themselves brook no interference from clerics who write pastoral letters on economic justice and nuclear weapons. William Buckley’s “Mater Si, Magistra No!” helped to pave the way for Frances Kissling. Underneath their differences, Anna Quindlen with her ideal “church of choice” and Michael Novak with his “theology of the corporation” are votaries of this upscale, therapeutic agora in values and ethics-the bazaar of Starbucks Catholicism.

Starbucks Catholics have found their spiritual preceptors, not among Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, or Daniel Berrigan, but among the self-help, inspirational crowd of Marianne Williams, Deepak Chopra, M. Scott Peck, Paul Wilkes, and Thomas Moore-all very popular with Catholic readers. Open Moore’s Care of the Soul and the professionalized, therapeutic quality of Starbucks Catholicism soon becomes evident. Moore’s “guide” is clearly aimed, not at truck drivers or data-entry temps, but at his fellow fatigued professionals whose “ambition for success and perfection in work drives us on.” Moore’s conception of work bears all the signs of high-minded, romantic professionalism: “our work has found us,” he swoons, and “we are loved by our work”-mites of wisdom he has never tested, I’d wager, among migrant workers, sweatshop children, or the cubicled denizens in corporate offices.

The care of the soul that Moore recommends for this foul rag-and-bone suite of the heart entails neither social and political change (too Catholic Actiony, blue-collar, and judgmental, that), nor even devotion to a complete personal transformation, but rather attention to “one’s own moral sensibility,” a search for goodness “without striving for perfection or salvation.” Just as at Starbucks, we can choose from a variety of flavors (Meister Eckhart, Greek mythology, t’ai chi, Jungian psychology); we have complete consumer sovereignty (for we are “the curates and curators of our own souls”); and we’re under no pressure (since nobody’s “striving for perfection”—except maybe the harried, underpaid counter help). Wilkes’s “good enough Catholic” is a similarly low-intensity disciple in this Church Mellow, an anti-ideal paralleled in the latest “nondirective,” “nonhierarchical” theories of corporate management.

Indeed, I recently learned that my own parish council is studying the “Total Quality Management” principles of the avuncular business guru, W. Edwards Deming, the Teilhard of corporate America. TQM is the most fully developed specimen of corporate therapeutics yet devised, replete with faux-zen aphorisms, hosannas to interrelatedness, optimization, and system, and lots of amiable psycho-noodling about flow. (Deming also refers a lot to Saint Paul’s notion of the Mystical Body, which becomes in TQM an exemplary model of corporate structure.) Now I don’t know if or how the parish council intends to actually use this stuff, but I think it suggests two things. Given opportunity by the priest shortage and legitimation by Vatican II, the professional-managerial laity now possesses a wrestler’s hold on the clerical imagination. Moreover, the laity who will be inheriting even more of the real power in the U.S. Catholic church are well-schooled in the therapeutic, increasingly “spiritualized” culture of corporate life.

Lest my example be dismissed as merely local, let me refer to two other communities: Washington, D.C.’s Holy Trinity Parish, chronicled recently by Jim Naughton in Catholics in Crisis (Addison-Wesley), and the Saginaw, Michigan, diocese recently described by Charles Morris in American Catholic (Times Books). The largely professional middle-class Holy Trinity, Naughton tells us, trusts “the spiritual integrity and moral judgment of its parishioners.” Nothing objectionable in that: Indeed, one could say that a parish can’t do anything else. Yet Naughton also enlightens us about the nature of that integrity and judgment. Many of Holy Trinity’s parishioners, he writes, contest certain church teachings because they are “theologically suspect, psychologically harmful, and detrimental to the vitality of the church.” These last two criteria are eminently therapeutic: Psychological harm is a valid but also elastic criterion (would the Jesus who begged to be relieved of his cup have been excused on this ground?); and vitality, while certainly attractive and indispensable, is also empty in the absence of boundary and direction.

In Saginaw (whose small farms and heavy industry make it an even better example), the nonhierarchical, therapeutic hegemony of professionals is even more clear. (Morris notes of his Lincoln, Nebraska, counterexample that its conservatism is not “widely replicable,” and that in any case conservatives, too, now at least “say all the right things about participatory structures.”) In Saint Mary’s Church, Saginaw, pews have been replaced by “individual cushioned chairs and kneelers” around an altar at the center of the church. “Very attractive,” Morris comments, but “with a secular feel, like Mount Vernon or the renovated Washington D.C. train station”—or like the offices and suites of corporate workplaces. Moreover, the “pastoral administrator” (Greeley’s quarterback in the age of the priest shortage) runs the parish, if not with an iron hand, then certainly with velvet gloves. Sister Honora Remes’s leadership, in Morris’s portrait, is the picture of the “nondirective” style now in vogue throughout corporate life: Aiming at a “participatory parish,” Remes, a “good listener,” leads discussions that are “perfectly open.”

Yet as Morris observes, “‘participatory’ is not quite the same as democratic,” noting further that Remes’s strong personality leads her to dominate “almost without being aware of it.” Remes’s style suggests that the vertical authority of male priests will be supplemented if not supplanted by the horizontal authority of female laity as women come to effectively run the church in the twenty-first century. It also suggests that horizontal modes of authority have their own forms of authoritarianism, ones that operate through interpersonal relationships rather than top-down dictation. As in the corporate world from which so many parishes now take their counseling and administrative cues, the vaunted diversity of the lay-controlled church may turn out to be a wholly fabricated pluralism, one that belies the promise of greater devotion and democracy that resides in the heart of the lay revolution.

For the triumph of the Church Mellow has not been an entirely unfortunate event. In its wake have come a host of changes that genuinely deserve the name of progress: forceful challenges to superstition, to spurious faith, and to clerical obscurantism and authoritarianism; an exemplary record of racial liberalism; and, perhaps most significantly, a greater welcoming of women as full and equal partners with men in the work of salvation. Yet the animating discourse of the Church Mellow—”the laity,” “democracy in the church,” “openness,” etc.—has become a new species of cant, an ideological mist that obscures the new power relations in American Catholicism, just as surely as their kindred key words cover the lines of power in American society.

The problems now are not lay conformity, the curmudgeonly priest who rants about birth control, or the preconciliar specter of Mother Angelica. The problems are the choice and diversity whose insistent assertion is an unmistakable sign of their phoniness; the evasion that hides behind the genuine truth of “the doubt inseparable from faith;” the erosion among Catholics of a sense of history and tradition, both of which are essential for any vision beyond the glittering imperium of consumer culture. If the lay revolution succeeds merely in reproducing the marketplace ethos and managerially orchestrated diversity of corporate America, it will only prove to have been one of history’s more pyrrhic victories.


Read more: Smile When You Say 'Starbucks': a roundup of responses to McCarraher

Published in the 1997-09-12 issue: 

Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities and history at Villanova University. He is completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Corporate Capitalism and the American Moral Imagination.

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