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. Prologue
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Critical rebound

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WHY AMERICA NEEDS A CATHOLIC RECOVERY

By wilson carey mcwilliams

Begin with the Augustinian truth: The Church, like its rivals, aspires to speak of and for the City of God, but it must speak in and to the City of Man. The transcendent is its reason for living, but it must live in order to fulfill that reason. Compelled to adapt to the temporalities, religion must also be watchful lest it become simply a function of time and place. If a church accommodates too much to society, it loses its distinctive character, and along with it any strong sense of community or claim on the identity of its members. But if it makes the social cost of membership too high, a church risks shrinking to the dimensions of a sect. At least implicitly, religion bargains with society, distinguishing between the first principles that are the perennial heart of its faith and the teachings and disciplines that it can de-emphasize or abandon in response to new circumstances.

The current clergy sex abuse scandals represent the most severe crisis in the history of the American Church, calling, in some measure, its bargains with society and with its own membership into question. American Catholics must hope for a season of atonement, knowing that this will bring turbulence and pain. Yet all Americans have a stake in the outcome: The Church’s future in this red-dawning century is inseparable from that of the republic.

Alexis de Tocqueville once observed that, despite Catholicism’s aristocratic structure and affinities, the American Church had embraced political democracy, and American Catholics were “the most republican and the most democratic class in the United States.” In part, this was attributable to interest: A minority, and the object of suspicion and ancient animosity, Catholics took refuge in laws protecting religious liberty and separating church and state. Similarly, since most Catholics were at the low end of the income scale, they were natural democratic partisans. But Tocqueville also discerned a more fundamental compatibility between Catholicism and democracy.

Every faith, Tocqueville argued, has an inner logic deriving from its first principles that will make itself felt even when it is overborne by circumstance. During the Middle Ages, he contended, the Church was impelled to shape its institutions for a world of classes and castes, so that it “improperly enhanced” the authority of its “divine agents.” However, the Church never wholly lost the egalitarian core of Christian teaching. America’s insistent democracy allowed and compelled Catholicism to return to first things, a pattern Tocqueville discerned in the early half of the 19th century in the tendency among the American clergy to stress the spirit and not the letter of faith and law. As Tocqueville saw it, in other words, American democracy was liberating the Church from its historical distortions and returning Catholicism to its original vision—and in the process, gaining patriots and citizens.

None of this implied any formal democratization of the Church or a lessening of episcopal authority, and Tocqueville had no notion of the possibility of a married clergy or the ordination of women or any of the similar reforms under discussion today. Rather, he spoke of Catholics as “submissive and sincere,” devoted to a faith that disposed them to obedience, but not to inequality. And he also detected a change in the Church’s tone and ways. The “habits of public life,” Tocqueville noted in another context, tend to be introduced into private manners. That dynamic promised a disposition, however hesitantly applied, to attend to lay opinion and the societies of the faithful that have been a feature of American Catholic history.

Tocqueville carried his argument to a vision of Catholics moving soon into the mainstream of American civic life. About that he was uncharacteristically over-optimistic. Immigration heightened anxieties about Catholic intentions and power, and Catholics, in turn, became more protective of their communities and communions. Catholicism remained a fault line in American party politics at least until 1960, but even during difficult times Tocqueville’s main argument held: Catholics were steady champions of democracy and American institutions.

Contemporary America, moreover, realizes Tocqueville’s vision. Catholicism is increasingly audible as a “public religion,” offering a cultural option in American political life. It is probably the most articulate communitarian voice in our politics, upholding claims of a “consistent ethic of life” in a moral community. Moreover, Catholics are grand advocates for equality, the republic’s moral foundation, at a time when it needs defenders. Despite the obvious advances in equalizing races and genders, equality today as a human, universal given remains desperately embattled. Meanwhile, in the academy, the relativists and postmodernists reign and are engrossed with contexts and, hence, the differences of history, culture, and perspective. And in the practice of politics, equality confronts titanic and growing inequalities of wealth and power. Democracy, Aristotle observed, sees a life freely devoted to the common good as the greatest contribution to community. September 11, 2001, taught us that democratic lesson: Community is a fact, and the heroes are not those who lost the most money, but those who gave their lives. No magistracy in America offers better instruction on that point than American Catholicism.

It is a mark of the authenticity of Catholic social and political teaching that it is uncomfortable with the country’s major parties and all ideologies. “Being a Catholic liberal or a Catholic conservative,” columnist E.J. Dionne wrote during the 2000 campaign, “inevitably means having a bad conscience about something.” That ambiguity points to the crucial role Catholics are playing in our politics: As Dionne may have anticipated, Catholics were divided just about 50-50 in the election of 2000, and even marginal success in the competition for Catholic allegiances is likely to tip the balance of electoral power in the immediate future.

Yet the “mainstreaming” of American Catholicism comes with two very American price tags, both of which are evident in the Church’s present travail. In the first place, Catholicism can no longer count on the defensive solidarity associated with an embattled subculture. The differences among Catholics—always an element of Catholic history in the United States—can be expected to become sharper, reflecting the “culture wars” that are dividing all the great American confessions. The Church can expect changes in its ethnic composition, increasing differences in the education and class of its membership, and widening variations in the extent to which communicants will follow this or that teaching. At the same time, globalization means a more immediate relation to the dazzling plurality of the Church’s international communion. All of these developments underline the hierarchy’s responsibility in preserving, and if necessary reweaving, the fabric of unity.

But the second cost of full inclusion in American civic culture has been a decline in the automatic deference that clerical leaders once received. Tocqueville saw American Catholics as “submissive believers,” but a great number of today’s communicants look positively feisty—including, paradoxically, those who regard themselves as conservatives and the special defenders of churchly authority. An increase in the practical influence of the laity is in the cards: The only questions are what form this will take and how far it will extend.

Nevertheless, the hierarchy, duly chastened, is indispensable to a high Catholic mission in the spiritual life of American democracy. Famously, Tocqueville traced the character of American civilization to a balance between the “spirit of liberty” and the “spirit of religion.” But much as he admired that equilibrium, he expected that, with law and the marketplace in support, liberty would gain at the expense of religion in the habits of American hearts.

Tocqueville held religion to be “the most precious bequest of aristocratic ages,” a fragile inheritance that teaches democracy the language of true nobility. Hence his warning about introducing new religions into America, where lacking the ballast of habit and tradition they would be caught up by the current of individualism. And he was concerned for the old faiths as well, noting that the Protestant reliance on individual conscience would work in combination with the law’s “spirit of liberty” to undermine religious education generally, leaving Americans without serious spiritual discipline.

Americans, he observed, on the one hand were prone to secular individualism, afflicted by restlessness and “strange melancholy,” often drawn to hazy pantheism; on the other hand, they sometimes leaned toward an excessive and fanatical spirituality that was likely to go beyond proper bounds into “religious insanity.” The description has not lost force over the years.

The Catholic Church offers an alternative precisely because it retains an institutional link to “aristocratic ages.” Tocqueville’s description of American Catholics—“the most submissive believers and the most independent citizens”—strikingly parallels the qualities he had earlier assigned to Puritans: a “passive though . . . voluntary obedience” in the spiritual and moral sphere and “an independence scornful of experience and jealous of all authority” in politics. Tocqueville was suggesting that while Catholics could not have created free institutions in America, they are more suited to maintain them, since the Church’s authoritative institutions are relatively less exposed to individualism and spiritual indiscipline, the rising dangers of his time and ours.

Tocqueville could still assume, as had the Framers, that religion was a source of moral unity for Americans. In contemporary America, by contrast, the definition of religion has become very expansive indeed; citizens tell pollsters that they believe in God, but about an eighth of these self-proclaimed believers declare their faith to be in a “life force or spirit” that speaks to them through astrology or various extraterrestrial presences. (We are not alone: In Britain, nearly 400,000 people list their religion as “Jedi,” outnumbering Jews, Sikhs, and Buddhists.)

Americans retain considerable agreement about morals, but they are inclined to see their convictions as so many private preferences, and a sizeable majority say that “we should be more tolerant of people who choose to live according to their own moral standards, even if we think they are wrong.” In a recent survey, for example, Catholic students at Catholic colleges expressed relatively traditional judgments on casual premarital sex but far more liberal opinions on the right of homosexuals to marry. The first instance dealt with personal morality; the second primarily tested their tolerance. Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe is right: The current in religious America runs in the direction of a “new autonomy” in which individuals decide what God suits their temperament, what family structure fulfills their needs, and what laws merit respect.

Still, Americans are restive, just as Tocqueville would have expected. Great numbers of us are troubled by emptiness, aware perhaps of the moral ambiguities of our own conduct, worried about the moral direction of the country. Many are looking to faith now, not as a code of rules, but as a source of goodness, seeking the meta-moral in our leaders and ourselves. This was evident in the campaign of 2000, when candidates regularly proclaimed their faiths, not in support of this or that policy, but as a kind of personal testimony, scratching the electorate’s itch for leadership with a moral center.

The quality of this latest spiritual pursuit will depend on the public’s ear for the authentic pitch of profound faith, and hence on the character of religious education. Here, the news is not good. Given the competing temptations of the time, the great majority of American religions are unusually prone to follow the path of consumer preference. This is not improved by a general disposition toward an ecumenicalism that smoothes away the sharper tastes of faith in favor of a kind of religious Jell-O, sweet and vaguely sticky, but with little character and less subtlety. The conversation skirts deeper fears and yearnings and allows for all sorts of spiritual dottiness: Almost a third of Americans, a few years ago, reported their conviction that the government was covering up its contacts with space aliens.

Catholicism is not immune to fads and fashions, but as Tocqueville suggested, the Church still finds it easier to be magisterial, and it could set a standard for debate over first principles among the great confessions, faiths disciplined as well by text and tradition. God wills religious unity, the Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray used to argue, but pluralism is the human condition, and that tension suggests that human beings, and their faiths, are at their best when they are engaged in civil argument about the things that matter.

Of course, this prescription is dangerous. Murray called for pluralism with blood in it, and no one needs to be told that religious argument has often turned bloody and could do so again. But Americans, on the whole, have been well trained in religious tolerance. And religion, even with its abiding rivalries, rests on at least one elementary affirmation: the conviction that there is something to argue about, that the world ultimately makes sense, and that truth is more than personal interpretation and appearance. Faith, John Paul II wrote in Fides et Ratio, serves as reason’s “convinced and convincing advocate,” stirring reason to overcome its fears.

The great faiths also share a recognition that a preoccupation with survival, well-being, and individual independence is enslaving, that human dignity and moral agency are linked to the realization that rights are given to us on terms, and that love carries us beyond the control of earthly powers. It was precisely the “transpolitical” nature of Christian transcendence, BC’s late great theologian Ernest Fortin argued, that “enable[d] Christianity to be effective in the midst of the changing configurations and innumerable contingencies of human existence.” Catholicism, uneasy in this as in any political present, may for that reason hold keys to the American political future.

Wilson Carey McWilliams teaches political science at Rutgers University and is the author of Beyond the Politics of Disappointment?: American Elections, 1980–1998 (2000). His essay is drawn from a talk delivered at BC on March 14 as part of the Bradley Lecture Series in Politics and Religion.

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