Adding Spice to the American Mix

Published April 19, 2008

The Tablet

Pope Benedict XVI’s first papal incursion into the United States is, basically, a trip to the United Nations with a pastoral visit wrapped around it. For the life of the Catholic Church in America, however, what the Pope says in his homilies in Washington and New York, and in his meetings with Catholic bishops, educators, priests, Religious, seminarians and young people will likely have more of an immediate impact than what he says from the green marble rostrum of the General Assembly. And what the Catholic Church in America most needs to hear from Benedict XVI is a word of encouragement.

In the last decade of the pontificate of John Paul II, and throughout the brief papacy of Benedict XVI, an interesting new default position has been established in the corporate mind of the Vatican: the United States is the “un-Europe”. In other words, this Pope, like his predecessor, recognises that the Church in the US is the most vital and vibrant local church in what we used to call the “First World”. Moreover, Benedict, like John Paul, clearly understands that the US is not a post-Christian society, and that the Church in America retains a capacity to influence  public debate that can only be dreamed of in most countries of Western Europe. (To take but one obvious example: the difference between the public effectiveness of the pro-life/pro-family movement in the United States and in, say, Spain is dramatic.)

Knowing all this, Benedict, like John Paul, will not be a papal scold, but will thank the Catholic Church in America for what it is doing, while urging it to do more and do better.

Which is precisely what Catholics in America need to hear. For American Catholics are given to a lot of self-criticism. To be sure, a good dose of self-criticism was required in the wake of what came to light in 2002: a pattern of sexual abuse and episcopal malfeasance that peaked from the late Sixties to the early Eighties. “The abuse crisis”, however, is not the only storyline in American Catholicism, despite media preoccupations. A papal reminder of that would be a very good thing.

American Catholics also need to hear from the Pope about the challenges before them. One is episcopal leadership. During the crisis year of 2002 and afterwards, Catholics rallied to the support of the good priests they knew – who were, after all, 97 per cent (at least) of the American presbyterate – and one senses no lingering anger at priests. There is, however, residual anger at bishops who failed to act, who protected abusive clergy, who have put their diocese under financial pressure and who have not been called to account. American Christianity has always been congregationally focused: the local parish is the Catholic version of the Protestant congregationalism that is a fundamental cultural pattern in American society.

So the danger for the Church, in the absence of stronger, more evangelically effective episcopal leadership, is a strange phenomenon I call “congregational ultramontanism”: a Catholicism in which people love their pastor, love the Pope and ignore the diocese and its bishop. This is not, to put it gently, the vision of Vatican II, but it is a real and present danger if the American episcopate is not significantly strengthened, intellectually and pastorally. A pope who challenges the American episcopate to jettison the currently prevailing rules of the episcopal gentlemen’s club and recover the patristic habit of fraternal correction would be widely applauded by the most knowledgeable and active Catholics in the US.

Another major challenge is high-school catechetics. Catholics in America don’t know how to catechise teenagers, and thus it should be no surprise that this is where a lot of leakage from the Church begins. Catholic primary schools have been doing a better job of catechising children over the past decade. It’s the years from age 14 to 18 that risk becoming the-years-the-locust-ate in American Catholicism. The Church could learn a few lessons from Evangelical Christians about creating a Christian culture – perhaps better, counterculture – in which adolescents can flourish, without being treated as children or expected to be adults. Some of this work has begun in various Catholic renewal movements, but the general picture is a grim one, and a strong papal nudge would be helpful in addressing it.

Then there is the challenge of maintaining the financial viability of Catholic elementary schools in America’s blighted inner-city areas, the great majority of which receive no support from the state. In too many cities across the country, Catholic schools are the only schools that really work for poor and at-risk children. Yet a recent study by the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Institute showed that some 300,000 students had been unable to attend inner-city Catholic schools since 1990 because the Catholic schools they might have attended were shut because parishes or dioceses couldn’t afford them.

This is bad for the Church, for the poor and for society as a whole. The same Fordham Institute study illustrated one possible model of response: the Diocese of Wichita, Kansas, which by challenging its people to an 8 per cent tithe, raised enough money to offer a tuition-free education to all Catholic children and a minimal-cost education to non-Catholics. A strong papal endorsement of the Catholic school system and a challenge to increased generosity in supporting it would thus be useful.

Finally, there is the question of the Catholic identity of America’s Catholic institutions of higher learning. This network is one of the marvels of contemporary Catholicism, and American Catholics need to be reminded of that; but they should also be challenged to understand that (to take symbolic reference points) if Georgetown simply becomes Duke or Harvard on the Potomac, both Georgetown and the wider American intellectual culture will suffer. By challenging the soggy tenets of postmodernism, Catholic institutions of higher learning bring ginger into American intellectual life; they should do it more often, and a professor-pope is well positioned to suggest precisely that.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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