Notes from Across the Atlantic
Notes from Across the Atlantic

Notes from Across the Atlantic

Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine September-October 2006


Do we have a Truce ?

America says there is a valid concern that the priesthood should not be composed "predominantly or exclusively of gay men". I confess that I do not know how to construe the editorial position of America, the official weekly magazine of the Society of Jesus, as anything other than an in-your-face rejection of the instruction from Rome, issued by the explicit authority of the Pope, and of the magisterial teaching on which the instruction is based. In the absence of a vigorous and visible response from Rome, it would seem that we are confronted by a “Truce of 2005” comparable to the “Truce of 1968” with respect to orchestrated dissent from the encyclical Humanae Vitae. If that is the case, and we must pray it is not, it is difficult to overestimate the grave consequences for the effectiveleadership of the still- young pontificate of Benedict XVI.

A Look at the Future

Greenwood Press is publishing an interesting series for classroom use on various religions under the generic title “The American Religious Experience”. There are, for instance, the Buddhist, African-American, Protestant and Muslim experiences in America. And now there is The Catholic Experience in America by sociologist Joseph A. Varacalli. The book provides an informed overview of Catholic history in this country, with particular attention to controversies and conflicts since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. The final chapter, “What Lies Ahead?”, charts possible scenarios for the future of Catholicism in this country: 1) dissolution; 2) an “American” Church; 3) sect-like retreat; 4) neo- orthodoxy; 5) formal schism; and 6) “pluralism”. Although he doesn’t come right out and sayso, Varacalli clearly favours number 4, which he identifies with the vision of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Protecting his reputation as a social scientist, he doesn’t lay odds on which is most likely to prevail. Since I am free from that professional inhibition, I venture that the serious contest is between numbers 2, 4 and 6. In this case, “pluralism” (note the quotation marks) means an increasingly dispirited status quo in which Catholicism is a loosely associated amalgam of accommodations to spiritual consumerism. In my book Catholic Matters, published by Basic Books, I discuss these possibilities in terms of whether the accent is placed on being “American Catholics” or “Catholic Americans”, pointing out how the adjective tends to control the noun. Varacalli’s typology issuggestive, however, and The Catholic Experience in America warrants a close look by high school and college teachers, and by others curious about the past, present and future of Catholicism in this country.

The Money Factor

“Think low.” That is the advice that Midge Decter has had occasion to give me many times over the years. She’s right. My problem (well, among my many problems) is that, when somebody does or says something really dumb, I assume it is a failure of understanding and they just need to have the matter explained to them. I am averse to looking for ulterior motives, especially pecuniary motives. Part of that is charity and part of it is, I suppose, naiveté. “Think low” is closely related to “Follow the dollar”. All this was brought to mind by readers who said they greatly appreciated my critique of the New American Bible (NAB), but then added that I had overlooked the money factor. “The Catholic Biblical Association is surely at fault for so much that is wrong with the NAB,” writes a reader whois in a position to know, “but the reason that abominable translation is foisted on the faithful at Mass has more to do with the budget of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops” (NCCB). There is undoubtedly more than a little to that. A number of companies supply the Mass guides (called, ugh, “missalettes”) that are used in every Catholic parish, and that is a multi-million-dollar business. Unlike those who hold the copyright to the Revised Standard Version and allow it to be used at little or no charge, the NCCB charges an arm and a leg for the use of NAB. Mandating that the suppliers of Mass guides use the NAB is a major source of income for the bishops. Interestingly enough, in its own publications the NCCB tends not to use the NAB. Presumably because they don’t want a third-ratetranslation, and also because there is little point in paying exorbitant fees to themselves by using the NAB. So it is, for example, that the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the more recent Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church use the Revised Standard Version. The NAB, on the other hand, is good enough for the people at Mass. Plus, there is all that money from the publishers of Mass guides. I really do not like to think low, but sometimes explanations are less than edifying.

Catholic Literature is Timeless

As mentioned before in these pages, Loyola Press is doing a very good thing by bringing out in handsome paperback format a number of staples in the Catholic literary tradition, appropriately titled “The Loyola Classics Series”, under the general editorship of Amy Welborn. Among them are The Devil’s Advocate by Morris West, The Edge of Sadness by Edwin O’Connor, Helena by Evelyn Waugh, The Last Catholic in America by John R. Powers and Saint Francis by Nikos Kazantzakis. Each volume carries a new introduction by a contemporary writer, and that’s where I noticed an odd thing. I recently had the excellent company of The Edge of Sadness on a long flight. Edwin O’Connor is best known for The Last Hurrah, an agreeably sentimental account of the last years of the Irish Catholic politicalestablishment in Boston. His later novel, The Edge of Sadness, published in 1961, won a Pulitzer Prize. The story is told by Father Hugh Kennedy, a recovering alcoholic, and turns around the character of Charlie Carmody, a humorously mean- spirited octogenarian who made his pile as a slum landlord. His zest for life is in tyrannising all around him, beginning with his family. But here’s the odd thing: in his introduction, Ron Hansen notes the “intensely honest and unsentimental perspective that gives resonance to Edwin O’Connor’s novel even today”. The key words are “even today”. In this and other introductions in the series, the sharp contrast is drawn between the Catholicism prior to the Second Vatican Council and the Catholicism of what came after. An elegiac note is struck about whatonce was and will never be again. The books are frequently recommended as interesting period pieces that should not be ignored “even today”. There is a defensive tone that one would not expect in the recommending of literature that is confidently thought to be of lasting consequence. There is the feel in the Loyola Classics that these books have been retrieved from the dustbin of an insular and parochial world, and that world has to be explained to readers if they are to understand why these books were once thought to be worth reading. That is, I believe, quite unfair to most of the books in question. They stand on their own as quality literature. Their neglect is due to changing literary fashions, influenced in part by Catholics who are eager to forget—or to remember only to pillory—the“pre- Vatican II Church”.

A wag recently remarked that the greatest Catholic contribution to literature in recent decades is the production of so many ex-Catholic writers. There is something to that. It was not always so. Today there are hints of a possible revival in Catholic literature. But the hints are few and far between. Perhaps the eclipse of Catholic literature can be attributed to a sensed loss of “apartness” that is still the inspiration, and burden, of Jews. I suspect the truth is that most non-Catholic Americans, unlike Catholics who assume their unqualified cultural assimilation, still view Catholicism as something strange, even exotic. That is evident in the continuing flow of novels and plays of a distinctly anti-Catholic bent, usually written by ex-Catholics. But now there are no Catholics of thestature of J.F. Powers or Edwin O’Connor writing from within the Catholic experience. First Things’ junior fellow Mary Ruiz has joined with others to help that happen. They have launched Dappled Things, an online literary magazine for young Catholics that is trolling for talent. Years from now an Edwin O’Connor may look back and recall how he got his start with Dappled Things. Meanwhile, we are indebted to Loyola Press for making available again books such as The Edge of Sadness which are splendid reading anytime, and not “even today”.

Scratch a Liberal...

In liturgical worship, you either surrender yourself to the exploration of the unknown or are critically alert to whatever may happen next. That’s what rules and rituals are for, and that’s why it is so disedifying when priests take liberties with them. A friend says he recently attended the Red Mass at Villanova University and left less than edified. The Red Mass is the occasion for a big annual bash, and is of special importance to the university’s law school. Villanova is run by the Augustinians and, of the more than sixty priests there, only one showed up for the occasion. Our friend was most particularly put off by the notice in the glossy programme that “Roman Catholic assemblies celebrate the real presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist and the communal body.” Wellyes, Christ, being Lord of all, is truly present in the people present, as he is truly present everywhere. But that is not what the Catholic Church means by the Real Presence (upper case). And then there is the statement of the liturgy committee of Villanova, “Postures during Eucharistic Liturgy”. The statement notes, “In general [the General Instruction of the Roman Missal] asks the faithful to kneel during the consecration—but then adds ‘unless prevented by lack of space, large numbers or other reasonable cause’.” The statement then gives Villanova’s reasonable causes for preventing anyone from kneeling during the Eucharistic Prayer. For instance, one of the prayers thanks God for counting us worthy to “stand” before Him. (Those Augustinians are such literalists.) Moreover, kneelinginduces a “sense of passivity, inferiority and exaggerated unworthiness”. Some might prefer the word “receptivity” to “passivity”, but it is true that we sinful human beings are averse to acknowledging our inferiority to God and do not take kindly to any exaggeration of our unworthiness. The statement ends on this note: “In all these decisions the Villanova community favours the spirit of community and mutual affirmation; any competitive and legalistic preference in the matter of liturgical practice tends to be divisive and is not considered helpful to communal celebration.” In the spirit of mutual affirmation, unity and our communal abhorrence of legalism:
You vill not kneel!


Faith Magazine

September - October 2006