Notes from across the Atlantic
Notes from across the Atlantic

Notes from across the Atlantic

Richard John Neuhaus FAITH Magazine September - October 2007


We’ve mentioned before Archbishop Michael Miller, secretary of the Congregation for Catholic Education in Rome. He’s the kind of leader who warrants more frequent mention than most. This spring he spoke to a conference of Catholic educators at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio. The Church, he says, is looking for “benchmarks” of Catholic identity in colleges and universities that claim the name Catholic. There must be “measurable strategies... that require the university to deepen its Catholic character, moving it from where it is now to where it wishes to be in the future.” “Teachers are called to be witnesses and educators of authentic human life,” and the Catholics among them should be “outstanding in their integrity of doctrine and probity of life.” That, he noted, isfrom Canon 810 of The Code of Canon Law. Schools make a special effort to recruit minorities and women, he observed. “I see no reason, and, despite widespread popular opinion, there is no constitutional reason, to exclude Catholics from similar consideration.” He also observed that what typically passes for “religious studies” is no substitute for teaching theology. On the campus culture, he said that “expectations for student behaviour, the fostering of moral character and virtue, policies on campus speakers, health policies, and the promotion of justice should reflect a distinctively Catholic ethos”. It has been seventeen years since John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church) and the progress toward making Catholic schools more Catholic has been, toput it gently, slow and mixed. But more and more schools are seriously engaged in asking the questions about “Catholic identity”, which is all to the good. There are more than 225 nominally Catholic colleges and universities in this country. Some, such as Georgetown, are, it would seem, irretrievably lost to the Church. Others, such as Boston College, are positioning themselves to be the bastion of “Catholic Lite”. Others likely will, in the next ten years or so, drop altogether the pretence of being Catholic. But if, as one hopes, there will be 150 or more schools that are authentically Catholic in the manner envisioned by Ex Corde Ecclesiae, that will be in no small part thanks to the thoughtful and firm prodding of Archbishop Michael Miller. Which is one reason why I had verymixed feelings when in Rome I learned that Miller had been appointed the next archbishop of Vancouver. That’s great news for Vancouver. But who will help maintain the momentum for renewal at the Congregation for Education?


On his trip to Brazil, Pope Benedict said, as he has said before and as canon law specifies, that politicians who reject the Church’s teaching and support abortion gravely impair their communion with the Church and should refrain from receiving the Eucharist. Once again, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, Democrat from Connecticut, led the charge. It will be remembered that a while back she orchestrated a statement by politicians explaining to obtuse bishops why one can be both pro-abortion and a Catholic in good standing. This time she found seventeen fellow Democrats to join her in explaining to the pope that “Religious sanction in the political arena directly conflicts with our fundamental beliefs about the role of democratic representatives in a pluralistic America – it clashes with freedomsguaranteed in our Constitution. Such notions offend the very nature of the American experiment and do a great disservice to the centuries of good work the Church has done.” Oh my, this is serious. It appears the pope is un-American. In truth, the pope is not imposing a “religious sanction” (although perhaps he should) but explaining the consequences for one’s communion with the Church, such consequences being not “in the political arena” but at the altar. And I very much doubt that the freedom to receive Communion in the Catholic Church is “guaranteed in our Constitution”. It does guarantee the freedom of the Church to govern itself and the freedom of Americans to adhere, or not adhere, to its teachings. Even Rudy Giuliani, who has some very real problems with his adherence, had the goodsense to respond, when asked about his possibly being refused Communion: “I do not get into debates with the pope. That is not a good idea.” Representative DeLauro and her colleagues should face up to the fact that they have some hard decisions to make with respect to the right ordering of their loves and loyalties.


Some while back, in 2001, First Things published a series of remarkable photographs by Sam Fentress, who for twenty years has been photographing roadside signs all over the country. The signs typically exhort those who pass to repent and believe. Now the photographs have been put together in a handsome book: Bible Road: Signs of Faith in the American Landscape. Paul Elie writes in the foreword: “Fentress’s fencepost proverbs and exhortations are at the side of the road, but they are at the centre of our religious life today, not at the margins. They are not the work of primitives or regionalists. They don’t carry the evidence of a prior way of life; they don’t pronounce judgement on our society. Rather, they express the fierce Christian belief, the mood of end-timesfear and dread that is in uneasy coexistence with our bustle and optimism. This – the press of firm belief upon the present – is the great difference in Fentress’s work, and it is made manifest by the richness of his technique: the gorgeous colours, the complex use of light and shade, the looming skies and horizon lines. The conventional wisdom says that signs at the roadside are there as messages for the journey. But Fentress’s work suggests that they have been put there because the side of the road is the only open space left, the place where life in America today seems the largest and the least worked out.” I’m not sure that the side of the road is the only open space left. As anyone knows who has driven across the country, or even looked down while flying over it, behind the side ofthe road are spaces so vast as to seem unlimited. But Elie is certainly right that the signs photographed by Fentress are not in the same category with those old Burma Shave ditties. They give expression to a very contemporary and vibrant faith that is both simpler and much more complex than the complexifications cherished by those who know only that we live in a secular society.

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