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The burden of being Catholic and right

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Dayton, Ohio

When Mary Jo Weaver began researching her book Being Right: Conservative Catholics in America, she tried to meet with the heads of several conservative Catholic organizations.

Talking on the phone one day to the president of one right-wing Catholic group who refused to see her, Weaver asked, "What will it take for us to meet?"

"I will meet with you only if we agree that absolute truth exists and that our real work is to dedicate ourselves to that truth."

"But if absolute truth exists," Weaver asked, "what do we have to talk about?"

The response she got was a jarring indication of attitudes the Indiana University professor of religious studies would face during her research: "If we don't agree on absolute truth, why talk at all?"

The book, published by Indiana University Press ($39.95, cloth) resulted from a project Weaver has conducted over the past several years studying right-wing Catholics, whose numbers may reach as high as 10 million. Coauthor is R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

In an interview before a presentation here, Weaver said right-wing Catholics can be defined by three dominant characteristics:

  • They express outrage at priests and laity who speak out in opposition of the pope. "They point out that the Catholic church is not a democracy and that error has no rights," she said.
  • While they support the concept of the Second Vatican Council, they feel betrayed by its aftermath, believing most churches moved way beyond its intentions liturgically and ecumenically. Weaver said that during many interviews with fundamentalists, she heard the comment, "I was ready for renewal and reform, but what I got was revolution."
  • They feel extremely isolated because they believe there are so few real Catholics like themselves. They are filled with counterculture anxiety and anger.

Weaver shared other findings during a July 17 speech at the University of Dayton, a Marianist college.

She said she first became interested in the topic when a student came to her office years ago saying he had something very serious to talk about. He then sat down and announced that altar cloths being used at a local church were not the right color.

A professor at Indiana University for 21 years, Weaver began the project, funded by the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis, by gathering scholars and conservative activists for what she thought would be fruitful conversation that could lead to a better understanding of one another.

"In the end, I felt like a total idiot for thinking it could even be done," she said. "Here we were, coming from our own perspectives, as sympathetic as we could be, and the first thing they wanted us to recognize was that they were not the people needing an explanation, we were."

Through her research, Weaver concluded that right-wing Catholics are poorly equipped to contribute significantly to the future of the church -- a future that will require "innovative solutions to enormous pastoral and theological problems."

"Those challenges," she said, "will have to be met by a new, ethically complex generation who never inhabited the world of American Catholicism circa 1920-1960, who never had the luxury or the burden of being right."

Through her work on the book, Weaver concluded there is a great deal wrong with being right. The right wing "avoids dialogue with outsiders in order to protect itself from contamination," she said. "It prefers the safe world of a shared outlook to the possibility of finding another point of view compelling. And it cannot afford to accept differences."

Weaver said that early in her research she realized that "right- and left-wing Catholics live in parallel universes that will never meet."

If she is correct, an individual can make the trip from one world to the other -- but only once.

"Those who move from right to left, from preconciliar insularity to postconciliar expansiveness, cannot go back," she said. "Those who remember the devotional world of an earlier era might want to import the religious atmosphere of another time to their new home, but they do not want to return to the narrowness that often supported their piety."

She said the division became inevitable with Vatican II. "Being Catholic in the 1950s meant being right about God and belonging to a church whose leaders did not make mistakes," she said. "But after 1968, the divide was ominous: American Catholics were increasingly described in bipolar terms as liberal or conservative, hierarchical or communitarian, postconciliar or pre-Vatican II."

The split between the two groups "is probably inexorable because liberals thrive in a climate of dissent, whereas conservatives, who stress obedience, cannot allow it to be part of any legitimate expression of Catholicism."

Weaver, who has written five other books on Catholicism, said her next one will be titled What's Left: Liberal Catholics In America, and jokingly said she should eventually produce one titled Who Cares? that would describe America's middle-of-the-road Catholic population.

National Catholic Reporter, August 9, 1996