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American Catholics through new pair of glasses

By Arthur Jones
Thomas More, 192 pages, $21.95


Every once in awhile a book comes along that helps even the experts look at their favorite topics slightly differently. It’s like getting a new pair of glasses. Nothing is dramatically new, but everything is sharpened and focused.

Now comes Arthur Jones’ New Catholics for a New Century. He offers a new pair of glasses to Catholics who prepared for their first Communion before the Second Vatican Council and took the council’s changes to heart.

Jones’ new glasses fast-forward his readers to the Catholic church in America in 2040. By then, the people who championed and lived through the changes of Vatican II will be mostly gone. Jones says it is likely there may be a more severe shortage of priests if they are still all male. Some of today’s seminarians will be cardinals. It will be an epoch of Catholic people of color, he says. The church inculturates music, dance and ideas from around the world.

Now is the time the church needs to inculturate American ideas of democracy and willingness to welcome and serve. He’s hopeful that Americans can use those qualities to make the church strong.

Jones, editor-at-large of the National Catholic Reporter, has regrets about the council. He wishes that there had been time taken for a fifth session of the council to look at the changes that were supposed to give birth to spiritual renewal. An extra session might have given bishops and advisors time to reflect and clean up some of the little messes. As it stands, all Catholics have lost some things, he says.

For a time, parishes offered poor music. A generation of children got fuzzy ideas about their faith in parish classes.

Now Jones is concerned that some younger bishops can only see the messy stuff and want to stop the reform of the council, its spiritual renewal and empowerment of the laity. These conservative younger bishops are filling their staffs with priests who agree with them. That is happening even though American Catholics are still the best educated, best organized, best funded members of the global Catholic family, he says.

He champions the “American” in American Catholics. He joyfully tells story after story that supports his idea that “Rome will have to have more faith in the faithful.”

He wants the bishops to listen better, too. He reports on the late Cardinal Basil Hume who told American Catholic bishops in a retreat that they needed to “stop looking over [their] shoulders, at Rome.”

Democratization, Americans’ perpetual state of revolt against authority, has not subverted the church but can help it, Jones says. In this country where thousands of Catholic students take advanced degrees in theology, theological discourse cannot be stifled. It’s time to find new ways to let the discussion serve rather than trying to make it conform. That just might be letting the Holy Spirit in.

Jones, who has stayed awake at more November meetings of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops than most bishops, takes the reader inside those meetings. Those who look hardest at the Roman reactions are often careerists. Cardinal Bernardin Gantin, former head of the Congregation of Bishops, slammed bishops who are always pressuring for higher office and bigger cities. Jones abhors the careerist mentality, too. He believes that a diocese, like a parish, suffers from frequent transfers and short-term appointments. He fears that ambitious bishops will pursue policies not with an eye to the needs of the people in the diocese but with a view to improving his episcopal profile in Rome.

The real problem for a diocese, Jones finds, is the ambitious bishop who gets passed over. A bitter bishop is worse than no leader, Jones says. He is shocked that some bishops refuse to sit next to others because of disagreements. Sometimes bishops have rebuked each other in public, and that makes them look petty and caviling.

Christian charity must survive the thorniest of debates. He throws a bouquet to Pope John Paul II. In 1979, when Sister of Mercy Theresa Kane was president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, she welcomed the pope to San Francisco by asking him to open all the church’s ministries to women. Of course, the pope dismissed the suggestion, later clamping down on public discussion of ordination of Catholic women.

However, in 1999 the pope asked another American Sister of Mercy, Sharon Euart, to “give my regards to Sister Kane.”

Bishops and pastors may get thorny, but Jones puts his faith in faithful American Catholics. He finds them hopeful and involved. Many understand that they must have a strong role to play telling other Americans about responsibility to the common good both locally and in the ravaged Third World.

Patricia Rice is the religion editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2000