National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

By Peter Steinfels
Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $26
Moderate manifesto for church’s future

Steinfels spurns right and left rigidity in U.S. Catholicism

Reviewed by DAVID O’BRIEN

In May, the University of Notre Dame awarded its Laetare Medal to Peter and Margaret O’Brien (“Peggy”) Steinfels. The medal “has been worn only by men and women whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity.”

Peggy, who succeeded Peter as editor of Commonweal magazine in 1988 and served in that position until her retirement this past January, is one of the nation’s best-known Catholic leaders. She appears regularly in the national media to comment on Catholic affairs. Peter has served as senior religion writer and currently writes a biweekly column for The New York Times. In recent years he has taught at Notre Dame and Georgetown while his continuing status with the Times has gained him entrée to the major events of recent religious history. A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, his second book, is dedicated to his wife, “with whom I have been thrashing out these matters since we were 17.”

These personal notes are important because the Steinfels’ public leadership all but guarantees that this book will receive a lot of attention. Peter Steinfels is uniquely qualified by his experience, his access to sources and his journalist’s professionalism to survey the state of contemporary American Catholicism. Those same qualifications ensure that his book will be noticed by the mainstream media and examined eagerly by all shades of Catholic opinion.

The book’s importance will be further enhanced by the Steinfels’ success in negotiating Catholicism’s culture wars. Liberals regard them as increasingly conservative, but most conservatives denounce them as liberals. Bishops of all sorts consult them with confidence. They claim the center in most Catholic debates, criticizing factionalism and distancing themselves from too eager reformers as quickly as from papal and doctrinal fundamentalists. At the start of this book, Peter Steinfels characteristically positions himself for the arguments to come. First he asserts his deep Catholic roots, lest there be any doubt of the priority of Catholic over American as he approaches his subject: “the Roman Catholic church in America.” Indeed he rejects what he takes to be the widespread assumption behind so many media accounts of the “church in crisis”: that Catholicism “must modernize, become up to date, adjust to America or fall by the wayside.” While “meaningful faith” must find some “plausible fit with its cultural surroundings,” these modernizing assumptions mask unexamined beliefs about what the times require, “usually along the lines of accommodation to secular worldviews.” This language echoes the anti-Americanist worries of neoconservative Catholics, but Steinfels quickly adds that he does not accept the opposite assumption “that only religious groups that define themselves sharply and stubbornly in opposition to the prevailing culture are destined to flourish.”

Such plague-on-both-your-houses moderation, above factions, detached from ecclesiastical politics, seems to some dangerously dispassionate, even wishy-washy. Moderates are on the defensive, pressured to clarify their Catholic loyalties and resistance to cultural accommodation. These pressures continue to increase as the center of gravity in the church keeps shifting to the right. But Steinfels is a robust Catholic, and with this book he tries to mount a middle-of-the-road offensive. His formation in the energetic world of postwar Chicago Catholicism and his long experience of New York’s conflicted cultural politics give Steinfels a self-confidence rare among Catholic moderates. Indeed, A People Adrift comes across as a contentious manifesto of the middle expressing its author’s deeply felt concern for the unity and integrity of his endangered church. This is a book with a purpose: to counter ideological polarization and institutional paralysis by revitalizing the moderate, pastorally inclined Catholic center best exemplified by the book’s iconic hero, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

The book opens with Bernardin’s dramatic 1996 Chicago funeral, the moving narrative punctuated by autobiographical memories of Steinfels’ youthful formation, and romance, in Chicago’s flourishing Catholic subculture. Steinfels locates the centerpiece of Bernardin’s legacy in the Catholic Common Ground Initiative, the cardinal’s effort to reverse growing divisions and enlist contending Catholic factions in dialogue in order to unite the American church in its mission of service. The cardinal’s proposal, which came days before announcement of the recurrence of his cancer, was immediately and harshly rejected by four of his brother cardinals. The most dramatic moment in the funeral came when the homilist said “common ground is sacred ground” and the assembled throng exploded with applause that the cardinal’s critics felt compelled to join.

Steinfels explores the later experience of the Initiative. The critics’ ability to turn this appeal for dialogue about differences into a left-of-center project changed the framework of Catholic discourse. Aggressive conservatives, with backing from the Vatican and its most devoted acolytes in the United States, successfully portrayed moderate centrists as dangerous liberals, lacking in fidelity to the Vatican and sliding down a slippery slope of unending compromise with dissent within the church and secularism and religious indifference without. With Bernardin’s death, the appointment of safe men as bishops, the erosion of national organizations of priests and religious, and the failure of the growing number of lay ministers to organize, such views came to dominate Catholic institutional politics.

Peter Steinfels
-- Hag Manoogian

Steinfels agrees with conservatives that the American church is “clearly at risk” of “a soft slide into a kind of nominal Catholicism.” But to understand what is happening he believes one must look beyond the usual litany of abrasive issues of sexuality and gender to worship, spiritual life, religious education and “most of all leadership.” He argues that liberals and conservatives in the church, frozen into positions formed years ago, ignore basic pastoral challenges. The next 10 to 20 years will be a period of unusual opportunity, and peril, because of two massive “transitions.” One is generational, as the Vatican II generation gives way to those now in their 20s and 30s, who have little understanding of traditional faith. Steinfels goes so far as to call them “religious blanks.” The second transition is from clergy to laity. Across the board, from institutions of health care and social services to schools to parishes, fewer priests and religious mean that lay people must play a dominant role in the life and work of the future church.

To face the challenges that come with these transitions, the church must act. Instead of “a people adrift,” American Catholics must recover a sense of shared responsibility for the future of their church. “A people is not a population. A people is not an undifferentiated mass but a group with a sense of itself, a collective memory, a solidarity, an anticipated destiny, all of which must be preserved in formulas, rituals, written or recited epics, lines of authority, prescribed and proscribed behaviors.” Instead of culture wars there must be common ground, achieved in part through leadership, especially from the bishops. But they will need a lot of help, and Steinfels ends the book with a stirring call to action directed at Catholics in positions of ministry, service and responsibility, from parish councils to diocesan commissions to theological research centers.

From this Bernardin center Steinfels takes up:

  • The sex abuse crisis. As shocked and angry as others, Steinfels laments the absence of leadership among the bishops and the loss of perspective on the part of their critics. He fears the scandal will accelerate already evident tendencies toward religious individualism, undermining Catholic solidarity and Catholic institutions.
  • Catholics and politics. Here he assesses the increasing independence of Catholic voters and the policy activism of the hierarchy, with special attention to the impact of the abortion question. As that issue came to define Catholic political integrity, tensions grew between church leaders and many Catholic politicians. Followers of Bernardin’s “seamless garment” of pro-life positions find themselves politically homeless. Worst of all is information from a Commonweal cosponsored research project suggesting that young Catholic men tend to vote Republican because they like GOP economic policies while younger women support the Democrats in part because of that party’s unequivocal support for “choice.”
  • Liturgy and pastoral care. Worship and parish life are basic to American religion but few Catholic leaders are facing the challenges posed by too few priests, dull Masses and homilies, and lack of understanding of sacramentality. This is his most “common ground” chapter as he writes sympathetically of the dedication of liturgical reformers while listening to their critics with respect. He speaks clearly, but modestly, of the shortcomings of liturgical music. Readers will be heartened by his detailed description of Bishop Kenneth Untener’s leadership in improving sacramental and pastoral practice in his diocese of Saginaw, Mich. Steinfels celebrates the appearance of deacons and thousands of lay ministers, but he notes the unevenness of shared responsibility among parishioners and their ministers, and, with considerable passion, he urges more research on matters of liturgy and parish life.
  • Catholic institutions of health care, social services and higher education. Here Steinfels worries about loss of Catholic identity consequent on professionalization, various forms of independent incorporation, and the complex webs of responsibility arising from public-private partnerships. He warns the bishops against imposing damaging new juridical controls but he urges leaders of these institutions to take bold steps in hiring and training staffs sympathetic to Catholic teaching.
  • School- and parish-based religious education. Schools work, parish religious education struggles, and the church badly needs to find better ways to share the faith across the generations. In this chapter he also takes up theology, noting the tensions between theologians and the hierarchy. He worries that theology has become too academic, too detached from the “nuts and bolts” of Catholic pastoral life.
  • “Sex and the female church.” In perhaps his best chapter, Steinfels takes up the most abrasive issues with attention to their pastoral dimensions. The present emphasis on orthodoxy in these areas he refers to as a form of Catholic fundamentalism. He is particularly concerned that his church find ways to affirm the role of women and ensure their place in all areas of church decision making, even as the ordination debate continues.
  • Bishops. Strong bishops are essential to genuine Catholicism and many today provide excellent local leadership, but as a group they are most responsible for the “adrift” quality of American Catholic life. They have failed to speak up for the needs of the American church in dealing with Rome, they have not faced the crucial pastoral challenges before the American church, and they have left a vacuum that inhibits the kind of decisive action badly needed if the American church is to avoid “irreversible decline” and take on the work of “thoroughgoing transformation” required by the times.

In all these areas Steinfels does not offer even a brief history, nor does he provide a comprehensive review of current debates. Instead he offers an argument-about-the-arguments taking place in each area of Catholic life. For example, he understands why women are upset with their church though he is not sure Catholic feminists always speak for the majority of Catholic women. He understands why the hierarchy is anxious about feminist claims, and he apparently thinks that Catholic feminism is endangered by groups that reject the sacraments and the authority of the hierarchy. Still, he thinks the church would do well to affirm women as ministers, invite them to ordination as permanent deacons, keep open possibilities for change and meanwhile ensure that women have a place at the table when decisions are made.

In the end Steinfels offers two major arguments about the crisis of the American church.

First, the basic posture of dialogue between Catholicism and modernity, once identified with liberal Catholicism, was moved by Vatican II and by the imperatives of history to the center of Catholic life. Dialogue is not only about dealing with others; it is also about reconciling conflicting claims within the church and within the life of most Catholics. How do people who are both Catholic and American, at this point in history, integrate their experience of religion and culture, the demands of citizenship and discipleship? This is the pastoral imperative of informed dialogue that the self-defined defenders of orthodoxy too often ignore. But, Steinfels insists, dialogue is not accommodation, as reformers often imply. Catholicism requires its own distinctive identity. Catholics must know their faith if they are to be good dialogue partners. Enthusiastic projects of reform often place the integrity of the church at risk and weaken the distinctive identity of Catholic institutions and of Catholics themselves. Steinfels thus shares many conservative reservations about post-Vatican II reforms of the liturgy, church architecture and religious education. He is critical of Catholic institutions, especially Catholic colleges and universities, for risking Catholic identity in their headlong quest for professional excellence and public prestige.

Unlike conservative critics of the contemporary church, however, Steinfels does not beat up on ministers in the trenches. He admires what practitioners from theologians to advocates for the poor and pastoral musicians have attempted. At the same time he believes theology is now overly academic, liturgy and music are dull, parish religious education has failed, and social justice and peace activism is plagued by political correctness.

Commentary on justice and peace work comes mainly in asides: These are not areas he considers at any length. That is unfortunate because one reasonable proposal for reinvigorating the Catholic community has been to moderate voices on contentious issues by placing them in the context of the church’s mission to serve the poor and, through justice-seeking and peacemaking, to offer a compelling witness to the dignity and unity of the human family.

Despite his reservations about the products of renewal, Steinfels wants no part of the right’s agenda. He condemns the bishops’ subservience to the Vatican, he sharply critiques simplistic restorationism in liturgy, catechetics and ministry, and he rejects the control implicit in requiring official mandates for theological scholars and teachers. He affirms the inevitable passing of leadership from clergy to laity, and he insists that revolutionary changes in the role of women in society make untenable age-old Catholic assumptions. In fact, when Steinfels gets around to recommending concrete changes, he endorses such things as lay ministry, pastoral moderation on sexual ethics, the consistent ethic of life, and shared responsibility in church governance, all ideas dear to supporters of Vatican II renewal and reform. When the focus is on the “nuts and bolts” of Catholic practice, as it is here, rather than on ideas about orthodoxy and dissent, then change is a matter of fact, not interpretation, and creative and faithful adaptation is not an option but a pastoral imperative.

Second, Steinfels argues that almost every problem comes back to leadership. The sex abuse crisis saw the bishops drift without a leader. Priests generally are not providing the kind of leadership needed by a new church more dependent on lay personnel. College and university presidents, and to a lesser degree leaders in Catholic health care and social services, allow Catholic identity and mission to erode as they settle for meaningless slogans and avoid hard decisions about hiring, training and commitment. “The kind of leadership needed to steer the American Catholic church here through its current changes must reemphasize practical skills, pastoral results, empirical measures, organizational effectiveness.” The road to a mobilized middle, no longer defensive about its fidelity, lies through the concrete requirements of parishes, apostolic movements and institutions that shape, sustain and express the faith of the Catholic people.

If there is a fault in this book, so rich in information and insight, it is a surprising lack of historical focus, surprising because Steinfels is a trained historian, and in person almost always offers a rich historical context for his arguments. In this book, however, the trajectory of recent Catholic history is quite conventional. “Having confounded the assumptions and expectations of early Americans” that Catholicism was an outdated old world remnant that would quickly die out in the atmosphere of American freedom, Catholics after World War II achieved their historic objective of full participation in American society while continuing, in record numbers, to practice their faith. But history played a trick on Catholics at the moment of this great achievement. “The church had won vaunted place in the American mainstream by standing apart, by celebrating and inculcating democratic and conventional middle class values but in its own way, at arms length and within its all embracing institutions. Now the defensiveness could be relaxed; the permeable membrane with which the church guarded its members could be officially dissolved. But hardly had the American Catholic church sunk back for a few moments of comfort into the soft upholstery of acceptance than it was thrown into turmoil.” The throwing was done inside the church by Vatican II and outside by the upsetting events of the dreaded “’60s.”

Well, not quite. The pre-1960s architects of modern American Catholicism were “hardly” sinking back into the “comfort” of “acceptance.” On the contrary, they were aggressively expanding the Catholic institutional network in order to accompany their people on the long awaited journey of liberation from poverty and powerlessness. In retrospect the Catholic subculture was transformed less by pressure to adapt to secular society than by the aspirations of Catholic families and leaders who came from those families. Most thought that by working to develop a church that was fully American and faithfully Catholic they would help their country fulfill its democratic promise. They were Americanists, and Vatican II affirmed their instinct that the church existed not for itself, “standing apart,” but for the whole human family.

Peter Steinfels is not an Americanist. His Catholic people are adrift and he hopes they can recover a sense of solidarity and possibility through the reassertion of their distinctive faith and practice as Catholics. “The crisis of the Roman Catholic church in America” will be resolved constructively, he argues, only if church leaders can help their people avoid the traps of religious indifferentism and cultural surrender built into American religious freedom and pluralism. He is of course right: Sub-cultural communities need to feel really good about themselves, and they need to meet real needs if their institutions are to prosper. A more assertive presentation of Catholic claims, a more enthusiastic affirmation of Catholic traditions, better preaching, more engaging music, more energetic and intelligent ministries, all these will surely help ensure Catholic unity, identity and integrity.

But fulfillment of the promise of American Catholic life, an answer to the question “liberation for what?” will require a love that extends to the American people, of whom Catholics are, by heritage and choice, a part. That is to say, to put it personally, that we Catholics must attend carefully to the American parts of our church, and of ourselves.

David O’Brien is director for the Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture and the Loyola professor of Roman Catholic Studies at Holy Cross College, Worcester, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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