|Cover story -- Essay|
Issue Date: March 11, 2005
Whose orthodoxy is it?
Merton gets tossed from new catechism, victim of latest round over who gets to decide what's Catholic
By DEBORAH HALTER
Nobodys right, if everybodys wrong. -- Stephen Stills
Battle lines are being drawn in the oldest prizefight of Catholicism -- the quest for orthodoxy.
At stake, this time, is the first national catechism for adults -- including and especially young adults -- which in November 2003 enjoyed the U.S. bishops 218-10 approval. Having endured four years, three drafts, and more than 10,000 suggested amendments, and having finally gained overwhelming support among bishops and other consultants as a solid source of information and an open invitation to explore the faith, the 456-page U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults now awaits the required Vatican recognitio before becoming official.
Two prominent critics of the catechism, however, have antagonized hundreds of Catholics by allegedly convincing, or cowing the bishops into removing Trappist monk and best-selling author Thomas Merton from the text. In an impassioned response, some 500 Catholics have petitioned the bishops catechism committee to reverse its acquiescence to the critics charges that Merton is an unsuitable role model for young adults.
For the moment, however, the petitioners are on the sidelines watching the real sparring partners: two critics with a small band of bishops wary of contemporary expressions of the faith, and the majority of bishops who think otherwise. It wont do in this case to employ the usual conversation stoppers -- conservative and liberal -- that are routinely bestowed upon a group by its opponents. Catholics agree on too many fundamentals of this face-off to remain for long in their stereotyped corners. The pugilists may be at odds with each other, but theyre in the same ring.
The current controversy ignited even as the bishops were approving the new catechism. Two catechetical translators -- Msgr. Michael Wrenn, dean of students at St. Joseph Seminary in Dunwoody, N.Y., and Kenneth D. Whitehead, a Catholic author who formerly served as U.S. assistant secretary of education -- wrote an article for Catholic World News, a Web site, condemning the catechisms biographical inclusion of the internationally admired Merton, whose The Seven Storey Mountain in 1949 helped energize a surge of postwar vocations to the priesthood and religious life -- not a bad role model in the current American climate of priest shortages and sex scandals. More than a half-century after it was first published, the autobiography of Mertons conversion and entry into the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky is still in print around the globe.
Wrenn and Whitehead have asserted that Mertons investigation of Eastern religions toward the end of his life make him a poor role model for faithful Catholics. Their complaint against Merton, however, may be a lightning rod to the more deeply rooted slugfest over who has the right to examine and define orthodoxy. On one hand, every Catholic has the duty to cross-question catechism and conscience; on the other, Rome has the teaching authority.
A bit of background is necessary here. The broader Wrenn-Whitehead criticism of the new catechism for young adults earlier had found voice with their criticism of the English translation of the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church during its two-year Roman captivity, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith examined and rejected it, primarily because of the texts gender-inclusive language.
At the time, Wrenn and Whitehead wrote: We are obliged to judge this translation to be a very bad one that, if foisted off on the English-speaking world, would bring discredit upon the whole catechism enterprise. The translation, they said, suffered from hundreds of errors, some with major doctrinal significance.
Abandonment of man
Of high concern was inclusive language, against which the two men employed a pejorative variation of the word feminist 23 times within a few hundred words, calling the demand for inclusive language bitterly anti-Catholic. The deplorable abandonment of the generic man revealed the U.S. bishops almost maniacal concern for political correctness and formed the most serious deficiency in this English translation.
In their recent analysis of the new Catholic Catechism for Adults, Wrenn and Whitehead revisited their 1992 issues as well as some new ones, one of which was Thomas Merton, dead 35 years, whose search for truth while maintaining dogged loyalty to Catholicism ironically has become a perceived threat to orthodoxy.
At this point, we are reminded that by definition and choice, Roman Catholics must accede to the magisterium, the teaching authority of the pope and bishops, even if as a matter of conscience they question a particular doctrine. By that same necessity, Catholics do not have the right to fossilize every teaching that ever rolled out of the magisterial factory while rejecting new theological insights that may develop or expand on a concept without necessarily rejecting it.
Wrenn and Whitehead, like many Catholics, would seem to distrust change, as evidenced by their hot-button criticisms of the as-yet unofficial U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults:
In this, the two men would doubtless find agreement in the broader Catholic community, especially among pre-Vatican II Catholics for whom the old Baltimore Catechism series provided a complete course of religious instruction. If by todays standards it was somewhat dry and rigid, the Baltimore series was rooted in a pedagogy that established and then followed its own internal logic. First came the prayers, then questions, then twice the number of questions, and so on, with each slender volume building on the one preceding it.
Their claim that the catechism should include the Vaticans explanation of the male-only priesthood surely would find agreement among conservative and liberal Catholics alike. Most young adults have never been given that explanation.
Keeping with cultural practice
The catechism writers used horizontal inclusive language to speak of women and men without seeking to neutralize the male-gendered, vertical language for God. In a November article published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Wuerl explained that the catechisms writers and editors had been directed to describe human persons according to both male and female genders in keeping with cultural practice in the United States. Wrenn and Whitehead earnestly objected, pointing out that the generic man had served Catholicism for a millennium before feminists started erasing that tradition.
Those who might disagree point out that, ironically, the venerable Baltimore Catechism No. 3 (Q. 134) asked: Does man in the catechism mean all human beings? It answered: Man in the catechism means all human beings, either men or women, boys, girls or children. It seems unlikely that a 19th-century catechism would have found it necessary to define who is included in the word man if the term was so widely accepted as Wrenn and Whitehead claimed.
Further, they say, the texts treatment of contraception in the United States fails to point out the prevalence of sterilization, which has already wreaked untold havoc on Catholic health care facilities. But against Wrenn and Whitehead, even Catholics concerned with the use of sterilization as birth control might say that the churchs first concern should not be institutional but pastoral, especially for Catholics who later regret having been sterilized.
Wrenn and Whitehead maintain that the catechism editors lacked fundamental understanding of these and other issues, an acute problem because the U.S. bishops need to get it pretty nearly exactly right the first time or risk exacerbating rather than healing divisions in the American Catholic community. Catholics observing the unfolding of these catechism events would surely agree, especially after the disaster surrounding the English-language translation. The challenge here lies in determining what pretty nearly exactly right means in American Catholicism.
Further, Catholics would widely agree with Wrenn-Whitehead that a teaching instrument should not be compromised by our contemporary decadent American culture. But some, including the bishops, might argue that the whole of American culture cannot and should not be maligned with the overbroad, hence unfair, label of decadent. There are perfectly decent people all over the land, many of whom are Catholic.
Now, back to Merton and what he represents in this contest.
The new catechism quite effectively includes biographical sketches of exemplary American Catholics such as Elizabeth Ann Seton, Pope John XXIII, Dorothy Day and Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. Wrenn and Whitehead, however, insist that these and other traditional role models should stand over and against more suspect Catholics -- Sr. Thea Bowman (her attempt to educate poor blacks was hardly an unalloyed Gospel message), César Chávez (his work to unionize farm hands was partisan and controversial), and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago (who, because of his seamless garment approach to the sanctity of life, could not be anything but a controversial figure, even though he died an edifying death).
Near-contemporary figures in particular and controversy in general should be avoided, said Wrenn and Whitehead, who criticized even Pope John XXIII for his misplaced cheerful optimism, which ultimately was wrong -- especially compared to the great pontificate of John Paul II.
The Wrenn-Whitehead preoccupation with banning controversial figures such as Chávez, Bernardin, and Bowman is problematic because the catechisms inclusion of role models in that regard is clearly inconsistent. Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day was jailed in 1973 for joining a church-banned picket line supporting farm workers (see Chávez), considered all human life to be sacred without exception (see Bernardin), and kept her hand extended to all in poverty (see Bowman). Particularly ironic is that she vociferously denounced U.S. involvement in war and rejected out of hand the racism then rampant in the United States (see Merton).
Wrenn and Whitehead described Merton as a lapsed monk who in his last days went wandering in the East, seeking the consolations, apparently, of non-Christian, Eastern spirituality, for which he could scarcely be considered an exemplary Catholic. The very fact that the editors [of the catechism] could have included him as such in their very first chapter immediately casts doubt on their understanding of Catholic teaching and practice.
Wrenn-Whitehead omitted the widely known circumstance that, in the spirit of the Vaticans call to greater ecumenical awareness and dialogue, Merton was attending a conference of Catholic and Buddhist monks in Thailand with official permission from his superiors. The journey was made in his last days not by design but only because he was accidentally electrocuted during the conference. These careless errors of fact cast doubt on Wrenn and Whiteheads research and intellectual honesty.
Wuerl later claimed that the bishops removed Merton -- whose biography originally was the opening story -- because the generation we were speaking to had no idea who he was. But a recent Amazon.com search returned 647 results for books by and about Merton. By contrast, the search returned 15 works (seven of which are out of print) by or about Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, who was included because of her work with cancer patients (and because her spiritual biography is truly remarkable).
The Amazon search results do not suggest that Merton was worthier of emulation than Lathrop or others, but that Wuerls claim that the Trappist monk had fallen into obscurity was so egregiously erroneous that it endangers the credibility of the larger biographical effort.
Likewise with a claim by the executive director for the bishops catechism office, Msgr. Daniel Kutys, who said the bishops replaced the internationally popular Merton with the first American saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, to provide more gender balance, as most of the books profiles are male. As politically polite as that sounds, it is hard to imagine that Elizabeth Ann Seton originally was left out of the catechism and inserted at the 11th hour. Or, maybe she actually was included all along and promoted to first place only after Merton was removed. Perhaps the biggest irony of all is that Thomas Merton helped shape the very American Catholicism that the catechism now seeks to bequeath to young adults.
Many Catholics might argue that todays young adults are both spiritual seekers and intellectually demanding. Mertons search for truth, and what it represents, would appeal to Catholic students who have little or no intention of ever again entering a Catholic church. The Trappist could have helped develop in them the sense of mystery that roots the Catholic imagination. Sadly, the bishops capitulation to Wrenn and Whitehead and other critics removed not only Merton but also a rare and valuable teaching moment, an opportunity to grace young Catholics with a sense of the sacred.
The catechism conflict, for better or worse, reveals confusion about what it means to be orthodox in post-Vatican II society, about who ultimately has the power to decide, and by what means.
When Abraham Lincoln echoed Matthew 12:25 that a house divided cannot stand, he might have added that a healthy set-to does not necessarily reveal a divided house but only carpenters with different tools and construction methods. This glove-game pits, in one corner, two champion defenders of orthodoxy against, in the other corner, the titleholders of American Catholicism. What is interesting and ironic is that this round has reenacted the fisticuffs of the wider post-Vatican II encounter.
Still, whether from papacy, pulpit or pew, conflicting views cannot all be right, but they cant all be wrong, either. What that means for now is that neither side is going to pull off a victory. If anything, these contenders are in for a long fight.
Deborah Halter is a lecturer in World Religions at Loyola University, New Orleans.
National Catholic Reporter, March 11, 2005
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