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Issue Date:  September 9, 2005

The Roman imposition

Arthur Jones on his years as NCR editor, and the dawn of the Wojtyla-Ratzinger continuum

Part 3
After 30 years with the newspaper, Arthur Jones, NCR's editor at large, is retiring at the end of October. I asked Jones to reflect on his years as an editor here and provide us with some background as to what motivated his switch from being an international correspondent for secular magazines and newspapers to a career in Catholic journalism. I also asked him to sum up his thoughts as he looks at the church today. This is the third of four columns. The last will run in the Oct. 7 issue. -- Tom Roberts


I’ll spare you the glossy New York magazine and British newspaper international correspondent years -- except that, departing Forbes magazine as European bureau chief, I interviewed Michele Sindona, the Sicilian financier who took the Vatican Bank and its head, Archbishop Paul Marcinkus, to the cleaners. In January 1975, as the new NCR editor, I asked Marcinkus for an interview. He said no. My response: I’ve just bought the North American rights to the London Sunday Times exposé of Michele Sindona and the Vatican Bank, so he could please himself. Marcinkus changed his mind, I flew to Rome. Some Catholic hierarchs understand hardball because they play such a lot of it.

The NCR board knew I was in as editor for a minimum of three years, a maximum of 10. In an already divided church I wanted to show there was a single thing called “church,” up against state-as-state, fighting for the rights of the poor without losing for a moment its sacramental role -- its strength and its salvation.

Why? The intellectual underpinnings of Vatican II (1962-65) had a strong economic component. This was the first council of Leo XIII’s Catholic social justice teaching church, one that sided with the workers and the poor as Europe’s Industrial Revolution crested. It was a council of bishops who had lived through two world wars and -- in Europe -- 20 years of economic depression between. They knew the poor firsthand. The increasing First World affluence was obvious, but those bishops knew the rest of the world was only barely entering into, economically, what the United States and Europe were emerging from. The poor needed a church attuned to them. A church that was Jesus’ yoke, actively easing the poor’s burdens. The Vatican II bishops said amen to that.

NCR, born in 1964, wrote the first draft of that history. In 1975 I cranked up the coverage. American journalism at its best is fine indeed. Its basis is bold and enterprising reporting: Watch out for the underdog, combat abuse of power, place oneself at risk. It’s a craft that makes few friends, brings no fame and no fortune.

NCR developed reporters who could take on the world -- and, where necessary, the institutional church -- and did so with bureaus in Washington, San Francisco and Rome, and stringers and freelancers in the major U.S. regions. And lots of women columnists.

By the late 1970s, NCR’s first draft was capturing Oscar Romero’s historical role (June Carolyn Erlick) and was providing history’s first reading (Penny Lernoux) on death and turmoil in Central and South America, including exposing the Catholic fascist right and the U.S. government’s malignant roles in much of that hemisphere. In Poland, Peter Hebblethwaite drafted a history that showed, in the Catholic church versus Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski, a different breed of courageous Catholics. (Later I sent Hebblethwaite to Rome.) Here at home, it was women’s issues, a revitalized liturgy and a church moving shoulder to shoulder with the poor as it explored what Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” actually required from Catholics.

The new pontificate? Karol Wojtyla widened the growing post-Vatican II internal Roman Catholic divide. It was obvious he would. In England as a young man, I’d gone to church with the families of émigré Polish intellectuals who had fled Hitler in the 1930s. They were locked in their moment. John Paul II responded to type. Resignedly, for I knew that Catholic mindset, when Wojtyla was elected I wrote in NCR that he would be tough on priests who wanted to leave and on married couples who wanted to divorce. I had other items on my list, but because he was a new man on the throne and might grow in office, I didn’t run them. Uncharacteristic prudence on my part.

I was editor when Pope John Paul II made his first U.S. visit. With all bases covered, I told one photographer -- he was Jewish, I believe -- where he’d be in the best position to get the up-close facial I needed of the pope.

The photog called in when he’d developed his shots. “I got it, Arthur!” he shouted into the phone. “I got it. I had to go to Communion five times, but I got it.”

John Paul II realized that the U.S. Catholic church -- more specifically the renewed women’s congregations, the engaged laity with highly networked women backed by many priests and some bishops -- was the only entity in the world loyal enough to the council, energetic and imaginative enough, educated and organized enough, wealthy and capable enough to challenge his pontificate’s intention to undermine Vatican II reforms and reimpose a top-down rule. (Historically there had always been a dash of Euro-deceit within the Vatican and papal hubris: The Vatican may like Americans, but it doesn’t admire them. Add to the late pope’s anti-Americanism the West’s repeated betrayal of Poland.)

The Wojtyla-Ratzinger response to a mobilized U.S. Catholicism was fierce. Oust or demoralize the conciliar Catholics, in America and elsewhere. Appoint U.S. bishops more Roman than American. So by the 1990s we had the Wojtyla-Ratzinger duo piously dictating a revisionist Vatican II to a body of near-traumatized bishops reduced to a papal claque and demoralized senior bishops. The new model is a reclericalized church with little faith in the faithful, none of that sensus fidelium nonsense. Make the educated feel unwanted and unwelcome by reimposing pietistic nonsense and childish attention to ritualized minutiae (the birdie-bobbing heads at Communion?) and bingo! it’s the 19th century of blessed memory again. As a Wojtyla-Ratzinger Eurocentric and Euro-eccentric strategy, it’s successful; as a model of church, it’s pitiful.

The Wojtyla-Ratzinger continuum doesn’t play only to empty pews. Hundreds of millions of heaven-bound Catholics just want Jesus. They stand in line and question nothing. As is their right. Others, more pugnacious, Catholics steadfastly loyal and questioning, rooted in their eucharistic communities and New Testament realities, remain to demand better from the institution. People of large heart and devotion still confidently demur from much the Vatican would impose. The New Yorker lately quoted one of the sillier little U.S. bishops saying such folks are Mass-going non-Catholics. Hey-ho! There are very few bishops in this country who can cast the first stone about anything. (Fear not, folks, it’s the memoirists, not the bishops’ obituary writers, who get the final word.)

Numbers-wise, the U.S. church will initially comfortably crash-land on the backs of three generations of Vietnamese, Filipino and Latino immigrants, particularly the latter. Unless the immigrants’ descendants and the currently activist volunteers can bolster the center and hold the U.S. church to its mission to the poor, Catholicism risks being one more lockstep sect comforting the comfortable by operating their charity basket for them.

The U.S. church’s current vibrant center is those young Catholics who flesh out the Gospel and deepen their appreciation of the Jesus who began with the poor by serving the poor and continuing to demand systemic change. They and their involved and demanding parents and grandparents, and the supportive nuns and priests, they’re the candles -- soon to be relegated to backwaters in this new Dark Ages.

For, paradoxically, with reclericalization, the center is becoming the periphery. Which means the center cannot hold.

Indeed the center cannot hold as a force for social good and betterment under the Wojtyla-Ratzinger continuum. The continuum can’t hold Latin America. For all its Eurocentricity, the late pontificate couldn’t hold centrist Catholic Poles, whose rapid attrition a Polish pope couldn’t prevent. Ireland’s young Catholics have walked away. It won’t hold young Asia or Africa. Not with its policies of disengagement from responsible 21st-century discussion. This church talks about moral relativism from a redoubt of declining social relevance -- for it has lost its ability to persuade, to convince. It can only impose.

Catholicism in the public square? We’re into the era of the museum-ization of Catholicism. Tot up how much has been spent rehabbing a dozen or so U.S. Catholic cathedrals and shrines in the past decade and you’d be astonished: from the $25 million for Baltimore’s basilica to nearly $200 million for Los Angeles’ Spanish box. Public Catholicism is U.S. Catholicism as a tour bus destination.

Public square? At the hierarchical level, a church that once linked arms with Dorothy Day and César Chávez will hold hands with the descendants of Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed. And the church will implode.

Implosion is what happens when there’s no center.

Once, the Roman Catholic church was almost the universal signal for the progress of the peoples. The church in Brazil, through its Gospel-focused energy, could have shown the universal church how to live with the poor. The church in the United States could have become the universal church’s test case for dealing with the frontier of most developed nations; materialism and affluence, relativism and capitalism, rapid technological change, bioethical frontiers and declining social mores. The church in Asia has in its fiber the understanding of the interreligious cooperative spirit. The church in Africa could remind solemn, ponderous liturgists, who think Jesus spoke Latin, that Mass is about joy and Eucharist and thanksgiving and jubilant celebration in words people can understand.

The Catholic institution today is so disoriented it can’t even repeat the best lessons of its own evangelizing past. The Irish missionaries like Columba and Drostan knew 1,500 years ago what to do. They looked for what was solid in the pagan stock and grafted Christianity on to it. (Think “inculturation.”)

The solid stock in American life: the capacity to plan, to organize and execute the plan; the country’s democratic ideals, equality of the sexes, the open forum, the premium on education, the thirst for the spiritual. That’s enough for a bold church to build on.

Plus, this church could have a laity truly involved in the everyday life of church and society. But the new papacy-micromanaged church’s eyes are scaled by central fixation: fear of losing lockstep control.

The issue here isn’t about numbers, it’s about the church’s soul. A church that is not constantly renewed by the poor, not constantly intellectually stimulated by having to give an account of itself to challenge and dissent outside and in, is sterile. Period. Lack of open and continued debate about the contentious issues of church and society in the 21st century is not mere stupidity, it is intellectual cowardice.

The church welcomes its narrowing intellectuality. It is becoming intellectually bereft at a time when what’s called for is a wider vision of the individual, a wider vision of the world, a wider vision of church, and a wider vision of God than its pietism, fundamentalism and conformity can tolerate.

Oh, there’ll be folks who write in to say the church isn’t about social justice and social change and systemic disturbance without, or about a world vision and transparency and dialogue and collegiality within. They’re wrong, of course.

Jesus began and ended with the poor, and lived and died in disputation. He preached to “all nations” and dined with the outcasts, and he died with thieves. He disturbed the rich and powerful. The rich he told to change their ways. The religious hierarchs he scorned as nitpickers. Hey-ho! And they combined with the political rulers to crucify him.

The latest piety floating around the institution is that Catholicism is awaiting a new Francis. The church has had four decades of Francises and Clares worldwide and did everything it could to marginalize them.

Match the modern Francis and Clare’s Jesus-inspired activist poverty against the anachronistic fixation on today’s pomp; compare that to the gold threads and silks of the hierarchs’ floor length dresses. The divide and distance between Jesus’ call and the present-day institution couldn’t be clearer: The Vatican public function has succeeded the British royal family as the television pageant of choice.

Back to the chronology. In 1980, and on schedule, after five-and-a-half years I brought in a new editor and publisher, left Kansas City (D.G.), and returned to full-time writing. A couple of cardinals said “Deo Gratias,” too.

National Catholic Reporter, September 9, 2005

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