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American culture key to understanding lay shifts.

The NCR/Gallup Poll cannot be considered good news for Pope John Paul II. U.S. Catholics, we find, are more American (making up their own minds) and more unCatholic (less submissive to church teaching) than ever.

They may love God and Jesus and they may be more loyal to Catholicism than anyone except Andrew Greeley suspected, but they are also what Greeley called "do-it-yourself" Catholics, the kind almost no Catholic professionals, from pope to pundits, really like or respect.

So there it is. Whatever may have happened at Vatican II, Catholic still means Catholic. Being "in" means thinking as the church thinks, believing what the church believes, taking as truth that which the church teaches, adopting appropriate sheeplike behaviors when dealing with God's chosen shepherds. Catholic means doctrinal statements affirmed, clerical and papal authority accepted, moral pronouncements forming consciences, boundaries that can't be crossed, ideas that can't be expressed, changes that can't be made.

John Paul II and a few others at least seem willing to take on non-Catholics and non-Catholic culture, in Poland as well as in the United States. But most of those who love this stuff never rocked any boat that would give them a ride.

Story No. 1

So there are two stories here, one a fairly accurate story of growing Catholic voluntarism and individualism, the other a story about the lenses through which that reality is interpreted.

"Story One: The Making of Do-It-Yourselfers" has been told many times. It is the story of the unraveling of modern and American Catholic culture. Everyone knows that Catholicism was always diverse. Christopher Dawson, that great champion of unified Catholic culture, admitted that the reformation happened largely because Latin and Germanic Catholics never really got things together.

Historians of Catholic societies from Renaissance Italy to Counter Reformation Spain to New York's Little Italy to today's Haiti find popular Catholicism filled with rich mixtures of Christian and pagan beliefs and practices. Popular Catholic devotions often sharply conflict with prevailing theology. The family and the earth are filled with sacred powers more immediately significant than any found in church.

As for morals, simply listen to the preaching and prayers of almost any saint since the Council of Trent: Many people in all classes and cultures suffer greatly because of a near infinite variety of vices.

Catholic aspiration

Almost always, almost everywhere, Catholic Christianity, like any other Christianity, has been a matter more of aspiration than achievement, making and remaking cultures and communities, hoping that faith, awakened and renewed, might somehow bring love where it seems always absent.

Catholicism at its most dormant seemed static, on its surface seamless, like docile Irish villagers at Mass. Like that scene, it was deceptive, the image formed more by the needs and desires of observers than by people usually beset by deeper tragedies and more fearsome powers than their betters could imagine.

But the church so loved by opponents of "cafeteria Catholicism" was not entirely an illusion. From Trent on, Catholic reformers hoped to educate and civilize Catholics and build harmonious churches and civilizations -- at home if possible, on the missions if necessary.

Two centuries of dependence for reform on Catholic crowned heads left mixed results: ruined missions from Quebec to California, to Paraguay and across Asia, clerics at the guillotine or in exile, even the pope in prison back home, all because of persecution by Catholics or former Catholics.

Shaken by revolution, the Catholic church, led by some remarkable people, took charge of its destiny by making an option for itself. Reforming bishops reformed their priests, educating them, confining them to their assignments, making them financially dependent and pastorally responsible, and insisting they be churchmen, committed to the church above all.

Bishops and popes together centralized administration, strengthened their authority and declared their leader infallible. In implementing these reforms they gradually made themselves and their church more independent of political powers than they had been in a millennium.

Most of all, they brought as many people as possible to church. There they were taught what the church teaches, persuaded to receive the sacraments as the major way to achieve salvation, and -- in strategies tailored to diverse political and cultural circumstances -- were mobilized to defend the faith by defending and supporting their church.

Modern foundations

So the image of the church that lies behind whining about cafeteria Catholicism was a uniquely modern construction. Its sources lay in:

1. Competition, first with Protestants, later with secular and revolutionary movements. The survival of the church, and thus of the faith, depended on organizing Catholics and keeping them out of competing organizations, most of which were hostile to the church. Thus there was a clear need to make the organization important, the ordinary means of salvation, and to clarify the boundaries between the church and its competitors by emphasizing those things on which Catholics differed with others, not what united them.

Obviously this worked best where the people being organized had other bonds that held them together, like an oppressed nationality in Ireland or Poland, or an exploited class in Quebec or northern Germany, or immigrants experiencing wrenching change and cruel discrimination, as in the United States.

2. The awesome grasp of the state, from the French Revolution's option for a neopagan civil religion to almost every government's takeover of education. To deal with the modern state required power. Organization, unity and discipline were means to achieve power, in communist Poland as in capitalist America.

3. The deeper, seemingly irreversible drive of secularization. Catholic instinct rebelled against sectarianism, pluralism and segmentation. It could not abide the separation of religion from the rest of life. Unable to control a culture, the church could become a culture in exile, a way of life ready to return.

That worked especially well where Catholics were more or less isolated. But if they lived among the others, they might trivialize faith by making it one element of life among others, leading to what earlier counterparts of today's critics of cafeteria Catholicism called "indifferentism." Thus they needed not only a church but a subculture, a separate way of life, to the degree possible. In too many places, we too quickly forgot that Catholic separatism and triumphalism was a dangerous strategy when linked to powerful currents of nationalism and ethnic chauvinism.

U.S. erosion

But it seemed benign enough in the United States, where separation was only partial and always voluntary, because almost everyone really liked being American. But here Catholic antisecularism betrayed itself. By organizaing on the basis of religion to oppose the separation of religion from life, Catholicism won respect and exercised authority over its aspiring and mobile people on matters of -- religion!

The good Catholic went to church and took care of private duties; he or she might do more or less what he or she liked elsewhere. Thus, oddly, modern American Catholicism helped promote the very secularization it decried.

Still, in America, the modern strategy of opting for the church really worked; Catholics stayed Catholic and, for a while, they seemed really Catholic, 100 percent with the program. Ethnic parishes, parochial schools, a variety of social and cultural institutions, and the immigrant assimilation experience all helped. So did the presence of very smart and enormously dedicated leaders. The dream of a civilized, prosperous and harmonious Catholic culture found its outcome in the suburban parish and the flourishing Catholic campus of the 1950s. And then, in a few short years, it was gone.

Helped by their churches and schools, thousands upon thousands of the children of the immigrants went to college, entered the professions and business, moved away from the old neighborhoods and became American. They loved their church very much, but liberation had arrived, and with it those modern virtues of tolerance, reasonableness, civility, which could only erode the unity and distinctiveness of the Catholic subculture.

Roman rumblings

It happened as fast as it did because elsewhere Catholic leaders decided reform was needed in the church. Their experience of the option for the church was less benign. They wanted to reform the church not because they wanted to be good liberals, as later critics charged, but because they thought the unified, harmonious church had been culturally isolated, politically irrelevant (or simply wrong) and morally irresponsible. The church and its people blamed others for the tragic events of the century. They needed instead to take a look at themselves.

More positively, the remarkable Pope John XXIII thought they needed to rejoin the human family at a time of great danger and unique opportunity. In short, the church had to make a new option, this time for the larger human community.

For American Catholics this really was news and for a while it seemed like good news. But then its costs became clear in weakening subcultural institutions, like schools and religious orders, divisions on matters of conscience, including sex, and profound challenges about race and war and poverty. And all this happened in the '60s, that period when everything seemed to unravel. Then and since, Catholics have not been alone in the experience of rapid change.

The bottom line of all this was voluntarism, people making up their own minds, whether that making-up led them to Opus Dei, Pentecostal prayer groups, multiple therapies and new religious movements, or simply out of or back to church. In some sense they always had made up their own minds: No one made them build those wonderful churches and schools.

But now fewer Catholics experienced themselves in relation to external enemies. The descendants of immigrants no longer had as compelling a sense of peoplehood, with the church at the center. Boundaries between churches and other groups had come down. Constraints on pluralism were weaker, and almost all of us who had been here awhile became, like it or not, do-it-yourselfers.

In this way were written the closing chapters of the first story, with its latest installment in the NCR/Gallup Poll and its related commentary.

Story No. 2

The second story is more contentious, for here there is little agreement. But there is some. Almost everyone believes the story is one of Americanization. The pope and most Catholic leaders think that's bad; a dwindling number of academics and pastors think it's good. The difference has to do with the lens, I think.

The pope's lens I leave for others to analyze. The lens of Americans who decry cafeteria Catholicism was ground in the laboratories of that 19th century construction I have described. Thus they are fittingly called "subcultural restorationists." Once they were confined to a few true reactionaries, now they include most of the center of the church's intellectual elites as well, for almost everyone now thinks Catholic identity is at risk and needs to be preserved and maintained. The draft of Archbishop Rembert Weakland's most recent pastoral letter and many recent articles about Catholic higher education are only two examples.

But some of us still think Americanization is not all bad. We still shape our interpretive lens from American materials.

American culture is religious as well as secular, after all, and the dominant form of American religion is evangelical. Christians here tend to rely on scripture, to build strong but decentralized communities (congregationalism) and to weaken the claims of scholars (anti-intellectualism) and ordained leaders (anti-institutionalism). So Americanization is not quite the same as secularization.

American culture is democratic. People join many voluntary organizations, including churches, and they expect to share responsibility for those organizations. Good leadership always has a touch of populism about it. In the church, that has always meant that leadership and authority arise from good pastoral care and from skillful community-building. Theologians and bishops alike have influence only when they treat people with respect; top-down teaching may be desirable, but it is rarely practical.

NCR/Gallup Poll

So what is to be said about the NCR/Gallup Poll? First, religious voluntarism and individualism are not an option but a fact. Community, authority and responsibility are all important and needed. All are always present in one form or another, their presence and their role are the result of choices people make, including people who share responsibility for institutions, including churches.

Wise leaders have always built strong institutions by taking voluntarism into account. Invitations, dialogue, strategic provision of community experiences, procedures for shared responsibility, all are means by which people build community and develop the capacity to exert authority. So, good pastoral care and widespread participation are indispensable to unifying the church and directing its energies toward its mission in the world.

Second, the basic pattern of post-Vatican II American Catholicism (and perhaps Catholicism elsewhere) remains intact; renewal is strong, reform lags far behind. People love Jesus and take the gospel seriously -- major goals of renewal. They make their own choices. It is far from clear they make the wrong choices all that often.

But they have greater doubts about the institutional church than ever. And they find few ways to actually participate in the church's common life. How often they have been told "you are the church" by the same people who criticize their cafeteria approach.

Catholic renewal

Reformed structures are the way to make renewal catholic. In its absence, the Opus Dei types, ready to start from scratch with the "100 percenters," will probably compete unsuccessfully with the soft, evangelical Catholics for popular support.

So Fr. Greeley is basically right: the people are not the Catholic problem (though that need imply no romantic notions about the people, that is, about all of us). The Catholic problem is organizational, and thus involves bishops and priests and lay ministers and all of us who have roles in the organization. To the degree we ignore it or belittle it, to that degree we give away the Catholic -- though not necessarily the Christian -- game.

Third, I still have a hunch that the key to all this is purpose: Why does the church exist, after all? The polls tell us a lot, but I think they also expose a great void in what is not asked. The ordinary means of otherworldly salvation and support for personal and family life don't seem to exhaust the possibilities.

The old church worked well, by its own standards, because it had a fairly clear sense of purpose. The post-Vatican II church struggled toward a justice-and-peace answer. In practice, almost everyone has given up on "action on behalf of justice" as the answer to the why question, maybe because its been badly phrased, maybe because it's too hard.

Evangelization stumbles on this problem as well: Why should someone join the church? Until that gets answered better, I suspect, efforts to get us together on matters of faith and morals will not get very far.
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Title Annotation:U.S. Catholicism: Trends in the '90s - NCR/Gallup Poll Supplement
Author:O'Brien, David
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Oct 8, 1993
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