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Holy Siege: The Year that Shook Catholic America.

Imagine late August 1986. You leave San Francisco for India, where you enter a Buddhist monastery. A little more than a year later, you return, refreshed.

To ease your reentry, a friend offers use of her cabin in the mountains. There, you find nothing to read but back issues of the National Catholic Reporter, which you had devoured avidly before your trip. So for the next few days, you read 13 months of the NCR.

That's what Kenneth Brigg's big book Holy Siege is like -- a monthly journal on the American Catholic church from September 1986 through September 1987. Those were the months of the Curran case at Catholic University, the Hunthausen case in Seattle, the economic pastoral, the Vatican's financial crisis and bank scandal, the crackdown on dignity and homosexuals and the Pope's second visit to the United States.

Briggs covers all this as the superb reporter he is. He has done his research into theology and church history, and he attempts to share what he found while recounting the dramatic events of the church's public life. Like NCR, the book contains a variety of forms, brief news flashes, more detailed accounts of central issues, like theological dissent and episcopal division, summary references to theological opinion and brief glimpses into diverse corners of Catholic life, such as the annual convention of the Blue Army.

Probably because he is aiming at the meaning of national, or American, Catholicism, he appears more sympathetic with moderate Americanists, like Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, and pastorally oriented leaders, like Archbishop Rembert Weakland, than with the more Roman orientation of a growing number of bishops led by Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law. If part of Brigg's heart is with the dissenters, he tries hard to be fair to the conservatives, allowing them to make their cases. There are few judgments.

NCR always has worried that exclusive focus on in-house church news obscures the deeper reality of Catholic presence and of Christian life -- in parishes and movements and the lives of ordinary people. In this way, too, Holy Siege is a big NCR.

Briggs enriches his account with stories about Catholics, particularly a "gang of 10," among them a bishop, a college president, a few priests, nuns and brothers and a variety of laypeople, from a not-so-sure-he's-Catholic college student to an ecumenical young couple to an all too Catholic old-timer. They mirror the awareness of God, the emphasis on God's love and the decline of guilt and confession, the love for the church and the relaxed qualities of church membership and practice that more data-oriented researchers regularly have noted.

Three things, at least, become clear:

First, the pope and his backers, while fighting so hard against Dignity, pastoral and moral accommodationism and theological dissent, are up against Andrew Greeley's "do-it-yourself Catholocism." Hunthausen and Curran and the bishops and laypeople who spoke to the pope during his visit attempted to explain that to the Holy Father. He and his backers apparently continued to believe that their problems were with people like the Seattle archbishop or the supporters of women's ordination.

Second, the bishops and most of the priests care for their people and for their local churches, but they are almost incredibly nervous when challenged by the Vatican. Frightened by Rome and lacking any solid organizational support from ordinary Catholics, they are caught in the middle and rapidly losing control of the organization to a conservative minority allied with the Vatican.

What keeps the middle alive in the face of papal strength and conservative compliance is not the courage of the moderates or the ecclesiastical activism of the do-it-yourselfers (which is nonexistent), but the presence of women, now as always the overwhelming majority of church workers.

In 1986-87, they were still hanging on, giving the moderate theologians and bishops at least a glimmer of hope. If they ever let go of the institution altogether, given the lack of strategic support for the moderates, the game would be up.

Third, American Catholics and their church are more interesting than ever. It is a shame so few people take them seriously. Ken Briggs does, and we should be grateful. One might wish he said more about movements like the Catholic Worker or Marriage Encounter, about evangelical activists of all sorts or about the influence of other local churches, particularly in Latin America. But he has accomplished what he set out to do: Give us a snapshot of the American church at a moment of its recent history.

If you like NCR, you will like Holy Siege.


In two celebrated cases Catholic Americans found their loyalty to Rome set their commitment to American constitutional values. The result was a testing the relative strength of those allegiances. The Vatican, wittingly or not, took a considerable gamble and, from all appearances, lost big -- at least temporarily.

The test cases were (1) the deposing the Reverend Charles E. Curran as a Catholic theologian for allegedly taking too many liberties with official church teachings and (2) the usurping of the powers of Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle on grounds that he had failed to keep proper church order.

Both actions touched upon the American penchant for pragmatism and due process and, at a theological level, pitted the "classical" Vatican outlook, which emphasized the church as eternal and immutable, against the modem "historical" view, widely held among Catholic Americans, which stressed an evolutionary view, arguing that dogma and church structure had developed over time and continued to change by God's design.

One side saw fixed, unquestioned principles and rules with certain allowances for exceptions; the other regarded working principles as subject to expanding insights from the ongoing experience of the faithful. The tension that surfaced between Rome and America over who was in charge was intimately bound up with the question: What is to be believed? For many Catholic Americans, the debate was framed by an additional pair of criteria endemic to their native land: Was the church fair? and Would its teachings find acceptance?

The Curran case went to the heart of two American issues related to church-state separation and personal rights: the legitimate place of open inquiry and free speech within the Roman Catholic Church and the question of how much control religious authorities may rightly exercise over faculty at a private Catholic university. The Hunthausen travail centered on principles impinging on church tradition and American democracy, respectively: the age-old practice of autonomy by a bishop within his diocese and the carryover "representative" duty of a leader to respond to the needs of a constituency....


Renew had indeed proven to be an idea whose time had come. The original idea had sprung out of a desire by Archbishop Peter L. Gerety of Newark to help his parishes grasp the spirit of Vatican II. From that start, in 1976, the program began to spread to dioceses all over the country, becoming a means by which Catholics in parishes of every size and description received a vital shot in the arm Among other things, it had become an antidote to religious individualism and fragmentation.

Of the 183 U.S. dioceses, 86, or nearly half, had adopted Renew and more than 10,000 parishes had enlisted in the three-year course in spiritual rejuvenation. That meant that about 2 million parishioners, or 4 percent of Catholic Americans, had undergone the regimen....

On its 10th anniversary, Renew received a report card from the hierarchy....

Their criticisms were mostly reducible to the conclusion that Renew was not Roman Catholic enough. Thus, the bishops found a "tendency toward generic Christianity," which meant that "basic Christian themes are represented without sufficiently relating them to their specific form as experienced in Roman Catholic tradition and practice. The [Renew] literature does not identify, to the extent we think it should, what is distinctly Catholic in our faith process....

The bishop's call for more Catholic content in Renew could be read as a much broader appeal for a return to these foundations of the faith that science and relativity had eroded. As the "truths" of the theological past -- the bedrock, objective claims of the dogmaticians -- were shaken by modern consciousness, the longing for restoration and retrieval grew all the more acute.

The leaders of Renew took the bishops' critique in stride, playing up its general endorsement of the program and accepting the suggestions for improvement with equanimity. Monsignor Thomas Kleissler, executive director of Renew's national office, thought the report had a basically positive and encouraging tone. In preceding months and years, he had fended off many charges from the far right to the effect that Renew was a thinly veiled version of the human potential movement, so, by comparison, he found the words of the bishops reassuring...

On the whole, he said, the report was complimentary and "didn't find any evidence of heresy," a finding that would help him in his constant sparring with conservative critics....

William Casey

William Casey ... died May 6 [1987] in Glen Cove, Long Island, at age 74. Casey had directed the Central Intelligence Agency under President Reagan, and his activities had come under close scrutiny by investigators into the Iran-contra affair...

The funeral took place May 9 at St. Mary's Church in the posh Long Island bayside community of Roslyn Harbor. President and Mrs. Reagan and Richard Nixon came to pay their respects. So did two contra leaders....

Inside the parish ... everything seemed in readiness to bestow nothing less than unqualified honors on Casey's prodigious accomplishments and the values he stood for. As it turned out, even there the mourners received a jolt of that other reality from an unexpected source... John R. McGann, the celebrant of the funeral Mass....

... Having extolled Bill Casey to the rafters as a great patriot and public servant, the bishop fulfilled the mission expected of him. But he wanted to say something more.

"His conviction about the fundamentally moral purpose of American actions, I am sure, made incomprehensible to him the ethical questions raised by me as his bishop, together with all the Catholic bishops of the United States about our nation's defense policy since the dawn of the nuclear age.

"I am equally sure that Bill must have thought us bishops blind to the potential communist threat in this hemisphere as we opposed and continue to oppose violence wrought on Central America by support of the contras.

"These are not light matters on which to disagree. They are matters of life and death. And I cannot conceal or disguise my fundamental disagreement on these matters with a man I knew and respected."

According to reports, the congregation, from Reagan on through, fell stone silent in stunned disbelief. The bishop's chiding had been gentle, perhaps, but chiding it was indeed, an eruption of conscience designed for maximum effect.

The bishop had, for those brief moments, wrested control from the hands of politicians and passed it to the Catholic bishops. It was a passing that left the politicians in a vacuum. Someone else was setting the terms -- for just a moment.
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Author:O'Brien, David
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 25, 1992
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