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Is the pope Catholic?

The editors interviews Michael Cuneo

Canadian-born Fordham University anthropologist Michael Cuneo discovered that many militant prolife protesters in Toronto were Catholic conservatives who believed the church to be in crisis. It led him to wonder if such an animal existed in the United States. The result of his investigations is The Smoke of Satan: Conservative and Traditionalist Dissent in Contemporary American Catholicism (Oxford University Press, 1997; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999). The title refers to Pope Paul VI's cryptic words in 1972, "Satan's smoke has made its way into the temple of God through some crack."

Travel with Cuneo, and you will meet conservatives ferociously loyal to the papacy, traditionalists who cling to a pre-Vatican II past, and Marianists whose antennae are tuned to messages from heavenly figures. While most Catholics would consider many--if not all--of the people Cuneo talked with to be marginal, they may be challenging the mainstream to question what it believes and what kinds of commitments it makes. Cuneo is also the author of the forthcoming Battling the Demonic: Exorcism in American Culture.

How did you get interested in Catholic conservatives and traditionalists?

A few years ago I wrote a book called Catholics Against the Church: Anti-Abortion Protest in Toronto, 1969-1985 (University of Toronto Press, 1989). In Canada, some of the most dedicated right-to-life activists--people who were going to jail for civil disobedience--were Catholics, but they were Catholics of a very particular theological disposition.

Almost all of them believed that Canadian Catholicism was in a state of crisis and had capitulated to the prevailing culture, and so it was up to them as a beleaguered minority to retrieve an ultimate Catholic commitment.

When I went to Fordham University in New York City, I was intrigued to investigate whether there were Catholic movements in the United States that bore some resemblance to the Canadian phenomenon. Was I ever surprised.

In America there is a bewildering complexity of groups, movements, individuals, and publications--all of which are convinced that institutional American Catholicism is in desperate condition. In their minds, something has to be done to retrieve the authentic faith that has been lost.

What exactly do they feel has been lost?

First and foremost, a supernatural worldview. Their sense is that prior to the Second Vatican Council, American Catholics shared a common sensibility. The signature of this common sensitivity would have been a sense that we inhabit a world that in many respects is supernatural. Sacramental life, for example, had a strong supernatural component.

A second--and related--concern is the question of cultural distinctiveness. Catholics in the 1950s believed that they were a people different in many critical respects from mainline Protestants and from the broader secular culture. Where, conservatives would ask, has Catholicism taken the worst beating? In its liturgy. In sexual ethics. Prior to the council, nothing set Catholics apart more from the prevailing culture than the Mass and distinctive Catholic sexual ethics.

Prior to the council, Catholics knew implicitly what it meant to be Catholic. Now this has been lost; now everything seems up for grabs and negotiable.

All the disparate groups I cover in The Smoke of Satan would agree that in one way or another the Second Vatican Council was an event of extraordinary significance. The 1960s was a pivotal decade when, in their view, authority in general--and all structures and principles of authority--were being relentlessly challenged. Because the Second Vatican Council took place at precisely this time, they would argue, Catholicism really went into a precipitous decline.

How real is the church they want to recover?

It seems to me that one of the things that the Catholics I wrote about do is romanticize and sentimentalize the 1950s in many respects. That decade seems to them far more uniform in terms of Catholic practice and belief, far more peaceful, lovely, and pleasant than unquestionably it was.

What are the characteristics of the conservative position?

Conservatives, unlike some of the other groups I wrote about, accept the legitimacy of the Second Vatican Council. But they also believe the council and its documents were hijacked by liberal subversives within the American church who made the council say things it didn't really say.

And conservatives almost without exception espouse a strict ultramontanism: They claim unbridled allegiance to the papacy of John Paul II. This is one of the hallmarks of Catholic conservatism in the United States. Catholic conservatives locate ultimate authority in Rome. When all is said and done, Rome is the bastion. Rome is the center, Rome is our assurance of salvation.

What I've discovered, however, is that sometimes it is a highly selective ultramontanism. Certain teachings are easier to swallow than others, even for people who claim to be absolutely and unqualifiedly loyal to Rome. Nevertheless, conservatives claim they're the true Catholics because they are absolutely loyal to the papacy.

Another hallmark of Catholic conservatives in the U.S. is that they are absolutely committed to Humanae vitae, Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical prohibiting artificial birth control. Humanae vitae is the litmus test of authentic Catholicism. Are you, conservatives ask, with the prevailing consumerist, secular, sexually permissive culture--or are you with the ancient Catholic teaching tradition?

What do they see as the distinction between the prevailing culture and tradition?

They believe that American culture since the Second World War has gotten soft, and that it has become an endlessly commiserating culture. We have a proliferation of 12-step groups, the recovery movement, the codependency movement, the culture of victimization and complaint--the sense that we're all victims, and we're all looking for recovery somehow. And it's so wondrously American because there are all kinds of consumer nostrums and panaceas for whatever complaint or grievance we might be suffering.

What conservative Catholics claim is that Catholic liberals have turned the church into just one more vehicle for addressing people's personal grievances. If I'm feeling a little spiritually beleaguered, I can go to this particular ritual--something that happens to meet my needs at the time. But it's my personal needs that are important. Catholicism is now being reduced to just another kind of therapeutic outlet--nothing of profound importance. Nothing that you would live or die for. It makes no difference now whether you will become a Catholic or whether you define yourself a Catholic.

Conservatives would say that American Catholics have lost sight of the fact that the point of worship, finally, is eternal salvation.

What role do conservative prolife protesters play?

The most interesting and impressive people among the conservatives from my point of view are the antiabortion activists. In the United States, people think it was Operation Rescue, Randall Terry's organization, that pioneered direct action and street militancy outside of abortion clinics. But actually it was John Cavanaugh-O'Keefe and Joseph Scheidler, both Catholic conservatives.

For many Catholic conservatives, militant street protest against abortion is a kind of live street ritual, a living testimony. This is how they testify to their values and commitments as Catholics.

The fetus, for Catholic conservatives, is a symbol of the transcendent. When they are out in the street protesting abortion, they are not just protesting abortion. They are also making a dramatic statement about who they are as Catholics and what Catholicism should stand for at the end of the 20th century. This is one of the reasons that they engage in undisguised, very blatant forms of religious ritual and religious activities while they're on the picket lines--holding pictures of Mary, saying the Rosary.

Strategically, this is disastrous. Where is it going to get you? One could argue that if you want to make a convincing case against abortion, you have to do it on secular grounds. You have to compartmentalize some of your religious convictions.

But when you go out there and say the Rosary and sing hymns, you're not engaging in instrumental protest. You're engaging in symbolic protest. You're making a statement about yourself and your own convictions. Conservative Catholic prolife activists engage in a form of protest that seems as much concerned with making a statement about their own religious identity and aspirations for salvation as with influencing the debate on abortion.

Moreover, almost every one of these militant, conservative Catholic protesters is pacifist. You don't get that in the news media. They are opposed to the death penalty.

What do conservative Catholics have to offer the church?

A constant reminder that the current compromise between American culture and Catholicism is not the last word. Catholics must find ways to be more faithful, more truthful to their traditions. And Catholics must be concerned with finding ways to engage more productively, fruitfully, and creatively with cultural developments. Conservative Catholics can also serve an important role of reminding others that there is a significant place for hitting the streets and being committed on particular issues.

Do you sense that conservative young people have a much better knowledge of the Catholic faith than more liberal Catholic college students?

There are new alternative, conservative Catholic colleges--Thomas More in New Hampshire and Christendom in Virginia, for example. I spent a lot of time in all these places, and I remember thinking, "Boy, I wish I could discuss philosophy with my Fordham students the way I can with these kids."

We have to recognize that some of the conservatives' grievances are absolutely legitimate--especially rampant theological illiteracy within American Catholicism. You go to one of my Fordham undergraduate classes, and some of these kids have never heard of the basic Catholic doctrines that you or I would have taken for granted.

When I went to these conservative Catholic colleges, I was impressed by certain things and unimpressed by others. Students have to be literate about things happening outside of the tradition, too. They have to be critically engaged in that. The sectarian response will always be inadequate as a Catholic response. My students at Fordham are more creatively engaged with certain intellectual and cultural developments outside of the Catholic tradition, but some are woefully illiterate about the Catholic tradition itself. When you go into one of these conservative Catholic colleges, it's the reverse.

How many conservatives are there?

Five percent, at most, of American Catholics. But there are a lot of American Catholics who would be sympathetic. There are a lot of Catholics who think, "We like the ideals."

Conservative Catholics insist that the teaching itself be maintained, but also that everyone live up to it. A lot of other Catholics would say, "No, we can't live up to it, but that doesn't mean we want the teaching changed." A lot of ordinary Catholics are able to live with that kind of split mentality.

How are conservative Catholics able to have an influence beyond their numbers?

Instant mobilization. Rapid response. If there's a bishop they don't like, they mobilize. They'll organize letter-writing campaigns and boycotts, and they'll do this very effectively. Catholics, historically, haven't been very good at that in the United States. But these people have been influenced by the direct-mail campaigns of the Moral Majority, evangelicals, and fundamentalists.

They've incorporated a lot of those political and organizational tactics into their own apparatus. They give the impression of being much larger than they really are because they're so heavily mobilized. They're able to make appeals to Rome directly, and some of the organizations have sympathetic ears in the Vatican.

What about the second group you write about, the Catholic traditionalists and separatists?

Whereas conservatives place ultimate authority in the papacy and accept--grudgingly, sometimes--the validity of the Second Vatican Council, separatists--I call them separatist although their preferred term is traditionalist--by and large reject unequivocally the Second Vatican Council and the new Mass.

They think that the council was a conspiratorial undertaking designed to subvert authentic Catholicism. They differ on how the conspiracy came about, but the council itself was entirely illegitimate. They regard the new Mass as a counterfeit of authentic Catholic worship, an ugly caricature.

And so they place ultimate authority not with Rome but with the presumably "unchanging" and "unvarying" teachings of Catholic tradition--they love those words. The Council of Trent would be their historical center of gravity. And many traditionalists are convinced that Pope Pius XII was the last authentic pope, although others would keep open the possibility that John Paul II, for example, is an authentic pope.

But the really militant radical traditionalists, the sedevacantists--those who believe that the papal throne has been vacant since the death of Pius XII--absolutely repudiate not only the Second Vatican Council and the new Mass, but they also reject all the popes of the council from John XXIII on. They believe they are antipopes, imposters, precursors of the anti-Christ perhaps, or quite possibly even the anti-Christ.

Sedevacantists have cut themselves off completely from the institutional church. And if you follow their logic, this is something they have to do because in their eyes the institutional church is apostate.

Imagine that you're a devout, loyal Catholic, and you were absolutely convinced that Rome is making pronouncements that directly contradict centuries of Catholic teaching. We were always told that outside of the Catholic Church there was no salvation, and then the Second Vatican Council comes out with its documents on religious liberty and ecumenism.

Traditionalists would say to me: Either God has repealed the law of noncontradiction and no one has bothered to tell me about it, or else the institutional church has changed its mind, which it can't do because it's indefectible--it couldn't have failed to be right. So they believe that the only way to preserve authentic Catholicism--a Catholicism that is constant in its fidelity to unchanging, timeless, invariable Catholic tradition--is to break away from the institution. They see themselves as the true believers, the remnant church.

How do they organize themselves?

Traditionalists use the Tridentine Mass. They have their own church plants and complexes, but they also have their own priests, nuns, schools, and very often their own bishops and episcopal lines of succession. Their priests and bishops are not recognized by Rome, of course.

What a lot of traditionalists want to do is go out and build theological utopias in miniature--countercultural communitarian structures that permit them to preserve authentic Catholicism. Many of the people living in separatist communities I interviewed had pulled up their roots--given up jobs, moved their kids--and were economically improvising. This is an incredible level of commitment for people to do this in the name of religious values and principals.

One of the great ironies of Catholic separatists is that they are proliferating, and one of the reasons they are proliferating is because America is such a congenial place for the growth of deviant and heterodox movements like theirs. There's a long, rich history of countercultural religious movements developing and burgeoning on American soil, and it seems to me that Catholic traditionalists are tapping into this American ethos.

They absolutely reject pluralism and view America as an irredeemably corrupt place, but they flourish on American soil precisely because of the pluralism that is entrenched here.

If these groups weren't Catholic, would we refer to them as cults?

Yes, in the same way that we would have referred to primitive Christianity as a cult. Structurally and socially, primitive Christianity was similar to the groups we would castigate as cults today. Give up your previous life, turn your back on your previous commitments and lifestyle, and do something radically new because you now know the ultimate truth.

Would it be fair to characterize Catholic separatists as fundamentalists?

If the term could be disinfected of bias and if it could be deranged, as it were, then it would make sense to me to use fundamentalism as a neutral term of crosscultural comparison. There are Catholic fundamentalisms. Some scholars say they really want to limit the term to movements that locate ultimate authority in a written scripture. I say: Why can't you place absolute authority in tradition, in the papacy, or in certain forms of worship?

Where does the third group you wrote about, the people who look to Marian visions, locate authority?

If conservatives locate ultimate authority in the papacy and traditionalists in the immutable and timeless teachings of the Catholic past, Catholic Marianists locate ultimate authority in particular private visions, revelations, or mystical experiences, or in a person who has been the recipient of such visions.

For example, Veronica Lueken in Bayside, New York was a homegrown, American apparitionist who was very much influenced by Mary Ann Van Hoof's apparitions in Necedah, Wisconsin in the 1950s and '60s. Veronica Lueken's followers believed that she was an absolutely authentic seer, and that the Virgin Mary, Jesus, Saint Michael, and all kinds of other heavenly persons were directly communicating with her. She possessed final authority.

The Baysiders are not separatists--they don't reject the Second Vatican Council, the new Mass, or the institutional church. Lueken was not a separatist. In one of the apparitions she even claimed the Virgin Mary told her that her people must stay in the church and fight from within. They must not be like all these other malcontents and leave.

I would go to Bayside in the bitter cold winters, and people of all ages and infirmities would be kneeling, saying endless Rosaries. For so many of these people, the revelations answer a real need: Mary is directly appearing to this ordinary woman from Queens.

One of the reasons Catholic Marianism has much greater potential for growth than Catholic conservatism or Catholic separatism is that it provides a more emotionally satisfying experience: Someone is miraculously appearing to us now and giving us direct assurances of eternal salvation. A lot of people are not finding that sense of the miraculous, mystical kind of supernaturalism in their churches.

What is the main message Mary gives these seers?

We're talking about a vengeful Virgin; there are lots of warnings of apocalyptic foreboding, doom, and catastrophe. These are catastrophic Catholics. And Catholic Marianism of this sort is a kind of Catholic equivalent of Protestant millennialism--Seventh-Day Adventists, Christadelphianism, Jehovah's Witnesses.

Marianist theologies of catastrophe come from a number of sources. First, the apparitions, the revelations themselves. Second, all the prophecies and mystical messages that have been delivered by Catholic mystics and seers throughout the ages. Third, a lot of Catholics wind up being influenced by Protestant apocalyptic presentations on radio and TV.

There's the prediction of a Rapture that comes from a particular strand of Protestant apocalypticism: that at the end times--when apocalyptic battle is looming, the forces of righteousness and unrighteousness will be massed, and awful plagues and pestilences will be loosed upon the earth--people will suffer except for the saints, the righteous, who will be miraculously taken up to a place of safekeeping.

Are the Marianists a cult?

Some sociologists talk about the difference between an audience cult and a cult movement. An audience cult is when you're an aficionado of a cult, but, basically, all you are doing is checking out the cult on the Internet or going to a conference once a year--consuming from a distance.

But a cult movement, that's when you have to make a full-fledged commitment. You have to pass all kinds of tests of orthodoxy. You have to burn your bridges. In most of the Marianist groups there are different levels of commitment. A small circle of people around the seer winds up being committed to, preserving, and broadcasting her apparitions. They do constitute a kind of full-fledged cult movement. But most of the others are audience.

In general, what can we learn from the people you studied?

I think that two things would be important. It seems to me that something should be done to address the real poverty of knowledge of Catholic tradition that exists among younger people. We have a wealth of tradition, and we need to do a better job of transmitting this to younger people.

Second, I think the problem with American Catholicism is not that it has been too engaged with the secular culture, but that we have to engage the broader secular culture even more creatively and dynamically. We should never be afraid to do that in a continuing way. But we have to balance this engagement with a greater knowledge of Catholic tradition. We're not providing those same resources to younger people today, but we've got to engage the secular world more creatively than ever and not be afraid of it or reject it.


Some of the More Prominent Catholic Conservatives. Catholics United for the Faith (CUF); Fellowship of Catholic Scholars (James and Helen Hull Hitchcock, Monsignor George A. Kelly, Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., Ralph McInerny, and Janet Smith); E. Michael Jones and Fidelity magazine; The Wanderer,. Pro-Life Action League (Joseph Scheidler); American Life League (Judie Brown); Human Life International (Father Paul Marx, O.S.B.).

... Traditionalist and Separatists. Catholic Traditionalist Movement; Mount St. Michael's (Spokane, Washington); Society of St. Plus V; Holy Family Monastery (Berlin, New Jersey).

... Marianists and Apocalypticists. The Apostles of Infinite Love (St. Jovite, Quebec); Father Nicholas Gruner and Fatima Crusader magazine; The Bayside Movement of Veronica Lueken.

-From The Smoke of Satan
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Title Annotation:author Michael Cuneo
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Interview
Date:May 1, 1999
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