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Keeping faith in America.

When U.S. Catholics don't always agree that their Father knows best, are they still members of the family? Patrick McCormick looks at some recent studies on the coming of age of America's Catholics.

When I was young ... there never was any question of right and wrong. We knew our catechism, and that was enough. We learned our creed and our duty. Every respectable person had the same opinions.

NO, THOSE AREN'T THE WORDS OF A DISGRUNTLED parishioner (or pastor, prelate, or pontiff) complaining about the changes in American Catholicism since Vatican II. Although they might well express the sentiment of many restorationists in the hierarchy and elsewhere who regularly bemoan that we've thrown the baby out with the bathwater (or the Baltimore catechism)--or demand that recalcitrant theologians and laity toe the company line on contraception, homosexuality, women's ordination, abortion, and divorce. Instead, the citation comes from George Eliot's 19th-century novel Middlemarch and expresses an aging Anglican's nostalgia for the moral certitude and unanimity of her youth.

American Catholics, it would seem, are not the only--or the first--pilgrim people to experience a profound change in their church or, indeed, in themselves. And just how is this pilgrimage from the ghetto Catholicism of our parents or childhood to today's so-called "cafeteria Catholicism" progressing?

One recent report on the current state of American Catholicism was published last October in the National Catholic Reporter (see related story on pages 14-15). In a cover story on the changing face of Catholic identity in America, sociologists William D'Antonio, Dean Hoge, James Davidson, and Katherine Meyer reported the findings of an extensive survey conducted earlier in the year and noted three trends of interest:

(1) While a large majority of respondents saw the sacraments, spiritual growth, community, and the church's beliefs on social justice and Mary as critical to their Catholic identity, only a minority viewed the Vatican's teaching authority with similar weight. Indeed, post-Vatican II and college-educated laity paid the least attention to this issue.

(2) In spite of the fact that most Catholics support more open, democratic decision-making processes in the church and want to have an increased say regarding parish finances, the selection of clergy, and the ordination of women, there seems to be a growing indifference to the institutional church. Fewer and fewer of the laity see weekly Mass attendance as essential to being a good Catholic. Fewer report that the church is an important part of their lives. And more admit that they could imagine themselves leaving the church.

(3) Along with this increasing indifference, the sociologists report on a growing sense of moral autonomy among American Catholics, making them less likely to defer to the Vatican on ethical, political, or disciplinary questions. Even among parishioners attending Mass on a weekly basis, only a

minority thought that church leaders should have the final say on questions of contraception, remarriage, homosexuality, nonmarital sex, or abortion. Most believed that church teachings on unions, the death penalty, abortion, and a male celibate clergy were peripheral to their faith. As the authors of this study note, there is ample evidence of pluralism in the Catholic Church in America--and of a hierarchy of truths and values at odds with those being publicly defended by the hierarchy.

Just how did this happen in the American Catholic church? How did we come to have a laity that sees itself as Catholic and as deeply committed to moral autonomy and democratic structures, a laity that cherishes the sacraments, service to the poor, and Mary, but dissents (or tolerates dissent) from a large number of the hierarchy's most forcefully articulated moral positions?

How did this happen in a country where only half a century ago members of this immigrant church were seen as unthinking servants of Rome? How has it happened in a church where the hierarchy has spent the last two decades clarifying and reiterating its position on a wide range of disputed questions, issuing a universal catechism, and disciplining all sorts of folks who dissented from or questioned the authority of official teachings?

Father Mark Massa, S.J., a church historian at Fordham University, has an intriguing (if not complete) answer to this question. In Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team (Crossroad, 1999), Massa reports on two sea changes in which American Catholics have experienced themselves as moving from the margins to the center, coming to understand themselves as partners, even leaders, in the larger conversations around them.

The first shift began in the years after World War II, when the G.I. Bill and the prosperity of the postwar boom allowed millions of Catholic veterans to go to college, enter the professional class, and join the upwardly mobile migration to the suburbs. In the two decades that followed, the Catholic Church in America moved beyond the ghetto walls of its urban and ethnic enclaves and approached American culture with a new openness.

The narrow vision of Father Leonard Feeney, who claimed there was no salvation outside Catholic walls, and the diatribes of Senator Joe McCarthy were progressively replaced by a kinder, gentler church, by the friendly (though neo-scholastic) persuasion of Fulton Sheen at his TV blackboard, by the literate spirituality of Thomas Merton's Seven Storey Mountain, and by the savvy political realism of Jack Kennedy.

Massa makes a persuasive case that in the pilgrimage to the suburbs, the university, and the White House, Catholics moved away from a separatist, ultramontanist position that tied them to Rome and embraced a liberal, Americanist stance that accepted--sometimes uncritically--central elements of the American vision. For better or for worse, American Catholics have moved out of the wings and onto center stage, becoming a major voice in the political and intellectual conversations shaping our society.

The second shift, as Massa points out, began with Vatican II (and may have been cemented--ironically enough--by Pope Paul VI's Humanae Vitae). Key documents like Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes, and Dignitatis Humanae (The Declaration on Religious Freedom) replaced Cardinal Bellarmine's notion of the church as a perfect society ruled by the hierarchy with the metaphor of the "People of God" and gave new recognition to the role of the laity and the authority of personal conscience.

But, as Massa sees it, it was really the reforms of Sacrosanctum Concilium (The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) that changed the place and experience of the laity in the church. No longer attending or listening to a medieval Latin Mass mumbled by a distant priest with his back to them, Catholics suddenly found their voices and place as participants, and even celebrants, at a Eucharist where they now prayed, sang, read, and eventually took Communion into their own hands.

According to Massa, more than the theology of the major documents, it was the experience of being in a new place--a place of authority within their own church--that shifted lay consciousness and led to so many of the changes and calls for reform.

Some will argue that the dissent of American Catholics on moral and disciplinary questions is evidence of rampant individualism, relativism, or just plain old sinfulness. Folks disagree with or disobey the church because they are wrong or because they are not good Catholics.

There probably is some truth in that. Still, others will argue that when church teachings are so poorly received, when the sensus fidelium--sense of the faithful--is in such tension with the positions of the hierarchy, when there is such a gap between the "teaching church" and the "listening church," then the problem may not be with the laity alone. The answer may not be that we just need clearer teachings.

For the past two decades the hierarchy has attempted to stem the rising tide of dissent and disagreement with a series of clear and increasingly forceful statements. It would seem that this has not worked. For better or for worse, the pilgrim's progress of the People of God (which may not all be in a forward direction) has brought us to a place where more Catholics--especially the young and well-educated--believe we have a right and duty to participate in open conversations about important moral, religious, and disciplinary questions.

And, if recent surveys are to be believed, a majority of us still desire to make these judgments in cooperation and dialogue with our church leaders. Perhaps this would be a good time to begin the conversation anew. Perhaps it is time, as some have suggested, for another council.

PATRICK MCCORMICK, an associate professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.
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Author:MCCORMICK, PATRICK
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2000
Words:1426
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