On the Present Position of Catholics in America
by James Hitchcock
The National Committee of Catholic Laymen (an independent, nonprofit group of Americans who are also Roman Catholics) was formed in late 1977. Among its primary purposes is the refutation of what seems to us to be a new wave of anti-Catholicism in America. We believe that this new era of bias and bigotry has been caused in large part by the current abortion controversy - but that it has roots that go deep into our history (as someone once noted, anti-Catholicism has been "the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals" in America).
We are therefore especially happy that Prof. James Hitchcock agreed to write this, our first major publication. No scholar in America is better able to do the kind of broad survey we hoped to produce - and which he has given us (and you) here. There is not only much food for thought in Prof. Hitchcock's penetrating analysis, but also the stuff of a hundred other articles elaborating on the points he makes. (We hope to produce that many, and more, in the years ahead.)
There are dozens of striking and illuminating passages in the text that follows, but perhaps a single one will give the reader the feel and flavor of the main political point that Hitchcock drives home:
"The strangeness of the situation is not diminished by the apparent equanimity with which many Catholics have accepted it. A black person elected to office is not expected to oppose anti-discrimination laws. A Jewish politician is not required to turn his back on Israel. The increasing numbers of women in public life are not asked to prove that they are not feminists. Homosexual politicians who have 'come out of the closet' are militant spokesmen for 'gay rights.' Catholics are virtually the only social group whose members are denied full acceptance in the political arena unless they in effect agree to suppress their professed principles,"
As we say, there is much, much more, and we hope the concerned citizen will read on. As a matter of fact, we think you will for, in addition to knowing his subject thoroughly, Dr. Hitchcock is a fine writer who states his case frankly and powerfully.
If what you read makes you want to know more about The National Committee of Catholic Laymen, feel free to write us at the address below; we cannot guarantee to answer all mail requests, but we will make every effort to put you on our mailing list for future information as issued. Should you want additional copies of this booklet, full information as to prices and how to order will be found on the back cover.
J.P. McFadden for the Committee
As the 1970's near their end it might appear to the casual observer that Catholic participation in the political life of the United States is more vigorous and successful than at any time in the nation's history.
Catholic candidates, by tacit agreement virtually barred from presidential aspirations before 1960, are now given regular consideration by the media and by politicians and do not appear to suffer unduly because of their religion. Congress and the Senate have at least as many Catholic members as in the past, and -- something virtually unthinkable even a decade ago -- the lower house includes two priests. Catholics govern the nation's two most populous states, as well as a fair quota of the others, and Catholic political influence in many large cities continues undiminished. The spectacle of priests sitting in the halls of Congress is paralleled by increasing numbers of clergy and religious making successful bids for state legislatures and local councils. A whole new category of Catholic politician -- the nun -- has been created.
The superficial observer might also conclude that there has occurred a diminution of anti-Catholic sentiment since 1960, and it is highly unlikely that Governor Jerry Brown or any other Catholic aspirant for the presidency would be forced to submit, or would agree to submit, to the humiliating inquisition which Senator John Kennedy endured at the hands of Protestant clergy of Houston in 1960. There are no solemn debates in the media as to whether a Catholic president would be sufficiently independent of the hierarchy, and those who persist in raising the "puppet of the Vatican" bugaboo have finally been relegated to the lunatic fringe.
As a consequence there are many, including many Catholics, who stand ready to proclaim a political "coming of age" for American Catholicism, the simultaneous maturing of Catholics willing to accept fully the American democratic system, and of non-Catholics magnanimously putting away their old prejudices. The era of religious good feeling generated by the coincidental occurrence of the Kennedy presidency and the Second Vatican Council is felt by many to be still with us, a benign spirit which insures that, whatever sharp and bitter divisions may wrack American society, religious differences at least are no longer important.
Yet a strange paradox attends this supposed maturing of the Catholic political presence, which is the fact that as it undergoes quantitative growth it seems to suffer qualitative diminution. Put another way, a distinctively Catholic influence over the American political process is in fact declining. The drying up of old-fashioned varieties of anti-Catholicism may be directly related to the perception that Catholicism's political victories, in terms primarily of the numbers of Catholics elected to office, are hollow ones that pose no conceivable threat to anyone except irrational bigots.
It is unfortunate that the discussion of Catholic political fortunes in America must center so heavily on abortion, since there are many other public questions which are also of urgent concern to Catholics but which tend to get lost. However, abortion, in addition to being the single most serious moral evil afflicting American society (a people so callous towards its own unborn children can scarcely be expected to show moral sensitivity towards anyone else, barring merely fashionable social attitudes), is also the question most clearly and sharply defined and thus most readily susceptible of measurement.
In one sense the political successes of the "pro-life" movement, such as the passage of the Hyde Amendment, have been remarkable. Pro-abortionists, partly through their increasingly hysterical and vicious anti-Catholicism, pay the movement the compliment of recognizing its potency. But these successes are even more remarkable given the bitter failures of the movement in areas of public life where it might have been expected to experience solid triumphs, namely, among prominent Catholic politicians.
It is a startling realization that almost all those Catholics who have achieved a high measure of national political prominence in recent years are conspicuous for their support of legalized, even of governmentally funded, abortions -- Senator Edward Kennedy, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Eugene McCarthy, Sergeant Shriver, Senator Edmund Muskie, Governor Hugh Carey, Congressman Robert Drinan, S.J., Governor Jerry Brown. Others, like the late Mayor Richard Daley, may formally oppose abortion but exert little if any of their vast power to aid the anti-abortion effort. Those who have actively worked against this evil, like Senator Thomas Eagleton, are few. Far greater courage and moral sensitivity have been shown by certain Protestants, like Senators Richard Schweiker and Jesse Helms.
The easiest explanation of such behavior is political expediency Father Drinan represents a heavily liberal, largely non-Catholic district. Catholics do not appear to be politically very effective in Governor Brown's California. Senator Kennedy and Governor Carey have large Catholic constituencies but also harbor national ambitions. Expediency, however, is only a partial explanation. The question still needs to be asked what makes such expediency profitable, and the answers are both deep and elusive.
The standard rationalization used by pro-abortion Catholic politicians -- the ritualistically repeated cliché that "personally I am opposed to abortion, but I do not believe we can impose our values on other people" -- is as intellectually and morally bankrupt as any position imaginable. Pro-abortion politicians like Birch Bayh can at least say that they do not believe abortion involves the taking of human life. The Kennedys, Moynihans, Drinans, Careys, and Browns are evidently saying that abortion is indeed immoral, indeed involves killing, but that not only should the law countenance it, the taxpayers should also finance it. It cannot be assumed that intelligent men mean this to be taken seriously. It is patently a sentence thrown out on the assumption that the majority of Catholic voters are themselves moral idiots who will swallow anything their political leaders choose to toss them. Alternatively, it assumes that Catholics in general are as morally cynical about abortion as are the politicians.
There is a sense in which Catholics do seem to have suffered a diminution of political intelligence in the past two decades. When the strength and sometimes totalitarian efficiency of the large urban political machines, often Catholic-dominated, is measured against any perceptible Catholic impact on American society, the disparity seems ludicrous. Catholics at least used to know who their enemies were and knew how to reward and punish at the polls. That they now appear to be stupid about such matters is another part of the mystery.
The question of government aid to private schools is an issue like abortion, in that it is easily definable and measurable and has an obvious Catholic character to it. In another sense it is a vastly different kind of issue, in that abortion is a disinterested, moral defense of helpless persons, while school aid is a self-interested "bread and butter" question of the kind which makes up the bulk of ordinary political controversy. It might be assumed (alas!) that the Catholic politicians' ignoring of the evil of abortion accurately reflects a lack of disinterested moral concern among their constituents. But the same politicians who loftily decline to hazard their prestige in the interests of the unborn tend also to be those who oppose government aid to parochial schools, a dereliction which is immediately and measurably costly to many Catholic voters. Again the political mechanism of reward and punishment somehow fails to operate, and the mystery deepens.
The roots of this phenomenon must be sought in the years of the Kennedy presidency, although not all of them lead directly to the nation's only Catholic president. If the election of John F. Kennedy was widely perceived, by Catholics and non-Catholics alike, as marking the "coming of age" of American Catholicism -- its acceptance into the mainstream of American life -- not much attention was paid at the time to the conditions imposed on this acceptance. Many people, including many Catholics, still have not understood them.
The future president's self-abasement before the Houston clergy (his very willingness to meet with them under the inquisitorial terms they imposed was itself an abasement) involved more than merely a questionable political tactic. It was a clear signal, understood quite well by many non-Catholics, that if elected the Senator would relegate his religion to a purely private status -- that he would not act in any recognizably Catholic way. (This promise was rendered immeasurably easier by the fact, revealed later by a number of people, including his wife, that President Kennedy was neither very devout nor very knowledgeable about his religion. Curiously, given their highly polished liberal image, the Kennedy family was timelessly reactionary where religion was concerned -- the women were pious, the men secular, a traditional division of labor.)
Senator Kennedy's statement in Houston was reportedly drafted for him by the "Mr. Catholic" of 1950's New York liberal circles -- John Cogley of Commonweal, the New York Times, the Fund for the Republic, and the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. The authorship was appropriate because it came from a man who had already in spirit ceased to be a Catholic, although his public identity depended upon his continuing to be thought of as one. Only years later would Cogley reveal that as early as 1957 he had decided to become an Episcopalian but had been dissuaded from doing so for strategic reasons. (He died an Episcopal deacon.)
President Kennedy's decision to put everything having to do with his religion into the closet might have also been conceived strategically: the first Catholic president had to be above even the hint of suspicion, so that others who came after him might live their religion unimpeded. But there is evidence that he had inwardly "emancipated" himself from his religious roots, and looked upon the presidency as the opportunity to transcend the "narrowness" of his Massachusetts Irish background. Paul Blanshard, the leading professional anti-Catholic of the twentieth century, claims to have twice been invited to the White House for friendly chats with the President. Ben Bradlee, one of the President's confidants and now the executive editor of the anti-Catholic Washington Post, says that Kennedy told him that he was "all in favor of people solving their own problems by abortion," although he forbade Bradlee to quote him in print.
The implied conditions of John F. Kennedy's election, understood intuitively by other Catholic politicians, was that there would no longer be any religious barriers as such, provided that all Catholic aspirants to national office agreed to behave as "reasonably" as he did. Catholics could hope to attain the highest office on the understanding that they would not behave as Catholics. Any definable Catholic interest, as regards legislation, Federal appointments, or executive decisions, was to be sacrificed to the symbolic satisfaction of opening the White House doors. (Father Andrew Greeley, an ardent admirer of the Kennedys, complains about the remnants of anti-Catholic prejudice among the liberal intelligentsia on the grounds that it is grossly unfair - Catholics as a group do not hold positions which are greatly at variance with the general liberal consensus. He is seeking to enforce the terms of the Kennedy compromise.)
What National Ambitions Now Require
The roots of American Catholics' disenfranchisement are thus traceable to the very hour of their supposed triumph. So long as Catholic politicians assumed that they could not aspire to the presidency, they were free to represent their constituents' interests. The opening of the White House, however, has imposed on every Catholic with national ambitions the requirement of proving that he does not take his religion seriously, the current litmus-tests of reliability being opposition to all restrictive abortion laws and to tax aid for parochial schools. (Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is somewhat unusual in his willingness to submit to the first test but not to the second, an anomaly probably attributable to the softening of Jewish opposition to school aid.) Other tests will be devised as time goes on.
The strangeness of this situation is not diminished by the apparent equanimity with which many Catholics have accepted it. A black person elected to office is not expected to oppose anti-discrimination laws. A Jewish politician is not required to turn his back on Israel. The increasing numbers of women in public life are not asked to prove that they are not feminists. Homosexual politicians who have "come out of the closet" are militant spokesmen for "gay rights." Catholics are virtually the only social group whose members are denied full acceptance in the political arena unless they in effect agree to suppress their professed principles.
The immediate rejoinder to this is likely to be that the American principle of separation of church and state requires such a suppression. (Father Drinan and others, disingenuously, even claim that the Second Vatican Council's decree on religious liberty requires it.) But to make this claim is already to submit to a definition of the issue designed to produce such a result. The American historical experience, as distinct from relatively recent dogmas of certain constitutionalists, shows that innumerable public figures have been deeply influenced, in their political behavior, by private religious beliefs. Only a few years ago religious imperatives were magisterially invoked in favor of civil rights and against the Vietnam War. (Ironically, those Catholics who speak most eloquently on behalf of "political theology" and the need to bring religion into the public arena are often those most likely, where abortion is concerned, to insist that Catholics may not "impose" their doctrines on other people.) Rather than Catholics being always on the defensive against the charge that they violate the separation of church and state, it would be just as plausible to force the strict separationists to answer the charge that they inhibit religious freedom. That Catholics have almost wholly failed to do this is merely one more piece of evidence for their present political obtuseness and impotence, their willingness merely to react to issues which have been defined by others.
The sources of this impotence are not wholly political, however, and do not lie wholly within America itself. As journalists never tired of pointing out, the early 1960's was the era of the two Johns, Pope and President, each of whom seemed to represent a new Catholic opening to the world. American Catholicism's political coming of age was paralleled by an aggiornamento which, the media asserted, marked the maturation process of the Church (as though an institution nearly two millenia old could somehow be conceived as adolescent). Taken separately, the two events might have had quite different outcomes. Together, they created an atmosphere of heady enthusiasm which too often overrode the good judgment of otherwise responsible people. The frenetic "ecumenical" spirit of the era of the Second Vatican Council left a severe hangover from which American Catholics are still suffering.
The crucially relevant fact about that era, difficult though it is for American Catholics to grasp, is that the Second Vatican Council, celebrated as a triumph and a liberation by Catholics themselves, was perceived by outsiders as a massive defeat for the Church, whatever congratulatory language they chose to employ in discussing it. From this perception of defeat much of the Church's current political impotence derives.
How the Council Was Perceived
To establish this thesis adequately would require practically a history of modern Christianity. However, a few central facts can be pointed out. As a consequence of the Counter-Reformation -- the Church's "inspired" decision not to meet Protestantism halfway, as Kenneth Clark has put it -- the Roman Catholic Church built an institution which, despite its alleged disharmony with the spirit of the modem world, proved to be remarkably stable, enduring, popular, and influential. From the eighteenth century on, leading spokesmen for Protestantism asserted that Christianity had no future unless it deliberately and heroically accommodated itself to the social and cultural milieu of each age, progressively shedding that baggage from the past -- especially doctrinal -- which was deemed merely impedimenta I. A religion which failed to do this, they insisted, would eventually wither and die.
That Roman Catholicism successfully defied this prescription (or, perhaps more accurately, seemed not even to hear it) was the source of much of the anti-Catholic sentiment prevalent in Protestant and secularist circles in modern times. It has in fact been the "reformers," those who have struggled manfully in each age to make yet another cultural adjustment which would place Christianity on a foundation acceptable to its cultural despisers (Schleirmacher's term), who have watched their membership rolls decline, their denominations lose their vitality and sense of purpose, every seemingly solid new basis for belief crumble beneath them. In many cases they have an antipathy for conservative, evangelical Protestantism even stronger than their antipathy for Catholicism.
It was in this atmosphere that the Second Vatican Council was greeted almost ecstatically by those individuals who ordinarily had little sympathy for the Church. In particular it must be understood to what an extent the Second Vatican Council was a media event, in the sense that what was actually said and done there was less important than what people thought was said and done. The Council was over-reported, and over-interpreted, and certain media representatives (notably Robert Kaiser of Time and "Xavier Rynne" of The New Yorker) consciously colluded with individuals present at the Council to project an image of that gathering sharply at variance with the reality. (To note only one point: the Council's decree on ecumenism states that the Roman Catholic Church alone enjoys the fullness of God's revelation, other churches only parts of it.)
Superficially, the Council was a public and systematic admission by the Church that it had been in error for centuries on precisely those points where it had been so long criticized. The liturgy (the beginning point of so many conversions) was remote and unintelligible; it had to be rendered not only into the vernacular but also vulgarized. Nuns were "medieval" in their dress and life styles; they would, with a vengeance, show how modern they could be. Priestly celibacy was unnatural; large numbers of priests would marry. Religious vows had been condemned as unbiblical since the days of Luther; tens of thousands of religious would repudiate them. The Pope had usurped authority in the Church; a fierce anti-papal reaction had to be set in motion. Popular devotions (the daily spiritual meat of so many Catholics) had long been branded as superstitious; they were now attacked even from Catholic pulpits. Parochial schools were narrow and divisive; Catholic writers would exalt secular education, bishops would begin dismantling their school systems, and religious orders would hand over their colleges to secular control. Traditional sexual morality was rigid and unloving; certain moral theologians would devote their talents to showing Catholics how to come to terms with the sexual revolution. The catalogue could go on and on. What is significant is that at each point a "reform" was proclaimed that had no warrant in the conciliar decrees and often went directly contrary to them. But strategically placed individuals, with strong media support, could insist that the "spirit" of the Council was different from its letter and that the Council was, in any case, merely the first step in an unending process of "updating."
The ecumenical good will manifested by some Protestant observers was quite sincere and even served as a healthy corrective to the mindless excesses being perpetrated in the name of the reform. (The Methodist Albert Outler is an honorable example.) In other cases (the Presbyterian Robert McAfee Brown, for example) this ecumenism took mainly the form of avuncular advice on how the Catholic Church could speed up the process whereby it could make all the mistakes already made by modern liberal Protestantism. Some Catholic leaders, totally unused to encounters with representatives of other faiths, mistook openness for docility and were easily molded to fit those concealed agendas.
One of the major penalties which the Church paid for its successful fending off of the spirit of modernity for so long was that it did create a tight and rather closed atmosphere which gave a misleading impression of solidity. As the historian John Lukacs has observed, when Pope John opened the windows he let in not only fresh air but all the neon and noxious odors of the contemporary world. Many Catholics were confident, even militant in their faith, so long as it was artificially protected. Once the social reinforcements were weakened, they proved incapable of acting in an environment which increasingly required lonely resolve.
Thus while the Council was being officially and publicly proclaimed a triumph, the real message that was being beamed to the public was that it was a surrender, voluntary and unexpected, with scarcely any advance warnings or signs of weakness in the institution. It was not only a surrender in the sense of the abandonment of long-held beliefs and practices but also a surrender, or a relaxation, on the personal level. Traditional Catholicism was a militant religion -- militant towards the secular world, militant towards other faiths, militant above all towards the self. It was a religion that preached, and to a remarkable extent succeeded in inculcating the practice of, duty, self-discipline, striving for moral improvement. The "renewal" of the Church, in an absurd reversal of what this idea had traditionally meant, came to be equated with a progressive loosening of all those responsibilities which Catholics had traditionally accepted -- fasts and abstinences, chastity, regular prayers, fidelity to vows, doctrinal orthodoxy, confession of sins and amendment of life.
The image of the Church as a loser, a declining institution admitting that it had taught and practiced error for centuries, came to dominate the imaginations of many people, including many Catholics, often subconsciously. The bright, spruce, up-to-date look of the post-conciliar Church, so fulsomely praised by the neighbors, concealed, as everyone knew but few were so impolite as to say, the fact that foundations and walls were steadily crumbling. Despite its modern conveniences, many Catholics found it a dwelling they could no longer live in. They had at last arrived at the point where liberal Protestantism had been for decades.
The standard cliché with regard to abortion, "I believe it is wrong, but I do not wish to impose my view on other people," translates also into two other prevailing attitudes of modern liberal Christianity -- "I believe in the doctrines of my church, but only equivocally and without much conviction," and, "Nothing in my religion has the power to compel me to do anything which is difficult or likely to put me at odds with my culture." For some Catholics, the anti-abortion movement is a threatening thing because it sets up echoes of a more demanding faith that they wish to leave behind. For many non-Catholics it is equally threatening because it suggests that the Church is not altogether as tamed and assimilated to American culture as had been assumed.
The Image Determines Success
American Catholics were skillful politicians in the days when they had a healthy suspicion of that culture, the kind of suspicion which lends such an effective edge to Jewish interest groups in this country. A shallow and misconceived ecumenism (misconceived because so far removed from the teachings of the Second Vatican Council) has brought about a net loss in Catholic political intelligence, a dullness of perception, a sleepy languor which impedes action.
One of the obvious facts about contemporary politics is that, in a media-dominated political process, the image of any particular group is of paramount importance in explaining its success or failure. A related but largely unrecognized fact is that this success or failure is directly related to public perceptions as to whether a particular group is rising or declining, winning or losing. The media in effect keep a scorecard on movements in precisely these terms, and there are different sets of rules for winners and losers which each, implicitly, is expected to obey.1 Media bias is generally towards the more "liberal" groups, but ideology is not the sole governing consideration. (If anything the media exaggerated the power and influence of George Wallace, for example.)
The perilous status of a group which appears to be in decline is even further exacerbated when that group has for a long time enjoyed a certain dominance, and especially when it has been regarded by some people as authoritarian. The least manifestation of weakness, of loss of internal cohesiveness, sends out the signal to the larger public that decline has set in. With established groups like the Catholic Church this inner sense of self-confidence is crucial, since the institution has many enemies on the outside. Any establishment which manifests signs of serious self-doubt automatically invites attack from quarters which might, ordinarily, have remained quiet.
The pontificate of Pope John and the Second Vatican Council were not, it must be emphasized, times of official self-doubt but rather the opposite -- the peasant Pope had so deep and unquestioning a faith (see his Journal of a Soul) that he felt the Church could afford to be magnanimous and open. The self-confidence of others was not so enduring, however, and for many Catholics, including some in positions of authority, the new certitude quickly became the reverse of the old -- not only did the Church not have the answers to all conceivable questions, it had the answers to none. Whatever had been taught or believed in the past, its negation was now thought likely to be closer to the truth.
The first crucial stage in the process by which an establishment is delegitimized is the defection of some of its key leaders. In America this has included two bishops and a fair sprinkling of major religious superiors, college presidents, seminary rectors, diocesan officials, and prominent theologians as well as thousands of priests and religious who were influential at the local level. Not only were these defections important in terms of a negation of the Church, a denial of its power to hold even its own officials, an implicit testimony to its loss of authority, they were also important in terms of what they were a defection to. Former clergy and religious poured into the government bureaucracies, and the universities, institutions whose prestige and authority seemed to be on the rise, places where power and authority could be exercised as they could no longer be exercised in the Church.
The flavor of some of these defections, and their social significance, can be gleaned from a few examples.
-- The former auxiliary bishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis, James Shannon, leaves the priesthood to marry a divorcee. After a brief period as a college administrator, he returns to his former diocese as the executive of a private foundation. From this new pulpit he writes regularly for the secular press and takes suitably "controversial" positions on matters of Catholic doctrine, for which, in addition to being paid a substantial salary, he is applauded for his "courage" and "honesty."
-- The last nun to serve as president of Manhattanville College of the Sacred Heart, Elizabeth McCormick, paves the way for secularization of the institution and then leaves her religious community. A few years later, as a "philanthropic advisor to the Rockefeller Brothers," she publicly calls upon the American bishops to stop the anti-abortion campaign, which, she says, is having an effect opposite to the one intended. (This advice is given just a few months before a series of court decisions and congressional actions show that the anti-abortion movement is making tangible progress.)
-- A former director of social justice for the Archdiocese of Detroit, Thomas Hinsberg, leaves the priesthood and becomes director of the "human rights" agency of the city of Detroit. In that capacity he accuses the Archdiocese of practicing racial discrimination in hiring and threatens it with suitable legal penalties.
-- During the 1976 presidential campaign a key staff member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Terry Sunday, resigns to join the staff of Governor Jimmy Carter. Since Governor Carter is opposed to an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution, Sunday obligingly announces that he is also.
-- A Boston priest, Mark Corrigan, joins the staff of Mayor Lindsay of New York. Mayor Lindsay is pro-abortion, and Corrigan publicly criticizes the Church's position. When Corrigan is later recalled to parish work in Boston, he leaves the priesthood rather than give up his $35,000-per-year political appointment.
-- A nun who is director of social services for the state of Vermont, Elizabeth Candon, supports state financing of abortions. When the bishop of Vermont criticizes her stand, she replies that Catholic doctrine cannot be "imposed" on the citizens. Various organizations of nuns support her position.
Prior to about 1965 the American Catholic Church was expected, even by those who disliked it intensely, to act aggressively with regard to what it perceived as important moral issues or public questions involving its own interests". It was an institution which, in vulgar terms, carried "clout." Ironically, this was at a time when there was little talk (almost none at the official level) about the need to be involved in the world, or about "political theology," and when clergy and religious scarcely dreamt of pursuing political careers.
The Church's image as a declining institution, as an establishment losing its vitality, its sense of purpose, and its self-confidence, caused a complete reassessment of its social role, however. The praise that was heaped on it for its new "openness" and its ability to modernize itself was often a coded thanksgiving that it would now cease to be troublesome in the political sphere. It would now be expected to act in the diffident, subdued manner of a loser, of an establishment in the process of losing its credentials.
What Behavior Is Expected
The expected appropriate behavior of rising and declining groups in society can best be understood with respect to a series of contrarieties, each of which has rather obvious relevance to the current state of American Catholicism and to the abortion controversy in particular: 2
Passion-detachment: Emotion is admired, as a sign of courage and conviction, when it is manifest in a rising group. When it appears among members of a declining group it is discounted as evidence of hysteria and insecurity.
Conviction-scepticism: Rising groups can gather their forces, articulate their goals, and organize their assaults only through an unwavering sense of their own righteousness. Without this they are ineffective and fail to attract public attention. Similar signs of conviction in declining groups are interpreted as signs of fanaticism born of insecurity.
Fidelity-compromise: Rising groups refuse to endanger their purity through compromise and sometimes even refuse to discuss their demands with those they have designated "the enemy." Declining groups, however, are expected to be willing to compromise endlessly as the price of survival, and signs of "intransigence" are severely condemned.
Uniqueness-ecumenism: Rising groups insist that they have a perception of truth which is original and unique and that they must preserve this uniqueness at all costs. Declining groups are inclined to think that many roads lead to the same goal and that their own survival is not crucial. They are inclined rather uncritically to accept reformulations of their own beliefs, eager to perceive similarities beneath apparent differences.
Community-individual: Rising groups emphasize the importance of their cause and the necessary solidarity which is expected from its adherents. Personal desires or doubts must be suppressed in the interest of victory. A declining group has increasing difficulty summoning forth any kind of communal spirit from its members. There is compulsive emphasis on individuality, freedom, and dissent from official teaching.
Simplicity-complexity: Rising groups understand issues in very clear, simple, often polarized ways. They are ready to identify their own cause with good, their enemies with evil. Declining groups which do the same thing are chastized for their "simplistic" view of the world, and their members are likely to be so aware of the ambiguities and uncertainties of every issue that effective action is rendered virtually impossible.
Honesty-civility: Rising groups employ a rhetoric which is blunt, defiant, and often accusatory, based on a firm conviction of personal rectitude and of the importance of a cause which is just. Declining groups which employ a similar rhetoric are characterized as "shrill." They are expected to be polite, tentative, and unobtrusive in style.
Aggression-passivity: Rising groups are convinced of their own ability to change the world and of the importance of expanding the effort to do so. Declining groups are inclined to regard the forces of history as beyond their control, and they are implicitly urged to accept gracefully what they cannot change.
Hagiography-cynicism: Rising movements discover heroes, from the remote or the recent past, who are taken as imitable models of virtue and courage. They understand history in terms of the struggle of good and evil and rely on powerful myths about themselves and their past as a way of sustaining the commitments of their adherents. Declining movements become increasingly dubious of their own pasts, and an historical style of demythologization becomes ascendant. The group's past comes to be understood either as disedifying or as so complex as to be unusable for present inspiration.
Coercion-persuasion: Armed with a sense of urgency and an absolute conviction of rectitude, rising groups are prepared to force social changes they deem necessary -- through legislation, court decisions, sometimes through violence. All evidence of coercive tactics by declining groups is condemned as unwarranted interference with the freedom of others. Persuasion alone is permitted, provided it is not too persistent or obtrusive.
In sum, the self-confidence of rising groups gives them a momentum which carries over obstacles and is limited finally only by a resistance of at least equal force. Where such resistance is absent, the rising group feels little compulsion to restrain itself and is likely to escalate its demands and its rhetoric. Declining groups, on the other hand, are hampered by loss of morale, lack of energy, and the wish that the problems of the world would somehow solve themselves.
The politicizing of American Catholicism has proven to be a very different kind of thing from what older Catholic social thinkers urged. It has not meant, for the most part, a serious attempt to apply Catholic moral principles in the public forum, to bring Christ into the marketplace. Rather it has meant the sacralizing of politics, the transferral to politics of the passion, conviction, and commitment which formerly characterized religion. Not only has the Catholic Church been perceived -- even by many within it, even by many of its own leaders -- as a declining institution, religion itself has been so perceived. The orthodox Christian idea that principles of justice and charity must be applied in the world has been turned into a heresy in which the transformation of the world is the only worthy object of human endeavor, in which politics is messianic, political action a kind of liturgy, political platforms the only creeds worth believing in. Those who profess too openly a distinctively religious outlook on the world, especially those who make too much of eternity and the prospect of eternal life, are often subjected to close examination to see whether they threaten the dominantly political modes of understanding Christianity.
Avant-garde Catholics today (and, on a less conscious level, many who are not so avant-garde) are citizens of two worlds in a bad, Marsilian3 sense as well as a good, Augustinian sense. They adhere to the Church, and they adhere to various political movements, but the quality of their adherence is not the same in both cases. In terms of the various dichotomies dissected above, they concede in each case the privileges of a rising movement to their particular political faith -- civil rights, feminism, environmentalism, homosexual rights, the "Third World" -- while holding their Church to the prim, constrained style of behavior deemed appropriate to a declining movement. Thus handicapped, even by some of its own members, the Church is foredoomed to lose virtually every public battle into which it enters.
This process is also self-perpetuating. As the Church's impotence is more and more manifest, more and more of its members imbibe the attitude that it is a loser, which in turn renders it even more impotent. Inevitably this affects the attitude even of the group's leaders, those who are supposed to articulate its doctrines, establish its goals, and rally its members in support of them. The crucial mistake made by leaders of a declining establishment is to acquiesce in this decline, hoping that they can buy its way back to a position of popularity and influence through good behavior, by reassuring its critics that it is no longer a threat. (The critics, however, have no further interest in the institution once it has been rendered impotent.) American Catholicism has now begun to generate a style of leadership which fits this pattern. In California, for example, the state's Catholic Conference, headed by a bishop, declined to lobby for anti-abortion legislation in the state legislature on the grounds that the fight could not be won. It also passively acquiesced in the passage of a "death with dignity" bill which the majority leader of the legislature characterized as permitting euthanasia and which he said could have been defeated had the Conference vigorously opposed it.
The extent of this debility is concealed by an apparently vigorous Catholic social action, including national bureaucracies, position papers regularly issued on a variety of subjects, and the appearance of lobbying groups of clergy and religious, like the Network and the Center for Concern. By these means the illusion is created that the Church in fact plays an important role in public life, that it is listened to.
Such activity is, however, a classic example of bandwagon-jumping. When Church leaders address themselves to questions like the Panama Canal, Rhodesia, South Africa, world hunger, the California grape strike, or nuclear weaponry, they are intervening on subjects where there already exists a settled consensus in the community of liberal opinion-makers -- the media, the universities, social agencies, the foundations, and other churches. Where Catholic spokesmen have something to say which goes contrary to this consensus, where they are in fact truly prophetic, they are not only not listened to but their very right to speak is challenged. (When bishops urged the passage of civil-rights legislation their support was welcomed and taken as evidence of how religion could be relevant to the modern world. When they speak against abortion they are accused of violating the separation of church and state.) In this situation many Catholics begin to lose nerve and look for ways of withdrawing from the conflict.4
With politics in the ascendancy and religion apparently in decline, the Church is seen by many people as fair game simply to be used for political purposes:
-- During the 1972 presidential campaign, fearful that the abortion issue might harm Senator George McGovern, some of his staff members mailed sermon outlines to priests around the country, to be used during "Respect Life" week. One of the staff members, Matthew Ahmann, was on leave from the National Conference of Catholic Charities. In 1976, when the same issue threatened Governor Jimmy Carter, Ahmann told the press that members of the N.C.C.C. were "turned off by the way abortion has intruded itself into politics."
-- Also during the 1976 campaign, the vice-president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils, Father "Marty" Peter of Indianapolis, publicly attacked the "pro-life" movement and denounced it for having criticized Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana. Father Peter denied that Senator Bayh was pro-abortion. However, a few months later the Senator was given an award by the National Abortion Rights Alliance, and in his acceptance speech he referred to pro-lifers as "our opponents."
-- The National Assembly of Women Religious, an organization of nuns, opposes the Human Life Amendment to the Constitution on the grounds that it is "divisive" and would constitute an imposition of Catholic values in a pluralistic society. However, it also urges its members to lobby aggressively for the equally "divisive" Equal Rights Amendment.
-- Father Robert Drinan, who makes a point of wearing clerical clothes on Capitol Hill, has been praised for his "independence" from Catholic domination, as evidenced in his consistent votes not only against all anti-abortion legislation but also in favor of government funding of abortions. Father Drinan has other kinds of orthodoxies, however -- he has received virtually perfect ratings from Americans for Democratic Action and the Friends' Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker group.
The new manifestations of Catholic political consciousness, which give the illusion that the Church is politically effective, follow a pattern long familiar in Protestant churches, so familiar in fact that there has already occurred an effective rebellion against it. In this pattern the Church creates, at a national level, certain agencies -- official or unofficial -- which address themselves to contemporary issues. It generates an extensive bureaucracy of people who assume the mantle of expertise on such questions. Position papers are regularly issued, Congress and other government agencies are regularly lobbied. This effort is supported, ultimately, by the donations of the people in the pews, but the staff of these national offices do not regard themselves as answerable in any way to these contributors, in whose name they undertake to speak. Their real constituency is a national, possibly an international, one -- government officials, bureaucrats in various public and private agencies, journalists, academics, equivalent bureaucrats in other churches. It is these people whose approval is valued and sought. The supposed constituents of these Church spokesmen -- the rank and file of Church members -- are commonly regarded as too ignorant, too reactionary, and too selfish to understand the issues properly. (Despite the frequently expressed wish that the Catholic Church would become more democratic, the functioning of these bureaucracies depends on their not being answerable to the people who ultimately fund them. Many of the equivalent Protestant bureaucracies have suffered severe budget reductions in recent years because of resistance in the parishes.)
The existence of such bureaucracies could serve a useful purpose if it insured the injection of a powerful and authentic Catholic voice into national affairs. Many "middle Americans" feel disenfranchised, their concerns systematically shut out of the media and apparently not listened to by government agencies. Their frustration intensifies when the Church, which ought to be a voice of their discontent, seems also not to pay attention to them, seems to be merely another vehicle of expression for fashionable and elitist ideas. The United States Catholic Conference's resident expert on international affairs, for example, Father Bryan Hehir, in 1976 urged the Senate not to ratify a proposed treaty with Spain on the grounds that human rights were not sufficiently respected in Spain. A year later, however, he endorsed the return of the Crown of St. Stephen, most sacred of Hungarian symbols, to the Communist government of Hungary and rejected anguished protests from Hungarian-Americans. The National Assembly of Women Religious, which has cordial relations with various feminist groups, rejected a proposal that it affiliate with the National Council of Catholic Women, an organization which supports an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution and opposes the Equal Rights Amendment. The Catholic Committee on Urban Ministry has rejected proposals that it work closely with organized labor, on the grounds that unions are a reactionary force in society.
It may conceivably be appropriate for the Church to take stands on issues like the Panama Canal or the grape pickers' strike, provided that an authentically Catholic approach to social issues can be developed. To date, however, except for abortion, there is no such voice, and even on abortion the depth of commitment of some of the national bureacrats is questionable. When the American bishops sent a representative before the Democratic Party's platform committee in 1976, he presented a list of eighteen planks which the bishops favored, of which abortion was merely one. Most of the others already had broad non-sectarian support. The committee gave no support at all to the anti-abortion plank, officially opposing a constitutional amendment, but it could claim that it was responsive to "Catholic" opinion because it agreed to adopt most of the other seventeen items, which it would probably have done even had the bishops not spoken. Later the New York Times reported that certain officials in the U. S. C. C. thought the bishops were pressing Governor Carter too hard on the abortion question and were threatening to resign unless the pressures were relaxed. (If such a staff revolt did occur, it was successful, because the bishops subsequently issued "clarifying" statements which took most of the force out of their original expression of "disappointment" at the Democratic Party's stand.)
In the 1976 election, Catholics were solemnly warned not to be "single-issue" voters in the sense of making abortion the sole criterion of their choice of candidates. There was willful political naïveté that admonition, however, since no issue, especially a sensitive one like abortion, is taken seriously by politicians unless they recognize its capacity to influence voters. Many Catholics put themselves in the absurd position of saying to the candidates: "We hope you will support the anti-abortion position, but if you do not, we will vote for you anyway."
Catholics are in fact not that stupid, and the admonitions against being wedded to a "single issue" came from people who did not want abortion to become an issue for fear that it might sunder the traditional Democratic coalition, heavily dependent on Northern Catholic support, both urban and suburban. Instead of fighting to influence that coalition, to force it to take Catholic interests seriously, these "leaders" exercised their influence to persuade Catholics not to raise the moral question at all. By a strange twist on the part of people (some of them clerics) who claimed to want to bring moral principles into politics, the moral issue of abortion -- surely one of the most fundamental ever to arise in American life -- was declared irrelevant, and those who insisted on raising it were condemned as myopic and fanatical. (It was an instructive contrast to 1968, when the impeccably liberal Hubert Humphrey lost the election in part because many liberals refused to support him on the single issue of the Vietnam War, where he was regarded as too vacillating. Those liberals, generally able to control the terms of public discourse, managed to make their stand appear admirably principled rather than myopic.)
Many Catholic liberals feel, at some level of their being, that it is inappropriate for them to try to influence the reigning liberal consensus: they feel privileged merely to be allowed to belong to it. Their sense of the Church as a discredited institution and a spent force causes them to react with dismay or anger when Catholics show any signs of their old militancy. Politics has been for many Catholics an experience of liberation, a journey out of the ghetto. Embarrassed by past associations with the image of the "unenlightened" urban machines which is synonymous with Catholic politics in many people's minds, they eagerly associate themselves with groups like the New Democratic Coalition (of which organizations like the Network and the Center for Concern are merely clerical equivalents). Holding to the "correct" political positions is a badge of emancipation and of social arrival.
There is, however, a certain sense in which the charge that Catholics are single issue voters (or, perhaps two-issue, if school aid is included) is justified. There are many more public questions, both actual and potential, which ought to exercise Catholics but which remain essentially unrecognized: Catholic politics is often literally a reactionary politics, in the sense that Catholics too often wait for other people to define the issues for them and then, in some alarm, belatedly oppose the drift of the times.
To ask the question why this is so would practically require a history of American Catholicism. Part of it is traceable to the well-known lack of intellectuality among so many American Catholics for many generations. As they mastered the mechanics of politics they tended to neglect the larger kinds of philosophical questions, as though these were really irrelevant. (In particular they failed to understand until it was too late, the importance of courts and of judicial philosophy in effecting social change.) There was far too much dependence on clerical, and especially episcopal, leadership, which still continues, although the anti-abortion movement has been accurately characterized as one of the great "grass roots" movements in American history.
The Strategy of Secularization
But perhaps ultimately the Catholic failure to influence American political life at the deepest levels is traceable to a fatally ambivalent attitude which Catholics have held towards American culture itself. Despite the bitter experience of discrimination, and despite countless sermons warning against "materialism" and "paganism," in some part of their being American Catholics wanted to believe that America is a truly Christian nation hospitable to their own values. The opening of windows at the time of the Second Vatican Council, and the fortuitous conjunction with the Kennedy presidency, provided the symbolic confirmation of this belief. Father John Courtney Murray, the most influential Catholic theologian America has ever produced, gave it theoretical expression. Once the dominant mood of the post-conciliar period came to be relaxation, to entertain thoughts that a real tension existed between American values and Catholic values became for many people psychologically impossible.
It is not necessary to argue that this tension has existed throughout American history, although such may indeed be the case. What is now apparent, however, is that at least since 1945 certain influential elements in American society -- in academe, in the media, in government agencies, and in the courts -- have embarked on a brilliant, and brilliantly successful, strategy, to secularize the nation in a systematic way. The brilliance of the strategy is revealed in the fact that it is succeeding despite the fact that it runs contrary to the desires of probably the majority of American citizens.
Consider certain facts about American society which are virtually taken for granted by everyone -- that the public educational system either ignores religion at all levels (many universities do not even have a department of religious studies) or tends to hire teachers who are actively hostile to it, that the courts show hawk-like vigilance against the slightest hint of an advantage which organized religion might gain from the state, that religious beliefs are routinely ridiculed in the media.
Most people have learned to acquiesce in these situations to the point where they are scarcely capable of imagining other possibilities. Why, since self-confessed theists constitute an overwhelming majority of the population, is theism so ill-used in the schools and the media? Why should the First Amendment, in which the incantatory phrase "wall of separation between church and state" nowhere appears, be interpreted in such a way that it actually imposes legal burdens on church members? Many people, including many Catholics, who profoundly dislike these facts, also have come to think of them as unalterable, as somehow right and natural.
It is curious, for example, that in a world where moral and intellectual relativism is invoked against every piety from the past, the extreme separationist interpretation of the First Amendment continues to enjoy an unchallengeable authority, as though it were indeed chiselled in stone. The possibility that a different kind of judicial philosophy, developed for example in Catholic law schools, different kinds of court cases, raising different kinds of issues, might have led to much different kinds of rulings is one that has scarcely occurred to many Catholics. Their habitual inferiority complex towards the secular world leads them to assume that the regnant judicial philosophy, no matter how personally distasteful, cannot be wrong, cannot represent a distortion of the Constitution. When alarmed Catholics warn that a philosophy of "secular humanism" is rapidly becoming the governing credo of American life, other Catholics smile at such over-heated fanaticism and remark that what is called secular humanism is no more than the celebrated American pluralism. The "triumph of secular humanism" has been blandly charted, however, by one of the principal architects of that triumph, who has said that religious beliefs are being deliberately and systematically shut out of public life. 5
The ultimate fault of American Catholics is their continued willingness to allow other people to define the questions for them, their failure to take aggressive action of their own except in reaction to other people's initiatives. (Few Catholics foresaw that abortion would become a public issue.) With their universe of discourse defined and circumscribed for them by people who are, often enough, overtly hostile to religious belief, they find it increasingly impossible even to ask the proper questions, to imagine alternative ways of organizing society. Only when a gross and unavoidable dramatic evil like abortion stares them in the face are they roused to action.
Much of the fault lies with the Catholic educational system, so vast and so expensive, which has yet failed in so many cases to impart to its graduates any coherent world view significantly different from the prevailing American one. Nowhere has the post-conciliar crisis of self-confidence made itself felt more acutely than in the schools, where educators often manifest an embarrassed determination not to pass on Catholic doctrine or to mold young minds in recognizably Catholic ways (although such molding goes on in all schools, no matter how undogmatic they proclaim themselves to be). This crisis has been most severe in higher education, where it has become largely the case that Catholic colleges and universities (even in some cases seminaries) merely imitate the governing beliefs and values in each professional discipline -- law, medicine, social work, philosophy, even theology -- without even seeking to offer students a radically alternative way of viewing that discipline and its place in society. The newly emergent corps of Catholic experts on social problems are similarly content merely to echo current wisdom being formulated in secular circles, despite their talk of "prophecy."
One of the ways in which American Catholics have allowed the terms of their own thinking to be dictated by their adversaries is in the very understanding of the word "pluralism." Many influential Catholics (most prominent Catholic politicians among them) believe, or profess to believe, that pluralism means a system in which diverse groups with differing philosophies agree to act with courtesy and restraint towards one another, not advocating their own interests to the point where other groups take offense or feel that their own rights are aggrieved. Catholic "leaders" like Father Drinan continually lecture their fellow Catholics on not offending against the spirit of pluralism by advocating anti-abortion legislation, for example.
Such a position is quite absurd, however, and it is difficult not to believe that those who propound it know it to be absurd. Consider, for example, if these warnings against "divisiveness" and in favor of "respect for pluralism" were applied to black people with regard to school busing, women with regard to the Equal Rights Amendment, or Jews with regard to aid to Israel. If pluralism meant that no group ever sought legislation or governmental action which was unacceptable to other groups, politics would be a good deal more peaceful but it would also be trivial. The obvious fact -- which one might assume a member of Congress would not have to have explained to him -- is that every time a piece of legislation is passed by something less than unanimous vote, someone's values are being imposed on someone else, unwillingly. Every court case involves a dispute, and the losers feel that they too are being imposed upon. Every appropriation of tax money involves spending someone's taxes for purposes of which that person does not approve.
In reality what modern pluralism is, in a democratic society, is precisely a continuing and unremitting struggle among competing interest groups, who recognize that their respective interests often conflict with one another. Successful politics consists in marshalling popular support, organizing for battle, and pressuring public agencies in such a way as to force them to accede to one set of pressures rather than another. What one group gains, another tends to lose, not only in terms of available funds but, perhaps more importantly, in terms of the whole structure and direction of public policy.
The pre-conciliar Catholic leadership in the United States instinctively understood the nature of pluralism and observed its rules, even if they did not use the word. As with so many things, as post-conciliar Catholics have become enamored of the concept of pluralism, and have lovingly employed the word like a talisman, they have lost touch with its reality. American Catholicism at the end of the 1970's is ill-equipped to participate in the life of a pluralistic democratic society not, as is often said, because of authoritarian leadership and structure or because of a lack of commitment to democratic values, but because of its own severe internal disarray. No group so visibly divided, so consumed with fratricide, as is the American Church can hope to be taken seriously in a pluralistic society. With regard to abortion and other issues, the Church's antagonists gamble that the official spokesmen do not represent the opinions of the membership. It is a tribute to the determination of the anti-abortion movement, to its genuinely democratic character, and to the urgency of the issue itself, that the movement has been as successful as it has.
The treatment of Catholic interests in the media is of obvious relevance here. Anti-Catholic sentiment has been a permanent feature of American life, and it can probably be assumed that even in pre-conciliar times many of the people controlling the media were privately hostile to the Church. The pre-conciliar Church, however, had the image of being a rising group -- in terms of numbers of converts, religious vocations, obvious self-confidence and aggressiveness, even in terms of buildings -- and therefore according to the implicit rules, it had to be treated with respect and deference. The glaring signs of weakness and internal disarray which have followed the Council have made the same Church fair game for its enemies, and the media have responded like sharks pursuing a bleeding whale. Anti-Catholic bias, even vicious expressions of anti-Catholicism, are now so common in all branches of the media that it would be impossible to try to respond to all of them.
Only Anti-Catholic Invited
The particular form which this anti-Catholicism often takes is significant. It involves a seemingly endless hospitality on the part of the media to virtually any Catholic or former Catholic who has a complaint against the Church, and especially those who are willing to confess publicly how their Catholic upbringing was narrow, stunting, inhumane, fanatical, and loveless. A familiar confessional genre has been created, not infrequently cast in precisely the same words, appearing and reappearing in article after article, written by people with slight literary talent and no originality of mind, whose work is publicized merely because they are willing to say the things the media want said.
How categories of discourse are controlled in such a way as to prevent Catholics even from effectively responding is exemplified in the standard defense of this anti-Catholic prejudice -- that in a pluralistic society "unpopular" views from "dissident" members of society need to be heard. But those who control access to the media know quite well that such views are "unpopular" only in the limited context of Catholicism; given full public exposure, they are intended to confirm popular and long-held prejudices. The point of such repeated blows directed against the Church is to establish in the public mind the idea that no sensitive, intelligent, honest person could possibly be a believing Catholic in the full sense of the word, that all who possess these virtues have either left the Church or have taken positions of dissent with respect to its teachings. Such treatment is standard fare for a declining group -- there is endless media fascination with the spectacle of an unraveling establishment -- and is intended to weaken its credibility even further, to make people embarrassed to admit that they belong to it, and even to reach the point of thinking that adherence to it is psychologically no longer possible.
Genuine pluralism would require that, if the media wish to pay attention to those who claim that their Catholic upbringing was inhumane, spiritually damaging, and restrictive, they pay at least equal attention to those who found it nourishing and liberating. (During the pre-conciliar years most stories about Catholicism in the media did stress that point.) Now, however, there is an almost total absence of anything positive concerning traditional Catholicism. (Schismatic traditionalists, like the Lefevrites, are given disproportionate attention because they reinforce the popular impression of a church in the throes of self-destruction.) Equally significant, the media do not choose to publicize "dissident" elements within other social groups. There is little mention of blacks who are reserved about the civil-rights movement or Jews who support Arab claims. Women who repudiate feminism do not receive attention nearly proportionate to their numbers, and those who do achieve such publicity generally do so as villainesses, set up as foils for the right-thinking women on the other side. Who can recall having read a news article about Planned Parenthood members who oppose abortion? While piously insisting that they merely report what is occurring, the media consciously seek to manipulate public opinion, less through the actual distortion of information, although that occurs, than through the establishment of images which can make particular groups and particular ideas seem either attractive or unattractive.
If the Catholic Church in America were a cohesive group with distinctive values and beliefs of its own, as well as a distinctive vision of a good society, it would be able to contribute in a valuable and effective way to genuine pluralism. At present, however, it not only lacks the confidence, aggressiveness, and sense of purpose which would enable it to influence the political process, it appears unable even to enter into a meaningful form of that blessed liberal ritual, "dialogue." Non-Catholic "friends" of the Church who praised it, after the Council, for having at last come to terms with American pluralism, knew that it had done no such thing, that it had in fact voluntarily rendered itself impotent. The purpose of inter-faith "dialogue" seemed to be, for many Catholic participants, merely a way of learning how to become liberal Protestants as rapidly as possible. Under such conditions there is no reason why anything which Catholics say should be taken seriously. Such supine behavior within the Church further emboldens those for whom a completely acceptable Catholicism would be one which in no way threatened the general secular-liberal consensus. The "divisiveness" doctrine, which the courts have at least paid the respect of being willing to consider and which they may well establish into law, in effect holds that if the Catholic Church favors certain policies, the government is constrained to oppose them. More than two hundred theologians, mostly Protestant, have signed a document demanding that the Catholic Church desist from its campaign on the abortion question, a demand they did not make on those several dozen religious groups which favor legalized and publicly funded abortions.
The decline of the public influence of the Catholic community is a special case of the more general problem of the decline of genuine pluralism in America, and as such ought to be of interest to others besides Catholics. Public-opinion polls claim to show that the proportion of Catholics who support the Church's position on abortion, contraception, divorce, clerical celibacy, and other key matters is steadily declining, which is then taken as a sign that Catholics are at last learning to think for themselves, for which they deserve congratulations. Put another way, however, this phenomenon, to the extent that it exists (and opinion polls are manipulable just as news reports are), poses a grave question that ought to worry even those people who strongly disagree with Catholic doctrine at almost every point -- how can a church, or any other group, for that matter, continue to uphold doctrines which are at odds with those beliefs which are favored in the media and which quickly become, therefore, a general social consensus? Looked at in one way, Catholics who "dissent" from official Church doctrine are acting with courage and independence. Looked at in another way, however, they are abandoning certain beliefs which make them appear odd and abnormal in the general American context and are agreeing to confirm to the prevailing cultural norms. How can any thoughtful person, even those who passionately disagree with the Catholic position on abortion, for example, possibly regard this as a healthy development?
The established, secular media so completely monopolizes the means of communication in modern society that it becomes almost impossible for groups like churches to make their voices heard effectively, even by their own members. A half-hour Sunday sermon (in Catholic churches, closer to ten minutes) and a weekly or monthly denominational publication hardly compensate for the daily newspaper reading and the hours of television which are the diet of most church members. Marginal church members, who do not attend Church every week and do not read official publications, are dependent for their religious information on what the secular media choose to tell them. Those with no religious contacts whatever, often products of an educational system in which religion was ignored or ridiculed, find Christian doctrines literally unthinkable, bizarre and inexplicable survivals from pre-modern times. The over-all effect, increasingly, is to make it impossible for many people, including perhaps most church members, even to understand Christian teachings which are at variance with the prevailing secular consensus. None of this need have occurred. Opinion polls suggest that America still has a solidly theistic base (judged on the basis of expressions of belief in a personal God and personal survival after death), and barely twenty years ago orthodox Christianity still enjoyed a great deal of social responsibility. Eccentric religious sects appear not to lack for converts, even among the sophisticated. But the loss of self-confidence and sense of direction, the passivity, and the defection of key persons to the enemy, all of which now afflict American Catholicism, affected most of the major Protestant denominations much earlier. There are innumerable leaders in these denominations -- national officers, bureaucrats, editors of church publications, theologians, seminary professors, as well as local pastors -- for whom the very thought of a militant Christianity, except in the carefully circumscribed terms of fashionable political causes, is profoundly embarrassing and who would exert all their personal and official influence to prevent such militancy from erupting. Here again their institutional equivalents from the Catholic side have managed to find common ecumenical cause, the sweet harmony of studied inaction.
The beneficiary of this state of affairs is, as it has been for many years, the movement designated secular humanism. One of its conveniences is the fact that, since unlike a church it cannot be identified neatly with a visible organization, it is thought by many people not to exist and the invocation of its name is smilingly dismissed, even by many Christians, as the result of paranoid imaginings. It does have institutional locus, however -- in the American Humanist Association and its Humanist Manifesto II. The movement's influence is scarcely confined to the relatively thin ranks of dues-paying humanists, however, and it seems likely that many humanists fail to affiliate themselves with the group in a formal way because they recognize the influence of their philosophy everywhere and do not perceive the need for a single organization. Secular humanism is the practical working philosophy of most public and non-sectarian schools, for example, including the universities; of many social agencies, and of the media. It enjoys an enviable legal position -- the courts have ruled that, for purposes of conscientious objection from war, secular humanism constitutes a religion, while there has been no similar ruling with regard to its being taught in the public schools.
Its defenders are apt to deflect all criticism by the assertion that America is after all a pluralistic society, in which non-believers have rights equal to believers, and it is a measure of their propaganda successes that many Christians would accept this analysis as fair. Secular humanists, however, have controlled the terms of the discussion in such a way as to represent their own philosophy as merely neutral, a common ground on which people of all religions or no religion can meet. In their view some people may wish to "add" certain beliefs to this foundation, making themselves into theists, but if they do so it must be done in strict privacy, without affecting public policy.
Viewed realistically, secular humanism is not the neutral common ground on which all faiths meet, but rather a competitor which seeks to undermine other faiths. In an age when most of the churches have gladly relativized their doctrines and deemphasized those parts of their traditions which might impede ecumenical cooperation, the humanists have stood their ground. The Humanist Manifesto II (1973) is no less uncompromisingly hostile to theism than was Humanist Manifesto I (1933). (The first manifesto was largely written by John Dewey, whose influence over the American educational system has been immense.) They sense that they are a rising group, that conversions, once mainly charted on a line from scepticism to belief, now seem to be moving the other way. They sense that the churches manifest a rapidly declining will to resist the humanistic triumph, and that many church leaders do not even want to recognize that there is a battle.
If secular humanism were merely the absence of theism, a personal philosophy based on purely natural foundations, it would be no cause for alarm, and its devotees could enter into the public dialogue on terms similar to those used by theists. Secular humanism as presently constituted in America, however, involves the necessary negation of theism, which is regarded as an outmoded, irrational, and dangerously-authoritarian creed that retards the full maturation of the human person. Theism, in the best nineteenth-century terms, is seen as belonging to the childhood of the race. On narrowly legal grounds humanists insist that the government cannot aid theistic institutions to even the slightest degree, nor can theistic beliefs be allowed to influence public policy in even the smallest ways. If it is proposed that the Constitution should then be amended to rectify such rigidity, the response is likely to be the passionate charge that religious believers are seeking to establish a theocracy. The fact that in other modern democratic nations -- the Netherlands, Australia, and Canada, for example -- such rigid principles are not in force, is given no weight.
There was a time when it was perhaps possible to believe that upholders of this rigid separationist doctrine were sincerely wedded to what they perceived to be genuine constitutional principle, although even then it is instructive to recall that a series of court cases were brought after World War II specifically for the purpose of interpreting that principle in even more rigid and restrictive ways. By now, however, it is clear that such rigidity is a weapon consciously employed for the purpose of deliberately placing organized religion under crippling legal impediments. Those who insist most vehemently that the Constitution forbids even the hint of tax support for religious schools conveniently also happen to be those who detest those schools and rejoice at the prospect of their demise.6 Those who propound the "divisiveness" doctrine with regard to public policy also happen to believe that Catholic theology is grotesquely in error with regard to moral questions like abortion.
Much more is at stake here than merely the interpretation of the First Amendment. For what the government does or permits is increasingly seen as the model for what other social institutions ought to do or permit. If all religious education is excluded from the public schools, then a psychological expectation is built up that it will be excluded from other areas of public life -- the media, non-sectarian private universities, and the various social agencies.
The "Permitted Witness"
In practice theism and anti-theism find themselves in conflict at a number of points, and although in theory a humanist might conceivably profess moral beliefs quite similar to those of a Catholic, in practice this is rarely the case. Given this dichotomy, humanists increasingly assert that their position alone -- on abortion, on euthanasia, on sex education -- is a rational one, based on criteria which are accessible to all human beings, while Catholic beliefs on these same questions are merely dogmatic, insupportable through rational scrutiny, remnants of a dying world view. As such they are granted bare legal tolerance, in the sense that certain people may, if they choose, profess such doctrines, in the same way that they are free to believe that the earth is flat or that Stonehenge was built by astronauts from outer space. But such beliefs cannot be allowed to influence public policy.
Ironically, this state of affairs has come about after several decades in which avant-garde Christians preached incessantly about the necessity of a socially relevant faith, about the imperative of bringing religion out of the sanctuary and into the marketplace. Yet these same Christians have largely acquiesced in the process by which religion has precisely been ghettoized. They labor under the illusion that a free Christian moral witness is politically effective in this country, because they have taken firm, principled stands against war, against racial segregation, against environmental pollution, in favor of labor unions and the Panama Canal treaty. What they do not wish to see is that such witness has been permitted only because a secular humanist consensus already existed on such questions; had they brought a distinctively religious witness to bear they would have been ignored or their right to speak challenged. (Some of the most ardent Protestant exponents of the social gospel are among those appealing to the "divisiveness" doctrine as a way of silencing the Catholic witness against abortion. Those who do not actively support the doctrine evidently see nothing sinister in it.)
The treatment of religion in the media illustrates the place it can be expected to occupy in a secular humanist society. For the most part it remains ghettoized, relegated on radio and television to the Sunday morning hours when few people are watching or listening and in the press to the weekly religion page. Religious news achieves general notice mainly when it involves scandal or dissent of some kind, particularly when it can be made to fit the media's favorite pre-cast mold for dealing with ecclesiastical subjects -- a conflict between "outspoken" dissenters seeking to "reform" a denomination (that is, to secularize it) versus "rigid" establishments which resist their efforts. Meanwhile, in the entertainment segment of the media, the opinion sections of the newspapers, the television "talk shows" and films, religious beliefs and religious people are routinely ridiculed.
Secular humanism has calculated that Christianity is presently vulnerable at two points -- its sexual ethics and its affirmation of the sacredness of human life, neither of which can remain tenable in a hedonistic society, the former for obvious reasons, the latter both because certain lives -- those of the unborn, the retarded, or the chronically ill especially -- are too burdensome to others and because the hedonistic imagination cannot conceive that a pain-filled or otherwise "unhappy" life can possibly be meaningful to the person living it. The attack directed at Christian morality at both of these points has revealed many collaborators within the Christian camp, eager to do their part in what they regard as the inevitable triumph of a new ethic. (A great deal of people's willingness to accept new ideas derives from their desire not to be left behind by history, to put themselves right with the dominant regime of the future. Here the contrasting images of rising/ declining movements are particularly important.)
It has often been asserted that abortion is an inappropriate political issue, an assertion made during the 1976 presidential campaign even by some Catholics who claimed to be anti-abortion. Perhaps, ideally, abortion ought not to be a political issue. However, the well-planned and skillfully-executed campaign to legalize abortion made it a political issue, for better or for worse. In similar ways certain kinds of questions which theoretically might also be seen as non-political -- euthanasia, sex education, pornography -- are being politicized.
This is not accidental, because the modern liberal state is incorrigibly activist in its modes of operation. By its very nature it cannot be neutral on burning social questions, even if these are questions which it might seem better to settle privately. Through court decisions and an evolving body of law, the state defines the permissible limits of behavior, and in a society without an official religion what is defined as legal soon also comes to be thought of as moral. (Abortion has quickly come to be defined as a sacred "constitutional right.") Once a particular mode of behavior is defined as legal, its practitioners quickly bring suits to force public and private agencies to grant it respect. (In New York City, following the mayor's declaration of non-discrimination in the hiring of homosexuals by the city, it was seriously proposed that "gays" be given preferential treatment in hiring, although the mayor rejected this as impractical.)
When the state is called upon to give its official sanction of tolerance for a particular mode of behavior, there also arises a presumption that such behavior should be taught in the schools in such a way as to inculcate "respect" and "understanding" for its practitioners. There exists in many school districts, and in certain influential organizations like the National Library Association, a system of censorship which is all the more effective for not being called by that name. (In general "censorship" is something only backward-looking people engage in. Forward-Iooking people think of themselves as engaged in such lofty activities as "consciousness-raising" or "getting rid of stereotypes.") It is virtually compulsory that textbooks, library books, and films for classroom use take the "correct" positions with regard to feminism, homosexuality, environmental problems, race, poverty, and many other things. Teachers are never more vulnerable (even at the university level) than when they are accused of reinforcing "prejudice" in these matters. Meanwhile, by a convenient quirk of history, the Constitution is said to forbid giving religion the same kind of favored treatment. At the lower academic levels teachers are almost compelled to pretend that religion does not exist. At the higher levels they are free to ridicule and attack it at the taxpayers expense, while professors who openly espouse religious beliefs often have difficulty getting and retaining employment in public colleges and universities.
Finally, as tends to be the case with things pertaining to government and law, the conflict becomes one of money -- how shall taxes be spent, what programs shall the government choose to fund, which shall it ignore? There are the usual squabbles about dividing the pie, but there is also a great deal of symbolism involved -- for the government to undertake the funding of a particular program, even modestly, is to give it an aura of officiality and respectability which an unfunded program lacks. (Thus in the present moral and political climate the Federal government was willing to underwrite the stridently feminist International Women's Year convention of 1977 but would refuse to support an equivalent rally called in support of family values, for example.)
For thirty years the courts have accepted, as one argument against the public funding of religious schools, the assertion that some taxpayers would thereby be forced to contribute to the support of a creed in which they disbelieve. The absurdity of that argument is again immediately apparent, since there are few public appropriations which do not in some way offend the moral principles of some taxpayers. (Military spending, a big part of the Federal budget, is an obvious example.) The hollowness of the argument is now fully manifest in the determined efforts by pro-abortionists, many of whom profess a strict interpretation of the First Amendment, to force the taxpayers to finance abortions, contraceptive programs, and other activities which are morally repugnant to many Catholics -- and not only to them. The clever way in which the terms of the discussion have been controlled by the secularists is again apparent -- if abortion is opposed, this is for religious reasons and the government must ignore them; if it is favored, this is not seen as also stemming from credal (if, in many cases, non-theistic) reasons but from some kind of transcendent, disembodied voice of objectivity. The secularists' refusal to admit that they are a sect in conflict with other sects has in large measure been accepted by the government, so that it is a sect which enjoys favored treatment, even as it piles more and more legal burdens on its adversaries.
Abortion is Key Issue
Abortion is an extremely sensitive and prophetic issue because it presages the kind of battle which will be fought over and over again on many fronts. The state now not only permits abortion but is pressed actively to promote it, especially through tax support and propaganda. The Federal government's center for Disease Control officially regards pregnancy as a disease and allies itself unabashedly with the abortionists. Without the counter-pressure which the anti-abortion movement has been able to mount, governmental encouragement of abortion would be virtually endemic. The modern state simply cannot be neutral on these questions, although many timid Catholics cherish the myth of neutrality ("I cannot impose my values on other people") because it relieves them of the responsibility for acting. (The way is thus clear for other people to impose their values.)
The most sinister aspect of the decline of the Catholic Church's public influence, preceded by the decline in real influence (as distinct from public posturing) of the leading Protestant churches, is that it helps pave the way for an eventual benign totalitarianism, in which the state assumes responsibility for all areas of life and there are no moral positions distinct from those which are politically acceptable, in which people are actively hindered from espousing positions at variance with those the state deems appropriate for the general welfare (the "divisiveness" doctrine again). The most determined resistance to totalitarianism has come from religious sources -- the refusal to place Caesar above God -- and if German Christians were not nearly so resistant to the Nazi creed as might have been hoped, it is nonetheless true that the most courageous opposition -- from people like Kolbe, Jaggerstatter, Delp, and Bonhoeffer -- was religious to its very roots.
It seems paradoxical that those who have most eloquently called for the Church to assume a prophetic stance toward the state, who have in some cases engaged in acts of disobedience against the state, should so often fail to comprehend the importance of the life issues -- abortion, contraception, eugenics, euthanasia, legalized suicide -- to the future of individual freedom. The paradox is resolved, however, when it is understood that the stance of resistance to the state is to a state deemed to be acting wrongly with regard to an already established secular consensus, a state fallen short of its potential for good. A state acting as it is thought it should act draws no such strictures upon itself, comes to be seen as a benign force for progress.
The decline of the public authority of the churches, not only politically but also of their influence over their own members, has been paralleled, inevitably, it might be suggested, by the sacralization of politics. Having first declared its independence from religion, politics increasingly claims for itself those domains formerly thought of as proper to religion. For many people, including many Christians, politics has become a sacred duty and a kind of liturgy, an activity which summons forth their whole moral energies, their whole personal commitment, the doctrinaire rigidity which they forswear in religion. This is true not only of those who are attracted to various forms of totalitarianism, such as the Maoist or the Castroite, but even to those whose political interests are confined to ordinary electoral politics, where the adoption of the correct platform plank, the election of the right candidate, or the passage of the correct law can come to have an almost holy significance.
At present there are a variety of ways in which the state already uses, or threatens to use, its power to restrict the freedom of the Church:
-- Catholic hospitals may be required to permit the performance of sterilizations and other surgical procedures deemed immoral. Some theologians, including the influential Father Charles Curran, have urged that the Church comply with the state's demand.
-- Catholic schools, although denied tax aid under the separationist doctrine, may be commanded by the courts to rehire teachers dismissed for actions deemed incompatible with Catholic doctrine, for example, marriage outside the Church.
-- In communities which have enacted "gay rights" laws, Church schools may be ordered to employ confessedly homosexual teachers.
-- Prior to the Episcopal Church's decision to ordain women to the priesthood in 1976, several women seeking such ordination filed suit in the secular courts to force the issue, charging the church with discrimination. It is not improbable that such suits will be filed against the Roman Catholic Church at some time in the future, and the courts' response is by no means certain.
Such occurrences would have been unthinkable twenty years ago, and it is yet another measure of the burgeoning triumph of secularism that they are now possible. They represent merely the beginning of the next phase of the "judicial revolution," in which the Church will have to fight very hard to preserve any vestige of its legal autonomy and minimum liberties.
It is also crucial to note that these interventions by the state into the life of the Church are not merely accidental or occasional. They are the inevitable outcome of a habit of mind which perceives the bureaucratic state as the principal engine of social progress, the principal locus of enlightenment. In this view of society, which is widely held in the media, the educational system, and government itself, most citizens are too passive, ignorant, and reactionary to understand how the world of the future must be shaped. Thus their preferences must be overridden by those elites who do understand the nature of a truly "humane" and "enlightened" society and look to the state (especially the courts) as the principal means by which it can be brought about.
Thus even within the Church there are those, ordinarily passionate in the defense of liberty, who are either indifferent to these governmental interventions or positively welcome them. For the plain truth, in their minds, is that on most moral questions the state is right, the Church wrong. The state is serving the cause of humanity by promoting divorce, contraception, sterilization, and homosexuality (some would add abortion), and it is therefore justified in intervening to inhibit the Church from propagating the opposite positions, which are deemed merely dogmatic and outdated. The sacredness of political action precisely derives from the fact that it is a continuing struggle to insure that the state assumes "enlightened" positions on all questions, remains in the advance guard of the general populace on all social and moral issues. The Church's relative weakness stems not only from its perceived stubborn backwardness on many of these same questions but also from the fact that even the most "advanced" and "enlightened" church has slight power to affect social change in comparison with the power of the state. Thus those churches which have succeeded in making themselves as "relevant" as possible on all social questions are also reduced, in practice, to serving as lobbying groups for various political causes. They have no moral or political positions they can call their own.
The old joke, "With friends like these we don't need enemies," has painful applicability to the post-conciliar Church in America. For example, one of the officers of the principal anti-Catholic organization of the past thirty years, Americans United for Separation of Church and State (formerly Protestants and Other Americans United -- P.O.A.U.), says,
On the question of tax aid for parochial schools, our position is the same as that of John F. Kennedy, Justice William Brennan, and the National Association of Laity. On the question of legal abortion, our position is the same as that of Representative Robert Drinan. 7
The work that was formerly done by professional bigots is now done by ambitious Catholics anxious to please.
The noose is inexorably being tightened around the neck of religious institutions -- schools, hospitals, homes for the aged, adoption agencies. The process by which this is occurring is an obvious one. On the one hand inflation makes it less and less possible for these institutions to be fully supported by the churches which nominally control them. On the other hand the state also undertakes to establish minimum standards of professionalism to which all such institutions must adhere, even wholly private ones. Because of these standards (which in principle are desirable but which are also open to abuse), and as a condition of receiving tax assistance, the state undertakes more and more to prescribe how these institutions must operate, even where sensitive moral issues are involved. That this process is not farther advanced is due almost entirely to whatever remaining capacity for vigilance and political militancy the churches still possess. Were this vigilance relaxed for very long, the likely result would be a state monopoly on all schools and charitable institutions, a situation which may yet come about.
It is again crucial to note that many Catholics, including some in positions of influence, regard this threat with indifference or even positive support. To them it seems somehow appropriate that a properly "enlightened" state exercises ultimate control over crucial areas like education and health. Around the time of the Second Vatican Council and continuing for some years afterward, the parochial schools were regularly denounced, even by Catholics, as pockets of inhumane, reactionary, unhealthy moral and religious attitudes. The proliferation of this kind of attack (welcomed by the media) has much to do with the confidence the enemies of the parochial schools have that they are winning, even though in recent years the reputation of the public schools has fallen so low that the parochial schools now look more attractive. There are, however, influential people, some of them Catholics, who believe that only when the state controls education and social-welfare agencies will properly "enlightened" standards prevail and that government policy should deliberately aim at the elimination of remaining pockets of religious provincialism.
Warnings about the totalitarian state of the future have come from many sources. These warnings have tended to concentrate on the most obvious violations of civil liberties, such as electronic surveillance or illegal arrests, against which the educated public is now on its guard. Many of these same people, however, will either welcome or perceive no harm in a totalitarian state which undertakes to regulate an area more personal, more intimate, more sacred than free speech or political dissent -- human sexuality and reproduction. If totalitarianism comes to the United States, it will be justified on the basis of the dangers of overpopulation and shortage of resources, with perhaps a dash of praise for childlessness borrowed from dogmatic feminism. The state of the future will in all probability use all its influence, including the voluntary cooperation of the media, to promote contraception, sterilization, and abortion to the point where only the most stubborn or courageous souls can holdout against the official consensus. If this fails to produce fully satisfactory results (it may well lead to the "wrong" people continuing to breed), coercion will be used. Children will be rationed, and in extreme cases those who insist on producing more than their share will be forced to submit to abortion or sterilization procedures. Many friends of liberty will regret this but will agree that it is necessary.
The full significance of the dissent from Humanae Vitae, which was given maximum publicity by the media, can now be appreciated. The modern "liberated" Catholic chose to take his or her stand precisely on the question that directly relates to the population control issue. The badge of being a "free" and "independent" Catholic was the embrasure of the contraceptive mentality, including the cries of alarm about world overpopulation and the acceptance of the proposition that small families tend to make for a more "fulfilled" life. Those Catholics who boldly asserted that the Pope could not tell them that they must have children will prove very meek when the state, at some future time, tells them that they must not have children.
The other major area in which totalitarianism threatens is psychic health, the concept of "complete mental and spiritual well being" which is coming to be semi-officially adopted. The concept implies not only negative action -- providing remedial therapy for those deemed to be mentally ill -- but also positive action to promote and insure the proper mental attitudes through education, preventive therapy, and various manifestations of the "human potential" movement.
The totalitarian and manipulative possibilities inherent in this are virtually endless, since it seeks to reach into the most remote recesses of the human soul. Of immediate concern to Catholics is the area of sex education, where a "healthy" attitude is increasingly coming to be equalled with a wholly permissive and "non-judgmental" attitude towards practically all sexual practices except rape, in which those who adhere to traditional Christian concepts of right and wrong are deemed to be in need of therapeutic assistance. Many other possibilities come to mind -- belief in miracles, for example, the literal historical truth of the Scripture, or papal infallibility might all seem to some therapists as signs of a disturbed personality. In a state monopoly of education and health-care facilities, every effort will be made to "help" such persons overcome their "irrational hangups." In a very extreme situation the concept of "fit parenthood" might be applied to prevent people who hold such beliefs from passing them on to their offspring. Certain "enlightened" Christians will agree with the diagnosis and acquiesce in the cure. Meanwhile, even as they now exist, the Catholic schools seem wary of inculcating in their students beliefs (on sexual behavior, for example) conspicuously at odds with those of the culture at large. Totalitarianism will succeed all the easier because so few people will have deeply held beliefs which they regard as beyond the possibility of compromise.
Nostalgia Won't Help
The most crucial task is intellectual rather than political, although political activity is vitally necessary. It is increasingly the case, however, that ideas do influence events, that the jottings of some scribbler (not long dead, as John Maynard Keynes once suggested, but usually now very much alive) shape the thinking of judges, government officials, journalists, and others in a position to influence the course of events. It cannot be emphasized too often that Catholics have lost battle after battle chiefly because they have permitted others to frame the issues, to which they have merely reacted. Catholic political failures have occurred, despite the very large Catholic presence in public life, because Catholics have approached politics far too pragmatically, preferring to leave ideology to others while they gathered control of the various political mechanisms. But when the time came to make use of those mechanisms, these same Catholics showed that they did not know what to do with them. Getting power had become, for the kind of Catholic politician epitomized by the late Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, an end in itself. Others had to tell them for what purpose this power should be used.
The American Church now needs to marshall all the intellectual resources at its command -- lawyers, scientists, political scientists, sociologists, historians, as well as philosophers and theologians -- for the purpose of first understanding the present crisis of American society in as profound a way as possible, then defining the Catholic solution to that crisis, finally developing a broad strategy for Catholic action. Participants in such an enterprise would have to be carefully chosen; not everyone stamped with the proper denominational label, nor everyone boasting the initials of a religious order after his or her name, would be useful for the task, or even sympathetic.
One mistake that would need to be avoided is nostalgia for the Catholic political milieu of the pre-conciliar period, despite much that was good in that milieu and much that can be learned from it. But in retrospect it is also possible to see that Catholic leaders of that era were lulled into complacency by the apparent solidity of their positions, the fact (so it was alleged) that the New York legislature, for example, would never pass on a controversial bill until it had first consulted Cardinal Spellman. At the same time the groundwork was being laid for the massive Catholic political defeats of the 1960's and 1970's.
Another aspect of that same nostalgia would be an overly abstract and metaphysical approach to the issues, although these issues are indeed ultimately metaphysical. In public life, however, metaphysical questions are always implied, never stated, and when they are raised overtly they have the effect of discrediting those who raise them. Few citizens are metaphysically inclined, the media have no means by which they can deal with such questions, and raising them merely provides those unsympathetic to one's case with an excuse to dismiss it as unproven and unprovable speculation. (Thus, while it is important that anti-abortionists be clear in their own minds about the personhood of the fetus, it is a fatal strategic error to get involved in public debates over the question, or to rest one's political case on it. The Supreme Court reacted quite predictably in declaring that it was an unanswerable question.)
An older kind of Catholic social thought began with certain abstract philosophical principles -- about the nature of man, the nature of society, the meaning of the good, etc. -- and sought to derive from them specific principles about social questions, and even specific strategies for dealing with them. Even many people who were in sympathy with the specifics, however, had difficulty in following the process of derivation, and Catholic social thought failed to have a wider impact in part because it appeared to depend on certain philosophical principles which non-Catholics did not accept and did not understand.
Post-conciliar Catholics are wrong to neglect metaphysics. However, while establishing rigorous philosophical foundations for their own beliefs, they should also be prepared to translate those beliefs into terms which will be understood by the wider public and to cast their arguments in ways that will attract support. (Militant secularists, for example, do not talk about secularism, which would repel most people, but have instead preempted the vocabulary of "freedom" to justify what they are doing.) There will have to be much more use of the social sciences than in the past, since the social sciences now enjoy the general prestige that philosophy once had. Many Catholics are afraid of the social sciences. However, these disciplines, properly understood, have just as much potential for supporting Catholic values as for undermining them.
The Most Effective Approach
The most effective way in which Catholics can now approach the problems of society, an approach which is also very close to the heart of the problem, is as defenders of the family and its rights, including the right of parents to pass on their own values to their children. It is an approach which will have a wide appeal, across denominational boundaries and even among people of no religious faith. Catholics are in a unique position to undertake this analysis, because of the central importance of the family in Catholic social thought. Many people, including many non-Catholics, now feel vaguely alarmed at developments they see occurring all around them. What is still lacking is an analysis which will show how these developments are not random or accidental but conform to a pattern, and that the pattern ultimately involves the undermining of the family. (For some this is a deliberate strategy. For others it is unintended; they merely stumble blindly from one experiment to another, refusing to foresee the probable outcome but acquiescing in it when it finally becomes clear.)
It is impossible within a brief space to do more than suggest some of the more important issues which need to be addressed and the general way in which they should be addressed:
-- The family must be given legal standing as a privileged institution, possessing rights which- alternative forms of social organization (for example, communes or unmarried couples) do not possess. The state must be forbidden to abridge these rights, and a body of legislation and court decisions must be built up towards that end.
-- As a consequence, society must be declared to have a stake in the permanency and stability of the family. All policies of the government and private social agencies must be continuously scrutinized as to whether they support or undermine that stability.
-- Parental rights must be protected, since otherwise the stability and harmony of the family are disrupted. Except in extreme cases, social agencies must be forbidden to undermine these rights.
-- As a corollary, the ultimate responsibility of parents for the education of their children must be vigorously protected by law. Mechanisms must be developed to make schools more responsive to parental wishes, especially in the crucial area of moral values. There must be greater diversity within the educational system, reflecting parental values.
-- Secular humanism must be given legal recognition as a creed in competition with other creeds. Its present privileged status, especially in the schools, must be removed.
-- As a corollary to parental rights over their children's education and as a corollary to the previous principle, parents must demand that their religious beliefs be given sympathetic treatment in the schools and that the schools refrain from doing anything, actively or passively, to undermine those beliefs.
-- The constitutional guarantee of religious liberty must be taken seriously and must be asserted much more vigorously than has hitherto been the case. The second half of the First Amendment, prohibiting the state from interfering in the free exercise of religion, must once again be made equal to the first half, forbidding a religious establishment. The extreme separationist doctrine must be recognized as in violation of this guarantee of freedom. The state must undertake to promote religious freedom in the same vigilant and aggressive way that it seeks to promote other freedoms.
-- Moral relativism -- the belief that there are no ultimately true and binding moral principles -- must also be recognized as a creed in competition with the creed of moral absolutism. As such it cannot be permitted to function as the working moral code of governmental agencies or tax-supported schools.
-- The valid claims of morality in public life must be recognized, and the terms of public discourse altered to insure that they are heard. The assertion that questions like abortion are not properly political issues (made, often enough, by those who originally lobbied to repeal the abortion laws) must be rejected. Secularism tends to prefer approaching social problems like the breakdown of the family in exclusively political and economic terms, in which many Christians are happy to acquiesce because it relieves them of their own need to bear moral witness. The universe of political discourse must be widened to include moral considerations and recognition of the fact that many social problems are primarily moral in nature.
-- An effective campaign of pressure must be mounted against the media to demand that Christian values be treated with fairness and sympathy. Although charges of censorship will be hurled, the media has already shown itself highly responsive to similar demands from, for example, feminists and homosexuals. The media are in fact constantly responding to pressures of various kinds, and the effective balance of those pressures must be altered.
Toward a Practical Program
On the practical level there are also several considerations immediately worth noting:
-- The effort must, ultimately, become ecumenical. The present leadership of most of the major Protestant churches will have little sympathy for it. However, many of their members will, and the leadership may change. More importantly, those Protestants broadly designated evangelicals (sometimes derogatorily called fundamentalists) are the only Christians in the country who at present seem to have retained their sense of purpose, identity, and self-confidence. Although there is mutual suspicion between them and Catholics, the two groups share many common concerns and there are signs of a diminution of mistrust. The evangelicals have also begun to develop a body of sophisticated, intellectual spokesmen who would be genuine assets to any campaign of the kind described here.
-- If the Democratic Party has often in recent years proven itself hostile to Catholic interests, the Republican Party remains largely irrelevant to those interests, for a variety of historical reasons. Given the solid Catholic presence in the Democratic Party, it remains probably the most promising vehicle for a revived Catholic militancy. However, Catholics may also find it useful to practice the time-honored strategy of forcing both parties to bid for their votes.
-- Sophisticated means must be developed for evaluating candidates for judgeships and influencing judges' appointments, since the judiciary has at least as much effect on matters of concern to Catholics as do the executive and the legislature. Other interest groups have done this very effectively; Catholics seem to remain in total ignorance of the process. Here normal political considerations are not a reliable guide. Probably the two most sympathetic Supreme Court justices, from a Catholic point of view, are Byron White (a Kennedy appointee) and William Rehnquist (a Nixon appointee), while the two most unsatisfactory are William Brennan (an Eisenhower appointee) and Harry Blackmun (also a Nixon appointee).
-- New criteria for evaluating political candidates must be developed which include some of the rather intangible factors indicated above. Candidates must be informed that they face scrutiny not only on their positions with respect to the familiar economic issues but also as to their overall philosophical orientations, whether, for example, they can be relied upon to be sensitive to the needs of the family and to religious values. (It is now the case that being in favor of God and motherhood is a controversial position.) Once elected, politicians' performances with respect to these issues must be regularly evaluated and the evaluations disseminated to the public.
-- Catholic candidates for public office must be pressed especially hard on these issues, since many Catholic politicians are inclined to take their Catholic support for granted and to attempt to prove themselves to non-Catholics. It is sometimes the case that a non-Catholic candidate who is courting the Catholic vote may be more responsive to Catholic interests than a Catholic would be.
The Catholic complacency of the 1950's was rudely shocked by the remarkably swift change in the moral and political climate which occured in the 1960's. Momentum, once lost, is not easily regained. For fifteen years the momentum has lain with the secularists, and their boldness increases daily. The very survival of Catholicism in America depends on that momentum's being stopped. At present all that seems lacking, from the Catholic side, is the intelligence and the will.
1. For a more complete discussion of this process see Hitchcock, "The Dynamics of Popular Intellectual Change," The American Scholar, Fall 1976, pp. 522-35.
2. See Ibid., and also Hitchcock, "Power to the Eloquent," The Yale Review. Spring /977, pp. 374.87.
3. Marsilius of Padua (c1270-cl342) was a political theorist who made the authority of the Church wholly subordinate to that of the state.
4. For a more detailed discussion of this phenomenon see Hitchcock. "Prophecy and Politics: Abortion in the Election of 1976," Worldview, March 1977, pp. 25.26, 35-37.
5. Leo Pfeffer, "Issues That Divide: the Triumph of Secular Humanism," Journal of Church and State, Spring 1977. pp. 203-15. Pfeffer was a long-time counsel to the American Jewish Committee.
6. See for example Pfeffer, "The 'Catholic' Catholic Problem," Commonweal, August 1, 1975, pp. 302-05. Catholics are one of the very few minority groups whose own journals publish the attacks of their enemies.
7. Ed Doerr in The National Catholic Reporter, Apr. 14, 1978, p.2.
©1978 by The National Committee of Catholic Laymen, Inc.
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