success stories

Posted August 4, 2003

Book: A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America
Author: Peter Steinfels
Simon & Schuster, New York, 392 pp.

Review by Kevin Starr, Kevin Starr is state librarian of California, university professor in the history department at USC and a trustee of the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies.

Peter STEINFELS, former editor of Commonweal, former senior religion correspondent for the New York Times and current Times religion columnist, is among the most distinguished and respected Roman Catholic commentators in the country. As such, it is to be expected that Steinfels would weigh in with a book dealing with the current malaise in the Roman Catholic Church. "A People Adrift" is a balanced and judicious explication of the issues bedeviling the American church, pedophile priests, coverups, stonewalling bishops, liturgical confusion, declining vocations to the priesthood and religious life, a growing number of alienated women, an uneasy relationship with Rome in the matter of university governance, a general malaise regarding Catholic identity and culture, together with Steinfels' recommendations for corrective action.

Throughout the book, Steinfels takes Commonweal's approach. Founded in 1924 by former Californian Michael Williams, a layman, Commonweal has over the decades sustained a high level of evenhanded, lay-oriented, liberal Roman Catholic coverage and commentary. This is the tone Steinfels adopts in his book, reinforced by an equally evenhanded effort to present all sides of the question that one might well expect from such an accomplished reporter.

Born, raised and educated in Chicago, the most unambiguously Catholic big city in the nation, Steinfels begins "A People Adrift" with an account of the funeral of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996), archbishop of Chicago and founder of the Common Ground Initiative intended to foster dialogue among all shades of Catholic opinion. For Steinfels, the liberal, hopeful and orthodox Bernardin represented the best possibilities of center-liberal American Catholicism confronting a succession of crises. Above all else, Bernardin represented the hope for Common Ground, which is to say the reconciliation of differences within the encompassing bandwidth of orthodoxy. As if to carry on Bernardin's work, Steinfels attempts to achieve a similar common ground in this book, working, as he freely admits, from a center-left but orthodox and believing point of view.

In contrast to the impassioned polemics from hard left and hard right so characteristic of Roman Catholic-oriented discourse these days, Steinfels bends over backward to be balanced and fair, although in each of the problems he addresses, the Commonweal point of view prevails. Early in the book, Steinfels explicitly states that he will stay away from the emotional and imaginative dimensions of his faith, indeed, stay away from theology and religious experience almost entirely, in an effort to remain impartial and to focus on issues of policy and reform. So, too, does he suppress, outside of a few references, his historical imagination, despite the fact that he has taught American Catholic history at Notre Dame and Georgetown universities.

Steinfels' announced point of view, then, the liberalism of Commonweal, the impartial third-person discourse of New York Times coverage, the search for common ground, makes for the strengths and weaknesses of this somewhat policy-wonkish book, in which nearly all passion, angst, doubt and consolations of faith have been deliberately put aside, perhaps for another book.

While a gray book, the grayness, perhaps, of the great Gray Lady herself, "A People Adrift" is painted in hopeful shades of gray. The very notion of common ground pervading this book tends to suggest a process of correction that can occur outside of schism, indifference, sheer goofiness or, worse, loss of faith. The pedophile crisis, for example, while remaining a black hole in sacred and profane space, is encouraging American Catholics to hold their bishops accountable, even to demand a voice in their election; to entertain alternative modalities of priesthood (less controversially, the ordination of married men); and to rally to the support of the non-offending priests who constitute 98% of the active ministry. The condemnation of all forms of artificial birth control by Pope Paul VI in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which the pope overruled a commission of lay and clerical experts, has driven many from the church, true, but it has also encouraged those who stayed, the vast majority, to think this issue through for themselves, to make their own decisions and, even more subtly, to remain in the church while remaining at odds with this particular interpretation. The jury-nullification of Humanae Vitae by the majority of American Catholics has either weakened Catholicism in America, as conservatives believe, or, as liberals believe, encouraged educated Roman Catholics to de-peasantize and de-clericalize themselves and begin drawing upon the insistence of the Second Vatican Council that sexuality within marriage is an equal path to the Kingdom.

Likewise, the liturgical free fall that followed the Second Vatican Council is encouraging American Catholics to return consistency and taste to their worship practice and to demand that their priests prepare intelligent sermons. The liturgical crisis has also stimulated an array of new hymns from the composers of the St. Louis University and Taize, an ecumenical monastery in France, effectively commensurate with American taste. The controversy surrounding Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the letter on Catholic universities issued by Pope John Paul II in 1990 demanding that theologians sign an oath of allegiance with the local bishop, has driven many Catholic academics into stunned silence but has also encouraged many more, such as Steinfels, to ask themselves whether there is any reason to have Catholic colleges and universities in this country and, if so, why they should not in some way bear witness to Catholic values and tradition.

And so it goes, point after point, controversy after controversy, with Steinfels making a heroic effort, given the emotionalism, internecine conflict, Vatican and bishop bashing, gay outing, anti-intellectualism and tradition-rejecting despair that characterizes contemporary Roman Catholic discourse, to reconcile differences, to envision a possible future. From this perspective, Steinfels has made a most important contribution to contemporary Catholic discourse. Strictly by the fair-minded way he goes about his analytical business, he embodies a civil common ground where renewal can begin. The strength of the book, however, is also its weakness, for Steinfels, save for an occasional lapse, is virtually committed to maintaining a tone of political correctness. He seems never to be able to release his inner Catholic self, to give voice to his hope or his temptations to despair; and this lack of passion, this lack of personality, weakens the prophetic possibilities of "A People Adrift."

Policy analysis can take us Roman Catholics only so far. There are times when we must open the floodgates of memory and spiritual desire if we are to see ourselves through the current malaise so correctly anatomized by Steinfels. We Catholics, for example, cannot afford to turn away from history, as Steinfels, with a few exceptions, forces himself to do in this book. Even when he does turn to history, he skirts the outer edges of the self-hating interpretation that has so long bedeviled American Catholic identity.

Too long have we American Roman Catholics labored under the mistaken notion that we are an exotic graft onto the rootstock of the republic, that we have something to apologize for in merely being here. We were here from the beginning. As early as the 16th century, the pioneering 19th century Catholic historian John Gilmary Shea tells us, the continent was reddened with the blood of Roman Catholic explorers and missionary martyrs. In the 1640s, Catholics founded Maryland as a haven for all faiths. When the Jesuit Ferdinand Farmer died in Philadelphia in the 1760s, the Quakers of that city gave him a lavish municipal funeral, so highly did they regard his piety, civic spirit and personal culture. Through figures such as John Barry, founder of the American Navy; Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration of Independence; and John Carroll, special envoy to French Canada and first bishop in the new republic, not to mention the Catholic nobles who came with Lafayette to fight alongside Washington, and the French fleet that clinched the final victory, we helped bring the republic into existence. (That's what makes the stonewalling of bishops protecting pedophile priests so outrageous. George Washington wrote Catholics a letter welcoming us into the republic. We, in turn, promised to abandon our Euro-theocratic tendencies and comply with the civil law.)

We cannot, however, blame Steinfels for not writing the book he did not intend to write. He has other agendas, some engaging and promoting common ground, others developed at tedious length, such as that, fixe of the Catholic left, the ordination of women to the priesthood, despite the insistence of Rome that the theology of such a move remains unclear. Any culture that produced Elizabeth Seton (or at least borrowed her from Anglicanism), Frances Xavier Cabrini, Katharine Drexel, Dorothy Day, Ethel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Madeleva Wolff, Helen C. White and Flannery O'Connor; that attracted such diverse figures as Clare Booth Luce and Pearl Bailey into the fold (and that manages to keep Madonna in dialogue); and that continues to produce such outstanding leaders as Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon, commentator Peggy Noonan and Commonweal editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels (Steinfels' equally talented wife, with whom he shared this year's Laetare medal from Notre Dame University, the Academy Award of American Catholicism) does not have to despair overly long, as Steinfels seems to do, regarding the current refusal of the church to advance women to the presbyterate.

Steinfels does advance two wonderful ideas, however. The ancient order of deaconess should be revived, in acknowledgment that most parishes today could not get along without women lay ministers and volunteers; and these deaconesses, in turn, could eventually be appointed to the College of Cardinals, thereby enfranchising women in the election of a pope. (I would take Steinfels' suggestion even further. Appoint women of every condition to the College of Cardinals, deaconesses, if we have them, professed religious, laywomen, married or single, since the priesthood is not a theological requirement for the Sacred College.)

At some point in this century or early in the next, Roman Catholics will constitute something approaching half the population of the United States. And so it behooves Roman Catholics and non-Roman Catholics alike to examine the Catholic tradition from the point of view of its strengths and contributions as well as its weaknesses. Steinfels states that unless the policy issues addressed in his book are correctly responded to, the Catholic Church in the United States will be institutionally bereft as it approaches its demographic majority. He is correct in his assessment. But he knows that the sources of reform and correction are deeper than the policy adjustments to which he voluntarily confines his argument.

The faith itself, one, holy, catholic and apostolic, bears within itself the seeds of its own correction. Time and again, history has borne this out. Ecclesia cuncta reformans is the way the Fathers expressed it: the church always correcting itself. True, this formula also suggests that the church is always falling into error; but the church is ever evolving as well as reforming itself, as John Henry Newman tells us. Most movingly, after so much policy discussion, Steinfels at long last yields emotionally to the consolations of faith in his final paragraphs, in which there emerges, however briefly, the transcendent figure of Mary, Mother of the church: envisioned as sculptor Robert Graham represented her in bronze over the entrance to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Her strength is the strength of eternal youth. Her role, like that of the church, is to bring the divine into human history. Like the church, her arms open wide in loving acceptance of all peoples, all times and modalities, all confusions and corrections. She is Holy Mother, "the image and beginning of the church," so Steinfels quotes a declaration of the Second Vatican Council in his moving finale, "as it is to be perfected in the world to come."

From A People Adrift

At six-fifteen on the morning of November 20, 1996, I left the hotel by the Chicago River and walked to Holy Name Cathedral. The dawn sky was cloudy and pale blue. The air was cold but still, as though the Windy City were holding its breath for the day's events: the funeral Mass and burial of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Roman Catholic archbishop of Chicago

Anyone needing evidence of Catholicism's place in the life of the United States should have witnessed Chicago's mourning for Cardinal Bernardin. For a week, the event overshadowed everything else in the news media

I like to imagine that this book was conceived that night This was a Catholicism alive and rooted, public in its service to the city and the city's poor and suffering, united in mourning with Baptist and Jewish neighbors, and speaking to the most traditional and personal of mysteries: death and the apparent unfairness of life.