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The Captivity of the U.S. Catholic Church

The Catholic Church in the United States is in decline because its public theology, on both the left and the right, is primarily focused on gaining influence over the state. As theologian Michael Baxter has argued, the church’s first priority should be on living as a community of faith and serving as a public witness.

Note: The following is adapted from a talk given at the annual convention of the College Theology Society, held this past June at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas. The talk was given in response to remarks made by Michael Baxter. I have made a brief addition to it, referencing the recent presidential campaign.

Surveying the Catholic Church in the U.S. today, there is no doubt that the church is polarized over doctrinal and other ecclesial issues. What is particularly dismaying about this polarization, though, is how easily it has coalesced with political partisanship. In recent elections, the Catholic vote has closely tracked with the national vote, meaning there is no identifiable “Catholic vote.” In 2011, a survey by Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate showed that only sixteen percent of U.S. Catholics were even aware of the bishops’ Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship voting guide, and only three percent had read it. Of those who were aware of it, three quarters said that it had no influence on their vote in the 2010 elections, and a similar percentage of those who were not aware of it claimed that even if they had been, it would not have mattered. Clearly Catholic identity is not having a significant influence on politics. In fact, it seems rather that political identity has more influence on church life. We saw this with the protest of President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame in 2009, followed by that of House Speaker John Boehner at the Catholic University of America in 2011. Earlier this year nearly 90 faculty wrote a letter of protest when Paul Ryan visited Georgetown University because of his budgetary priorities, whereas only nine could be mustered to protest the selection of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius as the commencement speaker, despite her radical views on abortion, not to mention her role in denying funding to the U.S. bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services and in the contraceptive mandate controversy. Catholics pick and choose elements of Catholic social teaching that fit their partisan agenda, leaving the rest to “prudential judgment.”

Yet the solution to this problem is not a more forceful statement that Catholic social teaching crosses partisan boundaries, or greater efforts to implement a more complete public policy agenda. This is because the root of the problem is the focus on the state as the primary locus of Christian witness. For two generations, the U.S. Catholic Church, including its bishops and leading intellectuals, have focused the church’s social energies on transforming the state, and I believe we are seeing signs of the impending failure of this approach. Despite his exaggerations, George Weigel has described the rise and fall of what he calls the “Bernardin Machine,” his term for the progressive American church of the 1970s to 1990s whose signature accomplishments were the two pastoral letters The Challenge of Peace and Economic Justice for All, and which Weigel believes was embodied in the person of Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. This is the church of Bryan Hehir and David Hollenbach, as well as the other social ethicists Michael Baxter has criticized for adopting a form of public discourse accommodated to the state. This progressive church largely failed, unable to fundamentally transform American political life and leaving behind an under-catechized church whose institutions, such as universities and hospitals, were in many cases largely indistinguishable from their secular counterparts. The progressive church has since ceded ground to a more conservative church, one set to restore the Catholic Church’s identity, in its institutions and social role. Cardinal Francis George declared liberal Catholicism an “exhausted project,” and proposed “simply Catholicism,” which, although avowedly neither liberal nor conservative, has certainly shown a conservative face, given its ecclesial preoccupations and political leanings.

With its focus on Catholic identity, this new conservative Catholicism might have been expected to embody a more robust form of communal witness, but this has not proven to be the case. Although the causes are probably many, one has to be that the leading intellectual advocates of conservative American Catholicism are captive to the same state-dominated logic as the progressives. Both Weigel, and, despite his philosophical brilliance, Robert George, explain the reasonableness of the natural law in terms of its public accessibility. These conservatives differ from the progressives in affirming that the natural law can lead us to definite conclusions on controverted issues, such as abortion and homosexuality, but the claims about the natural law itself remain the same. “Catholic identity” becomes identified with adherence to natural law teachings with generally conservative political implications. As Peter Steinfels notes, although Weigel contrasts the supposed cultural accommodation of the progressive church with the “intense focus” on Catholic identity of the conservative church, he mentions no major initiatives concerning Catholic institutions, catechetics, or liturgy as evidence of this shift, jumping immediately to the realm of public policy. Again, the measure of the Church’s social witness is its influence on the state. Weigel sees this new church as being ascendant, but we are already seeing the beginnings of its collapse. Bishops in the mold idealized by Weigel, such as Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, have played a major role in discrediting the moral authority of the church through the sexual abuse scandal, despite Weigel’s attempts to blame the scandal on the progressives. This past summer the bishops attempted to convince Catholics that the erosion of conscience rights represented by the contraceptive mandate is a profound threat to the Church, but have no comparable plan to combat the much graver threat that Catholics do not want to freely exercise their religion in the way taught by the bishops, or in many cases at all. During the recent presidential campaign, a handful of prominent bishops all but endorsed Republican Mitt Romney while providing misleading statements on aspects of Catholic teaching more favorable to President Obama. Sociologists Robert Putnam and David Campell attribute the startling rise in twenty-somethings without any religious affiliation to their disapproval of the close link between Christianity and conservative politics in the U.S. I believe the fortunes of the Catholic Church in the U.S. will get much worse before they get better.

If they are to get better, I believe we need something like the public theology presented by Michael Baxter. In his own way, Governor Mario Cuomo identified why in his famous 1984 speech at Notre Dame, touching on the issue of abortion:

 The hard truth is that abortion isn’t a failure of government. No agency or department of government forces women to have abortions, but abortion goes on. Catholics, the statistics show, support the right to abortion in equal proportion to the rest of the population. Despite the teaching in our homes and schools and pulpits, despite the sermons and pleadings and parents and priests and prelates, despite all the effort at defining our opposition to the sin of abortion, collectively we Catholics apparently believe – and perhaps act – little differently from those who don’t share our commitment. Are we asking government to make criminal what we believe to be sinful because we ourselves can’t stop committing the sin?

Cuomo accurately identified that the church was not living out its own faith. As Baxter says, “Perhaps the most important task is forming, not political advocacy organizations . . ., but actual communities that enable people to see what we know to be true.” The church needs to form communities who know what it means to care for the unborn, to show solidarity to immigrants, to be peacemakers, and to care for the poor. Otherwise, who do the bishops expect to vote for the public policies they so strenuously lobby for? The church must be a community that lives its faith before it can expect to be a witness to the state.

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