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New Century, New Story-Line: Catholics in America
A Conversation with George Weigel and Kenneth L. Woodward
October 1, 2000.
George Weigel

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is the nation's largest and most complex religious organization. Its 61.5 million members live in nearly 20,000 parishes, served by more than 400 bishops and 47,000 priests. “Religious professionals” also include some 85,000 sisters, 6,000 brothers, and 4,500 seminarians; among the “para-professionals” are some 12,000 permanent deacons, usually married laymen, who are reviving a ministry that had lain fallow in the Church for many centuries. In 1997, more than a million infants and some 73,000 adults were baptized into the Catholic Church, while another 88,000 men and women already baptized in other Christian communities were received into full communion. The Catholic Church in the United States maintains an extensive health-care system (some 600 hospitals), a large network of social-service agencies, and the world's largest independent educational system (with roughly 240 colleges and universities, 1,300 high schools, and 7,000 elementary schools). These 61 million Catholics speak dozens of languages and espouse the full range of political views on offer in the American republic. They are probably the most varied, multi-hued religious community in the nation. Yet for almost forty years, the Catholic story has been reported in starkly black-and-white terms.

The story-line was set in the fall of 1962, when The New Yorker published a series of “Letters from Vatican City” written by the pseudonymous “Xavier Rynne.” “Rynne” described his New Yorker reports on the Second Vatican Council (later expanded into a series of books) as “essays in theological journalism.” Their urbanity, wit, and literary elegance, combined with what seemed to be the author's intimate familiarity with the mysterious Vatican, made Rynne a literary phenomenon during the Council years (1962–65).

On Rynne's reading, the Council was the Gettysburg of a civil war between “liberals” and “conservatives” that had been under way in Roman Catholicism since the late eighteenth century. For the first 170 years of that conflict, the forces of “reaction” had been largely successful in controlling the Church, which they saw as a fortress protecting the faithful from the onslaught of modernity. Now Vatican II had been summoned by Pope John XXIII to change the terms of the relationship between Catholicism and the modern world. The pope's blunt criticism of those “prophets of gloom” who “in these modern times. . . can see nothing but prevarication and ruin” signified that the forces of progress had been given a new chance.

Rynne (who turned out to be an American Redemptorist priest, Francis X. Murphy) clearly favored the “liberal” forces of light over the “conservative” princes of darkness. He provided a framework in which otherwise arcane issues—for example, whether divine revelation proceeded from Scripture alone or from Scripture and tradition—could be grasped by reporters and made intelligible, even fun, to a mass audience. This was like politics. There were good guys and bad guys, and the division ran along familiar liberal/conservative political lines.

Triumph of the Conventional Story-Line

By 1965, the “liberal/conservative” framework had become the matrix for reporting and analyzing virtually everything Catholic. There were “liberal” and “conservative” positions on worship, doctrine, church management, philosophy, spirituality, and theology. There were liberal and conservative theories of mission, ecumenism, preaching, religious education, inter-religious dialogue, priestly formation, vowed religious life, marriage, sexual morality, and social ethics. Popes, bishops, priests, dioceses, theologians, lay organizations, seminaries, newspapers, magazines, and parishes were categorized as either liberal or conservative. When someone didn't quite fit the categories—for example, when political radical Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, attended Mass wearing a black mantilla and praying from a Latin missal—this was chalked up to personal eccentricity rather than to a possible flaw in the taxonomy.

Now there was something to all of this. Vatican II—the Council itself, and the processes of debate it set loose in the Church—was in fact the moment when the long-delayed encounter between the Roman Catholic Church and modern intellectual, cultural, and political life took place. Those who had urged the Church to leave the fortress and sally forth to confront modernity did gain control of the Council's machinery and agenda, and were largely vindicated by the Council's formal product, its sixteen documents. And there were in fact forces of reaction at Vatican II that fiercely resisted the Catholic encounter with modernity, deeming it lethal to the maintenance of orthodoxy and institutional vitality. The problem was that the liberal/conservative framework was thought capable of explaining everything, and it could not do so.

Reporting within the standard account focused excessively on the Church as institution. But the Church is, more importantly, a mystical communion of believers, a “sacrament” of God's presence to the world, a herald making a proposal about the truth of the human condition, a servant of suffering humanity, and a community of disciples. The institution exists only to facilitate these other aspects of the Church's life. Thus “the Church” cannot be identified exclusively or even primarily with the ordained hierarchy; to do so is, in a word, clericalism. And although it is usually thought a particular sin of Catholic conservatives, an intensified clericalism in coverage of the Catholic Church has resulted from the dominance of the standard account. The standard account also led to distorted analysis in other ways:

1. Once the liberal consensus in favor of incremental social change shattered (in 1968 or thereabouts) and political liberalism was radicalized, the liberal/conservative taxonomy proved even more incapable of accurately describing new ideas and movements in the Church. A prime example was the world media's coverage of liberation theology. This complex intellectual and pastoral phenomenon was reduced to a view of liberation theologians as the Latin American version of the “good” forces of Catholic progress, doing battle for the future against the reactionary conservatives who controlled the Latin American hierarchy in cahoots with repressive Latin American regimes. There were, again, elements of truth in this analysis. For far too long the Church in Latin America had been allied with local oligarchies and had not been effective in empowering the poor, socially or politically. Vatican II had rejected classic Iberian Catholic altar-and-throne (or, in the Latin American variant, altar-and-junta) arrangements. This conciliar teaching did presage profound changes, religious and political, throughout Latin America, and those changes were indeed being resisted by the usual suspects.

But the standard account was hopelessly inadequate for grasping the more complex truths of the situation. Among the distortions it induced were: (a) Liberation theology was seen as an indigenous phenomenon, an authentic Latin American “inculturation” of Vatican II. But in reality liberation theology was invented in Louvain, Münster, and other Catholic intellectual centers where the European fascination with Marxism and neo-Marxism was at its height, and then carried to Latin America by Latin American theologians trained in those European centers. (b) Liberation theology was seen as the Latin American expression of the liberal reformism implied in the Vatican II Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. But in fact by 1969 virtually all liberation theologians had flatly rejected liberal incrementalism and were openly committed to various radical reconstructions of social, political, and economic life, usually Marxist in inspiration. (c) Liberation theology was seen as the intellectual expression of a popular, grass-roots movement throughout Latin America. But in fact liberation theology was an elite movement that eventually had an impact on both popular and institutional thinking in Latin American Catholicism.

2. A similar deficiency could be observed in coverage of the emergence of feminism in the Church. Here, of course, the most visible issue was that of women and the priesthood. As usually reported, this reduced quickly to another struggle between the forces of progress and the forces of reaction. The real question, which was not whether the Church would ordain women to the priesthood but whether it could do so, was rarely considered. That there were profound issues about the Church, the ordained ministry, and indeed the nature of created reality itself engaged in this debate was almost never acknowledged. Further, the growth among Catholic feminist theologians of a far more radical critique that opposed the very notion of a “hierarchy” was not well understood; it didn't fit the conventional framework, any more than unabashedly Marxist liberation theologians did.

3. The standard account has also proven seriously deficient for understanding the pontificate of Pope John Paul II. For nearly two decades, reporters and analysts have struggled to portray a pope who seems to occupy several positions along the conventional spectrum. Much has been written about John Paul the “doctrinal conservative,” who relentlessly underscores the most challenging aspects of the Church's sexual ethic and refuses to ordain women to the priesthood; yet little has been reported about the pope who describes marital intimacy as an icon of the interior life of God, who teaches that the Church symbolized by the Virgin Mary is more fundamental to the Christian reality than the Church symbolized by the Apostle Peter, and who insists that, in making its case to the world, “the Church proposes; she imposes nothing.” Then there is John Paul the “social progressive,” extolled as the great defender of human rights, the reconciler of the Church with democracy, the social democrat greatly concerned about the impact of a triumphant capitalism on the post–Cold War world. But little has been reported about his empirically sensitive approach to economics, his celebration of entrepreneurship, his affirmation of the “business economy,” and his sharp critique of the welfare state. The attempt to confine John Paul II within the conventional categories really short-circuits when the great papal defender of democracy blasts the functioning of contemporary democracies and warns against a “thinly disguised totalitarianism” (Centesimus Annus, 46).

In an attempt to resolve these seeming contradictions, analysts have portrayed the Pope as an angry old man incapable of understanding a world he helped create, or as a kind of uniquely Polish schizophrenic, doctrinally “rigid” but socially “progressive” on at least some issues. In both cases, the tendency has been to set this pontificate against Vatican II. But in fact the Pope, who played a significant role at the Council and as archbishop of Kraków conducted one of the world's most extensive implementations of Vatican II, sees himself as the particular heir of the Council.

4. According to the standard account, churches and movements that have identified with the inevitable triumph of the “liberal” side should be prospering. But that is not what has happened. In a striking parallel to the experience of world Protestantism, liberal local Catholic churches are dying or struggling in prosperous, free lands (such as Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), while self-consciously orthodox Catholic communities are flourishing in Africa, usually under conditions of poverty and sometimes under serious persecution. In the United States, Catholic practice tends to be lower (and in some cases dramatically lower) in self-consciously “progressive” dioceses than in “conservative” ones.

A similar pattern prevails among religious professionals. The only communities of nuns that are growing in the United States are communities that have broken ranks with the liberal consensus among religious women, as embodied by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The seminaries that are growing are replete with candidates for the priesthood who identify with John Paul II. Dioceses that are self-consciously “liberal” have a difficult time attracting candidates for the priesthood.

Since Vatican II, world Catholicism has seen a historically unprecedented explosion of lay renewal movements. Although considerable ink has been spilled on reporting such activist organizations as “Call to Action,” “We Are Church,” and the fraudulent “Catholics for a Free Choice,” the numbers involved in these “liberal” enterprises are simply dwarfed by the numbers involved in renewal movements that identify with the Church's center of unity, the Bishop of Rome.

Rerum Novarum, So to Speak

A good “model” suggests how to organize our understanding of a complex reality and what to expect from that reality in the future. When a model cannot account for large portions of the relevant data and cannot trace a plausible outline for the evolution of what it attempts to describe, the time has come to discard it.

I have no substitute model to propose. Rather, what I would like to suggest is something both old-fashioned and quite compelling: real reporting on the lived experience of American Catholics, concentrating on those aspects that have been under-reported or ignored and that bid fair to be major factors shaping the Church's life and impact in the next several decades. Ten such “new things” suggest themselves:

1. The New Catechism and its impact. Published in English in 1994, the new Catechism of the Catholic Church is far more than a compendium of doctrine. It is a bold, coherent, and compelling account of the hope that has sustained the Church for two millennia. That in itself makes it worthy of serious reporting and analysis. But the Catechism can also be called a major cultural event in the Western world. To those who claim that plurality is an absolute in the modern world, the Catechism affirms the unity of faith over time and the availability of God's word of truth to all. In a culture convinced that there is your truth and my truth, the Catechism affirms that we cannot live without the truth.. At an intellectual/cultural moment in which incoherence is taken to be the bottom line of reality, the Catechism proposes Christian faith as a coherent framework for understanding what is, how it came to be, and what its future holds.

Although the Catechism was an international best-seller in the mid-1990s, only in the future will its real impact become apparent. For the Catechism was a challenge to the process-oriented approaches to religious education that had dominated Catholic catechetics in the United States since the late 1960s, approaches that had produced two sadly illiterate generations of Catholics. Tracking the influence of the Catechism on the reform of Catholic religious education is one way to look into the possible future of Catholicism in the United States.

The Catechism is also a powerful populist tool by which parishioners facing dubious preaching and teaching can challenge claims that strike them as questionable. It is thus a further antidote to the perennial problem of clericalism, and an instrument of intellectual accountability of a sort not seen in Roman Catholic circles since the Counter-Reformation.

2. ACatholic Moment” in the New South? The rapidly changing demographics of the Old Confederacy suggest that Catholicism might be on the verge of great advances in an area where it has long been virtually invisible. While Roman Catholics make up only 3-5 per cent of the population of the Carolinas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Virginia south of the Rappahannock, prosperous urban areas of the “New South” are 15-20 per cent Catholic, and the percentage is growing, mainly through immigration. Moreover, the Catholic population at the region's major state and private universities is 20-25 per cent and increasing. At Duke, nominally Methodist, Catholics are the largest religious group on campus, followed by Jews; Methodists are third. Similar situations obtain at the University of North Carolina, Wake Forest, The Citadel, and the University of Georgia. If a sizable portion of these southern-educated Catholics remain to work in the South, the future upper-middle-class and upper-class elites of the New South are likely to be significantly, even heavily, Roman Catholic.

The booming economy of the New South and the region's increasing influence in national politics also afford opportunities for the Catholic Church. Given the decline of mainline-oldline Protestantism in the region (as elsewhere), the major Christian options are Roman Catholicism and evangelical Protestantism of various forms. And in the future life of the New South, Catholicism has a certain comparative advantage. Catholic social doctrine is a well-developed approach to the tangled moral questions involved in creating the free, virtuous, and prosperous society. Moreover, its natural-law “grammar” gives it more public traction than evangelical Protestantism has in an increasingly pluralistic (and secular) society, given the tendency of some evangelicals to make public moral arguments in ways that seem to preclude the participation of non-evangelicals in the debate. Catholic social doctrine can be engaged by everyone. While evangelical political mobilization in the Old Confederacy during the last two decades has been impressive, the kind of appeals typically mounted by evangelicals may not remain politically viable in the New South.

3. Converts and the high culture. Gary Anderson of Harvard Divinity School, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of Emory University, Paul Griffiths of the University of Chicago, Robert Louis Wilken of the University of Virginia, Dr. Bernard Nathanson (one of the founders of the National Abortion Rights Action League), theologian and editor Richard John Neuhaus, columnist Robert Novak, historian Thomas Reeves, New York philanthropist Lewis Lehrman, Florida governor Jeb Bush—these are among some of the more prominent men and women who have, in the past decade, been baptized or received into full communion with the Catholic Church. Perhaps the most prominent “revert” is Justice Clarence Thomas of the U.S. Supreme Court, who has returned to active practice of the faith in which he was raised. It is surely significant for the Catholic future in the United States that many prominent intellectuals and public figures have in recent years joined themselves to a religious community that the modern secular intelligentsia has often regarded as the great enemy of free inquiry. It is also of interest that the ecumenical journal First Things, founded in 1989 by Neuhaus (then a Lutheran pastor), has within a decade become the most widely read journal of religion and public life in the country, with a paid circulation of over 30,000 and a core readership of perhaps 125,000. Many prominent converts and “reverts” are linked to First Things as authors, editors, or board members.

4. The renewal of devotional life. In the implementation of Vatican II's renewal of the liturgy, attention was so sharply focused on the Mass that more informal forms of piety—the “devotions” that were once a vibrant part of American Catholic life—seemed to drop by the wayside. But after many years of neglect, devotional life has been revived.

a. Eucharistic piety. The devotional practices of perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and “holy hours” conducted before the exposed Blessed Sacrament have returned to the schedule of many parishes. These practices are intended to promote deeper prayer during the Mass. Where before Vatican II Eucharistic piety was often regarded as a thing in itself, its revival today is clearly linked to the deepening of the Church's liturgical life.

b. Marian piety. The revival of many forms of devotion to the Virgin Mary is doubtless due in part to the continuing phenomenon of reported apparitions of the Virgin. But in many parishes the revival of traditional Marian devotions—communal recitation of the rosary, for example—is unconnected to such paranormal phenomena. Marian scholarship, influenced by John Paul II and by the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, is also being revived. While Marian piety has generally been regarded as a barrier to Catholic-Protestant ecumenism, the insistence by John Paul II that “true devotion to the Mother of God is actually Christocentric” holds out the intriguing possibility of an ecumenical dialogue that moves directly from Mary into the heart of Christian faith.

c. New forms of devotional life. Perhaps the most prominent of these new practices is the “Divine Mercy” devotion begun by Sister Faustina Kowalska, a Polish mystic who died in 1938 and was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1993. This has become the vehicle by which many American Catholics have returned to a regular devotional practice. The intensification of devotional life in the 1990s is both another indicator of the inadequacy of the conventional story-line—which saw devotions of this sort as a pre-modern practice that was bound to disappear—and a tale of populist religion waiting to be reported.

5. A new ecumenism? Theologically intense bilateral ecumenical dialogues were one important fruit of the Second Vatican Council and the Catholic Church's entry into modern ecumenism. The Lutheran-Catholic, Anglican-Catholic, and Orthodox-Catholic dialogues in particular were given ample coverage in the years immediately following Vatican II. But the difficulties encountered by those dialogues in recent years have not been so carefully reported. Neither has the “new ecumenism” that may surpass these bilateral dialogues in importance in time.

The Lutheran-Catholic dialogue reached its apogee on October 31, 1999—Reformation Sunday—when representatives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a “Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith.” The representatives declared that justification by faith can no longer be considered a church-dividing matter, as the two communions share a common understanding of the truths involved in that doctrine. In other words, the core issue that precipitated the Lutheran Reformation of 1517 has been resolved. But ecclesial reunion is not on the horizon, because other issues have emerged over the centuries.

Post–Vatican II hopes for a relatively rapid reunion between Anglicans and Roman Catholics have also been frustrated, as the practice of ordaining women to the priesthood and episcopate in certain Anglican churches has raised questions about the Anglican understanding of apostolic tradition, ordained ministry, and the sacramental nature of reality. Meanwhile, the leadership of world Orthodoxy has not been receptive to the suggestion by Pope John Paul II that Rome and the Christian East could restore unity by returning to the status that prevailed before the Great Schism of 1054. And while there is widespread agreement on the need for some center of Christian unity, Orthodox, Protestants, and Anglicans alike have been slow to respond to the Pope's 1995 invitation to help him think through an exercise of the papacy that could serve their needs.

But as these bilateral dialogues reached various forms of impasse in the 1990s, a new ecumenism emerged, with Roman Catholics in active dialogue with evangelical and Pentecostalist Protestants. This was pregnant with possibility, for evangelicalism and Pentecostalism represent the “growing end” of Protestantism throughout the world. Mainline Protestantism, at least in the developed world, seems to be on an inexorable course of decline, while evangelicals continue to make great strides in North America, Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia.

This new ecumenism is not aimed, at least in the short term, at ecclesial reconciliation, but rather at mutual recognition and cooperation in public life. It is in part an outgrowth of the pro-life movement, where evangelicals and Catholics discovered each other as allies in the trenches. And while it faces profound theological difficulties, the new ecumenism can point to some significant achievements in the 1990s. It has been little reported—understandably so, for it is hard to “find”; it operates more through informal structures than through church bureaucracies. But it is likely to be one of the defining realities of American cultural life in the first decades of this new century, and it could well have a major impact on American politics as well.

6. Catholic intellectual life. This is no longer confined to the campuses of Notre Dame, Boston College, and Georgetown. Several of the converts noted above hold senior appointments at prestigious research universities, as do such other Catholics as Mary Ann Glendon (Harvard Law School) and Robert P. George (Princeton). Perhaps the most notable among the new Catholic intellectual centers is the Washington-based John Paul II Institute for the Study of Marriage and the Family, which has granted 127 master's-level degrees and seventeen doctorates since 1988. The institute seems likely to play a major part in American Catholic moral theology in the decades ahead. A small Catholic college in Texas, the University of Dallas, is widely recognized as one of the nation's finest liberal arts schools; it has been a pioneer in reviving a demanding undergraduate core curriculum in the humanities as the foundation for any professional vocation.

Viewed through the narrowing lens of the conventional story-line, the debate over John Paul II's 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae and its attempt to revitalize the Catholic identity of Catholic universities is yet another power struggle between liberated Americans and authoritarian “Rome.” Viewed through a wider lens, the debate is closely related to the revolt against political correctness on campus, and against the secularist bias that has drained institutions of their religious identities in recent decades. Moreover, the Ex Corde debate has forced a shift of considerable consequence in the Catholic university world. During the 1970s and 1980s, universities asked, “How do we disentangle ourselves from the institutional Church?” Today, however confusedly, the question has become, “How do we reclaim our Catholic identity?” Much more is afoot here than is usually reported.

7. An unprecedented encounter with Judaism. The Jewish-Catholic dialogue of the past thirty-five years has been another of the great fruits of Vatican II. The Church has condemned anti-Semitism and reformed its liturgical and catechetical practice to take account of the Christian debt to Judaism; the Pope has called on the Church to cleanse its conscience about historic anti-Semitic episodes and the Holocaust; Jews and Catholics work together to promote inter-religious tolerance and a civil public square in America; the Holy See has full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel. That, it is sometimes suggested, pretty well completes “the agenda” as imagined in 1962–65.

But John Paul II thinks that the real agenda is just now coming into view. That agenda is theological, not social-political, and it goes beyond the achievements of the recent past to raise questions that Jews and Catholics have not discussed for over nineteen hundred years. What does it mean to be an “elect” or “chosen” people? What is a “covenant”? How do Jews and Catholics understand their common moral “border,” the Ten Commandments? What is the common content of the messianic hope that Jews and Catholics share? If this new agenda is addressed anywhere it will be in the United States, where the Jewish-Catholic dialogue is most advanced by far, the Jewish population is secure enough to engage in such a conversation, and there are Roman Catholic interlocutors eager to build on recent achievements. Like the new ecumenism, the new Jewish-Catholic dialogue is likely to be most intense in “off campus” settings rather than in official dialogue groups

8. Liturgy: reforming the reform. Most Catholics in the United States were enthusiastic about the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The new question is: is it time to “reform the reform” with a new emphasis on the transcendent, the sacred, and the beautiful? Organizations promoting a “reform of the reform” include the Society for Catholic Liturgy; Credo, an association, mainly of priests, working for more faithful translations of the liturgy from the Latin; and Adoremus, an association of clergy and laity.The way the new liturgical debate plays out will have a major impact on Catholic life in America. Liturgical prayer is not just something that Catholics happen to do when other Americans are reading the Sunday morning papers. Lex orandi lex credendi—“what we pray is what we believe”—is one of the oldest and truest theological maxims, and what American Catholics believe in 2099 will have much to do with the way they pray, liturgically, between now and then.

9. The movements. When theologians speak of the “charismatic element” in the Church, they refer not simply to the “charismatic renewal” with its characteristic behavioral elements (such as spontaneous vocalized prayer, speaking in “tongues,” and healings), but also to renewal movements that have emerged through the leadership of gifted individuals. Since Vatican II there has been an explosion of such movements in world Catholicism. That largely unreported fact is beginning to reshape the face of Catholicism in the United States, giving dedicated Catholics communal reference points for the practice of their faith beyond their local parish and diocese.

Among the most prominent of these groups are Focolare, a movement of Italian origin that takes the unity of the human race as its mission; Regnum Christi, a renewal movement of lay leaders (most of them professionals) associated with the Legionaries of Christ, itself a relatively new community of priests; Communion and Liberation, another Italian-based movement with a marked capacity to attract intellectuals; and the Neo-Catechumenal Way, which works with the unchurched and re-evangelizes the poorly catechized. The Sant'Egidio Community, founded in Rome by left-leaning Italian Catholic university students in the sixties, combines an active liturgical prayer life with service to the poor and with conflict-mediation in the international community; it is widely credited with brokering an end to the Mozambican civil war, for example. Members of L'Arche Community, founded by the Canadian Jean Vanier, work with and live with the mentally handicapped. Then there is the most controversial of these movements, Opus Dei, which has its own unique status as a kind of worldwide diocese.

These groups are pioneering forms of Catholic life that have never been lived before. Some of them include lay men and women, unmarried, who have taken perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience and who live in community, yet have an active professional life in “the world.” Interestingly, some of the new lay renewal movements have proven fertile recruiting grounds for candidates for the priesthood.

In his ease with this unpredictable charismatic element in the Church, John Paul II stands in marked contrast to some local bishops (and some Vatican officials) concerned about where these movements and communities fit in the organizational flow-chart. How such groups will fare in the post–John Paul II church remains to be seen, of course. But many of them seem to have achieved enough critical mass to be ensured of a large role in twenty-first-century Catholicism.

10. The seminaries. Seminaries that have welcomed the attempts by John Paul II to revitalize the Catholic priesthood tend to be doing much better than those that have resisted this reorientation. But the story of the priests of the new millennium has only begun to be told. How are these men being prepared, intellectually, for the challenge of preaching and providing pastoral care to the best-educated generation of Catholics in history? How will they help their parishioners cope with the temptations of abundance? What does it mean for the future of Catholicism in America that many dioceses now require seminarians to be at least minimally fluent in Spanish before they can be ordained priests? Will the new immigrants to the United States—the Vietnamese, for example—follow the pattern of previous generations of immigrants in recasting the ethnic character of the Catholic priesthood?

A Culture-Forming Counterculture?

Each of these “new things” in the Catholic Church will have an impact on American public life, for Christianity is an inherently public business. How Catholics pray, how they regard other Christians, how they lead their intellectual lives, how their priests are trained, and the terms in which they understand their dialogue with modernity and whatever follows modernity will shape the Catholic presence in the American public square.

One other aspect of that presence requires a brief look: the Catholic Church as the possible agent of a renewal of American public moral culture. John Courtney Murray raised this issue in 1960, in what remains the single most impressive analysis of the Church's interaction with the American democratic experiment: We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition. Murray argued that democracy could be sustained only by a “consensus” on the fundamental moral claims that made democracy plausible, desirable, and worth defending. That consensus had been sustained in the United States since the colonial period by the great churches of the Protestant mainline: Anglican, Reformed/Presbyterian, Methodist. Yet as early as the 1950s, Murray detected cracks in the foundations. The mainline churches were increasingly unable to articulate the “consensus” persuasively, particularly in the face of the secularist/pragmatist challenge associated with Deweyan liberalism. Moreover, these churches no longer formed a demographic critical mass in American society.

Murray proposed that the Catholic community, long held suspect for its “foreign” loyalties, was now best positioned to revive the consensus and thereby reconstruct the foundations of American democracy, because it was the institutional bearer of a way of political thinking—based on a natural-law approach—that was in touch with the true moral philosophy and political philosophy that underlie the American experiment. And those philosophical roots were to be found, Murray further argued, not in the rationalistic individualism of the Enlightenment, but in medieval Christendom and the common-law tradition to which it gave birth.

Some think Murray misunderstood the philosophical roots of the American Founding; and the degree to which the Catholic Church still “possesses” the natural-law-based political philosophy of its patrimony is certainly debatable. But Murray's diagnosis remains prescient. Much of the clamor of current American public life (and no small part of its degradation) has to do with the fact that Americans are losing the ability to debate issues in the realm of the public moral culture in a civil way—a point painfully illustrated by the vast moral confusions in the 1998–99 debate over the impeachment of the President. Is there a “grammar” that can bring some discipline back into this debate? If so, who is a likely public teacher of that grammar?

The Catholic Church may be. In the social doctrine of John Paul II it has what is arguably the most comprehensive proposal for the free, prosperous, and virtuous society on offer in the world today. That social doctrine has been articulated in terms that are genuinely accessible to “all men and women of good will,” as the Pope habitually describes the addressees of his social encyclicals. The interest shown by the national press in the Pope's social teaching may well reflect a widespread yearning for moral reference points as we face the uncharted territory created by the sexual revolution, the post–Cold War world disorder, the cracking of the genetic code and the subsequent explosion of biotechnologies, and the continuous American struggle to build political community out of extravagant diversity.

Moreover, in its pro-life activism since Roe v. Wade the Church in the United States has developed a considerable capacity for the kind of genuinely “public” moral argument that can indeed be engaged by “all men and women of good will.” To say this is to risk derision, for the Catholic position on the morality of abortion-on-demand has long been labeled sectarian. Yet I would challenge anyone to find a single developed Catholic statement on the abortion license whose moral arguments presume belief in the Nicene Creed. The Church has marshaled publicly accessible and adjudicable scientific arguments on behalf of the pro-life cause, and publicly accessible and debatable moral arguments for the claim that there is an inalienable right to life from conception to natural death. Moreover, in recent years, both the Pope and the U.S. bishops have begun to link the abortion debate to the wider question of the moral foundations of the American democratic experiment.

The U.S. bishops have made their pro-life case in moral terms strikingly similar to those in which they challenged segregation during the 1960s. There, too, public moral arguments rooted in a natural-law concept of justice were deployed—to general approbation. The fact that many now find the same arguments “sectarian” when Catholics address the abortion license (though entirely agreeable when deployed against capital punishment) reinforces the sense that the capacity for serious moral debate has been badly attenuated. Whether the Catholic Church can help lead the country in the recovery of the lost art of public moral discourse at a time when the Church is embroiled in the most divisive debate in the culture war is a serious question.

Is a culture-forming counterculture a contradiction in terms? Not necessarily, as the experience of the Great Awakenings and their subsequent impact on American history suggests. The extent to which the Catholic Church acts as a culture-forming counterculture in the twenty-first century is one of the great stories at the intersection of religion and American public life. And grasping the inherently public character of the Catholic proposal on the life issues is the first, essential step toward covering that story adequately.

Response by Kenneth L. Woodward

It's good that George Weigel began with statistics indicating the size and diversity of the Catholic Church in the United States. Numbers really do matter. In attending conferences on American religion I've found that those who most extol the virtues of diversity are likely to come from denominations that are, in fact, the least diverse. The diversity of American Catholicism is attributable in large part to its size: some 60 million Americans call themselves Catholics. And if we are to talk about overlooked stories, my chief candidate is how the Catholic Church has become the farm system for other Christian denominations. If it weren't for disaffected Catholics, there would be half the number of Episcopalians. Without former Catholics, a lot of local, non-denominational “community” churches would have to disband, or might not even exist. Who stays, who leaves and why—these questions have not been thoroughly studied. Nor—and this is my point—have we studied what would happen to some (mainly liberal) Protestant denominations if they could not depend on a steady supply of ex-Catholics.

Large numbers alone, of course, do not create diversity. To have real diversity you also need real unity. What impresses me about American Catholicism—and even more so, international Catholicism—is the degree of unity that the Church has been able to maintain. We all know about disagreements among Catholics, but what is really extraordinary is the manifest unity within diversity. This, of course, is not what most Americans mean by diversity. They are not thinking about diverse social and economic classes, or diverse ethnic communities with different origins and languages. Rather, they are thinking of ideological diversity, which is usually limited to the least diverse of categories: race, gender, and sexual preference.

George Weigel's general intention, as I read him, is to demonstrate that the story of American Catholicism has generally been misinterpreted. The old story-line, he says, is the conflict between liberals and conservatives. This was the simplistic plot device developed by reporters who covered Vatican Council II. It was wrong then, George tells us, and is even more off the mark now.

Any journalist who covered Vatican II, as I did during its last two years, has to acknowledge that liberals-versus-conservatives was indeed a much used category of convenience among the ink-stained brethren. Editors—especially at newsmagazines, where space is limited, the writing is compressed, and the need for narrative is strong—always wanted to know which side a bishop was on, or which side was winning or losing. These pressures, however, did not mean that this was the only way we reported the council, nor did they necessarily lead to editorial cheerleading for the progressives. Indeed, I recall that when I was hired in 1964 for the job of religion editor, Newsweek's editor-in-chief, the legendary Oz Elliott, asked me only one question: “Woodward, can you be fair to the council conservatives?” It was a shrewd query. He knew that a 29-year-old Catholic was apt to side with those who wanted change in the Church. He knew, too, that the public was cheering the progressives on, and he wanted to make sure my writing would be balanced.

I mention that incident as evidence that, yes, the council deliberations were seen in what George calls political terms. But these categories borrowed from American politics were not altogether inappropriate. The relevant question is: did the council fathers see themselves this way? I would argue that on many issues many of them did. The clearest example I can think of had to do with the issue of canonizing Pope John XXIII shortly after his death, which occurred during the council. It was a collection of progressives who pushed for John's canonization; a collection of conservatives pushed instead for his predecessor, Pius XII. In this way, the two popes came to symbolize two broad tendencies, two attitudes toward what the Council should do and say and be. Therefore I disagree with George when he says that this approach was wrong, but I agree with him that it is not the whole story.

If the work of James Davison Hunter and Robert Wuthnow is to be accepted, many religious Americans today self-consciously describe themselves either as conservatives or as liberals or progressives, and these divisions cut across denominational lines. As a magazine like First Things demonstrates, conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants have more in common with each other in certain respects than with their liberal co-religionists.

Perhaps we can agree, then, that the division between liberals and conservatives is useful in some contexts, highly misleading in others. In any case, I think these categories have since been joined by other dichotomous pairs that speak to other kinds of divisions, now that a whole new generation of Catholics has grown up since Vatican II closed. Michael Novak spotted one of those dichotomies long before the council had concluded; I'm thinking of his insight that the council had moved the Church away from an “a-historical” understanding of Catholicism. (Now, of course, we have a generation and a half of Catholics who have no historical memory of the council, much less of the pre-conciliar church, and have only a superficial grasp of the essentials of the faith.) For example, I have an 86-year-old neighbor who went to Catholic schools and a Catholic college and is very bright and devout, but who can't believe that the Pope has embraced evolution. “That's not what we were taught” is his constant refrain, and he is talking about what comes from the Vatican, not from the mouths of liberal theologians. Let's agree at least that a lot of Catholics were terribly dislocated by the changes wrought by the council, even as there were a lot of young people—perhaps George Weigel included—who were terribly excited by the possibility of change in an “unchanging” church.

The council brought attention, even celebrity, to a number of theologians who were seen—rightly, in retrospect—as genuine fathers of the council in their roles as periti, experts who advised the bishops. One thinks of George's favorite, the Jesuit John Courtney Murray. Almost overnight, theologians like Hans Küng and Karl Rahner and Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac became genuine culture heroes to bright young Catholics everywhere. The conservatives were right: these men were a kind of parallel magisterium, at least for a while. And it was none other than Father Charles Curran who noted wryly: “Now that we have demythologized the magisterium, it is time to demythologize the theologians, beginning with myself.”

In a bit of verbal sleight-of-hand, George suggests that by paying so much attention to institutional conflicts within Catholicism, journalists are guilty of clericalism. But if you have a church that is run by clerics, a structure of authority that is limited to clerics, it does not follow that journalists who report on the institution are thereby clericalists, any more than it follows that newspapers that continually contrast the voice of the hierarchy with a putative voice of “the people” (one thinks here of the National Catholic Reporter) are thereby populists.

Moreover, we do have bishops who understand the Church in a highly clerical fashion. I recall that when John Joseph O'Connor arrived in New York, he immediately reminded the folks gathered in St. Patrick's Cathedral, including then-mayor Ed Koch, that he was not elected to his post as archbishop. O'Connor wanted all to realize that he had been appointed by the Pope, and that it was to the Pope alone that he was responsible. O'Connor was also a military man, and it may have been a military man's way of speaking. But there was no suggestion that day—or on any succeeding day—that he was responsible to the Catholics of New York as well.

George speaks negatively about liberation theology in ways that I would not. He is absolutely right in saying that liberation theology was imported into Latin America from European universities; I agree that liberation theology was at its source not indigenous. But so what? Theology has always been the province of educated elites. I think that the Pope was uncharacteristically unsophisticated in his criticism of liberation theology. My own sense of the matter is that what went wrong with liberation theology was that it became too abstract, too scholastic. It was supposed to be praxis, founded on the formation of base communities. Anyone who has ever seen parishes in Latin America that stretch for miles, each quarter block teeming with poor people, cannot doubt that something like base communities was (and is) a realistic and practical response. My suspicion is that the reason why liberation theology was condemned was not because of the naïve Marxism of a few academics but because of the threat the base communities presented to the parish system. In any case, the liberationist perspective on the Gospel has, for better and worse, become a permanent addition to the way Catholics think theologically.

On the issue of ordaining women, George says that the real question “was not whether the Church would . . . but whether it could.” That would be the real question, perhaps, if the Pope's answer were all that convincing. It certainly doesn't seem to be convincing to very many Catholics. The Pope may be right, but I think he and his successors will have to come up with a more convincing argument on this issue.

I say this as someone who thinks that the Church ought not to ordain women but who is not convinced that it cannot. Ought not because my observation is that religion is already the domain of women. Christianity has always appealed more to women than to men. Women are more likely to go to church than men, and when children get religion, it is more likely to be through the aegis of women—mom, Sister So-and-So, the Sunday school teacher—than through men. I might almost say that the altar and the pulpit are the last bastions of male presence in the Catholic Church. As for Protestant churches, women dominate in the black churches, and they are now the majority in the major U.S. divinity schools. The Protestant ministry—which is not the same, theologically, as the Catholic priesthood—is moving fast in the direction of becoming a female calling.

It may be, moreover, that as a deeply sacramental religion, Catholicism—like Orthodoxy—invests more meaning and symbolism in gender (and sexuality in general) than does Protestantism. Certainly Catholics have a more “organic” understanding of the Church, and these may be some of the reasons why this pope says that the Church is bound by the maleness of Christ's apostles. This, it seems to me, is the kind of issue that journalists no less than theologians ought to explore. I think this pope, together with Cardinal Ratzinger, has not handled the question of female ordination well at all. They have sought by ecclesiastical fiat to answer a question that they have yet to address in a theologically comprehensive—not to mention convincing—way.

George asks why Catholicism isn't doing well in Canada and other prosperous nations while “orthodox Catholic communities are flourishing in Africa.” Sorry, but though I think of Africans in a lot of positive ways, I do not think of them as preservers of orthodoxy. Africans are too new to the faith, overall, to be burdened with that responsibility. Orthodoxy is a matter not simply of upholding what a missionary has taught but of living in and with the faith long enough to make it one's own. That hasn't happened yet in Africa, docile as the African hierarchy may be to Rome. And the persistence of tribal beliefs and practices (including mutually inflicted genocide) does not argue well for an “orthodox” African Catholicism.

George recommends that we journalists look to religious groups like the Legionaries of Christ for examples of the future of Catholicism. I can only say that if this is the future—and I have no doubt that it is not—then the Church is in deeper trouble than I ever dared imagine. I am truly astonished that he would look to such a retrograde form of Catholicism as the future of the Church.

He suggests that we look also at the handful of Catholics who have done well in academic life (having made it to the faculty of Harvard University and similarly elite secular institutions) and see in them new hope for the Church. Perhaps. But I must also look at those many other public intellectuals who are Catholic—Garry Wills comes to mind, as does Daniel Patrick Moynihan—but who do not seem at all supportive of the most contentious positions the Catholic Church has taken in the public sphere. Abortion is the obvious test case. George seems to think that the Church's natural-law tradition, its language and grammar, is regaining dominance. I wish I could agree. If natural-law arguments were so obvious and persuasive, then it seems to me that the Church's case against birth control, abortion, and euthanasia would be winning the day. Clearly it is not.

Throughout his paper George argues that a new Catholic conservatism is in the ascendancy and that Catholic liberalism is in manifest decline. Among the evidence he cites is the enrollment at Catholic seminaries: those in liberal dioceses are nearly empty, he says, but those in conservative dioceses are full. I look around and I see something else. I see that there are so few young men studying for the priesthood that many, many dioceses have no seminaries, regardless of whether the bishop is liberal or conservative. Conservative bishops send their men to conservative seminaries, like Dunwoodie in the Archdiocese of New York. These seminaries survive, not because the education is solid, or because conservatism is more attractive, but because conservative bishops trust only a few conservative seminaries with their future priests.

What I worry about is not whether future priests are liberal or conservative but what kind of men are being attracted to the priesthood, and the reasons they have for making the priestly ministry their choice. This is not a problem limited to Catholics by any means. When I was in my twenties, the men who opted for the mainline Protestant ministry were men who might otherwise have gone into medicine or the law. Today people of that caliber or potential do not elect the ministry. The same is true of the priestly ministry in Catholicism. George may be satisfied that they are conservative. I'd be satisfied to know they were competent. Here as in so many other things he mentions, he and I have drawn very different conclusions about what is going on in American Catholicism, and about what is worthy of a journalist's attention—which is why, I suppose, I was given the privilege of responding to his paper.


Michael Cromartie: Thank you very much, George and Ken. Now everyone else is invited to join the discussion. [All participants will be identified at the end.]

E. J. Dionne: I'm one of those people who write little marginal notes in books and argue with the author, so you can tell by the number of notes I wrote while George was talking that I found what he said very provocative. I agree with his general point that the “left-right” model doesn't always work. But I have one note here that says, “George replaces the word 'conservative' with the word 'orthodox' and is off to the races.” I think that there are a lot of Catholic schools of thought that would not be regarded as conservative by the conservatives, but that do consider themselves orthodox. Some of this is a battle over the meaning of “orthodoxy,” but I think that by imposing this framework, George risks reproducing the problem that he criticizes in the first place, and I'd like him to talk about that.

George seems to think that American Catholics are one of the dumbest collections of Catholics in the world. Well, we may be dumb, but we're faithful. Although our church attendance dropped off in the sixties, it's still much higher here than in any other developed country in the world—50 or 51 per cent on a given Sunday, I think. Something is going on here that's worth exploring.

The other note that I couldn't resist writing has to do with the Church in the South. I wrote, “Now that the South has taken over the Republican party, George wants the South to take over the Catholic Church.” There's an interesting question here. One of the things you find in the survey data is that Catholic political identity changes as Catholics move out of the Northeast and the Midwest. Clearly there is a more conservative Catholic community in the South and also to some degree in the West.

On liberation theology: yes, Marxism itself was a European import, but I do think there were indigenous roots to liberation theology. I would agree with George about some of its problems. When I was covering the Vatican in the mid-eighties, Leonardo Boff was one of the liberation theologians who were condemned. I had an American source inside the Vatican who said, “Boff makes 'Rome' sound like a four-letter-word.” Liberation theology was part of an internal argument over what the whole idea of a “preferential option for the poor” meant for the Latin American church. I do think there was a political argument there.

Ken Woodward said what I was thinking about women and the priesthood. Obviously, this argument has to be understood theologically. But I think it is not simply a fight over theology; it is also a fight over an understanding of the Church.

I want to end on a note of concord. I think George is right in his core argument about how the terms “liberal” and “conservative” can be misleading. You can analyze this pope's achievement in many ways as a “liberal” achievement, in the conventional meaning of that term. The greatest historical change that took place in Vatican II (and Ken, please correct me if you think I'm wrong) was a fundamental shift in the Church's relationship to democracy, human rights, and religious freedom—in large part because of the work of John Courtney Murray but also many others. I think that in the long run we're going to look back at John Paul II and say that one of his greatest achievements was ratifying that shift. That surely has to be seen as a great liberal achievement

On the new centers of Catholic learning: I have a sense that at places like Notre Dame and Boston College a huge debate is taking place, among Catholics of all stripes, about giving these institutions a more self-consciously Catholic identity. Perhaps in the long run some of the smaller institutions George is talking about will become important, but I think the more important story is this dialogue about the Catholic nature of these well-known large institutions.

Michael Cromartie: I'd like the provost of Notre Dame to respond to that last comment.

Nathan Hatch: Notre Dame is having a tremendous discussion about what Catholic universities should be. This past May [1999], all the deans at Notre Dame had a two-day intellectual retreat to look at the history and trajectory of religious higher education and what this means. Then the fifty top academic leaders had a similar retreat, where together we tried to say in what ways Notre Dame wants to be a good university and in what ways it wants to be a Catholic university. There's tremendous ferment on those issues among Catholics and also non-Catholics.

George Weigel: And in that sense Ex Corde Ecclesiae, this document that we've been trying to get implemented in the United States for ten years, has already won the struggle, because the discussion has shifted. Now we're talking about the fine print. The discussion has shifted from “How do we become Amherst with incense and bells?” to “How do we hold on to a Catholic identity that goes back to the origins of the university in the Western world?” Who invented the university? The Catholic Church.

Kenneth Woodward: It seems to me that with 240 Catholic colleges and universities, there is no one-size-fits-all model. Some of them, and I would include Georgetown, clearly aren't Catholic in any traditional kind of way.

George Weigel: I'd like to respond to some things E. J. Dionne said. E. J., I might start bringing a pen to the breakfast table on the days your column appears! I'm as dissatisfied with some of this language as you are. I don't like it when Catholics of a certain disposition use the term “orthodox” as a bludgeon to beat other people over the head with. I firmly agree with James Joyce that the Catholic Church means, “Here comes everybody!” But the iron law of religious sociology is that when biblical religion meets modernity, the communities that maintain a firm doctrinal framework and make clear moral demands are the ones that survive; those that can't tell you whether you're in or out because the boundaries have become so porous, that have so lowered the bar of moral expectation that there is no moral expectation—those communities die. That's true of both Christianity and Judaism, and of Western Europe as well as America.

I don't know what terminology can best get at this. “Liberal,” as you know, has a very specific meaning in the context of post-eighteenth-century theology. It was journalistically reinterpreted during Vatican II to mean anything to the left of the official church position. I'm not satisfied with what I've come up with; I think we are going to have to keep struggling to find the right terms. But let's also remember that iron law. Look at the implosion of mainline Protestantism in America, in the post–World War II period, and the virtual collapse of the great churches of the Reformation in Europe. There has to be some connection between this and the loosening of doctrinal seriousness and moral expectations.

E. J. is right that Catholic practice is much higher in the United States than anywhere in Western Europe and has in fact experienced something of a rebound. But ask any bishop confirming 14-year-olds what the condition of Catholic knowledge is among these young people, and you will get one horror story after another. The difference is that E. J., Ken, and I grew up in a more or less intact Catholic culture. The schools we went to, the parishes we were in, the people our families associated with—you just absorbed this stuff through your pores. It was not simply a rational process; the behaviors and certain symbolic realities all got absorbed the way you absorb culture. That is what has broken down over the last few years—the transmission belt. Yes, attendance is about 50 per cent on Sunday, but those congregations are getting grayer and grayer. There's a real problem of leakage among young people. I think this does have to do with the fact that the Church in the United States has not figured out an alternative form of enculturation. Balloons and posters, the religious education of the sixties, clearly could not do the job. A more content-serious form of religious education is needed.

As for the history of liberation theology, there's more in the paper than I think Ken gave me credit for. I made very clear in the paper, as I have done in twenty years of writing on this, that there was a serious problem in the history of the Church in Latin America and its identification with thoroughly corrupt, undemocratic regimes. That was a very, very serious problem. The Second Vatican Council made it pluperfectly clear that those days were over, that the Church was to be an active proponent of participation in public life, empowering the poor, defending human rights, and so on. The argument was not whether it was going to be that kind of activist church but how. Was that going to take place through essentially Marxist categories or through more specifically Catholic categories?

Liberation theology did some very good things. It restored the Bible to the people, as the people's book. It reinforced the notion that the point where the rubber meets the road in the Catholic Church is in local communities, not in the archbishop's house. I think all of that is part of the record and needs to be acknowledged.

E. J. Dionne: Two things in response. I agree that the issue is about how an institution such as this one deals with modernity. The example of the mainline Protestant churches is always used to say, “This is how you don't do it.” The argument is often cast as confrontation versus capitulation, but I think it is more complicated. The question that various sides within the Church are talking about is, What's the right dialectical relationship with modernity?

I agree with you on the transmission problem in the American church. An interesting sociological-journalistic question is, Does the breakdown of this transmission belt have to do more with things that happen inside the Church—Vatican II and the rest—or with the almost inevitable breakdown of the enclosed parochial community, which was created at least as much by discrimination and exclusion as by self-conscious decision?

Nancy Gibbs: That's exactly what I'm curious to hear about, what the impact might be as the voucher debate gathers steam. Suppose that there is a large infusion of non-Catholic children into the Catholic schools; what impact would this have on the schools and on that transmission of knowledge?

George Weigel: Well, it has already happened. The Catholic school in suburban Maryland that my children attended has grown like mad. It has gone from about 280 kids when we started there fifteen years ago to maybe 460, fully 15 per cent of whom are not Roman Catholic.

Nancy Gibbs: And that could be 50 per cent in another five years.

George Weigel: Five or six years ago we had a number of diplomatic families in our parish, including some from Islamic countries. One of these families wanted to enroll its kids in our school, but the parents didn't want the children to be in religion classes. There was a lot of hemming and hawing about this. No exception had been made for other non-Catholic kids, primarily Protestant. Finally it was decided that, no, if you are a part of this school, this is an integral part of what we do, and no students can be excused from it.

The Catholic argument for “vouchers,” or some form of choice, has always been a very public one. It's not difficult to understand. One, the primary locus of responsibility for children's education is parents. Two, education is a public good, and the state has a right to tax people in pursuit of this public good. Where we have disagreed with the position of the courts is in their conclusion that the publicly raised dollar must be spent only in a public institution. Well, our parish school is a public institution. It is a doing a public job. It is preparing citizens of the United States of America, of many different flavors. But I certainly agree that if we break down the government's school monopoly, this will introduce a vast number of new questions, and there is some reason to be quite concerned about the schools' identities.

Elliott Abrams: My question is also about the transmission belt, between what you say is happening or may happen in the Church, and public life. I start with the fact that most of the prominent national politicians who are Catholics seem in no way to be Catholic. The fact that they are Catholic seems to have no impact on their public careers. How does that change so that what's happening in the Church is transmitted in part through these public figures? That “grammar” that you talked about, George, must become a spoken language of living people who are engaged in politics, and that does not seem to be happening at all.

George Weigel: That's certainly true. If one identifies public life with electoral politics, this is a very serious problem. But if in fact we are in, if not a post-political time, then a period in which politics—understood in the narrow sense of electoral politics—is going to be less and less important than it was from the New Deal through the Reagan period, then one has to look at other places for indications that some Catholic traction is being achieved. This will mark me as an anthropological specimen, I'm sure, but I think it is a very interesting phenomenon that more than a quarter of a century after Roe v. Wade the pro-life movement remains an enormous factor in our public life—when it has been told by every sector of the country that it has lost, the battle is over. It seems to me that this effort will eventually have some effect on the legal situation.

Hanna Rosin: This Catholic revival has the feeling of retrenchment; it feels very insular. It isn't a matter of how a counterculture can change the culture so that when you go out there, there are no longer any liberals. There's Frances Kissling talking to Charles Curran, and nobody else pays attention. First Things isn't exactly populist. So how do you go from there to affecting American moral or political culture?

George Weigel: I don't know what you mean by “insular” in this regard. It's certainly not insular if you look at the sense of missionary responsibility in the renewal movements. My daughter has been involved in some outreach activities of one of these movements in which they go door to door, and say, “Is there anything you'd like us to pray for?” It's not a sales pitch. This kind of thing is simply unheard of in the American Catholic past, because in the past Catholicism was an enclosed subculture.

Michael Barone: I'm struck, George, by your view of the growth and the change of American Catholicism in recent years. I see an analogy with the growth and change of American politics in the sense that in this post-industrial time we've become more Tocquevillian, more like pre-industrial America. More decentralized, more individualistic than the industrial America in which things were decided by big organizations—big government, big business, big labor, big church.

Maybe there is a connection here. The political parties have their particular institutional strengths and strongholds, such as the ethnic communities of the Democrats or the traditional Episcopalians of the Republicans. One of the consequences of that is that we have seen public policies come out from the hinterlands. For instance, we see crime and welfare in decline in America today. Those policies are almost entirely not the product of Washington centralized bureaucracies or even university-trained experts. The orthodoxy—if I can use that word—in the academy has been more of an impediment than a help. Are we looking at something that resembles the pre-industrial church in America?

George Weigel: The period between the 1870s, the First Vatican Council, and 1962, the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, was a unique period of institutional centralization in the Catholic Church, which has always been a much more free-wheeling structure, much more Tocquevillian than it looks from the outside. One of the things coming out of this post-conciliar period is a return to a more distinctive sense of local church, both nationally and regionally. I don't know whether it is tracking that way because this is happening in society at large and therefore Catholics are reacting to it, or simply because the monolith was in a sense a historical aberration, and once the decision was made to engage the world rather than live inside the fortress with the moat filled and the gates drawn up, all sorts of different things came in.

Michael Barone: One of the implications for journalism is that it becomes much harder. When you have the big three auto companies and the United Auto Workers in the state of Michigan controlling the economy, you only need four cards on your Rolodex. You need a lot more now to know what's going on in the economy and in public policy.

George Weigel: And much of what is being brewed is not coming from the top of the institution down, but from a lot of populist churning in the pews that eventually is working its way up.

Gregg Easterbrook: George, you have mentioned the phrase “Fourth Awakening” and have said the Pope thinks very optimistically about the twenty-first century. This theory is already bubbling up. Robert Fogel of the University of Chicago has a new book called The Fourth Great Awakening and the Future of Egalitarianism. He has had an up-and-down reputation as a scholar, but he has been right about a lot of things in the past. Fogel's view is that the United States will become more religious in the next two decades, although he thinks it will be non-denominationally religious rather than any one version triumphing.

Michael Cromartie: Isn't Fogel an economist?

Gregg Easterbrook: Yes, he writes basically as a conservative economist. We're disgusted with materialism, he says. Typically, in the past, religious movements gave people an escape from the deprivations of life, but this religious movement tries to help them escape from excess. Too much, too high a standard of living, too much daily stress to maintain that standard of living. It's an interesting theory. But he raises this idea that the United States will become a much more religious country—do you think that's going to happen, George?

George Weigel: I'll leave it to others here to say how things are going in their part of the woods. As for the Catholic Church in the United States, I think there is enormous vitality today. It is in fact less divided than it was twenty years ago. There is a kind of élan about it now: the Pope has made people feel proud to be Catholic. That's an important thing. I think the great task of the next twenty years is with young people, to invite them back in, if they have left; to give them reasons to see this as a terribly exciting proposal about how to live your life, a way to human fulfillment.

I agree that the further great challenge is the challenge of affluence. That's one of the reasons why the Church in Germany is such a mess right now. It has too much money and has had for thirty-five years, because it's essentially a ward of the state. There's a sense of comfort if institutional forms are maintained, and deutschemarks are flowing, and we can give seven billion dollars to the Church in the Third World. It doesn't make any difference that the cathedral in Munich has fewer people at Mass on Sunday than my little parish does at Mass on Wednesday morning. Affluence has been a terrible problem in the Church in Western Europe. So far it hasn't seemed to be as much of a problem in the United States; but now we are in a generational shift, we are out of the urban-ghetto church and have become primarily suburban. We'll see how this plays out.

Gregg Easterbrook: Well, George, let me rephrase my question. Do you think that what's happening is specific to Catholicism, or is there some larger return to spiritual values in which Catholicism is participating?

George Weigel: I think there is a widespread intuition in the culture as a whole that the materialist/secularist proposal is simply not conducive to human flourishing. Too many people have gotten too hurt not to begin to have second thoughts. I've been deeply struck by the numbers who did not grow up with a serious religious tradition but at age forty-five are trying to get there, because they have experienced a sense of emptiness in their lives. This is a general phenomenon. Where this does not seem to be happening, though, is in mainline American Protestantism. There doesn't seem to be much of a revival going on over there, for reasons that have something to do with doctrinal mushiness and lack of moral expectation.

Let me just point out one other thing in the world picture that I find very interesting. Poland today is a historic experiment of enormous importance, namely: can you build a democratic political community and free economy on the foundation of an intact Catholic culture? This has never been done before, for a variety of historical reasons. The expectation that Polish Catholicism would, like Spanish or Portuguese Catholicism, simply collapse in the face of modernization has not been borne out at all. That is surely due in part to the fact of John Paul II, and whether it will continue to flourish when he is no longer the reference point remains to be seen. I teach in Kraków every summer, and I am deeply impressed by how the first decade of the experiment is working out. Particularly among young people, you find intense Catholic pride, complete commitment to democratic values, and gung-ho interest in entrepreneurial activity.

Nathan Hatch: I want to pick up this point that you think there's a cause-and-effect relationship between a lowering of moral expectation and a decline in church attendance. If you look at the megachurches in the Protestant community, such as Willow Creek outside Chicago, it's obvious that they are doing extraordinarily well. It seems to me that these gigantic churches offer “religion-lite,” that they are thriving because they do not require much in terms of formal faith.

Jay Ambrose: I believe the appeal of the megachurches is more complex than that they may offer worshippers religion-lite. Their appeal is multifaceted, I think, but part of it is that they do tie people to a commitment. These are clearly modern, market-oriented institutions, but it seems to me some tend to be orthodox in some respects, and I think many of them do pull people into real engagement.

George Weigel: It seems apparent to me that if an institution cannot tell you what difference it makes to belong to it, and does not have a set of behavioral characteristics that distinguish it and you from the rest of society, it's not going to be terribly attractive. There are a lot of other things to do on a Sunday morning. I'm not sure what else could account for this quite striking decline of the mainline other than the fact that it has taken place behind great theological confusion and a constant lowering of the bar of behavioral expectations. I'm sure that there are other things involved, but that strikes me as the one with the most natural plausibility.

Nathan Hatch: Two questions. One has to do with the sharp decline of professed religious. The decline of women religious certainly has serious implications for health care. You really didn't deal with the sharp decline of clergy, George, and I think you really have to come to terms with that.

My second point is this: in a sense you historicize the liberal Catholicism of the sixties and seventies, liberation theology and feminism. As one who always worries about culture imposing its values on religion, what do you think about neoconservative political culture in the last fifteen years and how that relates to orthodoxy within Catholicism?

George Weigel: About the decline in women religious: it's true, there aren't going to be many nuns in the United States thirty years from now. The only communities of women religious that are growing are those that have attempted to return to the more traditional practice of religious life. They wear a habit, they live in community, they do more specifically ecclesial forms of ministry. The Catholicism in America that we knew in the 1950s was an enormous institution essentially run by women. Everyone knew that while the pastor was technically in charge, the school principal, a sister, was really the force to be reckoned with. That's gone, and what this will do to the Catholic health-care system (another tremendous set of institutions largely run by women) is a serious question.

With clergy, we are going to have a tough twenty-year period as the median age of the Catholic priests in the United States grows higher and higher. Then we are going to see a better period. There is no secret to why some dioceses produce a lot of priestly vocations today and others do not. When the bishop and the local clergy actively recruit, when they talk about it and encourage it, things happen. If they don't do these things, candidates do not appear. That's in part because of the collapse of the subculture. The subculture could produce vocations before. Nobody had to ask you to consider becoming a priest, because you were surrounded by this stuff all the time. That's no longer true.

On your other point, Nathan, about neoconservative political culture and Catholic orthodoxy: I'm not sure what you are trying to get at.

Nathan Hatch: Robert Wuthnow talks about certain cultural categories as being the determinants of a lot of religious thought. I guess that's what I worry about.

George Weigel: That may be true for some people, but it is certainly not true of the people who are primarily identified as neoconservative or Catholic. What I write theologically is written out of the great tradition of Christianity. It doesn't have much to do with what I think about marginal tax rates, school vouchers, or anything else. I think what the neoconservative intellectuals in the Catholic world have tried to do is to think through, again, the Catholic “optic” on the American democratic experiment, and then to propose that in a way that can be genuinely engaged by everyone. How successful we've been at that is for others to judge.

Grant Wacker: I think we ought to be cautious about overstating the collapse of mainline Protestantism. It reminds me of Nelson Bunker Hunt crying “economic collapse!” because resources have dwindled from 6 billion to 5.5 billion. Walk down Fifth Avenue and see those vast churches. Look at the religious affiliation of men and women in Congress. I remember that when Robert Bork was struggling for confirmation, he went out of his way to let his interrogators know that he was an Episcopalian. Clearly he didn't do that because he thought it would hurt his chances. It's still the mark of stability, respectability. If he had been a Jehovah's Witness, I doubt that he would have mentioned it. What I'm getting at is that even though the numbers in mainline Protestantism may have dropped off, there is still enormous cultural credibility, even normative value. Do you think there would be a similar residual power in old-line, established, more or less liberal Catholicism?

George Weigel: I'll defer to the sociologists among us, but I don't think the decline is from 6 to 5.5. The United Methodist Church today probably has less than half of the membership it had thirty years ago. Ditto for the United Presbyterian Church. Ditto for the Episcopal Church. There have been enormous losses. I'm not rejoicing at this; it doesn't mean a larger market share for Catholics. It accounts in part for the enormous confusion in the public moral culture over the last thirty years. These are the institutions that once carried the moral consensus, and when they get into serious demographic difficulties, there's a big ripple effect.

Liberal theology seems caught in methodological quicksand. Eventually you have to stop talking about believing about believing about believing, and talk about belief! Talk about the content. Philosophy got into the same pit of solipsism, thinking about thinking about thinking. What's the content of that? What's the truth being engaged? I think the liberal theological project has a built-in terminis ad quem, a point beyond which you cannot go. Moreover, I think Chesterton was right that the real drama in either Judaism or Christianity is the drama of orthodoxy. It's the drama of a huge, complex, rich, diverse set of truths. The interesting question is not how little do I have to believe and how little do I have to do to stay in the club. It's how much of this rich, complex, diverse tradition have I appropriated and made my own. The liberal theological project somehow got into this “how little do I have to believe and do” business. That is, ultimately, boring. And as many have noted, boredom is a most underrated factor in human affairs.

Karen DeWitt: I belong to St. Matthew's, which is the big Catholic cathedral in Washington, but I go to Foundry Methodist Church because I find more intellectually stimulating sermons there than at St. Matthew's, where it seems to be the 1950s again. So I want to ask, what is Catholic culture nowadays? Also, that enormous vitality you say you see in the Catholic Church, how much of that is just the general sweep across society of that Fourth Awakening, whether it's a 12-year-old whose parents are not religious looking for some kind of moral structure, or a 45-year-old who makes a six-figure-plus salary and wonders, “Is this all there is, and then we die?”

George Weigel: Karen's question is an obviously crucial one for the next two decades. Absent the religious subculture, what transmits belief? I think it finally will be worship. Lex orandilex credendi is where this all starts and stops. Despite the confusions of the past thirty years, Catholic liturgy remains a experience of the sacramental, of the extraordinary that lies on the far side of the ordinary—bread, wine, water, salt, oil, on the other side of which is God, passionate and loving.

Karen DeWitt: So it will be the Mass.

George Weigel: I really think that is what carries the Church, forever and ever.


George Weigel, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Kenneth Woodward, Newsweek; Michael Cromartie, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Elliott Abrams, Ethics and Public Policy Center; Jay Ambrose, Scripps Howard News Service; Michael Barone, U.S. News & World Report; Karen DeWitt, ABC News “Nightline”; E. J. Dionne, Washington Post; Gregg Easterbrook, The New Republic; Nancy Gibbs, Time Magazine; Nathan Hatch, University of Notre Dame; Hanna Rosin, Washington Post; Grant Wacker, Duke Divinity School.

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