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Catholicism’s Bright Future

It has been a tough time for American Catholics since early 2002. I expect many are as tired of reading about the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance as I am writing about it. That crisis is not going to go away. But as it continues to be tracked and commented about, we should also look at illustrations of the great vitality of Catholicism in the United States today. There are events, which I group into five areas, that suggest the possibility that this time of crisis might be turned by God’s grace into a time of conversion and evangelical opportunity. 

1. The Shaping of Culture

One illustration of the great strength and appeal of Catholicism, even in a time of crisis, involves converts, “reverts,” and the shaping of American high culture. Gary Anderson of Harvard Divinity School, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese of Emory University, Paul Griffiths of the University of Illinois at 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 writer Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, syndicated columnist Robert Novak, radio personality and pundit Laura Ingraham, historian Thomas Reeves, New York philanthropist Lewis Lehrman, Florida governor Jeb Bush, and Kansas Senator Sam Brownback—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 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who has returned to active practice of the faith in which he was raised and has made an impressive series of addresses at Catholic colleges tracing the lines of his unique religious journey. 

It is surely significant for the future of Catholicism 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 freedom. It is also of interest that the ecumenical journal First Things, founded in 1989 by Fr. Neuhaus (then a Lutheran pastor), has become in little more than a decade the most widely read journal of religion and public life in the country, with a paid circulation approaching 30,000 and a core readership of perhaps 125,000. Many prominent converts and reverts are linked to Fist Things as authors, editors, or board members.

Why are men and women of intellectual, cultural, and political distinction coming into or returning to the Catholic Church? What does Catholicism offer these critical thinkers that they can’t find elsewhere? Here are questions and personalities surely worth exploring.

2. The Devotional Life

Then there is the remarkable renewal of devotional life that has been underway for some time now. 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. After many years of neglect, devotional life has been revived, often as the result of grassroots initiatives. Consider three examples.

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. 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.

The Pope’s recent discussion of this in the encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia put a magisterial seal of approval on a populist movement that was wholly unanticipated by the current liturgical establishment and is still often viewed with suspicion by the liturgists’ guild. There is lots to explore here, for those interested in the relationship between popular piety and deeply ingrained Catholic instincts about the unique mystery of the Holy Eucharist.

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. The new mysteries of the rosary offered last year by the Pope are giving a fresh impetus to one of the most venerable forms of Marian piety. Interestingly enough, the rosary is making a comeback on aggressively secular campuses such as Williams College, as I discovered recently.

While Marian piety has generally been regarded as a barrier to Catholic-Protestant ecumenism, John Paul II’s insistence that “true devotion to the Mother of God is actually Christocentric” also holds out the intriguing possibility of an ecumenical dialogue that moves directly from Mary into the heart of Christian faith—the confession of the Lordship of Christ and, through that confession, to an encounter with the Holy Trinity.

New forms of devotional life. Perhaps the most prominent of these is the Divine Mercy devotion begun by Sister Faustina Kowalska, the Polish mystic who died in 1938 and was the first canonized saint of the Great Jubilee of 2000. Numerous pastors around the country have told me that the Divine Mercy chaplet has become the vehicle by which many American Catholics have returned to regular devotional practice, often linked to eucharistic adoration.

The Holy Father has suggested on several occasions that the Divine Mercy devotion has a special meaning for this time in history. The devotion’s success in many U.S. parishes suggests that this claim is not simply an expression of Polish Catholic patriotism, so to speak.

Let me add, parenthetically, that the intensification of devotional life over the past decade is both another indicator of the inadequacy of the conventional liberal-conservative approach that dominates coverage of the Catholic Church—a storyline in which devotions of this sort are a pre-modern practice that was bound to disappear. It is also a tale of populist religion waiting to be reported.

3. Ecumenism

There also a new ecumenism to be explored. Theologically intense bilateral ecumenical dialogue was 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, in time, surpass these bilateral dialogues in importance.

The Lutheran-Catholic dialogue reached its apogee on October 31, 1999—Reformation Sunday—when representatives of the Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation signed a Joint Declaration on Justification by Faith. As you remember, 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 Catholics have also been frustrated, in no small part because of the practice in certain Anglican communities of ordaining women to the priesthood and episcopate. This has generally been reported in the secular press as a matter of Catholic recalcitrance. But the question should be raised about what these ecumenical difficulties say about the Anglican understanding of Apostolic Tradition and ordained ministry, and indeed about the sacramental nature of reality. These are questions that the new archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, told me were much on his mind when we met in London earlier this year. 

Meanwhile, the leadership of world Orthodoxy has not been terribly 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. That is the tough news, and it deserves broader and deeper exposure.

The other intriguing ecumenical news is that, as these bilateral dialogues reached various forms of impasse in the 1990s, a new ecumenism emerged as Catholics came into active dialogue with Evangelical and Pentecostalist Protestants. This is both unprecedented and 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 in steep and deep decline, while Evangelicals continue to make great strides in North America, Latin America, Africa, 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 of the American culture war—which is, in itself, a fascinating story of populist ecumenism.

And while the new ecumenism faces profound theological difficulties, it 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, and you will learn more about it in magazines such as First Things and Touchstone and Christianity Today than you will in Origins. But it could 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. (For sign number four, see “Bible Belt Catholics,” sidebar.)

5. The Intellectual Life

Fifty years ago, “Catholic intellectual life” meant what was happening on campuses such as Notre Dame, Boston College, Georgetown, and Fordham, and at places such as the great Jesuit theologate at Woodstock, Maryland. That is manifestly not the case today, and for three reasons.

First, because several of the converts noted above hold senior appointments at prestigious research universities. So do such cradle Catholics as Mary Ann Glendon, Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard, and Robert P. George, who holds Woodrow Wilson’s chair at Princeton (a development the somewhat Catholic-challenged Wilson would have found interesting). 

Second, because one of the fascinating developments of recent years involves the question of whether self-consciously elite schools such as Georgetown and Boston College can in any serious sense of the term be considered Catholic universities today: in the organization of the curriculum, in the tenor of student life, in the role the magisterium plays in the development of theology on those campuses. 

Third, because the kind of critically engaged yet thoroughly Catholic intellectual life envisioned by John Tracy Ellis in his seminal 1956 essay bemoaning the doldrums on Catholic campuses is now flourishing in several small, off-brand schools. Thomas Aquinas College in Ojai, California, is prominent among them. It is flourishing in several Catholic studies programs on Catholic campuses around the country—the irony of Catholic universities having to sponsor “Catholic studies” programs notwithstanding.

The diligent investigator can also find several smaller colleges eager to reclaim a Catholic identity that had become attenuated in the recent past. They are determined to build themselves into serious liberal arts schools, among them St. Vincent’s College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania; DeSales University in Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas. In all of this ferment there are endless developments to be explored and fascinating personalities to encounter. 

But doing that means getting beyond the conventional liberal-conservative attitude. As it is often presented in both the Catholic and the secular press, 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 radical secularist bias that has dominated American elite campuses for more than thirty years. If ideas have consequences, and they do, the contest for the future of Catholic intellectual life—including the graying of the generation of dissent and the rise of a new generation of scholars who are simply uninterested in the theological agitations of the immediate post-Vatican II period—is a motherlode for exploration.

6. The Catechism

While we’re on the life of the mind, a new look at the Catechism of the Catholic Church and its impact on Catholic life is worth taking. The Catechism 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 fact alone makes it worthy of serious reporting and analysis.

But the Catechism was also, and still is, a major cultural event in the Western world. In a culture convinced that there is only your truth and my truth, the Catechism affirms that we cannot live without thetruth. 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 the world is, how it came to be, and what humanity’s true destiny will be. This countercultural dimension of the Catechism is worth exploring. 

At its issuance in 1994, the Catechism was also 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 another interesting way to look into the possible future of Catholicism in the United States. 

Finally, 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 Catholic circles since the Counter-Reformation. 

7. Reform of the Reform

The liturgical tong wars are reasonably well reported, but what has not been explored carefully enough is how the reformers of the late 1960s became an entrenched establishment, fiercely resistant to challenge. In that sense, the fascinating story on this front is not the tired, old “reformers versus Tridentines” argument, but the various parts of the complex movement that is calling for a “reform of the reform” of the liturgy. 

Most Catholics in the United States readily accepted 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”—such as Credo, the Society for Catholic Liturgy (a priestly association working for more faithful translations of the liturgy from the Latin), and Adoremus (an association of clergy and laity)—are important to follow.

Why? Because 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. What American Catholics believe in 2099 will have much to do with the way they pray, liturgically, between now and then. 

Finally, on this front, the degree to which significant financial interests are involved in the resistance to a “reform of the reform” deserves thorough investigation. 

From Crisis Comes Opportunity

There are many other fascinating and under-reported signs of Catholic vitality that I could mention: the explosion of renewal movements, often pioneering new Catholic life-styles; the ongoing reform of seminaries; the remarkable recruiting success of communities of religious women such as the Nashville Dominicans, the Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Michigan, and the Sisters of Life in New York. But the crucial question is: What does this have to do with crisis and opportunity in the Church in America today?

The answer is everything. Each one of these expressions of vital Catholicism in the United States is one piece of the puzzle of authentic Catholic reform.

There is no way from crisis to opportunity along the potholed road of doctrinal and moral dissent. A crisis of fidelity—and the crisis of the past long months has been precisely that, in both its clergy scandal and episcopal misgovernance dimensions—cannot be met by Catholic Lite. Authentic Catholic reform is always a matter of recovering and renewing the Church’s essential “form,” the truths given it by Christ. Reform without reference to form is simply accommodation.

The vital sectors of Catholic life in the United States suggested above are not accommodationist, but neither are they sectarian. Their aim is to convert the culture, not to accommodate it supinely or retreat into an auto-constructed catacomb. And they aim to convert the culture through a retrieval and renewal of the truths of Catholic faith. For, as the Holy Father told the cardinals of the United States in April, 2002, the crisis of the Church in America today arises from a failure to teach and live the fullness of Catholic truth. Recovering those truths is the only path to a genuine aggiornamento, an encounter of the Church with modern culture that leads to a truly reformed Catholicism and a truly renewed culture. 

There are all sorts of things that need fixing in the way the Church works. But structural fixes will not resolve the crisis in which we find ourselves. As the vital centers of United States Catholic life make unmistakably clear, the path from crisis-as-cataclysm to crisis-as-opportunity is the path along which the entire Church rediscovers the great adventure of fidelity and Catholic orthodoxy. 

Catholic Lite fails because it is wrong; Catholic Lite also fails because it is boring. The romance of orthodoxy is, in fact, the romance of the world. For if what the Church teaches is not just the truth about the Church’s story but the truth about the world’s story, then to be an orthodox Catholic, thinking with the mind of the Church and living in service to others because of one’s Catholic convictions, is to help the world achieve its true destiny. That’s a great adventure. There’s nothing dull or boring about it. 

In pondering the long Lent of 2002–2003, I have often had occasion to remember a saying of Pope Pius XI that was a favorite of Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. As the shadows of totalitarianism were lengthening across Europe in the 1930s, Pius XI memorably said, “Let us thank God that he makes us live among the present problems; it is no longer permitted to anyone to be mediocre.”

Let these be our watchwords in the years ahead, years filled with difficulty—but also with great possibility.

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