The Catholic Paradox

A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America By Peter Steinfels, Simon & Schuster, 416 pages, $26.00

Can the Catholic Church as we know it survive in America? This is the question raised by Peter Steinfels' tough-love letter to fellow Catholics, A People Adrift. It is no secret that American Catholicism has been in trouble in recent years. Attendance at Mass has dropped precipitously in the years since the Second Vatican Council. The percentage of Catholics who report that their religion is "very important" to them has fallen 10 points in just two years. By large margins, American Catholics reject the Church's teaching on matters such as abortion and contraception, and there is little agreement on the prohibition against the ordination of women and married priests. Looming above all these issues are the sexual-abuse allegations that have shaken the Church.

Yet Steinfels, a religion columnist for The New York Times and former editor of the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal, believes that there is hope for his church. Steinfels' prescriptions for change -- ideas also supported by the general Catholic laity as well as Catholic elites -- might just work. But in the process, they might also change the nature of what makes the Catholic Church, well, Catholic. That is the paradox facing Catholics in America. While dissenting from teachings and disagreeing with their leaders, American Catholics have not fled the faith as so many of their European brothers and sisters have done. They have remained in the Church in order to fight for change from within. But if they get their way, they could shake Catholicism to its roots.

Steinfels pulls no punches as he launches into his analysis: "American Catholicism, to put it bluntly, is in trouble. Absent an energetic response by Catholic leadership, a soft slide into a kind of nominal Catholicism is quite foreseeable." Viewed from another angle, however, American Catholicism appears to be stronger than ever. It is the nation's largest single religious tradition, encompassing one-quarter of the population and well represented among new immigrants, particularly from Latin America. Catholics hold high-profile positions in public life, serving as U.S. Supreme Court justices, presidential candidates and entrepreneurs. Having voted with the winner in the last eight presidential elections, Catholics are a highly courted political constituency, replacing the state of Maine in the old political saw, "As Maine goes, so goes the nation."

But the view Steinfels presents lays bare potentially intractable divisions that cause him to predict that "the Roman Catholic Church in the United States is on the verge of either an irreversible decline or a thoroughgoing transformation." The steps necessary to prevent that decline, however, go much further than the reforms proposed to deal specifically with the sexual-abuse scandals. Steinfels sees those scandals as symptomatic of a much larger problem: disorder and distrust within a whole range of Catholic institutions, from hospital systems to primary and higher education to religious orders. Scandals involving abusive priests would have been shocking at any time, but their effects are seismic today.

The abuse scandals have confirmed a deepening skepticism about the ability of Catholic bishops to manage and lead the Church. Fifty percent of American Catholics now believe that the bishops have failed to respond appropriately to allegations of abuse within the priesthood. This growing distrust may strengthen a trend that Steinfels argues is essential for the development of a new American Catholicism: the transformation of church life from one that is led by clergy to one oriented around and led by the laity.

Although the number of Catholics in the United States remains high, more of them are becoming merely culturally Catholic. This trend is not unique to Catholicism. In his latest book, The Transformation of American Religion, Alan Wolfe observes that Americans of many religious traditions have become passive worshippers, adhering to the cultural aspects of their faith without bothering too much about doctrine. User-friendly, custom-fit religion that requires little of the adherent is all the rage; that is not a description that easily matches Catholicism. And yet even the Holy Roman Catholic Church is not immune to the pressure that all religions face in America to internalize "Protestant" values of democracy and individualism. A recent Zogby poll of American Catholics revealed the most support for reforms that would involve more communication with the laity -- "management" changes, if you will, instead of theological shifts.

But therein lies the problem. Catholicism is not a democratic institution. Catholic authority rests on the legitimacy of church teaching and on the infallibility of the pope. Although many critics within the Church, such as Steinfels, argue that Catholic leaders should be responsive to changes in modern society, their opponents can legitimately respond that it is precisely in times like these that doctrinal teachings must hold firm instead of flexibly swaying with public opinion.

One of the challenges facing the Church comes from a laity that is more educated than ever before and is inclined to interpret Scripture and teaching for itself. During a recent discussion on Catholic public opinion, the Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, president of Catholic Charities USA, said, "[t]his is the most educated community that the Roman Catholic Church has ever confronted," and, he continued, it "sets certain standards of what is regarded as acceptable explanations" from the Church. And it is a community that demands to be heard: Most of the reforms American Catholics support center around better communication between bishops and the laity, transparency in all aspects of Church management and more inclusion of lay expertise, opening up some areas of control to people outside the Church hierarchy.

The Boston-based Voice of the Faithful, a lay organization, proposes one solution that brings to mind the Clinton administration's slogan for affirmative action ("Mend It, Don't End It"): "Keep the Faith, Change the Church." And that may be part of Steinfels' optimism. American Catholics, unlike their peers in western Europe, have fought for the soul of "their" church, trying to force change from within. As Steinfels points out, the controversies that divide the Catholic Church now may be the subject of heated arguments and newspaper exposés, but they are not serious theological disputes about issues such as the divinity of Christ or the reality of the resurrection. As long as the problems are merely what Steinfels calls "nonessential" issues, the Church is still strong. Wolfe recently concurred, noting, "Catholics should take pride in the fact that people care enough to be disturbed; care enough, rather than exiting, to put so much energy on voice and loyalty."

A People Adrift astutely analyzes the immediate problems facing the American Catholic Church while providing hope for a new transformation. Steinfels' readers may find themselves hoping that the author finds the Catholicism he so passionately envisions and yet wondering whether such a Catholicism would be authentic. For the very qualities of transparency and openness to lay participation that may heal the wounds of American Catholicism could prove threatening to the Church in Rome, which would prefer to keep a firm grip on the universal Church through its appointed leaders. Uniquely American values may save Peter Steinfels' church while setting a precedent that for generations to come would roil the Church founded by another Peter.