A judicious, deeply thoughtful, thoroughly informed, and lucidly written analysis of the crisis that threatens to send American Catholicism, the largest faith community in the United States, for all its present energy, diversity, and service to society, into a period of "irreversible decline." According to Steinfels, American Catholics have around ten or fifteen years to rescue what is most valuable and truth-disclosing in their tradition or watch it begin to diminish in its transformative power, its spiritual authenticity, and its cultural productiveness. Can the Catholic community recover itself, be honest with itself, and sustain a respectful conversation within itself--in time?
Steinfels, the former senior religion correspondent for "The New York Times," and a former editor of "Commonweal" magazine, relies on his broad experience as a journalist and interpreter of the contemporary experience of various religious communities, their traditions, practices, conflicts, and aspirations, to provide close attention to--and critical reflection on--specific practical and institutional matters crucial to the full survival of the Catholic faith. It is the type of attention and reflection that ought to ground serious "theological" work & keep it rooted in the lives, questions, & feelings of human beings struggling to make sense of their lives in today's world. The author pulls no punches as regards the scandals, embittered arguments, and failures of leadership that are tearing the American Catholic community apart. Nor does he offer cheap solace through soothing compromise or ecclesiastical happy-talk. But all those who care about the future of Catholicism in America, including those in a love/hate relationship with its present institutionalization, should read this sober, intelligent, and painfully honest book.
Steinfels belongs to an impressive group of American Catholic intellectuals, that includes his wife, Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, all of whom, in very different ways, have been trying to understand what is happening to U.S. Catholicism. Shouldn't somebody gather these people, urge them to let their common loves & concerns outweigh their various personal differences, and invite them to address all these issues now with an acknowledgment of being in an emergency situation?
This is a surprisingly broad survey of the state of the Catholic Church in the United States which avoids focus on hot button moral or divisive doctrinal issues to instead examine nearly every major facet of Catholic corporate life. At first, I found this a little disappointing because I expected a dominant focus on matters of leadership and institutional structure. But upon getting deeper into the author's project, I was gratified by the breadth of perspective because it showed how widespread is the Catholic presence in American society, and in turn, how thoroughly Catholicism is affected and challenged by that society.
Steinfels begins with an account of the last years of Cardinal Bernardin in Chicago and his efforts to establish a dialogue between different wings of church opinion on fundamental issues defining the future of the church. The effort was called the "Common Ground Initiative." It was publicly criticized by several of Bernardin's cardinal colleagues on the basis that there could be no real dialogue, implying compromise, on church teaching in key areas identified by Bernardin. The topics are worth noting:
- changing roles of women
- organization and effectiveness of religious education
- Eucharistic liturgy as most Catholics experience it
- meaning of human sexuality and the gap between church teachings and the convictions of many faithful
- the image and morale of priests, and their declining numbers and ratio to laity
- the succession of laypeople to positions of leadership in Catholic institutions formerly occupied by vowed religious, and the provision of adequate Catholic formation for them
- the ways in which the church is present in political life and debate
- the capacity of the church to embrace minorities
- the survival of Catholic school systems, colleges, health care and social service institutions, and the articulation of a distinct and appropriate religious identity and mission for these institutions
- financial support
- manner of decision making and consultation in church governance
- responsibility of theology to authoritative church teachings
- place of collegiality and subsidiarity in the relations between Rome and the American episcopacy
Most of these topics are taken up by Steinfels in his subsequent chapters. Steinfels argues that Bernardin correctly saw that American Catholicism was increasingly subject to polarization by vocal minorities on the left and right and that it was important to bridge the real differences through dialogue while dispelling the notion that the extremes were in fact in the mainstream. Yet the very reaction to his effort demonstrated how increasingly suspicious various segments of the church were of one another, reading any area of deviance from one's own view as evidence of being in the wrong camp in general.
Steinfels offers four common interpretations of the aftermath of Vatican II ranging from far right to conservative to liberal to radical left. Steinfels claims to personally find himself somewhat on the liberal side of the analysis, though receptive to many concerns of the conservatives. In any event, he argues, that the Catholic hierarchy, especially in Rome, failed in its leadership to implement Vatican II leaving divisions (and suspicions) to fester. Much of the downside of the shake-up in the American church had settled by the mid-Seventies when Rome, under John Paul II, began to ratchet up its oversight and exacerbate tension on problems of authority within the church. Increasingly under John Paul II, the hierarchy has a conservative bent while Catholic leadership outside the church as such is dominated by liberal elements. Yet each side feels beleaguered by the other which feeds an undue emphasis on contentious aspects of church life or teaching at the expense of more fundamental and ultimately more fateful issues.