If you think a novel set in 14th century Norway has to be dull, think again. Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter is such a book, and far from being a bore, it is surely one of the most exciting works of fiction ever – to say nothing of being the finest Catholic novel.
It’s hard to imagine that anyone who ever raised children found it an entirely easy job. Challenging, exciting, often rewarding – yes. But easy? You’ve got to be kidding.
Has the Supreme Court sold out to religion? You could be excused for thinking so if all you had to go on was the hue and cry protesting things the court did last term. And now that furor on the left is growing even more intense in anticipation of a new term with abortion and aid to religious schools on the agenda.
Nearly buried last month in the hubbub surrounding the U.S. bishops’ debate over who is and isn’t worthy to receive communion was a colloquy between two bishops concerning something that may prove of far greater importance in the long run.
The Supreme Court’s announcement that it will consider an abortion case from Mississippi next fall touched off a predictable outpouring of frenzied criticism from pro-choice sources worried lest their cherished ‘right’ to abortion be in jeopardy. No small part of it was what might politely be called exaggeration or, not so politely, baloney.
If you’re seeking evidence of how hard it is for the Church to communicate its message in and to our secularized, polarized, hyper-politicized society, consider reactions to the news that the American bishops are thinking of making a statement on Catholic politicians like President Biden who receive communion while backing abortion.
Is Pope Francis a populist? The simple answer is no. A better answer is necessarily more complicated.
Imagine trying to follow a game whose rules and objectives you don’t know and whose players aren’t letting on. That is approximately how things now stand where the Supreme Court, President Joe Biden, and the issue of abortion are concerned. And if that sounds complicated, that’s because it is.
Intellectual confusion resembling a smog of the mind has been a deadening presence in Catholicism in the years since Vatican Council II. But here and there amid the swirling mists of bad arguments and lame analogies, a small yet significant body of Catholic intellectuals has stood firm in defense of clear thinking and good sense.
Eight years ago I published a book called American Church. The subtitle explained what it was about: “The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America.”
Midpoint in Lent is a great time to pause and take stock. Most of us probably started Lent with a bang, filled with determination to make good use of this opportunity for penance and renewal. And now? How are we doing at keeping those good resolutions we made on Ash Wednesday? Forgotten what the resolutions were? Now, while it’s still Lent, there’s plenty of time left for a fresh start.
Believing as I do that synodality holds out much promise for the Church, I have watched with growing dismay--shared with many others--as a German concoction called the “Synodal Path” lurched erratically forward during the last couple of years. Now, with a key document of that strange enterprise in hand, I conclude that this particular “path” is a one-way road to disaster.
What is President Biden talking about when he speaks of “codifying Roe v. Wade”? Biden has used the expression many times and conspicuously repeated it two days after the Inauguration in a joint statement with Vice President Kamala Harris.
Launched in December with modest fanfare, the Church’s observance of 2021 as a year to honor the fatherhood of St. Joseph seems to have dropped largely out of sight. True, a plenary indulgence (under the usual conditions) is available to those who practice a devotion to St. Joseph on Wednesdays during the year, but otherwise not much seems to be happening.
With searing images of mob violence at the U.S. Capitol fresh in memory, Joe Biden comes to the presidency as a potential healer of divisions and binder up of wounds. Yet his own prior commitments could prevent him from succeeding in those roles.
A little over two centuries ago – in 1810, to be precise – a brave, devout woman named Elizabeth Ann Seton launched two tiny schools, an academy and a free school. The site was a former farmhouse in rural Maryland that also housed the first members of her newly founded American branch of the Daughters of Charity. Virtually unnoticed at the time, that event is now regarded as the start of the parochial school system in the United States. But celebrations of this 210th anniversary, if any there be, can only be muted, not to say filled with anxiety. For the once mighty Catholic school system is now in a state of decline, with no end in sight. The start of this pandemic-ridden school year was further darkened by the news that some 150 Catholic schools across the country had closed for good. Such closings are hardly new – Catholic schools have been closing for years – but this number of closings was substantially higher than usual and a troubling sign of what may lie ahead. As to that, consider these numbers (the source is CARA – the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate). In 1970, there were more than 9,000 Catholic elementary schools in the U.S. enrolling some 3.4 million students; last year there were just over 5,000 schools with 1.2 million students. The picture is the same at the secondary level: in 1970, nearly 2,000 schools with over a million students, compared with 1,200 schools and 556,000 students last year. For a long time, the Catholic school system has been the most impressive institutional achievement of American Catholicism. And now? The loss of schools and students reflected in these numbers is tragic in many respects, but especially for the weakening they imply of the Church’s ability to transmit the faith from one generation to the next. Reading that, of course, some people no doubt will say: Not to worry. After all, non-school religious education takes up the slack, doesn’t not? With all due respect to the dedicated volunteers who serve as religious education teachers in thousands of parishes, there are two problems with that particular response. First, it’s hard to imagine that an hour of religious instruction on Sunday morning is, on the whole, as effective a means for transmitting religious faith and values as a fulltime, five-day-a-week school staffed by committed teachers. That aside, moreover, there’s the discouraging fact that the numbers for non-school religious education itself are equally as bad as the numbers for schools. Here are some more CARA figures: 4.3 million primary school-age children and 1.3 million secondary school-age children in parish religious education in 1970, as against 2.2 million primary school children and 527,000 secondary school children in 2019. Many factors have combined to produce the present situation. They include a declining birth rate and, in the case of schools, rising costs or, in many places, simply the lack of a Catholic school. Face it, too, part of the blame rests with weakened commitment to the faith among nominally Catholic parents who could afford to send their children to Catholic schools but see no particular reason either to do that, or to send the kids to religious education, or to provide serious religious formation at home. There are no easy answers here, but for starters let’s set aside the prevailing laissez-faire acceptance of the decline and disappearance of Catholic schools and launch a serious effort at the national level to explore possible responses. Meanwhile: St. Elizabeth Seton, pray for us and the children.
The Vatican document tracing the rise of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick through the hierarchy’s ranks has been praised for its unprecedented transparency in shedding light on a dark episode in the life of the Church. But the practice of transparency shouldn’t stop there. The McCarrick report, coming after the fact, gives us an eye-opening picture of misjudgment and bungling at the upper levels of Church officialdom that enabled a man to ascend far up the ecclesiastical ladder despite continuing rumors of sexual misconduct on his part. So far, so good. But more is needed – specifically, a meaningful degree of proactive transparency regarding the process by which bishops continue to be appointed and promoted. This a necessary step to prevent mistakes like the McCarrick disaster from happening again, or at least make them less likely. It hardly needs saying, of course, that even to suggest such a thing touches a sensitive nerve among Church officials accustomed to keeping the selection and promotion of bishops strictly to themselves. In the Church as elsewhere, this is the typical mistake of imagining secrecy bolsters authority rather than – as is often the case – leading in time to its diminishment and rejection. And is what I suggest really all that crazy? Consider that the Holy See lately renewed its controversial agreement with the communist government of China under which the government nominates candidates for the episcopacy. If the Vatican has no problem allowing Chinese communists to have a central role in choosing bishops, what rational objection could it possibly have to letting faithful Catholics merely observe the process? I am not proposing direct popular election of bishops, which would be a mistake in several ways. I only suggest that the clergy and people of a diocese have a role in proposing and vetting candidates as a routine part of the selection process. Besides helping to head off mistakes, doing so would encourage the emergence of supporting testimony on behalf of worthy individuals. As matters stand, the secrecy of the current process of bishop selection is an undesirable carryover from an earlier era. Now, by contrast, there is ample support in authoritative Church documents for adopting a reasonable degree of openness in this important matter. For example, here is what Lumen Gentium, the Second Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, says in speaking of the Catholic laity: “To [the pastors of the Church] the laity should disclose their needs and desires with that liberty and confidence which befits children of God and brothers of Christ. By reason of the knowledge, competence or preeminence which they have, the laity are empowered – indeed sometimes obliged – to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the Church. If the occasion should arise, this should be done through the institutions established by the Church for that purpose.” Or, more recently, here is the words of the former Pontifical Council for Social Communications, in a document called Ethics in Communications which it published in 2000: “A two-way flow of information and views between pastors and faithful, freedom of expression sensitive to the well-being of the community and to the role of the Magisterium…and responsible public opinion all are important expressions of ‘the fundamental right of dialogue and information within the Church.’” Other documents could be cited, but the point should be clear. It’s time to act on the principles these documents endorse by initiating a prudent and responsible opening up of the process of choosing bishops through the practice of proactive transparency.
If you were wondering what became of moral legalism, wonder no more – legalistic thinking has found its home in the media. Coverage and commentary regarding Pope Francis’s recent remarks about civil unions for homosexuals abounded in it, making it sound as if Catholic moral doctrine were a product of papal decree. Legalism is the erroneous view that moral norms are rules – a legal code of do’s and don’ts forever subject to change by a ruler-maker. This makes it a handy device for dismissing norms one doesn’t like – the “rule” against contraception, for instance, or the “law” forbidding remarriage after divorce. Authentic norms like these are not rules, however, but statements of moral truth. Which brings us to the hubbub that greeted the Pope’s remark. For anyone who may have missed it, a new documentary film about Francis quotes him as favoring legally recognized civil unions as a way to give legal shelter to same-sex couples. The Pope said this: “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” Leave aside whether civil unions for homosexuals are or aren’t a good idea. A strong case can be made on both sides of that argument. In the United States, however, the question itself is beside the point, since the Supreme Court, in a moralistic exercise of judicial legislating five years ago, went beyond civil unions and imposed same-sex marriage – something the Pope has repeatedly opposed – on the entire country. But that’s history. My subject now is the way the Pope’s off-the-cuff endorsement of civil unions was taken by some as heralding a change in doctrine – the assumption being that Church doctrine on homosexuality can be changed by papal fiat, very much as the Supreme Court in its 5-4 decision made same-sex marriage the law of the land. . A few examples will serve to illustrate this misunderstanding. In her initial report from Rome, National Public Radio’s correspondent skipped the what-ifs and jumped with both feet into the assertion that what Francis had said was “a break from Church doctrine.” New York magazine, noting the not uncommon view of civil unions as a “way station” to same-sex marriage, said “time will tell” whether the Pope was in fact “in the process of changing Catholic doctrine.” And a Washington Post editorial, indulging in an odd verbal straddle, speculated on whether the Pope’s latest remarks would “lead to a change in the church’s doctrinal policy.” Note that word “policy.” To equate the Church’s doctrine with policy is classic legalism. After all, policies are set, amended, and sometimes abolished by decision-makers acting according to their best lights. Whereas the Church holds that in authoritatively teaching moral doctrine – whether on homosexuality or anything else – it isn’t merely setting policy but stating moral truth. The bottom line is that moral norms aren’t established by decree, much less – as in this case – by edited papal remarks in a movie. Norms are products of theological reflection carried on in the light of Revelation. The process, as St. John Henry Newman famously said, is “development,” not change. So what does the Church teach about homosexuality? For answer, turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. While saying homosexuals should be treated with “respect, compassion, and sensitivity,” the catechism declares that homosexual acts are gravely wrong and “under no circumstances can they be approved” (CCC 2357). And civil unions? About them, the catechism is silent, leaving this as a policy question on which people who accept the doctrine can disagree.
Let me begin with what I suspect will be a welcome promise – I won’t tell you which candidate to vote for or how I plan to vote. As to the first, by this point in the campaign I suspect that you’ve made your choice. As to the second, I also suspect you don’t really care very much how I cast my ballot. With that out of the way, then, permit me to share a few observations, based on recent and current experience, on the process by which we Americans go about choosing presidents. The first observation is that many voters this year apparently will not so much vote for one candidate as vote against the other. (Needless to say, this cuts both ways.) There’s nothing especially new or wrong about that, but it does suggest why this year’s campaign has been an exceptionally ugly and divisive affair. And that points to an obvious conclusion. Nearly the first post-election item of business for the winner, whether it’s Trump or Biden, should be to take serious steps – beyond the usual rhetoric, that is – to repair our fractured national unity. One way of doing that would be to forgo dividing up the spoils by handing out plum jobs exclusively to supporters and reach out instead to the losers in filling positions and planning a legislative agenda. No, I don’t say that will happen – I’m not that dumb. I merely say it ought to happen, which unfortunately is something very different. A second observation is that, instead of gearing up immediately for the next election cycle, both parties should pause and look seriously at reforming the process. One area needing close attention is the primary system. No doubt primaries serve some useful purposes, and realistically speaking we’re stuck with them anyway, but steps should be taken to fashion a shortened primary season with fewer candidates and, even more important, a new structure that give seasoned party leaders (not big donors but professional politicians) a serious say in choosing their parties’ candidates. My third observation is that this year’s election has been a particularly painful reminder that, as I and others have often said, neither major party in its present form offers a congenial home to people, Catholics and others, who are both seriously prolife and seriously committed to the values embodied in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. To the best of my knowledge, there is one party like that – the American Solidarity Party, it’s called – but, admirable as its policy positions are, it’s barely a speck on a political landscape dominated by the Democrats and the GOP. Former President George W. Bush seemed to be trying to create something along these lines early in his first term. But then came 9/11 and the debilitating distraction of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that was the end of that. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) appeared to be pointing to something of the kind last year in his widely noted “common-good capitalism” speech at the Catholic University of America. But the concept remains far from becoming a reality. Here’s hoping Rubio or somebody else picks up this particular ball and runs with it before 2024 rolls around. Are ideas like these pipe dreams, with the parties and the prospective candidates instead locked into a replay four years from now? Perhaps so. But if the campaign of 2020 has demonstrated nothing else, it has at least shown that our present way of choosing presidents is broken and badly needs fixing.
When did confirming someone for a seat on the Supreme Court become a traumatic ordeal for the candidate and the nation? How did we get to the point where a nominee’s intelligence, character, and experience no longer suffice? Once again, these questions have forced themselves on the country’s attention in the confirmation process of Judge Amy Coney Barrett for the opening created by the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Now, too, the novel coronavirus has added further uncertainty to the process, with several senators developing Covid-19. But the problematic nature of Supreme Court confirmation was a reality long before the virus came along. It’s usually said that the bad times began in 1987 with President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork. Bork, a conservative legal scholar and federal judge, former U.S. Solicitor General, and former Acting Attorney General, was greeted with a ferocious mix of loathing and alarm by Senate liberals who determined to go all-out to defeat him. Out front in the anti-Bork charge was Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who famously said on the Senate floor that Bork’s America was, among other things, a place where “women would be forced into back-alley abortions” and “blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters.” Bork, a reserved man who later converted to Catholicism, said simply, “There was not a line of that speech that was accurate.” The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired at the time by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), sent Bork’s nomination to the full Senate with the recommendation that it be defeated, and the Senate obliged, voting 58-42 to reject Bork. Now the unhappy consequences of that disgraceful episode are visible again in the case of Judge Barrett. And here it’s become apparent that the real start of the confirmation problem came earlier and lies even deeper than the Bork affair. To be precise, the origin of this ongoing stain on the confirmation process and much else in our national life was the Supreme Court’s January 22, 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Roe did many things, most of them bad. In the present context, it can rightly be seen as having placed a question that does not admit of any compromise at the center of an ongoing, notably rancorous national debate. What question is that? Just this: Is it right or is it wrong deliberately to take the life of a nascent human being? A seven-member majority in Roe v. Wade unaccountably said it was right, in the process shouldering aside legal precedent and practicing what Justice Byron White, who with Justice William Rehnquist was one of the two dissenters, called “an exercise of raw judicial power.” Millions of Americans then and since have rightly rejected – and today continue to reject – the ill-considered embrace of abortion by those seven justices. It would be a mistake, too, to blame the present situation on the recalcitrance of prolifers. On the other side of this debate, pro-choice people have turned acceptance of Roe into a litmus test of loyalty to their cherished ideal of moral libertarianism, a vision summed up and celebrated in the magical word “choice” that has come to be applied to other issues besides abortion in our never-ending culture war. Here’s hoping Judge Barrett, an eminently qualified jurist, makes it onto the Supreme Court, despite efforts to apply an illegitimate religious test to her nomination. And here’s hoping, too, that before much longer that court will acknowledge the destructive folly of Roe and take responsible steps to repair the damage it has done.