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American Catholicism: And Now Where? by John Deedy (Plenum: $18.95; 298 pp.) : Once a Catholic: Prominent Catholics and Ex-Catholics Discuss the Influence of the Church on Their Lives and Work by Peter Occhiogrosso (Houghton Mifflin: $18.95; 371 pp.)

August 30, 1987| Thomas Cahill | Cahill is publisher and editor of the Cahill Reader's Catalogue and co-author of "A Literary Guide to Ireland" (Scribner's). and

What is the worst sin? Mass murder? The torture of the innocent? The starving of orphans? Not even close.

According to the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church, the most heinous sin, absolvable only by the Pope, is the rape of a nun in solemn vows by a priest in solemn vows upon an altare privilegiatum --in a basilica. At least it used to be, until the latest reforms were promulgated. That this was so for so many years points, one might say, to an exquisitely, palpitatingly Gothic strain within the Catholic Church beyond anything even its more fevered detractors might have imagined. On the other hand, if we were to have a try at a little Chestertonian paradox, we might counter that, by such an interdict, the church asserts the profound seriousness of one's sexuality, one's word once given, and one's sacred relationship to God against all who would trivialize these things. This established, it is easy to show that, by keeping one's integrity and respecting everyone else's, one will never get near the unthinkable sins being ticked off at the outset.

But if you were reared in Protestant America, no amount of dashing wordplay will unconvince you that the people who could dream up such a sin are a bunch of twisted, unhealthy creeps. The distinguished Jesuit canonist who calculated that this act of basilical ravishing carries the heaviest canonical sanctions of all used his discovery to entertain (and, no doubt, wake up) his students at a certain Midwestern seminary. He performed this felicitous task for many years, never failing to evoke hilarity. (The young priests before him, who had also been reared in Protestant America, were keenly aware that Rome was not Wisconsin.)

How hard it is to draw a bead on Catholicism, which runs all the way from the rococo dreams of pale Latin priests to the good-natured heartiness of Midwestern Jesuits who don't take themselves too seriously. How does one focus on 850 million people--or even on the 50-odd million Catholics who live in America? John Deedy's "American Catholicism: And Now Where?" takes the sociological route. It is full of statistics and social theory. Peter Occhiogrosso's "Once a Catholic" takes the anecdotal route. It is composed entirely of interviews. Both routes have their pitfalls, for each can falsify the reality that it claims to capture, just as my bizarre canonical factoid is too small, odd and perfervid to stand for the whole.

Deedy sees American Catholicism on the ropes and gasping. Barely half of American Catholics attend weekly mass, as opposed to nearly 75% in 1958. The population of sisters is down by 73.5% from the peak of 1964, and there has been a similar drop in the supply of priests. As for new recruits, he quotes Richard McBrien's commentary on a 1984 Catholic University study of male religious vocations that "the vocation crisis is as much qualitative as quantitative" and that current recruiting and training practices favor the "more dependent, institutionally oriented, sexually indifferent and conservative" chaps. Meanwhile, the gap between pew and pulpit widens ominously. Attendance at Sunday mass in urban areas is plummeting (down to 28% in Brooklyn, for instance). A majority of Catholics consider religion to be "largely old fashioned and out of date," as opposed to 66% of their Protestant neighbors who feel that religion "can answer all or most of today's problems." Eighty percent of American Catholic women of child-bearing age and their spouses use "artificial" contraception in flagrant disregard of papal teaching. And only 12% of Catholics under 30 rate the sermons they hear as excellent.

Deedy's villain is Pope John Paul II, who, in his zeal to restore orthodoxy and consensus, is threatening to knock out an American church already weakened by the blows of Paul VI's anti-birth control encyclical and the creeping lures of affluence. The problem with this script is that, though Deedy heaps upon us statistic after statistic, incident after incident, quotation after quotation, the villain is never clearly seen. Who is this John Paul II, and what does he mean to destroy? In this book, he functions almost like the invisible figure of Sauron in "The Lord of the Rings," whose very name evokes terror, though we know nothing about him.

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