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An Exercise in Spigotry

September 27, 1987|Peter Steinfels | Steinfels is the editor of Commonweal, an independent journal of opinion published by Roman Catholic lay people

POLITICS, POWER, AND THE CHURCH by Lawrence Lader (Macmillan: $22.95; 320 pp.)

A hundred and fifty years ago, anti-Catholicism was a thriving enterprise. Books telling of young girls lured away to orgy-ridden convents, tracts warning of papal plots to crush American liberties with the votes of fast-breeding Catholic immigrants, were best sellers. Not only hack propagandists but some notable Americans contributed to this stream of literature--Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of telegraphy, for example, and the distinguished New England preacher Lyman Beecher. They were doubtless sincere in their fears but they let prejudice and ignorance twist fact into fantasy.

"Politics, Power and the Church" may be pale and genteel by 19th-Century standards, but it is unmistakably in the same tradition. "The development of Catholic power," it begins," . . . has followed a careful design." The first stage of this "careful design" involved the creation of urban political machines "as much at the service of the hierarchy as the political bosses." The latest stage has been a successful grab for "national power," achieved through alliance with Protestant Fundamentalists. We are only on Page 1.

Lader marches through all the issues of public morality and church-state tension that have been the stuff of recent controversy: abortion; public subsidies for parents choosing religious schools; church teaching on marriage, divorce, and birth control; church wealth, media power, and Vatican financial scandals. As a Catholic layman and editorialist I have been at odds with official church positions in several of these areas, but in no case do I find that Lader has given readers anything resembling a fair presentation of the arguments on both sides and the principles at stake. Lader mixes one-sided and often dubious interpretations of constitutional theory with choice examples of overbearing behavior by local church officials, many drawn from the '40s and '50s, even as far back as the 1920s. His language is loaded: The hierarchy "violently" opposed the ERA; church opposition to homosexual acts is based on a "twisted" interpretation of Scripture and consists of "furious denunciations"; a Conservative cardinal is an "unrelenting bullyboy." Of course no one on Lader's side of these debates is ever found campaigning "violently," issuing "furious" denunciations, or being "unrelenting," let alone a bullyboy.

Lader's selection of facts, anecdotes, and authorities is as loaded as his language. For intermittent stretches of the text, he sets Catholicism aside entirely to denounce--I hesitate to say "furiously"--Fundamentalists. Indeed, on the last page of his book he invokes what is meant to be an ominous 1850 declaration about converting all of American by a Catholic archbishop (a statement that was actually considered notoriously aggressive even in its time); but then afraid "it may be easy to dismiss" such 130-year-old braggadocio, Lader caps it with a 20-year-old "Mormon work" prophesying a "Mormon takeover of the United States." So whom are we to fear? Rome? Salt Lake City? Will the next Pope be a Mormon? Whatever is operating here, it's not logic.

There are other logical problems with Lader's thesis. It is a staple of this kind of literature, for example, that church officials never pursue their controversial policies out of sincere conviction but rather from cold calculations of power. Thus the hierarchy's interest in immigration legislation does not spring from any straightforward concern for Latino parishioners but reflects the fact that with "other ethnic groups mainly limiting their children through birth control . . . the expansion of the Catholic constituency depends on Hispanics." The Vatican can "greatly strengthen its base in the United States . . . with a new flood of job-seeking immigrants." The same concern with swelling the Catholic population explains the church's opposition to abortion and "the Vatican grip on marriage, divorce, and the family." Yet one of Lader's chief complaints is that the church campaigns for the whole society, and not just Catholics, to reject abortion. And by his own testimony the church's refusal to recognize remarriage after divorce is driving away many of the faithful. Neither position, then, makes sense in his narrow terms of population and political power.

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