Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

To be Catholic in America

A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America, Peter Steinfels, Simon & Schuster: 392 pp., $26

August 03, 2003|Kevin Starr | Kevin Starr is state librarian of California, university professor in the history department at USC and a trustee of the Institute of Advanced Catholic Studies.

Peter STEINFELS -- former editor of Commonweal, former senior religion correspondent for the New York Times and current Times religion columnist -- is among the most distinguished and respected Roman Catholic commentators in the country. As such, it is to be expected that Steinfels would weigh in with a book dealing with the current malaise in the Roman Catholic Church. "A People Adrift" is a balanced and judicious explication of the issues bedeviling the American church -- pedophile priests, coverups, stonewalling bishops, liturgical confusion, declining vocations to the priesthood and religious life, a growing number of alienated women, an uneasy relationship with Rome in the matter of university governance, a general malaise regarding Catholic identity and culture -- together with Steinfels' recommendations for corrective action.

Throughout the book, Steinfels takes Commonweal's approach. Founded in 1924 by former Californian Michael Williams, a layman, Commonweal has over the decades sustained a high level of evenhanded, lay-oriented, liberal Roman Catholic coverage and commentary. This is the tone Steinfels adopts in his book, reinforced by an equally evenhanded effort to present all sides of the question that one might well expect from such an accomplished reporter.

Born, raised and educated in Chicago, the most unambiguously Catholic big city in the nation, Steinfels begins "A People Adrift" with an account of the funeral of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin (1928-1996), archbishop of Chicago and founder of the Common Ground Initiative intended to foster dialogue among all shades of Catholic opinion. For Steinfels, the liberal, hopeful and orthodox Bernardin represented the best possibilities of center-liberal American Catholicism confronting a succession of crises. Above all else, Bernardin represented the hope for Common Ground, which is to say the reconciliation of differences within the encompassing bandwidth of orthodoxy. As if to carry on Bernardin's work, Steinfels attempts to achieve a similar common ground in this book, working, as he freely admits, from a center-left but orthodox and believing point of view.

In contrast to the impassioned polemics from hard left and hard right so characteristic of Roman Catholic-oriented discourse these days, Steinfels bends over backward to be balanced and fair, although in each of the problems he addresses, the Commonweal point of view prevails. Early in the book, Steinfels explicitly states that he will stay away from the emotional and imaginative dimensions of his faith -- indeed, stay away from theology and religious experience almost entirely -- in an effort to remain impartial and to focus on issues of policy and reform. So, too, does he suppress -- outside of a few references -- his historical imagination, despite the fact that he has taught American Catholic history at Notre Dame and Georgetown universities.

Steinfels' announced point of view, then -- the liberalism of Commonweal, the impartial third-person discourse of New York Times coverage, the search for common ground -- makes for the strengths and weaknesses of this somewhat policy-wonkish book, in which nearly all passion, angst, doubt and consolations of faith have been deliberately put aside, perhaps for another book.

While a gray book -- the grayness, perhaps, of the great Gray Lady herself -- "A People Adrift" is painted in hopeful shades of gray. The very notion of common ground pervading this book tends to suggest a process of correction that can occur outside of schism, indifference, sheer goofiness or, worse, loss of faith. The pedophile crisis, for example -- while remaining a black hole in sacred and profane space -- is encouraging American Catholics to hold their bishops accountable, even to demand a voice in their election; to entertain alternative modalities of priesthood (less controversially, the ordination of married men); and to rally to the support of the non-offending priests who constitute 98% of the active ministry. The condemnation of all forms of artificial birth control by Pope Paul VI in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, in which the pope overruled a commission of lay and clerical experts, has driven many from the church, true, but it has also encouraged those who stayed, the vast majority, to think this issue through for themselves, to make their own decisions and, even more subtly, to remain in the church while remaining at odds with this particular interpretation. The jury-nullification of Humanae Vitae by the majority of American Catholics has either weakened Catholicism in America, as conservatives believe, or, as liberals believe, encouraged educated Roman Catholics to de-peasantize and de-clericalize themselves and begin drawing upon the insistence of the Second Vatican Council that sexuality within marriage is an equal path to the Kingdom.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|