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Defending The ‘Catholic Moment’

Ross Douthat pushes back against my contention that there never was a real chance for Fr. Neuhaus’s “Catholic moment” to exist in American culture, because (as I contend) Catholicism runs too counter to the currents of modernity. Ross says he’s sympathetic to my position, but that I’m being way too absolute and determinist to say that the conduct of the US bishops made much of a difference in Catholicism’s influence in the public square. More:

The Catholic liberals of the 1930s and the Catholic neoconservatives of the 1970s shaped law and public policy debates more decisively than either the Catholic left or right does today. John Paul II and Mother Teresa made Catholic ideas more attractive than Roger Mahony and Bernard Law. George W. Bush and Michael Gerson took Catholic social teaching more seriously than Jim DeMint and Glenn Beck. Mario Cuomo and Andrew Cuomo are both cafeteria Catholics, but the father was straining (however unpersuasively) to keep a certain kind of Catholic liberalism alive, whereas the son is a functionally post-Catholic creature of the Bloombergist center-left.


Acknowledging structural forces, in other words, doesn’t mean ignoring the way that individual choices shape how those forces make themselves felt. So yes, I dothink that if the American bishops had been, not “luminous saints” regarding sex abuse, but just more competent and courageous and less self-protective and corrupt, the church they shepherd would enjoy (and deserve) significantly more influence today, both over its own flock and society as a whole. (One need not undersell the forces hostile to Catholicism in our culture to recognize the sex abuse scandals as a grim turning point in the American religious story.) I also think that Catholic social thought would enjoy more bipartisan appeal today if the Bush presidency had ended in something other than disaster, that Catholic ideas would find a wider audience if Catholic pundits and intellectuals were more critical of their respective “teams” of left and right, and that the church’s media image would be less tarnished if the Vatican bureaucracy could be dragged into the 20th century, let alone the 21st. I’m sure I could come up with many more such counterfactuals, given world and time enough — and I don’t think I’m pining for an impossible Arcadia by imagining that at least some of them were plausible.

Point taken. On reflection, religious truth, as I often say, cannot be essentially conveyed by cold rationality, but requires subjective engagement. That’s a fancy way of saying that the arguments for a religion (or a politics) depends to an underappreciated degree on the personal authority of the person or persons making the argument. If I’ve read Philip Rieff correctly, authentic charisma in leadership requires both a creed, and a personality that so fully embodies the precepts of that creed that they open others to the possibility of believing the same things, by the force of their committed personality.

Let me give you an example. In the fall of 1987, Pope John Paul II came to the United States. New Orleans was one of the stops on his tour. I was 20 years old, a junior in college, and had by then become seriously interested in Catholicism, but was still hovering on the margins. Something told me that I had to get down to New Orleans and see the pope. I couldn’t really explain it. I needed to see him and hear him and be near him. I mean, I knew what he stood for, and what he had accomplished, but there was something else going on. A big part of it was what he had done, and was doing, in standing up to communism. Mostly, I think, it was that there was something about the person of John Paul that captured my imagination, and made me want to listen to him, and take him seriously.

I did go to New Orleans that fall to see the Pope in the Superdome. It didn’t make a Catholic of me. But it did open my mind and my heart more than it had been.  Come to think of it, the Christians who have made the biggest difference in converting my heart have not been those with the best arguments, but those who lived out the faith most joyfully, sacrificially, and fully.

I think this is what Ross is getting at, and I appreciate the correction. I wouldn’t cross the street to see Cardinal Roger Mahony or Cardinal Bernard Law, and if either man gave a sermon praising motherhood and apple pie, I would wonder if either thing was all it was cracked up to be. The US Catholic bishops, by their failures, have brought what you might consider negative charisma to their message. They hold ecclesial authority by virtue of their apostolic offices, but overall, they have little or no moral authority. And this, as Ross (an orthodox Catholic) indicates, is their own fault.

The same, incidentally, is true of the bishops of the Orthodox Church in America, for other reasons.

It’s always going to be hard for real, substantive Christianity, in its Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant versions, to make much headway in modern cultures. But it’s much more difficult when those given the authority to proclaim the Gospel squander their gift and responsibility. Why should the world listen to our message when our leaders (to say nothing of we, their followers) do such a terrible job of living out our beliefs?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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