Putting the Catholic House Back Together


It just may be starting. Finally! The first real signs of Pope John Paul IIís positive influence for the American nation may be manifesting itself. For one thing, proper ecclesiastical authority is starting to reassert itself after a post-Vatican II period of self-doubt and ambivalence.

It just may be starting. Finally! The first real signs of Pope John Paul II's positive influence for the American nation may be manifesting itself. For one thing, proper ecclesiastical authority is starting to reassert itself after a post-Vatican II period of self-doubt and ambivalence.

At Cardinal John O'Connor's widely televised funeral services held at St. Patrick's Cathedral, Cardinal Bernard Law made it painfully awkward for prominent pro-abortion politicians, Republican and Democratic, Catholic and otherwise, who were present at the ceremony. Cardinal O'Connor's successor, Cardinal Edward Egan immediately began his tenure by making clear that he is going to do battle with the disoriented teachers' unions over vouchers. Bishop James T. McHugh of Rockville Centre has publically supported Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and joined the fray ignited by anti-Catholic comments uttered during a five-hour "debate" in the District of Columbia over a proposed "conscience clause." The clause would protect Catholic employees of Church institutions against morally objectionable healthcare-related issues. At a recent Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Convention, Archbishop Chaput of Denver stated unequivocally that wayward theologians better quickly come to the understanding that the bishops, not they, succeed the apostles and give overall direction and guidance to the People of God. Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz exposed and opposed the open heresy clearly evident in the "Call to Action" movement. One diocese after another has rebuffed Dignity, a group claiming Catholic status that promotes the normalization of homosexual activity. At a recent national meeting, the majority of American bishops agreed to norms for implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae, which will strengthen the hands of bishops who want to reform Catholic education by reemphasizing its authentic Catholic dimension.


The restoration has been fueled by the explosion of new publishing ventures, the development of new colleges and schools, the creation of new and revitalization of old religious orders, and the promotion of new and vibrant lay organizations. Put another way, in the aftermath of the post-Vatican II debacle and under leadership inspired by magisterial thinking, the Catholic Church in the United States is rebuilding its "plausibility structure." A concept of contemporary sociologist Peter L. Berger, the plausibility structure is a set of supportive institutional arrangements that provides for individuals who participate in it a sense that the message being propagated is real and of central importance. A functioning Catholic plausibility structure is one in which authentically Catholic hospitals, schools, colleges, media outlets, professional and scholarly associations, and other means of social exchange support and reaffirm Catholic teaching in every aspect in the lives of individual Catholics. Without an effective Catholic plausibility structure, what shapes individuals is not the "mind of the Church," but whatever is the prevalent and defining religious-cultural message in a particular society at a given time. In early American history, that defining message was a generic Protestantism; in the 1940s and 50s it was an unambiguous Catholicism; today it is a godless secularism.

During this period of spreading the seeds of renewal, the Catholic Church has been blessed by a core of clergy, religious, and lay leadership that has more than risen to the occasion: Mother Angelica of EWTN, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Fr. Joseph Fessio of Ignatius Press, Patrick Reilly of the Cardinal Newman Society, Msgr. George A. Kelly recently of St. John's University, Ralph McInerny and Gerard V. Bradley of Notre Dame University, Robert George of Princeton University, Thomas Monaghan of Ave Maria School of Law, and Stephen M. Krason of Franciscan University. The list could continue. Because of these constructive developments and charismatic individuals, it's just a little more difficult these days to mask the secular ideology and social movement that has been guiding the activities of nominal and dormant Catholics.


Nothing comes from nothing, as they say. The religious revival starting to take shape within the Catholic Church stands in what classical sociologist Max Weber would term an "elective affinity" with other cultural developments. One is the embryonic development of political party alternatives to the Democratic and Republican Party establishments, which is a result of devoted Catholics and others structurally marginal to the political centers of power, believing that they have been effectively boxed out of any effective decision making. Another development is the dispersion of alternative media outlets through such vehicles as cable television, radio, and the Internet. Still another is the proliferation of mediating institutions and voluntary associations. And yet another is the growth of the home school movement. What all of these phenomena have in common is a populist rejection of the near monopolistic and hegemonic status that two organizational children of the Enlightenment hold in American public and social life: the government — led by a secular social inspired "new knowledge class," and the corporations — led by an equally secular "capitalist old class."

The "smart" or "worldly" money bet is that the sum total of all of these alternative formations will not make much difference in shaping the American landscape. The one real kicker that might upset the proverbial applecart, however, is a united Catholic Church. The Church's collective set of institutions — when maintaining integrity and internal consistency — represents the single greatest source of moral authority outside the State and the corporations. A revitalized Catholic Church that can put its "plausibility structure" back together — and hence its cultural and political influence — would represent at least in the short term, serious and systematic opposition to the vision and programs of secular Enlightenment elites.

Perhaps more importantly, a revitalized Catholic Church actually might be able, in the long term, to retain whatever is worthy in capitalist (its actual efficiency) and socialist (its alleged idealism) enterprises. The Catholic "trick" — with her history of "evangelization through inculturation" — is to get society to work for God and the common good. If the acceptance of Catholic social teaching as a central component of the thinking and policies of the American public square were to transpire, it would be the result both of God's grace and of the hard work and sacrifice of millions of individual Catholic citizens in the United States. Then one could say that Fr. Richard John Neuhaus' theory of a "Catholic moment" in America has been realized.


Varacalli, Joseph. "Putting the Catholic House Back Together." Lay Witness (April 2001).

This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine.

Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc., an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance the efforts of the teaching Church.


Joseph A. Varacalli is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Catholic Studies at Nassau Community College-S.U.N.Y., Garden City, New York, varacaj@ncc.edu He is the co-founder of the Society of Catholic Social Scientists and author, most recently, of Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order (Lexington Books, 1-800-462-6420; www.lexingtonbooks.com) Joe Varacalli is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 2001 LayWitness

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