Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public OrderKEN WHITEHEAD
Observers of the United States have sometimes wondered why the apparently flourishing Catholic Church in America, along with the huge number of Catholics in the general population — the largest single religious group in the nation — should nevertheless have so little apparent influence on contemporary American life and society generally. No one has defined as clearly as Joseph Varacalli, precisely why the American Church has been relatively ineffective in shaping American public life.
Observers of the United States have sometimes wondered why the apparently flourishing Catholic Church in America, along with the huge number of Catholics in the general population the largest single religious group in the nation should nevertheless have so little apparent influence on contemporary American life and society generally. It is no exaggeration to say that the Church has seemed almost powerless, and even irrelevant, in American public life over the past generation. Moreover, this relative irrelevance has come about at a time when, owing to the pronounced moral decline that has characterized recent American life and society, a strong Catholic witness and influence have been more than ever needed.
It is not just that immoral practices such as abortion have become legalized in the United States, and others such as homosexual lifestyles may soon be legalized as well. These phenomena have occurred in other countries as well. What seems particularly remarkable about the American scene, however, is that even many American public figures identified as Catholics are too often seen to be acting on principles that are anything but Catholic; this is not true of all of them, of course, but it is unfortunately true of too many of them.
Beginning with the 1960 "promise" of John F. Kennedy to a group of Protestant ministers in Texas that, if elected, he would certainly never allow his decisions to be affected by his professed Catholicism, many American politicians who are Catholics and they constitute the largest single bloc in the U.S. House of Representatives, for example too often do not act or vote on the basis of anything discernible as Catholic principles; too often their words and acts are generally indistinguishable from those of their secularist colleagues. Nor is this simply another manifestation of the famous American "separation of Church and State". No: these Catholic legislators seem ignorant of the fact that there is any perspective beyond the purely secular; they seem genuinely innocent of any knowledge of Catholic social teaching, or of any awareness that their public acts ought to reflect their professed beliefs (if indeed the latter are sincere).
Joseph A. Varacalli
Sociologist Joseph A. Varacalli demonstrates in this short, scholarly but accessible and readable book that Catholics in America today are generally "almost totally innocent of the Catholic social doctrine they so desperately require for both individual salvation and social survival". According to Varacalli, a professor of sociology at Nassau Community College in the State University of New York (SUNY) system, the American Catholic population as a whole has undergone its own "widespread internal secularization"; today "Catholic America has conformed much more than changed the basic secular nature of the present American culture". He quotes fellow Catholic sociologist Fr Andrew Greeley as remarking that "sometime between 1955 and 1970 Catholic social theory vanished from the scene".
Prof. Varacalli believes this came about at least in part as a result of the misinterpretation and misapplication by the educated Catholic "knowledge class" of the principles of the Second Vatican Council. The aggiornamento called for by the Council was too often seen by educated Catholics as an accommodation to the dominant secular culture rather than as a call to update the Church to enable her to present Christ more effectively to the world. The misinterpretation and misapplication of Vatican II resulted in the weakening of the authentic Catholic character of the mediating institutions schools, universities, hospitals, social service agencies, professional associations, Catholic press and the like which would otherwise have been the means of communicating and transmitting authentic Catholicism to the nation at large.
Much has been said and written in the post-conciliar years about the contemporary "crisis of faith", of course; but Prof. Varacalli brings to his analysis of the situation the sharp tools and insights of the competent modern social scientist. The result is one of the best current treatments of the state of public Catholicism in America that has appeared. In 14 short and almost painfully honest chapters, Prof. Varacalli throws more light on what has happened to Catholics in America than in many a longer and more laboured treatment.
Yet this remains a hopeful and even a vibrant book. Prof. Varacalli is himself thoroughly grounded in, and is convinced of the truth and relevance of, Catholic social teaching. He is also completely loyal to the Church's Magisterium. Indeed, he believes that the only long-term solution to the current crisis of American culture and civilization lies nowhere else but in the social doctrine of the Catholic Church. "From an orthodox Catholic perspective", he writes, "neither the socialism of the cultural and economic left, nor the capitalism of the economic right contain the necessary kit of useful and right ordered principles". American civilization needs Catholicism, properly understood and practised.
Nor is Prof. Varacalli without ideas about how American Catholics should now go about "restoring all things in Christ", beginning, in his view, with the "restoration of integrity to the Catholic house" itself. This short book is, among other things, almost a manifesto for Catholics who would like to see the great principles of Catholic teaching applied to modern life.
His vision is especially grounded in "the grand vision of Vatican II and the writings and stature of John Paul II" the "bright promise" of his title to which the Catholic community must now measure up. He concludes his analysis of where we are and where we need to go with the Holy Father's own words in Crossing the Threshold of Hope. "At the end of the second millennium, we need perhaps more than ever the words of the Risen Christ: 'Be not afraid'".
Kenneth Whitehead "Bright Promise, Failed Community: Catholics and the American Public Order Book Review." L'Osservatore Romano, (June 26-28, 2000).
Reprinted with permission of Ken Whitehead and L'Osservatore Romano.
Kenneth D. Whitehead is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education, and member of the Board of Directors of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, and the author, among other books, of the recent One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic: The Early Church Was the Catholic Church, as well as Political Orphan? The Prolife Movement after 25 Years of Roe v. Wade (New Hope, KY 40052: New Hope Publications, 1998); and Agenda for the Sexual Revolution: Abortion, Contraception, Sex Education, and Related Evils (Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1981).
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