In the world but not of it

YOU ARE CRITICAL OF THE PREVAILING VIEW view among Catholics of their own history and role in the United States. What is the story line of the tradition you call the "Americanist" or "Catholics to the rescue" tradition?
There's a dominant story of Catholicism in the United States that you could call the "ghetto to mainstream" story. In its simplest form, it says that before the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church in the United States was a ghetto church—enclosed communities removed from the mainstream of the nation, with a strong Catholic identity. But starting in the 1950s, with the help of postwar prosperity and the Second Vatican Council's call to embrace the world, Catholicism was transformed from a ghetto church into a mainstream church. That's the standard story line.

Now, this story line has had a deep impact on U.S. Catholic social ethics. Since the '60s Catholics have seen themselves as finally capable of contributing to the public life of the nation and social ethics has been tailored to this task. Liberals or progressives have taken up this task mainly by addressing issues of race, war and peace, and economic justice. This would be true of J. Bryan Hehir, who penned the U.S. Catholic bishops' letter on war and peace; David Hollenbach, who had a shaping influence on their letter on economic justice; and a host of others.

On the other hand, conservative or neoconservative social ethicists insist that the church's contribution to the nation should be to infuse the public discourse with religious and moral values, to clothe the "naked public square," as Richard John Neuhaus says. He, along with George Weigel, Michael Novak, and others, sees Catholics as perhaps the one group poised and ready to provide the religious-moral leadership needed to return the nation to its original founding vision. Catholics, they say, should seize the "Catholic moment."

But in spite of their many differences, both liberal and neoconservative social ethicists presume that the church has finally reached the point in its history where it can provide a social ethic for the nation.

In fact, this pattern can be traced back to before the post-Vatican II era, to the '50s and, before that, to the '20s and '30s; indeed to the late 19th century. So for more than a century now, U.S. Catholics have been telling themselves and others that they have the moral and intellectual resources needed to serve and indeed save the nation.

Why would America listen to Catholics?
Because, as this story goes, the nation was actually founded on the philosophical principles set forth by Saint Thomas Aquinas, Robert Bellarmine, and other Catholic thinkers. Catholic political theorists, from the 1920s on, have maintained that the great tradition of Western constitutionalism, which came to fruition with the U.S. founding—especially the principles of popular sovereignty and the separation of powers—comes mainly from medieval political thought. This body of political thought in turn was passed on to the English Whigs, and from there it made its way into the minds of the Founding Fathers.

Thus the United States of America, according to this tradition, is a Catholic production. So you can see how it is that Catholics would assume that they had a lot to offer to the nation. How could it be otherwise, if there is a "perfect harmony" between being Catholic and being American.

What's wrong with seeing this harmony between being "Catholic" and being "American"?
It takes away the critical edge Catholics should have toward the nation state, any nation state. It blinds them to ways in which they have accommodated themselves to the agenda of the nation, even when it runs counter to the teachings of the church.

The way this works is subtle. If Catholics are seen as having just recently moved into the mainstream and being on the verge of making a crucial contribution to the life of the nation—what we could call the "Catholic moment" story line—then the moral of the story is that Catholics should keep trying to reform the nation. And this attempt to reform the public policy of the nation gives them self-definition and purpose.

But the problem is that this policy-reform agenda never gets fully realized. As a result, Catholics are always on the verge of making their mark, but still never seem to quite make it, which means they should keep working harder—and so the cycle goes on and on. This "Catholic America" is an imaginary and elusive ideal. In this sense, Catholics have invented an America they can live in.

Is this kind of approach a uniquely Catholic perspective?
No. Catholics are not the only ones who find their place in the United States in this way. Different religious groups have portrayed themselves as outsiders working their way into the mainstream, and by doing this they show how they really belong in America. Calvinists invented an America they could live in, so did the Baptists, the Methodists, the Mormons. Now, some scholars argue that even the Iroquois tribe had in its governing structures the seeds of democracy in the United States—a strange argument to make about a conquered people.

Just about all groups tell themselves a story in which they were crucial to the nation's founding and are destined to contribute to the nation's well-being. Except African Americans. They've never been able to spin a success story out of their origins in the Unites States. For them America was not the "new Israel"; it was the "new Egypt."

What this approach really comes down to for Christians is that the church is subordinating itself to the agenda of the modern state.

What about something like the bishops' peace pastoral?
Didn't that contribute something beneficial to the nation?The U.S. Catholic bishops' 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace, The Challenge of Peace, was designed to make a contribution to national life. The nation was in the midst of a potentially disastrous arms race with the Soviet Union. There was heated debate as to which nuclear policy to pursue—unilateral or bilateral disarmament, mutually assured destruction, and so on. So the bishops wanted to bring the church's traditional just-war theory to bear on this debate, set forth principles to guide policy making, and apply some of the principles to make specific recommendations.

But there were several problems with this approach. For one thing, it simply did not have the intended, and supposed, impact on national policy makers. I will never forget a discussion I had with someone who worked in the Pentagon at that time.

He was an active and conscientious Catholic. So I asked him, "Now, Dick, you're a good Catholic. Did you and your coworkers in the Pentagon ever talk about the bishops' pastoral letter? Did it have any influence on you at all?" And he looked at me matter-of-factly and said, "No. None at all. To be honest, the bishops didn't know what they were talking about."

My point is that we overestimate the influence of the churches on what goes on inside the Beltway.

Another problem is that the pastoral was so policy-oriented and complex that it was inaccessible to the average Catholic. The idea was that U.S. Catholics would read it, be influenced by it, and then vote accordingly. But of course this never happened. People in the pew really had a hard time understanding the letter. So it really failed to shape the minds of Catholic voters.

Finally, to me the most important problem with the peace pastoral was that it did not put out a distinctively Christian vision on war and peace. Because the aim was to change U.S. public policy, and because the United States is a religiously pluralistic society, the bishops drew on the tradition of natural law, which is supposed to be accessible to all citizens and does not make reference to religious beliefs or practices.

Granted, there's an introductory section based on scripture that underscores the importance of peace and peacemaking, and there's a concluding section on discipleship in the nuclear age. But the bulk of the letter treats the dilemma of nuclear weapons in the early '80s purely in terms of natural law principles and their application to public policy.

Incredibly, at one point, the bishops state that the Bible has nothing specific to say about nuclear weapons and nuclear war. Very strange indeed, coming from the successors of the apostles.

What then should the bishops do when it comes to war and peace?
As shepherds of their flocks, the bishops should do what Bishop Walter Sullivan did during the Gulf War: Tell people in the military they should not participate in this war if it is unjust and not participate in operations done in this war if they are unjust.

In the Gulf War, there was really no meaningful attention to this option. I myself counseled conscientious objectors in the military—Catholics and others— stationed in Germany and in the United States. As far as the church goes, there was no real institutional help at all in actually trying to minister to soldiers who were caught in these moral dilemmas. Baxter

We have plenty of Catholics in the military, but are they formed enough in the church's teachings on just war that they would be able to make moral and conscientious decisions about whether or not to participate in a particular war or in particular actions within a war? If the answer is no—and I think it is—then the church is failing in its mission.

How should American Catholics be involved in politics?
Catholics have become so absorbed in the political culture that, as sociologists have shown, they identify more with their political affiliation as liberals or conservatives than with being Catholics.

Too many Catholics do not find it difficult to decide who to vote for. They vote liberal or conservative, for a Democrat or a Republican. But what takes a back seat in either case is Catholicism.

As followers of Jesus, Catholics should come to see politics first and foremost as embodying the teachings and the life of Christ in the world. The mission of the church, in this sense, is to be members of a body united in communion one with another in such a way that the world is able to see in its midst the actual life of Christ.

But when national allegiance takes priority over Christian discipleship, this body gets dismembered. The first task of followers of Christ is simply to bring that life to the world. That's what we do as a church, in our parishes and dioceses.

For example?
Perhaps the best example of this kind of life in this country is the Catholic Worker movement. What its cofounders, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, tried to do was to construct a new society within the shell of the old—a society constituted by the very basic gospel practices: feeding the poor, clothing the naked, welcoming the homeless, and doing the works of mercy in a very practical way. And, as disciples of Jesus, it's incumbent upon all of us to do this. In fact, the gospel—in Matthew 25:40-46—seems to indicate that our salvation rests on the extent to which we embody these works of mercy.

How can people make that leap—from belief to personal involvement?
My experience is that people get drawn into a life that ends up having a bigger claim on them than they thought. If you want to give a check every month to a food bank or a soup kitchen or a house of hospitality, that's great. But then I might say to you, "Why don't you take the check down there yourself and stop in for coffee and get to know some of the homeless people?"

Then you come to realize that the homeless are not the stick figures seen on the evening news. They're people with their own stories, just like people with homes; the difference is that, when things go wrong, homeless people have no other people to help them out.

When I worked with homeless folks in Phoenix, we had hundreds of volunteers. They would come down and see our soup line, and they'd start bringing their sweaters and extra blankets and give them to people in the line. One guy went out and bought 500 blankets and had his company's truck pull up at our house and deliver them. He ended up serving on the board of a job service we had.

People want to do good. We have a magnetic pull toward the good and toward doing good. It makes us happy in the full sense of that word. Our life really means something when we can serve another. God never commands the impossible. When we get these impulses to offer help, that's God speaking to us.

By the way, young people want these kinds of challenges, too. But the church doesn't challenge them. People complain that young people spend too much time in band practice or playing soccer, but that's because it's more challenging than what they get in religious education.

Young people don't want a watered-down, moderate gospel. They want to give of themselves, to make an offering of their lives. When they are challenged, they respond. They are responding.

Do U.S. Catholics live in tension with the culture?
More and more, Catholics are living in a culture that is alien to the gospel. They need to be very careful about how they relate to American culture. Catholics are called to give, not to accumulate. When it comes to the military, we're called never to take an innocent life.

Just think if we had Catholic soldiers and officers who refused to cooperate with evil in any way. Or Catholic doctors or nurses in a hospital that performs abortions? Or Catholic judges and lawyers when it comes to imposing the death penalty?

Pope John Paul II says that democracy is only as good as the virtues of its citizens. In fact, democracy can be tyrannical. He uses the phrase "the tyrant state" in a clear reference to the United States, which by law allows some 1.5 million unborn children to be destroyed by their parents, which imposes a deadly embargo on the people of Iraq, and which all too eagerly puts people to death by capital punishment. This is what the pope means by a "culture of death."

Catholics really aren't "at home" here in the United States. Our true home is in the city of God, the heavenly Jerusalem.

What is one thing Catholics could do that would help them become more critical of the culture?
To the best of our ability we should try to keep the Sabbath, the Lord's Day. Right now, Sunday as the Lord's Day doesn't exist anymore as it did when I was a kid.

The late Cardinal John O'Connor of New York made a big point a few years back about soccer practice and games on Sunday morning. People weren't coming to Mass and it was hard to get acolytes. O'Connor took a lot of grief for making that an issue, but you know what? It's a real issue. If we don't gather for liturgy, the Body of Christ is dispersed and a bunch of individual units disappear by absorption into U.S. culture. But when the Body comes together, that's how it exists, and that's why the Second Vatican Council says the most powerful liturgical symbol is the gathering of the assembly.

People find that when they give over one day to the Sabbath, they find a kind of freedom that they didn't think they had available to them. It creates the space to spend time reading the Bible or being with our families.

Can't we also sometimes learn good things from our culture?
We're constantly learning from the culture. But what we learn then needs to be reintegrated into our own life and transformed into our own convictions. For instance, Catholics have learned a lot from the feminist movement that has enabled us to see with new eyes "hidden" things in the gospel: the fact that women were the ones who discovered Jesus' empty tomb and that women were at the center of the life of the early church.

At the same time, we have to remember certain things. When the apostles left the upper room after Pentecost and went into the streets, they preached a clear and sharp message and did good works—and they got tossed in jail for it. Paul wrote some of his letters from jail, and we read those at Mass. We have to remember that Christ died at the hands of the state—and that drama is being reenacted in one way or another, time and again.

But it's a good thing. It's the fate of the saints and the martyrs, and we have a share in that. Even if our sacrifices aren't as dramatic, we should have a share of that sacrifice. We're all called to be saints. As French novelist Léon Bloy said, "There's only one sorrow—not to be a saint."

All active news articles