An American Bishop: From September 21, 1985

Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati did us all a favor in articulating the characteristics that make us Americans baffling to Rome (see “Domestic Manners of the American People,” AM, 5/25). We all could recognize ourselves in his comments. Yet, within the Catholic Church in the United States, there are different age levels and ethnic and cultural backgrounds that provoke specific explanations for our behavior. Then there is the uniqueness of each individual. I want to be more restrictive here than Archbishop Pilarczyk and explain just myself to Rome and hope that in doing so I can also articulate the feelings of a few other Catholics my age (58 years completed), not only to Rome, but to a younger generation of Americans as well.

Two events marked my early life and my growing up, forming impressions that are still with me today: They were the Great Depression of the 1930’s and the Second World War of the 1940’s.


The Great Depression remains a vivid memory. The struggle out of poverty and economic insecurity has defined the word “success” for my generation. We have done many things unconsciously so as not to fall back into poverty. In our Catholic school upbringing we were taught that we were not second-class citizens because we came from immigrant families or because we were Catholic. We were urged to move ahead in our society, to get a good education, to take our place in politics and in the business world. Some may accuse us of falling into the American heresy of consumerism and acquisitiveness, seeking always bigger cars and more elaborate homes in the suburbs; but those externals are signs of the firm determination we had not to repeat history. It may have been an overreaction, but it was motivated, I am convinced, more by love than by greed. I mean that. My generation was characteristically American by its generosity. Note how many of my generation pampered their kids, saying, “I want them to have all the things I was deprived of, especially a good higher education,” and “I don’t want them to go through what I went through.” I say this so that we not be judged too harshly as “consumeristic” or “materialistic.”

Since I became an adult I have traveled the world over many times, and have had the opportunity of knowing countries that are indeed very, very poor. From these travels I learned that consumerism can be coupled with unselfish generosity, and deprivation can often mask self-centered stinginess. So I hope that my Roman colleagues come to see that underneath what seems like external affluence is often a very generous and detached spirit.

The Second World War marked my life. I feel I have outgrown the negative stereotypes of the “Hun” and the “Jap” that were so much a part of the propaganda foisted upon me as an adolescent, but I have to admit that it took and still takes an effort. You see, I grew up with just as great a fear of Fascism as I had of Communism. Hitler and Mussolini were diabolical figures to me, examples of how single individuals with uncontrolled power over other human beings could cruelly dehumanize people sacred in the eyes of God, and could justify such abuse for the sake of an ideology. I guess I grew up with a fear of absolute power, unfettered and uncontrolled, held by some people over others. It often surprises me to see that people I know do not share this fear to the same degree, but instead lend their support to dictatorships in Central and South America because such governments may seem anti-Communist.

I know this fear also affects my attitude toward church authorities and religious obedience. By its very nature and structure--hierarchical, that is--the church can easily tend toward such fascistic traits. History shows many examples of how the transcendent dimension and the good of the person were lost in the all-too-humanness of the church and because of the ambitions of even good superiors.

This fear also touched my attitudes toward religious life. It explains one of those unrationalized attractions I had toward St. Benedict’s concept of the abbot and my comfort with the safeguards against tyrannical superiors in his Rule and in modern Benedictine tradition. It is also the reason my generation has so many committees and hearings and goes to so many meetings. I know these seem like the introduction of just so many more obstacles to good administration and like efforts to democratize the church. They really are not attempts to make the church an elected democracy; they are only safeguards so that we can explain our feelings clearly to those who make the ultimate decisions on our lives. We need channels for being heard, especially when we are fearful or hurting. Thus, we see the consultative processes in the church today as healthy contributions to balancing the more absolutist tendencies that are almost inherent in church structure, in addition to being valid soundings of the way the Spirit is working among our faithful. Moreover, a believer my age might even feel sad that we are not able as Americans to contribute these insights to the whole church, for we sense it would be a much more credible church if we could.

Finally, this fear also affects how we act as leaders and authority figures. We may at times disappoint our Roman colleagues because we seem to be more concerned about healing, and about not acting arbitrarily and in an authoritarian fashion, than we are in giving forceful, unequivocal leadership. Perhaps we have learned that people can be persuaded as much by gentle reasoning as by authoritative decrees.

I hope this “apologia” explains some of the special events that marked the life of one bishop, events that perhaps my Roman colleagues may have forgotten, or a younger generation did not experience. I must warn the reader, however, that the picture is still not complete; other events, such as Vatican Council II, the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, would have to be added to complement the above. How rich all these happenings have been and how much they have affected me! I hope I can continue to learn from the experiences I know are yet to come.

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