Catholic Fidelity

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False Dichotomy
We at the Leadership Roundtable on Church Management found interesting Bishop Thomas J. Curry’s ambitious effort in The Best and Worst of Times (11/20) to contrast his own personal experience of ministry with his views of commentary by Catholic authors on recent church crises. Whatever the response may be from authors the bishop cited in his article, his brief portrayal of the roundtable is disappointingly inaccurate. Surely it is simplistic to force responses to recent church crises into the false dichotomy of either improving management or strengthening evangelization. It is equally simplistic to set up a dichotomy where one must choose between the church as mystery and as organization.

The Leadership Roundtable’s exclusive focus on management, as Bishop Curry characterizes it, does not mean that its members do not recognize, with the same faith he possesses, the reality of the church as mystery and the critical role of evangelization in accomplishing its mission. They realize, however, the importance of the contribution their expertise with temporalities enables them to make to the one church.


After all the church has gone through in recent years and its continuing responsibilities, it is not encouraging for the church to have one of America’s bishops, on the basis of simplistic dichotomies he set up, trivialize efforts to professionalize the church’s financial and personnel management as organizational tinkering.

J. Donald Monan, S.J.
Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Defensive Character

As someone who has admired writings on church-state issues by Bishop Thomas J. Curry, I was extremely disappointed as well as personally offended by his recent article, The Best and Worst of Times (11/20).

Consider his article’s rhetorical strategy. On the one hand, it is a paean of praise for American Catholics past and present: their fidelity, vitality, endurance, heroism, resistance to secularism and so on. On the other hand, it uses that heroic record to discredit a broad but undefined set of critical Catholic commentators (evidently including me) who are accused of disparaging these Catholics, aiding and abetting a secularist ethos and subscribing to an anti-Catholic agenda. This is, I submit, the logical equivalent of the White House’s technique of smearing Democratic critics of the Iraq war by accusing them of insulting our troops in the field and aiding terrorism.

Who are these dominant Catholic commentators? Bishop Curry doesn’t really say. He mentions Paul Lakeland, myself, Voice of the Faithful and the Leadership Roundtable on Church Management. He relies on Philip Jenkins to specify another half dozen, some of whom write only occasionally on Catholicism and some of whom do show a weakness for traditionally anti-Catholic themes. But mainly he targets conveniently unnamed (and unquoted) other Catholic writers and Catholic historians along with Catholic academia, most Catholic commentary and modern Catholic scholarship.

Any honest list of major Catholic commentators would have to include at least a dozen or two dozen additional names. It would have to include conservatives who often voice worries very similar to those of liberals (Bishop Curry names only liberals). It would have to include priests and even a few bishops as well as lay people (Bishop Curry names only lay people). It would include some of the people he cites favorably, Andrew M. Greeley above all, but also John McGreevy and Richard John Neuhaus.

Had Bishop Curry been asked to name his targets (perhaps by the editors of America?) rather than exercising a free hand to tar a broad, unidentified group, it would have shown either (1) that his sweeping charges of disparagement, ignorance, crypto-secularism, anti-Catholicism, etc., etc., simply do not apply to most of them or (2) that he is talking about a rather narrow and distinct subset, who have often been criticized by others.

While I can think of more pleasant things than to be publicly charged by a bishop with pursuing an anti-Catholic agenda, what is genuinely discouraging is the way this kind of accusation disguises the basically self-justifying and defensive character of Bishop Curry’s argument.

He finds it gratifying to receive affirming responses when questioning those present at the parishes he visits. But leaving aside the possibility, which must have occurred to him, that parishioners are not always totally candid with visiting bishops, wouldn’t it be at least as relevant to have the response of the large and increasing percentage of Catholics who are not present?

It is widely believed that were it not for immigration the number of American Catholics would be shrinking as a percentage of the population, if not in absolute numbers. The percentage getting married in the church is declining. Less than 10 percent of Catholics under 40 worship weekly and are also otherwise involved in their parishes. The recent National Study of Youth and Religion discovered Catholic teenagers falling significantly behind other Christian adolescents on many measures of religious belief, knowledge and practice.

There is nothing wrong with singing the praises of the Catholic people, as long as it does not serve to obscure these disturbing realities and as long as it is not used to bludgeon as anti-Catholic those who raise questions about current Catholic leadership, including that of the bishops, and our apparent difficulty in doing anything else but stay the course.

Incidentally, Bishop Curry complains that Philip Hamburger’s outstanding book, Separation of Church and State, with its impressive findings about anti-Catholic sentiment in the United States, received little notice from Catholic academics and went unmentioned in the index of the two-volume report of the American Catholics in the Public Square project, which I helped direct. Could that have something to do with the fact that the Hamburger book was published after the project completed its major conference on anti-Catholicism? Anyone not merely interested in a debater’s point but actually reading those volumes will find Bishop Curry’s caricature of Catholic commentary severely challenged.

For what it’s worth, virtually the first major notice of Professor Hamburger’s book was an enthusiastic column I wrote for The New York Times in July 2002. Bishop Curry’s air of superior knowledge is embarrassing.

Peter Steinfels
New York, N.Y.

Prudent Management

I was heartened by Bishop Thomas Curry’s call for a renewed appreciation of the heritage of the Catholic Church in the United States and its past and present vitality in The Best and Worst of Times (11/20).

However, I was disappointed at his juxtaposition of religious renewal and organizational tinkering as if they were wholly disparate and unrelated phenomena. It is true, of course, that a schema drafted in preparation for Vatican II, which focused on the church as organization, was rejected by the council in favor of a vision of the church as mystery. Nevertheless, the council insisted that the organizational dimension of the church, although only one dimension of a much richer mystery, is an essential dimension of the church: The society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ, the visible society and the spiritual community, the earthly church and the church endowed with heavenly riches, are not to be thought of as two realities. On the contrary, they form one complex reality (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, No. 8). The achievement and vitality of the Catholic Church in the United States in the past would not have occurred without creative, perhaps inspired, organizational tinkering (ethnic parishes, Catholic schools, devotional and social associations, etc.). If, as the council taught, the social structure of the Church serve[s] the Spirit of Christ who vivifies it (ibid.), disparaging efforts to improve the human and visible element of the church to make it more responsive to the Spirit in the present smacks of ecclesiological monophysitism.

The National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management, of which I am a part, has focused on what Bishop Curry dismissively calls management techniques. The roundtable is under no illusion that improved management of the church is the key to renewal. However, the group is convinced that, without improvements in the too often abysmal management practices in the church, any genuine renewal will be short-lived or illusory. The evangelization that the archdiocesan synod in Los Angeles has as its primary objective will require something more than solemn pronouncements and good intentions. Effective evangelization will require planning, development of programs and resources, recruitment and formation of personnel, allocation of human and material resources, and evaluation. In short, without prudent management the primary objective of evangelization will remain just an objective, desirable but still unrealized. Throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, the church in the United States shamelessly borrowed, usually without attribution, the best practices in organization and management of the day. Why should it shrink from adapting the best practices of the 21st century?

John P. Beal, J.C.D.
Washington, D.C.

Ideological Disagreement

While Bishop Thomas Curry is obviously an excellent wordsmith, I find his article, The Best and Worst of Times, (11/20) disturbing on several levels. The tone of the article suggests to me that everything would be just fine if certain Catholic commentators would just stop writing with a tone of negativity, failure and pessimism regarding the church. The article strongly suggests that the many good things about Catholicism are rarely cited in the media, while the negative points are overblown, evidently as part of the dangerous vice of anti-Catholicism. While I would agree that there is much to love about Catholicism, I must also assert that we still have a long way to go on our journey toward wholeness.

As a lifelong lay minister, with well over 25 years of service to the church, I am particularly disturbed that authors like Peter Steinfels, with whom I share many of the same opinions about the current weaknesses of the Catholic Church, could be subtly labeled as part of the anti-Catholic movement today. While I agree with Bishop Curry that anti-Catholicism is still a force with which to be reckoned, I do not feel that anyone who points out perceived flaws in the establishment should be labeled as anti-Catholic, either directly or indirectly, as is implied in this article.

I call into question Bishop Curry’s assumption, gleaned from his pastoral visits, that there is little ideological disagreement to be found among today’s parishioners. My pastoral experience indicates that there are a number of issues including, but not limited to, the notion of an all-male celibate priesthood, which are significant to current parishioners. Even more disturbing to me is the fact that his research sample includes only the people who have chosen to stay in the church and not those who, loving the church but disappointed by the inability of its leaders to hear their cries for discussion on the issues, choose to leave.

On one point in particular I am in strong agreement with Bishop Curry. Evangelization is the number one priority in our church today. My plea to the hierarchy, and to all in leadership in the church, is to return us to the days when our leadership (especially the bishops) gave us such boldly Christian documents as the pastoral on peace and the landmark work Economic Justice for All. I believe I have the skill to evangelize and some strong tools in the form of church leaders and church documents of the past. What I need today is the witness of Catholic leaders (ecclesial and lay) who are willing to be model risk-takers for the radical but wonderful message of the Gospel. I will put myself in that category, since I know there is so much more that I could do; and I throw down the gauntlet to those who seem to be comfortable with the status quo.

William Miller
Akron, Ohio

Engage the Laity

I enjoyed Bishop Thomas J. Curry’s article, The Best and Worst of Times (11/20), especially his dismay at the Catholic commentators who constantly deride the church. I have made it a rule of thumb to stop reading any article or book that uses the terms postmodern or post-Christian and neglects to define those terms or explain the context in which the author uses them.

At the same time, I am not so bullish as he is about the state of parish life. In Philadelphia, attendance at Sunday Mass is at best 35 percent of the parish registry. That means that two out of every three parishioners are not celebrating the Eucharist on the Sabbath. How can we rejoice in the fidelity of American Catholics when such large numbers of them appear to be cut off from the body of Christ?

One very good sign is that parish priests appear to realize that they are and must be the leaders in a new evangelism. This evangelism takes those who are faithful and makes them more united to Christ, reaches out to those who do not practice but are waiting to be enrolled again and even to those who are largely ignorant of the faith.

Yes, the harvest is rich but the workers are few. Right now, priests as a group are working overtime and have much to show for it. The next step is to engage the laity in ministry, which will make the living Christ attractive to others and invite them into union with his body.

Connie Carr
Philadelphia, Pa.

Open a Dialogue

I am late reading Bishop Thomas J. Curry’s article, The Best and Worst of Times (11/20). For the first few paragraphs I was pleasantly surprised to read Bishop Curry’s positive affirmations of the American Catholic Church’s vibrant resiliency amid recent tough times. He writes well and brings insight into the best and worst of times. Quickly, however, Bishop Curry’s article took on the tone of an American Catholic patriot, describing a church that the loyal faithful must accept with nothing but positive attitudes.

While I agree that there is much anti-Catholic sentiment around the sexual abuse crisis, the bishop labels all critics as negative, anti-Catholic secularists. He lumped the scholar George Willa conservative in the best sense of the wordwith the New York Times editorialist Maureen Dowd, who has little to say positive about anything. The bishop’s tone, it seems to me, shows again why dialogue is so difficult with church leadership in Americayou are either with us or against us.

We are asked to get on board with the American bishops as they acquiesce to every liturgical directive coming from the Congregation for Divine Worship, which seeks to draw a ritual wall between clergy and laity. We are asked to get on board with the sinfulness of artificial birth controla teaching that ignores the sense of the lay faithful in matters of family morality, that places heavy burdens on people’s consciences, that has no basis in Scripture and that relies upon flawed ideas about sexuality and natural law.

I love my parish. It is a vibrant community led by an open and dynamic pastor with tremendously involved laity. I also know people in other parishes who work hard to maintain a positive attitude while hoping for the day when the bishop will change their pastors. And I know others who have quit the church because of the sexual abuse scandal. Bishop Curry needs to scratch below the surface, moderate the with-me or against-me attitude and open a dialogue that will stimulate an even more vibrant American Catholic Church.

Jack Kehoe
Sugar Land, Tex.

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12 years 1 month ago
To further the discussion raised in the State of the Question on “Catholic Fidelity” (1/15), I would like to make the following observations. A recent book, Church Ethics and its Organizational Context: Learning From the Sex Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church (2006), a collection of essays by 19 scholars—and the initial offering of Boston College’s Church in the 21st Century series—completely ignores the John Jay report and its Supplement (2004, 2006). Its neglect of what the authors of that report characterize as “one of the most extensive collections about sexual abuse of minors and one of a very small number not based on forensic content” is deplorable. In an attempt to compare scandals, one of the contributors to the collection, Professor Kimberly D. Elsbach, cites as an example Salomon Brothers’ handling of a financial crisis. However, instead of comparing apples and oranges, scholars need to research how other organizations have handled the sexual abuse of minors.

If—as the John Jay report demonstrated and as Thomas J. Reese, S.J., noted (America, 10/22/04)—“the church seems to have been ahead of the rest of American society” in dealing with the evil of child abuse, those who critique church management need to factor that into their discussion, something that has yet to happen.

The distress that so many people have expressed over sexual abuse of minors is surely justified. However, reacting to it with “little learning and much morality”—Oscar Wilde’s verdict on his judge—will need to yield to more effective analysis, one that places the abuse and the church in a broader societal context. There is a real danger that those who have embraced the present crisis hoping that it would usher in the future church they desire may develop an allergy to any positive news as their visions fail to materialize.

Focusing on the scandal alone will not energize the kind of broad involvement needed for church renewal. Nor will relying on such generalizations as “after all the church has gone through” substitute for a vision that will balance its problems with an appreciation of its vitality, its extraordinary history in this country and an appreciation of the miracle of the Catholic people over these recent years.


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